The Best and the Worst Legislators 1991
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The best that can be said about the long struggle of the Seventy-second Legislature is that it is over. This was a year when the Legislature was as bad as the public has always suspected. Three issues critical to the future of Texas faced the lawmakers when they came to town last January: the declining quality of the public schools, an overcrowded prison system with no room to keep violent criminals behind bars, and a tax structure based on land instead of the modern Texas economy. Eight months of work produced only patches on leaky tires: a school-finance law that hurts as many schoolchildren as it helps; new prisons but no change in the practice of crowding them with nonviolent felons; and new taxes on the same old taxpayers.
The Legislature did make small strides forward in areas like ethics and environment, but it must be judged on the gut-check issues — and on these it failed. The main reason why is that none of the legislative leaders was willing to demand that it succeed — not Governor Ann Richards, not Lieutenant Governor Bob Bullock, not Speaker Gib Lewis. Richards stayed away from the big issues that could cause her political damage. Bullock made a play for a state income tax, found that he had no following outside the Senate, and turned his energies toward preventing a budget meltdown. Lewis, a five-term Speaker with a misdemeanor ethics indictment hanging over his head, contributed neither ideas nor leadership. Even his team of floor leaders seemed visionless, cynical, and out of gas. The House has lost interest in Texas’ future. The Senate is in even worse shape; the talent level has hit bottom.
Still, we were able to find some heroes this year — although we had to delay our selection of Bests and Worsts until after the midsummer special sessions in hopes of finding them. The budget was the one policy area that produced stars and rewarded new ideas; it contributed five members to our Best list. As might be expected of a Legislature with so dismal a record, the competition for the Worst list was unusually fierce.
We followed the Legislature from January to August, on the floor and in committee, through observations and interviews. We sought a consensus of the Capitol community about both lists. Our criteria for the Best legislators included character and effectiveness; above all, we were looking for people who put solving the state’s problems ahead of their personal ambitions. In choosing the Worst list, we focused on members who seemed to personify the failings of the Seventy-second Legislature — the absence of courage, comity, vision, integrity, independence, leadership, or commitment to the state. Texas deserves better.
Ken Armbrister: Details, details
Democrat, Victoria, 44 — The comeback of the year; a conversion as unexpected as Manuel Noriega’s. Two years ago he ended up on the Worst list for … well, let’s let bygones be bygones. This session he got serious about being a senator and rehabilitated himself as the most alert member of the Senate. At a time when senators are increasingly dependent on staff, Armbrister became the detail man that the Senate desperately needed. “He has the best sense of what is really going on of anybody in the Senate,” said a colleague. “He can read a bill and tell immediately who is trying to do what to whom.”
Short and sturdy, with the unreadable face of the cop he once was, Armbrister went on a manhunt for unintended consequences. He read every bill every day, searching for problems no one else had thought of — and finding plenty. He pointed out that a bill banning can’t-miss wildlife hunts could cause trouble for circuses and zoos. He discovered that a bill to coordinate programs for three-year-olds would actually abolish those very programs. Skimming through a lengthy last-minute criminal justice bill, Armbrister came across a provision that added more big-salaried administrators to the prison system. Out it came.
His mastery of details extended to the state budget. On the Senate Finance Committee, Armbrister made agencies explain how they spent money earmarked for “other operating expenses”; usually they couldn’t do it. Whenever an agency claimed that more state money would bring in more federal funds, Armbrister questioned whether the federal grants were certain or just wishful thinking. Aggie researchers ran afoul of Armbrister by asking for $190,000 for killer bee research. He wanted to know why, with a $50 million budget, they couldn’t scrape up $190,000 in savings — and began asking questions about their entire budget.
On the final night of the last special session, Armbrister struck again. He found a provision that changed the way the state purchasing agency would be scrutinized by the Legislature. Off he went, asking questions, ticking off from memory the other agencies scheduled for scrutiny, very concerned. Then a Senate aide whispered to him: This isn’t a sneaky play, Ken; it’s part of an eleventh-hour deal approved by Lieutenant Governor Bullock. Armbrister abruptly sat down. Last session’s bad boy was now too smart for his own good.
Robert Eckels: The Good Samaritan
Republican, Houston, 34 — A knight-errant who succeeded in his crusade to restore respect to the family name. Eckels’ late father was a Houston pol of the old school, first as a school board member and later as a county commissioner whose career ended in disgrace. Robert Junior could not be more different. Soft-spoken, earnest, and squeaky clean, he did the best work on the session’s most thankless issues — ethics reform and redistricting — and found time along the way to save colleagues in distress.
As the Republicans’ standard-bearer on ethics, Eckels wrote a bill that outshone its rivals as silver outshines dirt. The eventual House bill incorporated many of his ideas, including a sorely needed provision that legislators disclose all sources of income greater than $15,000. But Eckels was thwarted when Speaker Gib Lewis, an object of ethics reform rather than an advocate, omitted him from the House team that was negotiating with the Senate.
In a body teeming with ambition and self-preservation, Eckels is unselfish to the point of being sacrificial. Like all Republicans, he wanted a Harris County redistricting plan that was fair to his party and minorities at the expense of white Democratic incumbents; unlike other Republicans, he volunteered to give up his own district to make it happen. He didn’t get the map he wanted, but he did force the Democrats into drawing several districts that Republicans may be able to win.
Eckels spends as much time helping other members as he does working on his own program. “He’s the Good Samaritan of the House,” said a lobbyist. “He finds hurt people by the side of the road and helps them get well.” Is an amendment banning legislators from doing business with cities and counties worded poorly? Here’s Eckels to fix it. Is a freshman being bombarded with hostile questions about his animal cruelty bill? Here’s Eckels to lobby rural members to go easy on him. Is the City of Houston about to be required to provide services to outlying areas? Here’s Eckels with an amendment to save the city $250 million in punitive fines. He is a legislative role model, someone whose effectiveness is based on example rather than force.
