State Bar

A short walk from the Capitol, down a few limestone steps, is one of those mythic places where the wheels of government are greased. Buy you a drink, Senator?

July 2003By Comments

THE LIMESTONE STEPS LEADING TO the Cloak Room, a bar in the basement of Austin’s 117-year-old Goodman Building, descend from a spot barely thirty paces from the west lawn of the state capitol building. They are marked only by a small sign tucked behind a crape myrtle and a hand pointing the way down that is painted on the wall above the top step, quiet indicators of the final leg of the shortest walk to a public watering hole that a politico has during the five months the Legislature convenes in Austin. It’s a hike many elected officials, their staffs, and the lobbyists who woo them are only too happy to take. In the early weeks of a legislative session, the Cloak Room is a place to renew old friendships and make new ones, where add-ons to the session’s expanded staffs can visit with lawmakers freshly arrived in Austin, and they can all share a drink with the lobbyists who will be seeking their favor in the coming months.

But as the session wears on, as Capitol business starts running into the night and the Austin heat starts having its fun with people who have chosen careers that require pantyhose and suits, the bar becomes something more. Then, it’s a place where a lobbyist who just watched her bill die in committee can buy a member a drink and feel like she’s gotten something accomplished on an otherwise dismal day. It’s where a senator’s chief of staff, dressed down that morning for misspeaking to the press, might finally get the phone number of a girl in the Speaker’s office he’s had a crush on all session. It’s where D’s can go to gripe about R’s, where staff can go to gripe about the boss, and where the lot of them can gather—at least about fifty at a time—to celebrate or lament another day at the Lege. In the words of lobbyist Robert Johnson, one of a handful of people willing to talk about the Cloak Room and let his name appear in print: “It’s a place where you can drink a beer with somebody and apologize for having to stick a bill up his rear end that day. It’s where you prove that it’s nothing personal.”

It’s a cozy spot in which to do it, a narrow room with five stools and video poker at the bar on the left, and a row of tables and video golf against the wall on the right. There are mirrors and polished, dark-brown wood paneling on the walls. An architectural drawing of the Capitol hangs on the wall across from the bar. Two televisions show legislative proceedings when the chambers are meeting and sports when they’re not, but their sound is mostly drowned out by a jukebox and the rolling chatter of serious drinkers. It’s impossibly dark and smoky, even when the door is left open on a sunny afternoon.

When the room is packed with its mid-session, white-collar crowd, it looks like the quintessential dealmaking, smoke-filled back room. But the Cloak Room’s role in the lawmaking process is, paradoxically, a little simpler and a whole lot more complicated. On the one hand, it’s just a friendly tavern across the street from a large employer, a convenient stop-off on the way home from work where people with fast-paced, high-pressure jobs can let off some steam. And like most friendly taverns, it is governed by certain hard and fast rules of conduct. Rule number one is that what goes on in the Cloak Room stays in the Cloak Room, and on any given night it’s easy to see how important that rule is. I can recall evenings in the bar watching House members and lobbyists slow-dance to Barry White on the jukebox, overhearing a high-placed Democratic party functionary cuss the party membership for blaming her for last November’s losses, and marveling at a pair of young lovers who returned weak in the knees from a brief second honeymoon in the ladies’ room. This is not the sort of thing that patrons of the bar want to read about themselves in the newspapers the next day. “It’s just a little come-and-go,” said former state senator Carl Parker, who still gets in once a week or so when his lobbying duties bring him to Austin from his Port Arthur home. “But the Capitol during session becomes all-consuming. It’s like that reality show where the kids are all stuck in the same house. They live together, eat together, work together, fight together—and they can’t get out. They need a place where they can drink together, where they can unwind at least a little. That’s the Cloak Room.”

But the bar’s real contribution to the governance of Texas is providing a room, as cramped as it may be, for the lobby to rub shoulders with members and staff and form the friendships that are often the real engines of politics. The Cloak Room may not house any of the gears of democracy, but it provides a good deal of the grease. While any good lobbyist sees the futility of shouting over a Kool and the Gang song to suggest alternative wording for pending legislation, he knows too that hanging out with a staffer on Wednesday night could mean a foot in a legislator’s door on Thursday morning.

