The Best and the Worst Legislators
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The 1989 Legislative session was the eye of the storm. For the first time since the boom years the Legislature didn’t face the double whammy of raising taxes and cutting spending. The absence of pocketbook issues abated the pressure, meanness and partisanship that had characterized recent sessions. The Legislature was fun again, for both participants and onlookers, and its most enduring characteristic reemerged: It is an arena where personality and talent count more than party, ideology, and seniority. It is a place where you can do what you’re big enough to do.
The calm of 1989 will not last long. Ahead in 1991 lie redistricting, a likely tax increase, and a new governor and lieutenant governor. A crucial issue of the last two sessions—putting limits on the rights to sue and collect damages—isn’t about to go away. Proposed limitations on lawsuits kept plaintiff’s attorneys on the defensive in two major battles this session (reforming the way the state compensates injured workers and keeping rural hospitals open) and many minor skirmishes.
The benign political climate made our job of compiling the Best and Worst lists easier than it was in 1987. That session seemed to produce nothing but negatives. This one yielded some impressive positives: a far-reaching criminal-justice package, the first step toward real equity in school finance, an overhaul of the much criticized State Board of Insurance, and help for nursing home patients and rural hospitals.
We followed the session from beginning to end, on the Senate and House floors and in committee. We conducted more than a hundred interviews of staff members, lobbyists, and legislators. In choosing the Ten Best, we looked at both the character and effectiveness. We valued the traits that legislators themselves respect: integrity, intelligence, independence, industriousness, and ingenuity in the legislative process. We recognized that politics necessarily involves the use of power, and we respected those who used their power with skill and honor. The Worst of the Capitol list, however, was based on different criteria. We focused not only on lack of skill but also on the aggressive use of skill to impede the process. In politics the worst blunders are usually committed by people with some talent. Few things in the Legislature are as dangerous as people who fail to measure up to expectations. Last session the entire Legislature failed to measure up. This time, the good guys won out in the end.
The Ten Best
Part of the Solution
Democrat, Bryan, 39—The consensus choice as the best member of the Legislature. His influence is pervasive; his motives are honorable; his list of achievements is long. It’s fortunate that he loaded his plate so full, because the Senate is running short of people with the ability to digest big issues.
As chairman of the Finance Committee, Caperton took on the task of writing the state’s budget—normally a full-session job. He helped produce the fairest budget in the history of the state, oversaw a House-Senate conference committee that had unprecedented rapport, and still found time to pass bills on child support and open records, to kill a utilities bill unfair to ratepayers, and to negotiate compromises on rural health care and deceptive trade lawsuits. Here’s how he did it.
1. He’s innovative. In the past the entire Finance Committee reviewed the budget of every state agency. But Caperton assigned different areas of the budget to subcommittees, then made sure that they didn’t spend too freely.
2. He’s driven. If the Senate quit work at 12:40pm, Caperton would announce that Finance would meet at 1:10. No leisurely lobby lunches here.
3. He’s tough. When insurance companies won a court case that overturned the state’s premium tax, threatening to unbalance the budget, Caperton told them he’d pass “poison pill” legislation forcing them to give the proceeds to policyholders. They compromised.
4. He’s relentless. All session Caperton railed against pork-barrel bills that created new or expanded colleges. He lost on the floor but didn’t give up. In private, he won the ear of Bill Clements, who then vetoed a bill expanding UT-Dallas and two other schools.
5. He’s focused. Members and lobbyists trust him as a negotiator because he argues each issue on its merits, rather than mix his bingo cards (Capital parlance for trading votes). He truly believes that a mutually acceptable solution can be found for any problem—and when the Legislature comes back for a special session on workers’ compensation, he’ll be the key to a resolution.