Rob Junell: Genius or jock?
Democrat, San Angelo, 44—A bulldog of a legislator who looks and acts like someone who was too small to play college football but made the starting lineup through sheer ferocity. In just his second session, he tackled some of the state’s biggest problems—a collapsing workers’ compensation system, a bloated budget, and crime—the same way he once tackled running backs as a five-seven, 182-pound linebacker for Texas Tech: Almost nothing eluded him. Here’s how he played the game.
Hit hard. Junell was the most tenacious, best-informed budget-cutter on the House Appropriations Committee. He devised an ingenious plan to save money and clean up oil-field pollution at the same time; he cut the Railroad Commission’s budget by $2.5 million but enabled the agency to recoup it by collecting more fines on unplugged wells. He insisted that state universities bear their share of the budget cuts, which a compromise set at $100 million—less than Junell wanted but more than would have occurred without him.
Scout the opposition. Like a good courtroom lawyer (which he is), he never asked a question to which he didn’t know the answer. When the agency that oversees architects criticized a money-saving proposal to merge state licensing boards, Junell asked, “Tell me how many licenses you revoked in the last three years?” Long pause … “I couldn’t tell you that.” Junell: “Would the answer be zero?” It would.
Pursue relentlessly. Junell wanted the state to make workers’ compensation insurance available to businesses that can’t buy it from private companies. Senator Carl Parker of Port Arthur vowed to prevent it. All through the spring and summer Junell negotiated with his redoubtable adversary. Parker finally agreed, and Junell passed one of the most important bills of the year.
Recover fumbles. A proposal to let voters decide whether to pay for new prisons with bonds or a special tax seemed to have strong backing in the Appropriations Committee. Then Junell pointed out that if the voters turned down both, there would be no new prisons. End of proposal.
Junell’s quick rise to stardom has earned him mention as a possible Speaker of the House. But he still seems to suffer from growing pains. At times he can be sophomoric, and on any issue that affects West Texas, he can be distressingly provincial. The unanswered question about Rob Junell is, Can he be both a genius and a jock?
Mike Martin: At the crossroads
Democrat, Galveston, 31—The rookie of the year; the only freshman to make the Ten Best list since 1977. What’s more, he did it the hard way, wearing all the labels that the House establishment doesn’t buy—environmentalist, plaintiff’s lawyer, ethics reformer. He overcame his ideological handicap by being smart, studious, politically seasoned (he’s a former Senate committee clerk), and, unlike most of his ilk, open to reason. Martin solidified his reputation for fairness when he helped delete a section of Governor Richards’ insurance-reform bill that was loaded in favor of plaintiff’s lawyers. “I made up my mind I wasn’t going to like him,” said a high-powered business lobbyist. “But I just can’t.”
Martin’s list of achievements would have been satisfying even for a veteran. He passed two big environmental bills protecting the Texas coast, including one to save wetlands. He was the key figure in strengthening the state’s hurricane-insurance program and the floor manager for part of the governor’s insurance-reform package. He almost derailed a heavily lobbied, pro-business, products-liability bill with an asbestos amendment; it failed only because Speaker Lewis signaled his forces by casting a rare vote against it. And Martin did kill a suspicious bill to help savings and loans just by raising questions that its sponsor couldn’t answer.
As important as what he did was the way he did it. He selected his targets carefully, heeding the rule that freshmen should keep their ears open and their mouths shut unless they have something important to say. Martin addressed issues that he deeply cared about (most members knew that his stepfather suffers from asbestosis) and avoided debates that required special expertise, such as spending and taxes. Elected president of the freshman class, normally just an honorary office, he used the position to help his classmates. He brought in experienced members to explain the House rules and held meetings to discuss major issues like school finance and ethics reform. “He’s willing to have other members know as much as he does,” said an admiring old hand. “He wants to empower his peers.”
But where does Mike Martin go from here? As successful as he was, he ended the year deeply discouraged about the indifference of House veterans to following procedural rules or solving the state’s problems. Will he try to change the system from the inside as a future committee chairman, or will he become an outsider, the leader of an as-yet-nonexistent opposition? As a freshman he was able to keep his options open; next session he will have to choose.
John Montford: The yardstick
Democrat, Lubbock, 48—The last of the great senators of the Bill Hobby era who emulated the virtues of the former lieutenant governor. Like Ray Farabee, Bob McFarland, and Kent Caperton before him, Montford is fair, nonpartisan, dignified, concerned more with the future of the state than with his own ambitions, and respectful of the Senate as an institution. In a body that has a disgraceful quotient of sleaze and self-interest, he remains the standard of what a senator ought to be.
In his first year as chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, Montford saved Texas from the nationwide embarrassment of having state government shut down on September 1. As the end of the first special session neared, he knew that there wasn’t time to pass a budget by going through the formal procedure of a House-Senate conference committee. He knew too that the pin had been pulled from the grenade: If the budget fight went into a second special session, a single procedural delay—a filibuster or a point of order—could prevent the bill from becoming law before the September 1 deadline. So Montford cheated the calendar by inviting House members to help write the Senate’s version of the budget, a maneuver that required both chambers to approve the bill without making changes. Amazingly, the plan worked. Little groups of lawmakers gathered in rooms throughout the Capitol during the last week of the session, working on different segments of the budget late into the night. Montford moved from room to room, overseeing everything with the grace under pressure of a kindergarten teacher facing chaos, putting it all together, and standing firm against wholesale cuts in state universities.
Montford’s skill at solving problems extended beyond the budget. One senator was determined to kill a bill handcuffing the Public Utility Commission, saying that there was no way to fix the legislation. Montford found one. The Senate redistricting plan took revenge on hardworking Republican senator Cyndi Krier of San Antonio for campaigning against Lieutenant Governor Bullock; Montford quietly found a way to fix that too.