That, more than the sort of high-powered wheeling and dealing you find at quieter spots like the Austin Club or the Four Seasons Hotel bar, is the hallmark of the Cloak Room. There are, of course, exceptions. Some inside baseball is played here. If somebody needs to talk about a bill with one of the handful of legislators who qualify as regulars, this is a sure place to find him. In 2001, when state representative Fred Bosse carried the legislation that would determine the future of the Texas Natural Resources Conservation Commission, interested parties knew that most nights they could buy him a beer at the Cloak Room and tell him their thoughts. In 1997 a staffer met a lobbyist at the Cloak Room to give him a draft of the top-secret tax-code revisions that state representative Paul Sadler’s special committee on school finance would soon be proposing. The lobbyist later distributed various sections to other appropriate lobbyists—the communications-tax language to the communications lobbyist, and so on—who went to work building opposition to the bill among the senators. Although the bill passed in the House, it died in the Senate.

But in general the bar is less about the legislation than about the love. “The Cloak Room’s main purpose is to galvanize relationships,” said one lobbyist. “It’s the neighborhood bar for the Capitol. You go in and run into somebody you know, buy him a beer, talk about the day’s events, and establish some goodwill.”

THE CLOAK ROOM WAS THE brainchild of C. E. “Ed” Baxter, a longtime lobbyist for Blue Cross/Blue Shield. He had an office on the upper floor of the two-story, Victorian-styled Goodman Building, the first floor of which had originally been built to house stonecutters working on the statehouse when it was being built in the 1880’s. Baxter’s job had him splitting time between Washington, D.C., and Austin, and in the late seventies he decided that the state capitol needed a bar you could walk to, like the ones he visited on Capitol Hill. Jim LeMond, a 24-year-old University of Texas student whose mother worked for a state representative, answered Baxter’s newspaper ad seeking an operator for a new bar and found Baxter’s dream in a most nascent state. The “basement bar” was more like a root cellar, just a dirt-walled dugout with a sump pump to drain the flooding that came with every hard rain.

LeMond signed on anyhow, and with Baxter’s wife, Helen, choosing the decor, he undertook authorship of everything else. “I put up the money for the license and everything on top of the tables,” he said. “The bar itself was designed to my specifications. You’ll notice that it tilts ever so slightly from the front to the back. That’s so that when somebody spills some of his drink, it will run away from the drinker.”

When it opened, before the 1979 session, it became an instant institution. The Quorum Club was in full swing as the place to buttonhole a lawmaker, but staffers were allowed only at a member’s invitation. Not so at the Cloak Room, where LeMond actively sought their patronage. “I didn’t want a senator; I wanted the four people working for him. He was in town only for five months and then gone, but those staffers would be around all year.” Lawmakers and lobbyists found their way in too, as did a couple of prostitutes who took up residence at a corner table. When the twelve senators who became known as the Killer Bees broke quorum late that session, the Cloak Room was one of the first places officers from the Department of Public Safety looked for them, just missing a pair who’d stopped in for a drink on their way to hide out.

A regular crowd developed, but most of their names are forgotten, lost either to the river of spirits poured or, more likely, to the code of the bar. But not all. Bob Bullock was still comptroller and still drinking, and a regular enough presence that he felt comfortable showing off a pistol one night. He was threatening to find and shoot Travis County district attorney Ronnie Earle, who had convened a grand jury to conduct a very public investigation of the comptroller’s expense reports. A friend of Bullock’s took the gun, and Earle lived to see another day. His grand jury soon dissolved.

“I was accused of phoning bomb threats in to the Capitol,” remembered LeMond, who has become an Austin institution himself after mixing Mexican martinis at the Cedar Door for the past seventeen years, “because whenever they had one, the members would head in a straight line to my bar.” Some old warhorses still call it the Bomb Shelter.