Democrat, Godley, 35—It is five minutes before twelve on the last night of the session. Speaker Gib Lewis has just decreed that the school finance compromise contains a technical violation of House rules. The bill is dead. Schools will lose almost half a billion dollars, most of it earmarked for impoverished areas. There are hisses from the gallery. On the House floor everyone is stunned—except Bruce Gibson. Standing next to the Speaker, in the center of a huge huddle, Gibson calmy asks, “Will you recognize me for a motion to suspend the rules?” Of course! Why didn’t someone think of that sooner? Papers fly. The motion is made. It requires a two-thirds margin. The speaker announces that he is voting aye. The scoreboard is activated—green lights overwhelm the reds. Cheers ring down from the gallery. The school bill is saved. The session ends.
Like a kid in a toy store, Bruce Gibson wants to touch everything. A former TCU student body president who likes to read Machiavelli and think about politics and public policy, he is always looking for ways to have an effect on the process. He had no expertise in school finance, but he saved the bill.
Gibson’s achievements are all of the more impressive because the tides of the session did not work in his favor. He didn’t get the committee chairmanship he wanted (Calendars, which sets the daily agenda), but he made the most of the one he got (Government Organization, which oversees the restructuring of state agencies). He came up with the broad outline of the pesticide compromise that saved the Agriculture Department from abolition. He didn’t get anywhere with his major issue of the session, reforming the way judges are selected, so he found two problems that had fallen through the cracks—abuses of federal loans by trade schools and misapplication of home pesticides—and fixed them. He gave up the chairmanship of the Financial Institutions Committee, but he fought a sneaky play to weaken state foreclosure laws. Though his efforts were doomed in a chamber full of debtors, he focused media attention on the proposal—“This bill will bail out high-flying real estate developers in their Learjets”—and inflicted fatal wounds. The Senate could not go along with the proposal and asked for a conference committee. Naturally Gibson was there to forge the compromise.
Trail by Fire
Democrat, Austin, 31—There are certain combinations that rarely occur in nature. Birds that don’t fly. Mammels that lay eggs. And effective liberals in the Texas House of Representatives. The exceptions: penguins, spiny anteaters, and Lena Guerrero.
She has come a long way. House veterans still remember when Guerrero as a freshman fought a hunting bill on the House floor by accusing its author of killing Bambi. Now in her third term, she has learned how the process works. She stayed away from the microphone during floor debates so that she wouldn’t get pegged as a liberal leader. Instead she fought her battles in the important State Affairs Committee, where ideology counted less than being smart, prepared, and determined. Guerrero was able to put amendments on bills she opposed, like a defective-products bill that she made more palatable for consumers. “I always go talk to her, even though I know she won’t vote with me,” explained one business lobbyist, “because she tells me how to fix my bad ol’ bills.”
Guerrero was able to pass legislation on child care, groundwater management, and teenage pregnancy by winning the confidence of the people most likely to oppose her. She worked with the governor’s staff to eliminate their objections to her plan to help battered women’s centers. When her bill expanding Medicaid coverage got hung up in the end-of-session logjam, instead of complaining she publicly defended the powerful Calendars Committee—and meanwhile advanced her proposals by amending other bills.
Guerrero’s trail by fire was her bill to extend the life of the Texas Department of Agriculture for another twelve years. After a long and tortuous journey, the bill faced one last tug-of-war between agriculture commissioner Jim Hightower, Guerrero’s political soul mate, and Governor Bill Clements. Clements was threatening to veto the bill. The only compromise that could save it was to dilute Hightower’s authority over pesticides, but Hightower wanted a showdown in the House. The old Guerrero might have given him one; the new, improved model realized that the points in dispute were so minor that they weren’t worth risking a bloodbath on the floor or her hard-won effectiveness. She told a colleague, “I’ve just decided I represent the House, not Jim Hightower,” and agreed to the deal.
Top of the Class
Republican, Dallas, 41—It’s not easy for a legislator to make a difference. Bill Hammond made a difference. He passed the most important bills in the most important field—education. What’s more, he succeeded despite his status as a maverick who is anathema to the teacher and administrator groups that form the Capitol’s education establishment.