Trim, buttoned-down, and bespectacled, Montford has been criticized for being too senatorial. Some lobbyists complain that Montford won’t twist arms to pass his own bills. He has taken heat from back home for saying that a state income tax would be preferable to higher property taxes. In a Senate that seems to grow more partisan and ideological with each election cycle, Montford runs against the tide—conservative on business issues like reducing liability for torts, liberal on social issues like supplying water to border colonias, and sometimes just plain unpredictable (he wants to deregulate insurance and utilities). He is the thinking man’s senator.
Carl Parker: The bully pulpit
Democrat, Port Arthur, 57—We never thought we’d say this, but … thank the Lord for Carl Parker. Granted, he’s a bully and a showoff. He’s too close to Oscar Wyatt and the plaintiff’s lawyers. He has too much appetite from the game of politics and too much cynicism about reforming it. But in a Senate that was virtually bereft of talent, Parker had to bear a load that would have broken Samson. During the regular session, the 28-year legislative veteran carried almost every major bill: school finance, insurance reform, oil spill cleanup, a new environmental superagency, a recycling bill to reduce municipal garbage by 40 percent, new bank foreclosure rules. All are now law.
How did he do it? No one knows better how to pass a bill or how to kill one. When Parker grabs his microphone on the Senate floor, belly jutting and nostrils flaring, he brandishes it like a beer bottle to crack over someone’s head in a barroom brawl. But his words usually have just enough humor to soften the blows. When archconservative Republican John Leedom of Dallas began a question to Parker with the comment that he’d seen a lot of progress in his years in the Senate, Parker bellowed at him, “I know. And you voted against all of it.” When he turns up the volune on his Port Arthur accent, he has the righteous fervor of a Cajun evangelist. “This bill’s like what the Baptist preacher said about dancin’,” Parker began one speech. “It’s not the dancin’ that’s so bad—it’s what it might lead to.”
Too often Parker behaved like a schoolyard tough—particularly when he was negotiating with House members, whom he regards as one step above protozoa on the evolutionary ladder. (“The number one rule in negotiating with Parker,” said a House veteran, “is, Never negotiate in front of an audience—and one person is an audience.”) Parker’s salvation is that his mind is as sharp as his tongue. “He follows every sarcastic comment with a suggestion of how to solve the problem,” said a Senate staffer. “That’s the difference between whiners and doers.”
He knew when he could win and when he had to compromise. When the House sent a complicated insurance-reform bill to the Senate, Parker seized control, deciding what amendments should go on the bill and keeping lobbyists at bay. After an education-quality bill died in the House, Parker attached some of its provisions to another education bill. When stunned House members asked to negotiate, Parker refused. Take it or leave it, he said—and they took it. This is not the way legislation gets written in the civics textbooks, but sometimes it is the only way to make the system work. And no person made the system work more often this year than Carl Parker.
Bill Ratliff: Engineering solutions
Republican, Mount Pleasant, 55—A Republican has as about as much chance of thriving in the Texas Senate as a bluebonnet does of growing in August. Bill Ratliff beat the odds. In a body without a single Republican committee chairman, Ratliff, in just his second session, quietly established himself in the Senate’s top echelon. His ideas about how to solve legislative problems made so much sense that even partisan Democrats could not overlook him.
Ratliff brought something new to the Senate—the mind of an engineer, his chosen profession. “He sees things with an engineer’s clarity,” says a Democratic colleague. When other senators were bewildered by the complexities of school finance, Ratliff sketched diagrams of issues and proposals. Early in the deliberations he advocated a formula to govern how school districts could qualify for state aid; he bided his time until other ideas played out and then resurrected his plan at just the right moment. It became part of the final package, largely because Ratliff allowed other legislators to embrace it as their own.
With his scholarly wire-rimmed glasses, immaculate silver hair, and erect carriage, Ratliff maintains a crisp appearance and a tidy desk that enhance his engineer’s persona. Every solution that he proposes has structural integrity, whether he’s advocating a bipartisan ethics commission, special rules for the East Texas oil field, or a statewide approach to controlling hazardous waste. No wonder Ratliff was the only senator named by Lieutenant Governor Bullock to every House-Senate conference committee negotiating a major bill during the regular session.
Ratliff’s stature rests on a single trait that sets him apart from the great mass of the Senate. He’s a totally free man—free of partisanship (he cast a rare Republican vote to raise taxes, but he protested to Bullock when no Republicans were named to a crucial conference committee), free of egotism (a Ratliff press release qualifies for the rare documents collection), free of ambition, free of the lobby, free to act as every senator should but few actually do: Look at every issue from both sides and decide what is right.
Jack Vowell: Do the right thing
Republican, El Paso, 64—A spectator in the House gallery could easily mistake Jack Vowell for somebody’s visiting grandfather rather than an influential legislator. He doesn’t walk around the floor slapping backs and shaking hands. He doesn’t huddle with lobbyists. He doesn’t issue press releases or preen for the TV cameras. All he does is worry about how to improve the most resistant, frustrating area of state government—welfare and social services. That is more than enough.
Why would a Republican care so much about welfare? It accounts for one fifth of the state budget and is rife with waste; why not make it work? And Vowell did. He crafted and passed what everyone hopes will turn out to be the most important bill of the year—a mammoth reorganization of thirteen state health and welfare agencies that are infamous for their bureaucratic intransigence and lack of accountability. Vowell’s plan creates two new agencies (one for health, one for families and children) with one commissioner who controls the money, the rules, and the procedures for both—and can be fired by the governor. If it works, it will both save money and start the state toward a cabinet form of government.