At the end of the session, LeMond’s accountant advised him to sell. He did, to one of the owners of the Texas Chili Parlor, around the corner. But, the slow business between biannual legislative sessions inspired the new owner to get out quickly too, and just before the 1981 session began, he gave the keys to the bar to two of his regulars, a real estate agent named Malcolm Milburn and an Austin lawyer on sabbatical from his practice with a perfect bartender’s name, Martin Boozer. Milburn’s family was prominently Republican, and Boozer was a Democrat, so when they got behind the bar they referred to each other as Watergate and Sharpstown (a reference to the 1971 stock-fraud scandal that brought down a generation of Democratic bigwigs). Within a week of taking over, Billy Bob Burnett, the namesake of the world’s largest honky-tonk, in Fort Worth, had offered them, according to Milburn, around $10,000 to sell. They staunchly refused.

Business was good and always interesting. “The Court of Criminal Appeals judges came in regularly,” said Milburn, “and they were usually the life of the party. But one night they came in and were terribly somber. We asked them what was going on and then realized it was the night of the first lethal injection on death row, and they had sent this man to his death. They stayed and drank quietly until just after midnight and then one by one got up and left.”

Boozer remembers the judges too. “It never bothered me to see a senator drinking knee-to-knee with a lobbyist, but it did to see those judges do it,” he said. “There was one judge [now deceased] who was in all the time, and he’d get so drunk someone would have to walk him to his apartment down the street at the Westgate. One night Malcolm called and asked if we had liability insurance. The judge had fallen on the way out and broken his arm [Milburn remembers it being his hip], and he had been walking with a big-name plaintiffs attorney. I told him I wasn’t too worried about the good judge taking us to court for falling up our stairs.” Just to be safe, Milburn visited the judge frequently in the hospital.

At the end of the session, Sharpstown Boozer resumed his law practice at the insistence of lobbyists for the trial lawyers’ association who had made the bar a satellite office. They thought his talent for storytelling would be put to better use in front of juries. He’s now one of Austin’s most beloved divorce lawyers. In 1983 Milburn sold the business to Steven Smith, who owned it into the nineties, when he sold it to the present owner, Lois Jennings. His tenure was most notable for the presence of Austin hotel bar diva Margaret Wright, who serenaded the pols from her upright piano in the corner of the bar where the video golf game is now. She often accompanied Senator Parker, who was known for singing Merle Haggard’s “Silver Wings” from any bandstand he could commandeer. “Margaret loved to play the piano for me,” he remembered, “so we’d gather as often as we could at vespers to sing hymns.”

Another Cloak Room stalwart was Bob Johnson, the House and Senate parliamentarian who was the quiet authority behind Bob Bullock’s gavel when the old bull took over the Senate as lieutenant governor, in 1991. Johnson was the one who had taken Bullock’s pistol away from him when he’d looked to go gunning for Ronnie Earle, and Johnson continued to patronize the bar after Bullock had stopped. On evenings when Johnson was in the bar, word spread through the Capitol, and staffers and members still at work would sneak away from their offices to hear him hold court.

“Senators and reps and lobbyists always wanted to sit him down and visit,” said his son Gordon, who now lobbies in Austin with his brother Robert. “It was mostly for historical reference: Have you ever seen this? Are we getting too partisan with this? It was like an old domino table where you’d gather to learn from your elders. Occasionally you would get a real cerebral group in there and they’d start debating points of order. Sometimes I’d be going home from the Capitol around eleven at night, and I’d see Dad’s Suburban out front and I’d stop in to try and fish him out, and then we’d start talking.

“I pulled Dad out of there two nights before he died, in 1995. I took a couple of the guys aside and said, ‘I know how much my father enjoys this, and I know you do too. But he’s pulling into work at five-fifteen each morning. Dealing with Bullock and the mechanics of running the Senate has put a lot of miles on him.’ He was taking nitro tablets just to keep going. I told them that next time, they should get him just one glass of wine and then let him go. Tell him, ‘Come on, Big Daddy, it’s time to go home.’ That was a Thursday, and he died Saturday night.”

