The Ten Best (And, Sigh, The Ten Worst) Legislators

THE ANCIENT GREEKS BELIEVED THAT politics was the art of organizing and governing human society for the greatest good, and considered it to be among the highest callings of man. Since that time, politics has sunk somewhat in public esteem. Some cynics claim that there are two things one should not watch being made: hot dogs and the laws of the land.

We watched the laws of our state being made during the 63rd session of the Texas legislature; and while the legislators could hardly pass for ancient Greeks, they were much more noble than those of us who automatically write off politics and politicians would like to think.

Teddy Roosevelt once said that good men must enter politics or else be governed by those who do. This session of the legislature provided a cast of characters that included some noteworthy good men and some of the other kind. There were honest and dishonest men, conscientious workers and utter charlatans, plodders and posturers, scoundrels and statesmen. In short, the legislature was a lot like us, like Texas. It was amazingly diverse and boringly predictable; grand and generous and mean and small.

The legislature is the best entertainment Texas has to offer. One can picture in the galleries the shirt-sleeved crowds fanning themselves in the unairconditioned heat of earlier Texas springtimes, images from an era when politics was entertainment. Before movies, radio, and television, politics was the only show in town. Texas politics is still a great crowd pleaser. It’s the honorable this and the worthy that and will the gentleman yield and the whole ritual that organizes conflict into resolution while keeping it from getting, hopefully, too personal.

When it comes down to it, though, the business of governing Texas is a personal business. Politicians work with each other under intense pressure and through long hours; it’s the sort of work that brings out the best and the worst in people.

To find the best and worst we took our pads and pencils and watched the legislature, watched it from the gallery and watched it in the committees where the key work is always done. We talked for a month with people who knew the politicians, who saw them under pressure: the press, the lobbyists, the staff, the academic scholars, and especially the members themselves, who often are the most discerning judges of the men and women who share their battles in the legislative pits. The sketches which follow represent a composite portrait of some of the people who write our laws, a portrait gleaned from the insights of those who work with them every day.

The sheer size of the Texas House of Representatives (150 members) and its tendency to herd-like behavior reduce the opportunities for individual members to display their best qualities (although the opposite is not true: the worst members are painfully obvious). The Senate, because of its intimate size (31 members) and calm, parliamentary atmosphere, offers a better setting for each member to exhibit his potential.

In addition to the Ten Best Legislators, several members deserve an Honorable Mention award. The Senate is particularly well-stocked with contenders. Bob Gammage, 35, a freshman liberal Democrat from Houston, carried one of the largest legislative programs in the Senate (including a number of controversial measures like portions of the Speaker’s reform package, consumer protection, and the eighteen-year-old rights bill), fought for it in the rough-and-tumble tradition of Babe Schwartz, and got much of it passed. Tati Santiesteban, 38, a liberal Democrat from El Paso who served three terms in the House, showed exceptional ability in floor debate as the sponsor of the complex Penal Code and (with Jim Wallace) the Senate drug legislation; he quickly acquired the admiration and confidence of senior members to a degree rarely accorded to newcomers. Jack Hightower, 46, a conservative Democrat from Vernon and an old-line member of the Senate establishment, performed his duties as chairman of the Administration Committee with rock-solid fairness; he continues to be among the most trusted and respected Senators, in spite of the defeat this session of the major item in his legislative program—the oil field unitization bill. Oscar Mauzy, 46, a liberal Democrat from Dallas, was a tireless work-horse with a huge legislative program and a high degree of effectiveness. Chet Brooks, 37, a liberal Democrat from Pasadena, came into his own this session, particularly in the area of appropriations.

In the House, Fred Agnich, 59, leader of the Republican delegation from Dallas, helped to make his party a credible force in the legislature for the first time in a century and lent strong support to environmental legislation. Walt Parker, 55, a conservative Democrat from Denton, won wide admiration from his fellow members by dint of his hard work on appropriation matters; his effective presentation of welfare appropriations was a notable example of his ability to understand and deal convincingly with complex new problems. Carl


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