“He is just great,” said Appropriations Committee colleague Ric Williamson. “When I see where he’s going, that’s where I want to go.” Senators working on welfare reorganization evidently agreed; they altered their plan and went with Vowell. This summer a group of Republicans who tried to cut the budget by more than $800 million found out why almost no one tangles with him. Vowell explained the consequences in his low, gravelly chainsmoker’s voice: “If you adopt this amendment, you cut not just $800 million but $2 billion, because you will lose federal funds. You will knock 100,000 people off the welfare rolls. That means they will have no money to live on. You would take 90,000 people off of Medicaid. Half the people receiving nursing-home care would not be eligible. This is going backward, not forward.” The cuts failed. Take on Jack Vowell and you court not only defeat but shame.
Ric Williamson: The revolutionary
Democrat, Weatherford, 39—Six years ago Ric Williamson, then just a freshman, walked into the Speaker’s office and dropped a two-volume analysis of the state budget on an assistant’s desk. He had prepared it himself, working month after month at his computer in the back corridors of the Capitol basement. So excited did Williamson become in explaining his ideas that he found himself standing on top of the aide’s desk, gesturing wildly. Today a considerably calmer Williamson doesn’t have to confine his notions to obsessive reports. As vice chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, he put them straight into a new state budget that is unlike anything Texas has ever seen.
No longer will the Legislature micromanage agencies by telling them how much to spend on every task assigned to them or how much to pay each employee. Don’t regulate money, Williamson argued, regulate performance. The new budget enables agency directors to set salaries, pay achievement bonuses, and freely transfer money within their budgets, none of which was possible before. But it also tells agencies what the Legislature expects them to do. The budget directs the Railroad Commission to plug at least one thousand wells next year. It instructs the state education agency to reduce the number of school districts with excess administrative costs from 400 to 350. Even the Supreme Court is not immune; it is supposed to cut five days off the average time for disposing of a case. If Williamson has his way, agencies that don’t meet the standards—which they helped set—won’t get as much money in the next budget.
As Senate and House negotiators spread out through the Capitol in early August, a rough pattern took shape: The House let the Senate take the lead in deciding how much money to spend, and the Senate let Williamson inject his cherished concept of “free-market government” into the budget. Williamson was everywhere, dropping in here, huddling there, with his eyebrows arched and his hair straight up and his long years of toil bearing fruit at last.
In politics it is not enough to be right; you must also be able to convince others that you are right. Although Williamson is regarded as arrogant by some and as eccentric by others (not without cause on both counts), inside the Appropriations Committee he has earned an awed respect that knows no ideological or party limits. One on one, there is no resisting him; he knows too much and sells it too well. Has he oversold it? Only a handful of people know and understand everything Williamson did this session, and they are true believers. Says Mike Toomey, a budget expert and lobbyist who was chief of staff for former governor Bill Clements, “He has transformed state government single-handedly and without grandstanding.”
Steve Wolens: Listening to reason
Democrat, Dallas, 41—A one-man loyal opposition—to whatever he thinks needs opposing. In the speak-no-evil House, where confrontation is out of style and floor debate almost a lost art, Wolens serves the essential function of reminding his peers that there are other roads to success than going along to get along. But Wolens is no gadfly; more often than not, he wins.
Who else but Wolens would have fought a bill backed by Ann Richards, Ross Perot, Tom Luce, and Speaker Gib Lewis? They were pushing a proposal to lure aircraft builder McDonnell Douglas to Texas with bonds that could have left the state holding a $500 million tab if the financially troubled company later went belly-up. As chairman of the Business and Commerce Committee, Wolens boned up on the company’s financial reports, consulted bond lawyers, went public with tales of high-pressure tactics, and insisted on bonds that don’t obligate the state.
Not the good ol’ boy type that prospers in the House, Wolens thrives nonetheless because his motives are good, and so are his arguments. His opposition is pure—based solely on reason, never on partisanship, personality, horse trading, or self-interest. In debate he’s fun to listen to; during a battle over regulating the legal profession, he answered a jocular question about the bar with “I take the Fifth.” (Wolens forced the arrogant State Bar to follow state purchasing and disclosure requirements.) During one debate, a colleague claimed that an amendment Wolens supported would cause a rash of lawsuits; Wolens went to the microphone and dared him to come back and explain why. The silence was deafening.
Wolens has learned how to offset his fierce intellectual rigor by poking fun at himself. Sponsoring a simple bill before a House committee, he asked if there were any questions and, when there were none, said, “Please, ask me some questions.” He has also learned how to operate like an insider; he persuaded the sponsors of a bill combining environmental agencies to include his proposal strengthening criminal penalties for environmental misdeeds.
He is such a good i-dotter and t-crosser that the House leadership put him on the team that wrote and defended the House ethics bill. The position, alas, proved his undoing. Wolens’ greatest flaw is an inability to hide his contempt for the contemptible—in this case, senators posturing that their weak ethics bill was far stronger than the House’s weak ethics bill. Wolens’ haughty lectures to Senate negotiators (“This is important stuff”) and concern for due process even at the expense of a strong ethics commission earned him a spot on the Dallas Morning News regular-session list of “bottom of the class” legislators. Preposterous! What the House needs is more independent members like Steve Wolens.
The Worst Legislators
Eddie Cavazos: Canceled
Democrat, Corpus Christi, 48—His reputation collapsed faster than a Russian coup. A member of the Ten Best list four years ago, Cavazos began the year in position to put his stamp on the session: chairman of the House Insurance Committee, sponsor of the governor’s insurance-reform bill, and chairman of the Hispanic caucus. Intoxicated by his own power, he substituted intimidation for intellect, foolishness for foresight. By summer’s end, he had left his stamp, all right—on himself. And it read, “Canceled.”