Thwarted in his hope of becoming chairman to the House Public Education Committee, he found a backdoor route for turning his ideas into law. Hammond took a procedural bill to reestablish the Texas Education Agency, a formality required by the state sunset law, and used it as a stalking horse to tread on the education powers that be. Clomp! A Hammond amendment eliminated barriers against out-of-state teachers who want to work in Texas. Clomp! Out went requirements that every teacher take those awful how-to-teach courses. Clomp! School districts must now notify parents if a teacher has no expertise in a subject area. Says Hammond: “The first name of every geography teacher in Texas is ‘Coach.’”
In a session replete with student dropout bills, Hammond passed one that might actually work: a “no pass, no drive” bill that makes school enrollment a prerequisite for sixteen, seventeen-, and eighteen-year-olds to get a driver’s license. He stood up to an attempt by Fort Worth zillionaire Robert Bass to delay state approval of new science textbooks (a Bass-owned publishing company can’t make the deadline). At a gloves-off press conference that turned the fight in his favor, he all but said the delay would leave students with science books that say the world is flat.
A fourth-termer, Hammond has always had good ideas, but he has seldom had much success. What made this session different was positioning: The Legislature couldn’t kill his recrafted sunset bill without killing the whole education agency. At heart he remains a maverick with a strong streak of cynicism. The irrationality of the political process frustrates him, especially in his own party; he describes the group of earnest Republicans who hover at the back of the microphone to champion right-wing causes as “the furrowed-brow club.” He will always be the kind of member whose personality endears him to a few good members but alienates him from the masses.
Lieutenant Governor Bill Hobby
Democrat, Houston, 57—Bill Hobby has had more effect on Texas government for a longer time with a better end result than anyone since Sam Houston. If that isn’t reason enough to waive our usual rule that presiding officers and ineligible for the Best or Worst list, then consider that his ninth and final session as leader of the Texas Senate was also one of his best.
A skiing accident left him limping, but he was no lame duck. Hobby exercised power as he always has, through respect rather than fear. Like a model of positive parenting, he guides through praise and example. He usually gets what he wants—not because he demands it but because he is so far ahead of other leaders that he sets the agenda for the entire state. Long before a legislative session starts, he picks his issues, gets the appropriate senators interested, sets up a task force, puts carefully chosen citizens on it, gives it a good staff, and pitches its work to the press. By the time the session arrives, the issue has so much momentum that he can let nature take its course. It was exactly this process that produced and AIDS bill this session.
Hobby was criticized for not forcing the Senate to pass a decent workers’ compensation bill, but force has never been his style. He got the things that really mattered to him—more money for state universities and human services, a criminal-justice package that went far beyond building prisons, the AIDS bill, help for South Texas colonias. He has never cared about anything but what is best for Texas, he has run the Senate for seventeen years without a hint of corruption, and he has brought Teas government into the modern age. What will we do without him?
Reason over Fear
Democrat, Centerville, 38—Yes, there is a doctor in the House. It’s a good thing too, because more than a third of Mike McKinney’s colleagues were suffering from an acute case of homophobia. (Fifty-six members, including 39 of 58 Republicans, removed their names from a resolution expressing sympathy for victims of AIDS.) McKinney couldn’t cure the gay-bashers, but he did keep the disease from spreading to the entire House.
In one health care debate after another, McKinney, a practicing M.D., stood for reason over fear, magnanimity over meanness, and empathy over hate. His opponents saw AIDS as a special interest issue—a chance for liberals to pander to organized homosexual groups but McKinney kept forcing the issue back to medicine. “We need to treat this as a public health issue not a moral issue,” McKinney kept saying. On his bill protecting insurance policyholders who get AIDS, McKinney faced a long line of hostile questioners. “You’re treating AIDS different from other diseases,” one opponent charged. “AIDS is different,” answered McKinney. “It is a disease we can diagnose but not treat.”
When the session was over, McKinney had passed four major public health bills—all against heavy opposition. One was the AIDS insurance bill. Another required motorcycle riders to wear helmets. A third provided relief for financially strapped rural hospitals. The fourth involved the state in AIDS treatment and education. No one but McKinney could have achieved such success, because no one else could have kept the focus on medicine instead of politics. At the microphone he had that unmistakable doctor’s intolerance for foolishness, but he tempered it with an upbeat bedside manner. When he told his colleagues, “I think this bill is a good idea, it works, its time has come,” They had to listen.