THERE’S AN OLD JOKE THAT the smoke-filled “Choke Room,” as it’s affectionately known, could do with a real cloakroom for customers to check their jackets before going in. That way lawmakers hotfooting it back to the House or the Senate floor could do so without all their colleagues knowing where they’d been, and lobbyists wouldn’t have to hang their suits in their garages when they got home at night. Former House Speaker Pete Laney, who rents an office upstairs, used to have to reckon with smoke creeping up through the floor. Recent renovations keep it in the basement. “Before they put in new insulation,” said Laney, “you could hear the jukebox pretty clearly, and we’d call down there and request that they change songs. Can’t do that now.”

During session, the crowd at the Cloak Room is fairly evenly split between legislative staff and lobbyists, with a handful of lawmakers stopping in. If you don’t know who’s who around the Capitol, the surest way to tell them apart is that the members are generally older, the staffers younger, and the lobbyists are the ones with the credit cards, which they are expected to use. Somebody has to pay for the drinks that facilitate all that steam-letting, and according to the people I talked to, it’s the lobby. One lobbyist, who was in at least twice a week when he worked as a Capitol staffer, hardly ever comes in now that he’s on the buying side. “If you’re staff, it’s great, like a never-ending reception,” he said. “But when you walk in as a lobbyist, you’re on the hook for every rep in the room and maybe some whose tabs were forgotten from the week before.” One lobbyist I talked to said he stopped going altogether after being charged for the drinks of a House member and some of the member’s friends he hadn’t even talked to at the bar.

The Cloak Room has been run for the past dozen years by a middle-aged woman known to the regulars simply as Bev. Her drinks are as stiff as her blond bouffant ‘do, and her rule is harsh and absolute. On more than one occasion I’ve thought I heard her mutter “asshole” as I carried drinks from the bar, but more often she says it so that anyone can hear. Early in the 2001 session, a young woman in the company of a lobbyist performed what bystanders delicately termed a brief “lap dance” for a House member seated near the bar. According to those present, the woman was wearing a short skirt and had opted, on this particular evening, to forgo undergarments. Bev came around the bar, shined a flashlight up the woman’s skirt, and handed down judgment swift and severe: The dance was over, as was the woman’s welcome in the bar.

But Bev’s reactions aren’t easy to predict. When the crowd gets thick at the end of the day, she’ll sometimes sit back and turn the operation over to “celebrity bartenders,” lawmakers familiar with the run of the place. When one House member, since retired, was tending bar a few years ago, he found the business too great for a much-needed break and saw no option but to relieve himself into the trash can behind the bar. By all accounts, it was a sloppy release, but it raised not a stir; customers shifted from mixed drinks to bottled beer, which they wisely asked to open themselves, and the night headed on.

According to legend, when House members got carried away during Laney’s reign as Speaker, Bev called him to let him know, and the members shaped up without another word said. Laney brushes such rumor aside. “Have you ever been in there?” he asked. “Bev takes care of things pretty well herself.”

Most nights she doesn’t need to. As crazy as the Cloak Room occasionally gets, it’s comfort, not chaos, that draws the pols in. A former legislative aide said that one night he saw most of the Texas Legislative Black Caucus, which is thoroughly Democratic, coming down the stairs just as he, a starched Republican drinking with some like-minded friends, finished punching most of Al Green’s greatest hits into the jukebox. He said the caucus’s timing was perfect. Tables were pushed into a corner and the barroom converted into a big dance party, the two groups blending into a single strutting mass.

That kind of confluence won’t occur on the floor of the House or of the Austin Club, but if the frequency with which it takes place at the Cloak Room is any indication, it has to happen somewhere. How fortunate for the Lege that it can happen in a bar that’s only an empty beer bottle’s throw from where they work. That way, after the pols take their taxi rides home at night, they won’t need to worry about fetching their cars the next morning. They’re already parked at the office.

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