Once a feared opponent in floor debate because of his quick wit, Cavazos lost his sense of humor and with it his aura of invincibility. His downhill slide began when he sneered at a freshman member opposing the lottery, “I had no idea who you were.” In debate he treated other members more like hostile witnesses than colleagues. “I’m asking the questions,” he snapped at one. When Glen Maxey of Austin, an out-of-the-closet homosexual, tried to limit lobbyists’ entertainment of legislators, Cavazos retorted that Maxey didn’t understand the cost of living because he wasn’t a family man. Cavazos and Mark Stiles of Beaumont feuded constantly over the insurance-reform bill. Chairman Cavazos wanted most of the credit while Stiles and other committee members were doing most of the work.
Cavazos got his comeuppance when he defended the budget bill against Republican attacks shortly after urging the Hispanic caucus to vote against the same bill. A Republican asked Cavazos if he now planned to vote for the bill. Cavazos dodged the question, but he couldn’t dodge the follow-up: “I just couldn’t tell which side of the mouth you were talking out of.”
Occasionally Cavazos showed flashes of his old ability. He minimized a proposed increase in the penalty for late auto loan payments, and he fought proposals to earmark revenues for elections and prisons instead of education. More often, however, he was demagoguing or showboating. He added a malicious amendment to the ethics bill that required newspapers to disclose their conflicts of interest (the provision was quickly dropped), and he attached a pork barrel provision to the budget bill that gave out funds meant for UT and A&M to smaller colleges (also dropped). By the time the last special session ended, everybody was laughing at Cavazos instead of with him.
Temple Dickson: Do the wrong thing
Democrat, Sweetwater, 56—The most disappointing member of the Legislature. Dickson began the year as a new committee chairman who was liked and respected after a good freshman session in 1989. But if there was a wrong way to do something—run a committee, pass a bill, improve the quality of education, or negotiate a deal—you could count on Dickson to find it.
Dickson’s Economic Development Committee was a procedural disaster. No one could be sure when a bill would receive a hearing, not even senators; there was no reliable schedule. When a bill finally did come up for discussion, Dickson let testimony drag on and on, forcing other bills to be delayed. Witnesses had to keep returning to Austin, never knowing whether the bill they were interested in would be heard. “I feel like telling him, ‘Go to your office for two hours, and we’ll clear your docket for you,’” said a committee member.
The make-or-break issue for Dickson this year was tort law reform—and it broke him. Three major bills proposing tort law changes that improved the economic climate for business were assigned to his committee. All three passed the House; all had strong support in the Senate. None made it out of Dickson’s committee. The post-mortems are still trying to determine why the bills died, but this much is beyond dispute: Plaintiff’s lawyers opposed the bills, Temple Dickson is a plaintiff’s lawyer, and the bills died in his back yard without coming to a vote. No one would have criticized Dickson for opposing the bills in a fair fight, but using close-door power as a committee chairmam to bury them wasn’t a fair fight—especially when the effect was to help his profession.
Some of the things he did were just plain baffling. Why would anyone with a lick of sense try to gut the state’s no-pass, no-play rule? Then, after his first attempt succeeded in the Senate but failed in the House due to scathing statewide criticism, why did he try it again? (This time the Senate said no.) Why didn’t he know that his own bill allowed retail credit card interest rates to rise to 21 percent, instead of the 18 percent that he claimed during debate—especially since another senator kept telling him he was wrong? As usual.
Charles Finnell: Survival of the unfittest
Democrat, Holliday, 48—A walking argument for term limitations. After 22 years in the House, his legacy is as insignificant as Piltdown man’s.
The crowning achievement of his career is his own self-perpetuation. He wangled his way onto the House redistricting committee in 1971, in 1981, and, yes, in 1991. This year he traded in a minor committee chairmanship to ensure his seat on redistricting, knowing full well that his colleagues would enthusiastically eviscerate his district if he were not in position to protect it. And protect it he did. Some unfortunate legislator in Finnell’s northwest Texas neighborhood was destined to lose his district because of population losses. One of the great injustices of the session is that it won’t be Finnell. The House redistricting bill throws two good members into the same district—Republican Troy Fraser of Big Spring and Democrat David Counts of Knox City—while Finnell escapes unharmed.
Among his colleagues Finnell is a negative legend. No bill of consequence bears his name. (He is unduly proud of establishing a toll-free number for people to call when they see malfunctioning railroad-crossing signals.) He is best known for (1) maintaining the largest stash of hair spray this side of the Clairol factory—and making frequent trips to the members’ rest room to make use of it; (2) his imperious treatment of staff (a former House aide tells the story of how Finnell summoned a sergeant at arms to wash off an apple, which the sergeant duly did—in a bathroom fixture other than the sink); and (3) his fear of casting a vote that might defeat him for reelection. “Every vote is a thousand deaths for Finnell,” said one lobbyist. Some veteran members suspect that Finnell watches how they register their votes on the House’s electronic scoreboard before casting his own vote; one sometimes switches sides at the last moment to fool him.
To no one’s surprise, Finnell voted against the tax bill, although the special session hung in the balance and the Democratic leadership desperately needed votes. After the bill had narrowly passed, Finnell went up to the Speaker’s podium to inform Gib Lewis that he would now vote “aye” on a procedural move to start collecting the taxes immediately. “I don’t care what you do,” said Lewis, who almost never has a harsh word to say to a member. “I lost faith in you long ago.”
Ernestine Glossbrenner: Robin Hood’s messenger
Democrat, Alice, 58—Yes, life is unfair. How can someone as decent, as caring, as well motivated as Ernestine Glossbrenner be on the Ten Worst list? Unfortunately, politics sometimes demands more than a good heart. As chairwoman of the House Public Education Committee, Glossbrenner had the hardest, most important job of the Seventy-second Legislature—to end the school-finance crisis in a way that improved the shameful quality of education in Texas schools. But the House lost confidence in her ability to lead. Now taxpayers, parents, and schoolchildren all over Texas must live with the consequences. “Bless her heart,” said a sympathetic colleague, “Ernie was the worst one to lead that committee out of a hundred and fifty members.”