Victory at last
Democrat, Lubbock, 46—The senator who comes closest to the kind of legislator Bill Hobby would be if Hobby were a member of the Senate. He is calm and soft-spoken, he doesn’t have the desire or the capacity to showboat, he looks beyond the parochial concerns of his own district, and he puts the reputation of the Senate ahead of his own ambitions.
So it should come as no surprise that Montford has become Hobby’s most trusted lieutenant. When something important is stuck, Montford knows where to apply the lubricant. House and Senate budget negotiators couldn’t balance the bottom line until Montford said, in essence, “The time has come to give up our own pet projects, and I’ll start by sacrificing mine.” The bill to provide South Texas colonias with water and sewage-treatment systems was taking up permanent residence in a House committee until a Montford phone call helped dislodge it.
Montford has made a career out of tackling the toughest issues—water conservation, telephone regulation, tort reform, and insurance reform. But he also has a history of coming out on the short end of compromises. This session looked like the same old story. He started strong, investigating the mess at the State Board of Insurance and producing a package of reforms to clean it up. Then he lost momentum on the Senate floor when he couldn’t defeat controversial amendments backed by Attorney General Jim Mattox. That sign of weakness emboldened insurance lobbyists to eviscerate Montford’s reforms in the House. But Montford rallied: At his insistence, a House-Senate conference committee restored almost all of his proposals. Now that he has won one, look out.
Democrat, Brownfield, 46—To understand how Jim Rudd operates, listen to the second movement of Beethoven’s fourth piano concerto. It is a duet—a duel really—involving the piano and the strings. The angry double basses that open the movement are the members of the House Appropriations Committee, storming and raging at state bureaucrats or contesting for stray dollars in a time of scarcity. The piano that softly subdues them into harmony is their tall, silver-haired chairman, Jim Rudd.
Rudd managed the budget-writing process to achieve the result he wanted. Although he had no formal control over the House’s other committees, which developed the first spending recommendations and forwarded them to Rudd’s panel, he imposed what came to be known as Rudd’s Rule—an arbitrary spending limit that kept the other committees from squandering all the revenue available. When the Higher Education Committee exceeded Rudd’s limits on state universities, he refused to accept their plan. The Rule allowed Rudd to get control of money that the other committees would have spent across the board; instead, his own committee was able to budget the money where it was most needed—primarily education, health, and prisons.
The outcome was a budget that for the pinchpenny House was uncharacteristically generous. A rural conservative himself, Rudd is inherently skeptical of many spending programs. (He led a successful floor fight against a school-aid formula that favored big cities at the expense of rural Texas.) Yet he understood that human services agencies had borne the brunt of the budget cuts in recent years, and he allowed them to catch up. Says a committee member: “Rudd’s not only smart-he’s reasonable.” The House apparently agreed. It approved the committee’s spending bill by the unheard-of margin of 145-2.
The Work Ethic
Democrat, Weatherford, 37-The mind that launched a thousand ideas. Ric Williamson looks more like a theoretical physicist than a Texas legislator—puffing on his pipe, tugging on his suspenders, wearing a pencil tucked behind his right ear, looking out at the world through mad-scientist eyes. He has spent four years conducting experiments on the state budget in his basement office, and this was his session to put his knowledge to work.
Other budget writers think about dollars. Williamson thinks about control. He is determined to give the Legislature the upper hand over the state bureaucracy, to find out what the agencies are really doing with taxpayers’ money, and to make them-can it be?—efficient and accountable. Don’t laugh and roll your eyes. Williamson is dead serious about this. “The Legislature most convey the right kind of work ethic,” he says.
