Why? Why? Why?

Steve Wolens, Democrat, Dallas, 47.

Two veteran warriors are facing off, and the House is enjoying it immensely. Kim Brimer of Arlington, a former University of Houston football player and one of Speaker Laney’s chief lieutenants, is trying to pass his sports arena bill, which will let local governments use tax dollars to build stadiums for professional sports teams. Steve Wolens of Dallas, the chairman of the powerful State Affairs Committee, is fighting him every step of the way. Wolens tries to delay the bill with a parliamentary device. It fails. Brimer is getting red in the face. Then Wolens calls for a vote to kill the bill outright. Brimer explodes: “I did not spend two years studying this issue to have some guy that’s never played a contact sport in his life to come here to try to kill the bill!” He storms away. Wolens loses, but he is ready with his comeback. “I was a cheerleader in high school,” he says with mock seriousness. “I was on the debate team in college, and being here on the House floor, this is my idea of a true contact sport.”

When Wolens is involved, debate is a contact sport. He is the most feared opponent in the House. Colleagues and lobbyists will do almost anything to keep him from raining on their parade; even the pugnacious Brimer accepted some of Wolens’ amendments to the stadium bill. Backers of home-equity lending caved in to his demands for consumer protections rather than run the risk of having him defeat their proposal. He is so intensely competitive that when he suffers a rare loss, he is likely to glare at the first person he encounters, whether friend, foe, or noncombatant.

Usually, though, he wins. His grasp of economic issues is unequaled in either chamber. (His favorite toy is a hand-held electronic stock ticker.) A courtroom lawyer, he exults in the give and take of negotiations; once, seeking information that he didn’t want to share with everyone in the room, he conversed with a public utility commissioner in fluent French. Never is he caught unprepared. Asked by an opponent of home-equity lending if the constitutional amendment wasn’t a deviation from the normal way of doing things, Wolens ticked off ten precedents from the past three sessions.

Sometimes, though, Wolens is almost too good. In committee he can’t wait for slower members to ask the right questions; he has to ask them himself, and in excruciating detail. (“He’s like a kid who’s always asking, ‘Why? Why? Why?’” said one lobbyist.) He devotes himself to the search for the best possible solution and wants everyone to agree when he thinks he has found it—but when the issue is abortion or electric deregulation, emotions and interests are more powerful than reason. As a result, he was unable to close a deal on either issue. He has less tolerance for imperfection than any other member; maybe he would be even more effective if he had a little more.

Tags: POLITICS

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