Three times Glossbrenner took the lead on education issues: the school-finance bill, an education-quality bill, and a reorganization plan for the state education agency. Three times the process turned into a mess. The criticisms were always the same. “She doesn’t know how to negotiate,” said one member. “She doesn’t understand how to build a consensus,” said another. “She just has an ex-teacher’s point of view and can’t see the big picture,” said a lobbyist. On it went: “She’s too indecisive” “She’s taking everything personally” “I think if the House voted on whether they wanted to hear Ernie say another word about education, she’d lose one-forty-five to five.”
Speaker Lewis named an informal committee to come up with a school-finance bill that had broad support; the committee fell apart because Glossbrenner wouldn’t compromise. One plan was defeated by the House after she wouldn’t even give opponents some face-saving amendments. The final bill—the notorious “Robin Hood” plan that has already caused Dallas students to walk out in protest over teacher firings—passed only because the courts would have taken over the schools if it had failed. The quality bill turned out to be no such thing; Glossbrenner’s intransigent opposition in committee to education reform drove advocates of change to despair. The bill never reached the floor for debate. The reorganization bill also died after Glossbrenner lost control of it.
And so an opportunity was missed. The moment was right for change, but change did not occur. And the principal reason that Texas will spend billions of dollars on the same old education system is—sad but true—Ernestine Glossbrenner.
Gene Green: Potomac fever
Democrat, Houston, 43—If you want to know what’s wrong with the Texas Senate, look no further than Gene Green. Consumed by ambition, indifferent to public policy, and unmindful of the distinction between his political business and his personal business, Green epitomized the Senate’s fallen standards.
So many of Green’s problems can be traced back to his hunger to run for Congress. He demonstrated the truth of the old adage that no creature is more dangerous than a politician in search of publicity—especially if the politician is waving a handgun. Preying on Houston’s hysteria over crime, Green proposed one of the all-time bad legislative ideas: making it legal for everyone to carry a concealed handgun. Senator Ted Lyon, an ex-cop, had just enough votes to block this police nightmare, but Green waited until Lyon went to a funeral and then passed the bill. (It died in the House.)
Count of Green no to overlook another sure bet for publicity—the NIMBY (Not in My Back Yard) environmental bill. Green sponsored bills and amendments to prevent an unpopular hazardous waste incinerator from being built in his district. But he had another incentive for opposing the incinerator. Before he introduced the bill, he had been hired as an attorney by a neighboring business to fight the project. The situation so reeked of influence peddling and conflict of interest that Lieutenant Governor Bullock would not allow Green to attach an anti-incinerator amendment to a hazardous waste bill.
In his drive to get to Congress, Green kept trying to amend bills to curry favor with folks back home. Knowing that any amendment to delicately negotiated insurance-reform bill could cause the deal to come unraveled, Green tried to benefit a few insurance agents anyway. He lost. Bye the end of the regular session, Bullock was joking that he needed a lobbyist to take Green on a trip, so that the Senate could get its work done. Anywhere but Washington.
Eddie Bernice Johnson: America’s Loss
Democrat, Dallas, 57—Imagine a two-year-old child on a white silk sofa with a new set of Magic Markers. Add a large dose of glowering hostility and you get the picture of how Senator Eddie Bernice Johnson handled the responsibility of drawing new congressional districts for Texas. Disaster was swift, certain, and complete, and no amount of cleaning could eradicate the damage.
This was not hard to predict. Indeed, two influential senators warned Lieutenant Governor Bullock that giving Johnson the redistricting job was a terrible mistake, to no avail. It didn’t take long to prove them right. Her first plan created a new minority district in Dallas, which she was supposed to do, but—oops!—two white Democratic congressmen were left without a base when their homes ended up in the new district. Believe it or not, Houston was worse: One district had three congressmen in it, another two. When someone asked Johnson why her map had made five congressmen living outside the districts they represented, she blamed… the congressmen. It seemed that they hadn’t supplied her with their home addresses. “You know,” said one senator, shaking his head, “it doesn’t exactly take a private investigator to find out where a congressman lives.”
No one argued with Johnson’s desire to draw a district in Dallas that would elect a black. But Johnson was determined to draw a district that would elect one black in particular. Hint: Her initials were E.B.J. It was her insistence on having her way without any regard for vulnerable incumbents Martin Frost and John Bryant that snarled the redistricting process all summer. Meanwhile, Johnson was negotiating with the same lovable tactic that helped earn her a place on the Ten Worst List in 1989: She threatened to sue her colleagues if they didn’t support her plan.
Redistricting wasn’t all she made a mess of. Only the intervention of other senators kept her from unintentionally abolishing the kindergarten program for three-year-olds. Sometimes even intervention didn’t help. When someone pointed out that her bill prohibiting discrimination by private clubs seemed to exempt the Ku Klux Klan, she angrily replied that she didn’t care; she didn’t want to join the Klan anyway.
In the end, there was no justice. The Senate sided with Johnson and gave her the congressional district she wanted. One of her colleagues explained why: “Many members of the Senate are looking forward to her service in Congress.” Texas’ gain—but America’s loss.
Glenn Repp: the Soothsayer
Republican, Duncanville, 59—In Shakespearean times, Glenn Repp would have made a great soothsayer—the minor character who always prophesies doom, only to go unheeded. When Rep. Repp, as he is known, takes his stand at the microphone, his head cocked to right as if to emphasize the perspective from which he views the world, the one thing certain is that no one will pay any attention to what he says.