If by that he means his own, heaven help the bureaucracy. Williamson practically lives in his House office, where he pores over auditors’ reports and keeps a different folder for every state agency. He has a color-coded binder full of lists of what he wants to do, and he crosses out each item in red when he accomplishes it. There were lots of red lines this session. Not even Williamson knows how many riders (instructions to agencies) he stuffed into the budget; he estimates 210. (That doesn’t count the ideas that were too eccentric for his colleagues to swallow, such as his proposal to encourage agency directors to resign so that headhunters can conduct nationwide searches for replacements.) Among the riders that survived is the state’s first “revolving door” law, which will keep the Development of Human Services from contracting with former employees and board members (he wants to apply it to all state agencies next session). He imposed a uniform accounting system on all agencies so future Williamsons won’t have to start from scratch to understand the budget. Somehow Williamson found time to be the principal architect of the House criminal-justice reform effort. His early-session study of prison alternatives was the crucial step in convincing the law-and-order House that building more prisons was not enough.
Not everyone is a Williamson admirer. Lobbyists say that he can be bullying and is too sure of himself, and the more frivolous members feel intimidated by him. But inside the budget process he has total credibility and respect. He is the rare legislator who has changed the way the system works.
Best or Worst?
Democrat, Killeen, 43—Every once in a while a legislator comes along whose skills are so manifold, whose power is so great, whose mind is so attuned to all the nuances of controversy, that he obliterates the distinction between Best and Worst. Add to that the physical dominance of a former Baylor University basketball player, and you get a force of nature called Stan Schlueter. There never was any doubt that he would end up on our list— but as Best or Worst?
The case for Schlueter as Best: the most brilliant use of power since the light bulb. Schlueter extracted every last kilowatt from his position as chairman of the House Calendars Committee. The chairmanship gave him the same authority in his domain that Saint Peter has in heaven: no bill could reach the hallowed ground of the House floor without his blessing. Everyone expected that Schlueter would use his position to further his own agenda, and he did. What they didn’t expect was that he would leave so few fingerprints.
He didn’t exact tribute in exchange for favors or punish the few members who dared to oppose him. He didn’t abuse his power, because he knew that he didn’t have to. His size (six foot five) and his long-standing reputation for neither forgiving nor forgetting an intended injury made most members inclined to please him. All he had to do was let them know how to do that, which he did as often as he could. The button he wore “A Kinder and Gentler Schlueter”—may have been sincere, but no one wanted to be the test case. And when the session was over, he had gotten what he wanted: more prison beds, a reduction of Jim Hightower’s authority over pesticides while saving the Agriculture Department itself, limits on bank foreclosures, new child-visitation laws, vexation for Jim Mattox, and a four-year college for his district.
The case for Schlueter as Worst is the same as the case for Best, but with a different spin: His admirers say that he could have been so much worse; his critics say that he could have been so much better. His admirers say that he was involved in more issues than anyone in the House; his critics say that his agenda was mostly personal—he is an avowed enemy of Hightower’s (pesticides), a real estate debtor (foreclosure), a divorced father (child visitation). His admirers say that his involvement in those areas produced good laws; his critics see in him the same failing that a nineteenth century observer saw in U.S. senator James Blaine: No man has filled so large a space and left it so empty.
So which is it, Best or Worst? We make Schlueter a Best, because he was dominant and ultimately he was fair. But to indicate that this was a close call, we are leaving a symbolic vacancy on the Worst list this year. And just once we would like to see him exercise influence through respect rather than fear and use his enormous intelligence go make Texas a better place.
The Ten Worst
Democrat, Victoria, 42—He must have thought that the Legislature was Animal House. Day and night Kenneth Armbrister’s manner was more that of a fraternity brother looking for a toga party than of a senator looking for influence and respect. Invited to dine with the House Calendars Committee one night, he used the occasion to tell racist jokes in front of a black colleague; at another dinner he shouted down the table to a female lobbyist, “Do you know why God created women? Because sheep can’t type.”
Women staffers and lobbyists braced themselves for sexual innuendo whenver fate threw them in Armbrister’s proximity. In the middle of a Senate session he approached another senator’s top aide and said that he needed…well you’ll just have to guess. His remarks earned him the nickname “TMT,” short for “Too Much Testosterone.” Said one lobbyist, “He wears his hormones on his sleeve.”