Repp is the latest in the long line of legislators on the Ten Worst list who know what they are against but don’t know what they are for. As a result, he is at once noisy and ineffective. (“What was Repp talking about?” one member asked another in the back of the House chamber, referring to a pointless Repp question. “Did he know he was talking about?” came the reply.) Repp’s arguments always seemed to emphasize broad, ideological points instead of specific problems and thus persuaded no one. Sure, the school-finance bill was awful. But there’s nothing to be gained by attacking it as “you worst socialist nightmare”—other members just groan and tune you out. Sure, the House redistricting plan for Dallas County (which put Repp in a largely black district) was a partisan Democratic gerrymander. But while other Republicans were laying the groundwork for attacking the plan in court, Repp lost ground by calling it racist. Once he opposed a bill imposing hiring requirements on school districts because—ideology again—it violated local control. Repp lost, of course. But if he had pointed out that the bill made it harder to fire incompetent business managers, the outcome might have been different.
After three terms, Repp has yet to catch on to the legislative game. He sponsored a bill to give new legal protection to people who kill intruders in their homes, but he agreed to add an amendment without knowing what it did. What it did was totally gut the bill. The performance was typical Repp—hopelessly inept, but nice. To his credit, he is not mean, spiteful, or hypocritical. But he is an example of why most Republicans remain so ineffective in the Texas Legislature. The destiny of those who oppose without offering an alternative is defeat.
Dalton Smith: Who do you trust?
Republican, Houston, 44-What is this guy doing in politics? How did anyone so rude, arrogant, and contemptuous, and self-righteous ever get anybody to vote for him? For that matter, why did he come back for a second term in a body that he finds so loathsome? His behavior calls to mind an observation about a long-ago member of Parliament named John Horne Tooke: “Provided he say a cleaver or spiteful thing, he did not care whether it served or injured the cause.”
The essence of politics is to bring together people of opposing viewpoints in an atmosphere of mutual respect. But to Smith, every fight is personal, every duel is to the death. He reacted to any proposal to keep nonviolent criminals out of the state’s overcrowded prisons—which has cause thousands of violent criminals to be paroled—as if the idea were high treason. When a member proposed sentencing nonviolent felons to work programs instead of prisons, Smith denounced the idea as “the drug dealer’s relief act.” The bill was voted down after a long and acrimonious debate, but its sponsor asked his colleagues to reconsider. “I have felt deeply and personally attacked,” he told the House. Sure enough, the House reverted itself, more as a rebuke to Smith than as an endorsement. “That bill didn’t have a prayer until Dalton got on it,” chortled a gleefly Smithophobe.
Smith’s number one archfiend was Corrections Committee chairman Allen Hightower—an ill-advised choice, since Hightower is one of the most popular and sincere members. Smith tried to orchestrate a partisan vote against a proposed prison budget in committee, but the plan unraveled when Hightower sniffed it out. Later in the session, Hightower made the mistake of joking privately with Smith about overcrowded prisons; Smith promptly repeated Hightower’s comments to the widow of a lain Houston police officer, who called a press conference at her husband’s grave to demand Hightower’s resignation. The next time Smith attacked a Hightower bill, Hightower told the House, “You can trust me or Mr. Smith.” The vote: Hightower 134, Smith 8.
Even easygoing Speaker Lewis found Smith too much to take. During debate over the tax bill, Smith interrupted a colleague so many times Lewis had to gavel him down. “Mr. Smith, would you show the kindness of allowing Mr. Earley to finish his answer before you interrupt him?” So Smith interrupted Lewis. Boom! went the gavel. “Mr. Smith! Would you show the House the courtesy to keep your voice down?”
Perhaps there is a use for Dalton Smith after all. Instead of holding freshman orientation before the 1993 regular session, the Legislature could just send incoming members videotapes of Smith in action. Once they know what not to do, the rest will be easy.
Jim Tallas: Out of the Shadows
Republican, Sugarland, 54—Poor Jim Tallas. For years he escaped notice as a nondescript backbencher, enjoying the camaraderie and shunning the limelight. But when Speaker Lewis thrust him into prominence as chairman of the Financial Institutions Committee, Tallas folded under scrutiny like a Texas S&L’s loan portfolio.
His fatal affliction was laziness. His chairmanship forced him to carry important bills, but nothing could force him to study them. Invariably his bills ran into trouble on the floor. An exchange over a bill setting new rules for foreclosures was vintage Tallas. Question: What is the purpose of language on second liens? Tallas: It doesn’t change current law. Question: If it doesn’t change current law, then why are we doing it? Tallas: Er, that’s a good question. Question: Isn’t it a fact that you don’t know what it does?
His only defense was a perpetual sheepish look. Once he justified a provision transparently designed to aid bankers as “just a protection for the consumer”—a description so ridiculous that derisive laughter swept through the House. Colleagues began treating him with open contempt in floor debate. When he limped though an explanation of an amendment to a trucking deregulation bill, a questioner asked, “Are you through reading that printed form TMTA [the lobbyists for regulated truckers] wrote for you?”
Trouble seemed to follow Tallas around. After his committee tilted toward bankrupt borrowers at the expense of federal taxpayers, FDIC chairman William Seidman issued a stern warning against approval of a pro-borrower bill. “Terrible bills come out of Financial Institutions,” said a member of the House Calendars Committee, which schedules bills for floor debate. The rest of the House apparently agreed. At the end of the regular session, a Tallas proposal to let S&L’s become state savings banks went down to defeat. No one had lobbied against the bill before the debate; the vote was simply a referendum on Tallas’ credibility.
Carlos Traun: Special Exemption
Democrat, Corpus Christi, 56—With one exception, Carlos Traun was his usual ineffective self this year—the Senate synonym for a self-serving, time-wasting windbag. During a heated floor debate, one senator hurled the ultimate insult at his opponent: “You sound like Carlos Traun.” Just in case anybody missed the point, up jumped Carl Paker to drive it home: “We don’t allow personal slurs on the floor.”
Traun’s defining moment in the Legislature came in 1971, the session clouded by the Sharpstown scandal. He was a member of the Dirty Thirty, who opposed Speaker Gus Mutscher, and he has never forgotten it—nor does he let anybody else forget it. Those days are long gone, but not for Truan; he still acts as if most of the Texas political world were out to get him. (In fact, all they really want is to avoid him.) He regards a friend as just a foe in disguise—he once accused Parker, the Senate’s leader in the fight for school-aid equality, of not giving a damn about poor kids unless they were in his own district. A foe is beneath contempt. When a South Texas county judge (an ex-Truan aide) testified for a bill Truan opposed, Truan delivered the tasteless remark of the year to accuse his onetime ally of being seduced by slick city lawyers: “If you were a woman, you would be pregnant many, many times.”
There is more, so much more—for example, the time Truan made a procedural objection to a Senate bill raising credit card interest rates. Tax bills must originate in the House, he said. Right, but what do interest rates have to do with taxes? They are a tax on consumers, said Truan. Get it? The Senate didn’t. But there is no use in adding the dossier. We have decided to give Truan an exemption from the Ten Worst list this session. Why? The one exception to Truan’s incompetence was his filibuster against a bad bill encouraging development of environmentally sensitive South Padre Island. He stirred up enough public outrage that the bill died in the House after passing the Senate. Truan’s reward is immunity. Officially, the list has only nine Worst legislators; wait until next year.
Best Addition to the Legislative Lexicon
“The Bullock Train”—a reference to Lieutenant Governor Bob Bullock’s insistence on speed in the legislative process, even if it meant bending the normal rules of procedure, which it usually did.
Best Bill Analysis
Ray Hutchison, Dallas attorney. Listening to a committee consider a bill punishing banks for not lending money in Texas, Hutchison said, “As I understand this bill, it would require banks to lend me money. Why wasn’t there a bill ten years ago to prohibit banks from lending me money?”
Best Instant Joke
Heard on the House floor after the University of Texas budget was slashed by more than $100 million, while UT chancellor Hans Mark watched from the gallery:
Q: What’s the difference between Hans Mark and Elvis Presley?
A: There are rumors that Elvis is still alive.
A Touch of Class
Everyone around the Capitol agreed—this year’s freshman class was different. Elected at the same time as Ann Richards, they shared (and in practice exceeded) her concern about ethics and reforms, regardless of their party affiliation. Deskmates SUE SCHECHTER and DIANNE DELISI represented the best virtues of the ethics-conscious newcomers. Both Schechter (Democrat, Houston, 38) and Delisi (Republican, Temple, 48) expressed a deep disillusionment with a process that too frequently forced them to vote on last-minute compromises that members had no time to study. In addition to Ten Best member MIKE MARTIN, other members of the freshman class who made good impressions were STEVER OGDEN (Republican, Bryan, 41) and PAUL SADLER (Democrat, Henderson, 36) in the House, and DAVID SIBLEY (Republican, Waco, 43), JIM TURNER (Democrat, Crockett, 45), and MIKE MONCRIEF (Democrat, Fort Worth, 48) in the Senate.
BETTY DENTON, Democrat, Waco, 46. She is known as Lady Napalm because of her incendiary speeches on nonincendiary subjects, such as nursing-home eligibility and financing volunteer fire departments.
Senator BOB GLASGOW, Democrat, Stephenville, 49. During final negotiations on the ethics bill, he criticized cities that hired lobbyists. On the same weekend, he explained why the City of Irving shouldn’t complain about his hidden amendment allowing the sale of liquor in Texas Stadium: “I guess the Cowboys had a better lobbyist than the city.”
Best Supporting Actress: Governor ANN RICHARDS. The trouble is that she was supposed to play the leading role in issues like improving the quality of education.
Best Director: Lieutenant Governor BOB BULLOCK. He showed in the special session that he could command the Senate through respect as well as fear.
Best Script: Comptroller JOHN SHARP. Unfortunately, the actors wouldn’t follow their budget-cutting lines.
Best Short Subject: Speaker Gib Lewis’ career achievements.
AL EDWARDS, Democrat, Houston, 54. He attempted to prohibit cosmetologists from extending customers’ fingernails more than one-quarter inch (because they might be used as weapons) but was rebuffed.
Republic Insurance Company, Dallas. As the Legislature was considering insurance reform, Republic notified Representative RICK CRAWFORD (Republican, Amarillo, 40), that his personal-liability policy would not be renewed because “politician is an excluded occupation.” Runner-up: the Texas Senate. It approved a bill allowing Texans to carry concealed handguns on the same day that the U.S. House of Representatives passed the Brady Bill calling for a seven-day waiting period for handgun purchases. MARK STILES, Democrat, Beaumont, 42. “Why don’t we at least keep the ship in the lake, rolling down the hill.” Runner-up: MARK STILES. “We can’t go down that yellow brick road and find that there’s no answer at the end of the rainbow.”
Best Mixed Metaphor
Republic Insurance Company, Dallas. As the Legislature was considering insurance reform, Republic notified Representative RICK CRAWFORD (Republican, Amarillo, 40), that his personal-liability policy would not be renewed because “politician is an excluded occupation.”
Runner-up: the Texas Senate. It approved a bill allowing Texans to carry concealed handguns on the same day that the U.S. House of Representatives passed the Brady Bill calling for a seven-day waiting period for handgun purchases.
MARK STILES, Democrat, Beaumont, 42. “Why don’t we at least keep the ship in the lake, rolling down the hill.”
Runner-up: MARK STILES. “We can’t go down that yellow brick road and find that there’s no answer at the end of the rainbow.”