No one thought Armbrister was serious-and that was just the point. People stopped taking him seriously, especially when his legislative program turned out to be funnier than his jokes. Mr. TMT carried a bill requiring, of all things, that abstinence be stressed in sex education courses. Another Armbrister bill would allow people to pack concealed handguns. (Both bills died). “Have you heard about the Omnibus Armbrister Bill?” Senate wags asked. “You can carry a gun, but you have to keep it in your pants.”
The gun bill turned out to be no laughing matter for his fellow senators, who knew that it was bad public policy but didn’t want to stir up the National Rifle Association by voting against it. At first Armbrister promised colleagues that he wouldn’t press the issue until he had secured support for its passage. Then, under pressure from the gun lobby, he called for a vote during committee meeting, even though he knew the bill was destined to fail.
The story of Kenneth Armbrister sounds like a comedy; in fact, it is a tragedy. In a Senate that has been drained of talent, he ought to be rising to the top instead of sinking to the bottom. An ex-cop who is smart, tough, and humane, he works hard and wants to be a player. But at this rate he’ll never be anything but a joke.
The Unkindest Cut
Democrat, Houston, 52—A perennial Worst, skilled only in inventing new ways to bring ridicule upon the Texas Legislature. This year’s device: sponsoring a bill to amputate the fingers of convicted drug dealers.
The unconstitutional proposal didn’t pass, of course, but it did accomplish its primary mission-reaping publicity for its author. Even the lurid tabloid Weekly World News got in on the act, prominently featuring a story about Edwards’ bill (Gutsy Politician’s Sure Cure For Pushers) along with headlines like Baby Born With A Wooden Leg And Elvis Tribe Found In Jungle. Was Edwards embarrassed? Hardly. He had copies distributed to his House colleagues. When the ink stopped flowing, he generated more publicity by announcing that he would postpone a hearing on his bill so that he could invite the family of Mexican drug-cult victim Mark Kilroy to testify. (They didn’t.)
But the spotlight has its hazards. In defending his bill, Edwards attacked lawyers who oppose stiffer penalties because they represent drug dealers. Who do you suppose got caught writing a federal judge to request leniency for a convicted crack dealer? You guessed it—Edwards.
No wonder Edwards became the laughingstock of the session. “Know what this is?” House members chortled to each other, extending a hand with fingers curled. “An Al Edwards handshake.” Later, colleagues gave Edwards a miniature wooden guillotine with a digit-size aperture. During an Edwards attempt to pass a local bill, colleagues were ignoring him as usual until Speaker Lewis called for a vote. Detecting the sudden alarm on the floor, Lewis announced, “This is not the finger bill, members—go ahead and vote.”
Democrat, Stephenville, 47—The Flying Wallenda of the Texas Legislature. Bob Glasgow soared to the heights of the Ten Best list last session, then attempted one of the most difficult feats ever performed: fixing Texas’ egregious workers’ compensation system. Glasgow in no way is a bad legislator, any more than the Wallendas were bad acrobats, but when legislators or acrobats lose their balance, what results is an awful mess.
Glasgow’s fatal mistake was to treat worker’s comp as a legal problem, not a political one. Closeting himself, he set out to write a true reform of the worst-of-both-worlds system that costs employers too much in insurance premiums but provides injured workers too little in benefits. He thought that he could produce the perfect bill and make the rest of the world see the light. But the rest of the world-powerful interest groups and the other thirty senators—wasn’t about to let Glasgow be the sole arbitrator. Insurance lobbyists went to him with questions; all he would say was, “It’s taken care of.” Plaintiff’s lawyers tried to find out what he was doing; they couldn’t. Nor, for that matter, could his fellow senators, whose political futures depended upon a satisfactory resolution. “He thinks that the more he frustrates the involved parties, the better his chances are of getting a bill,” said a dubious Bill Hobby staffer.
Inevitably there was an insurrection. Frustrated senators complained to Hobby, who formed a committee of the whole, giving each senator a negotiating portfolio. But when Glasgow did show up at the bargaining sessions, he only made matters worse. He would toss out an idea, negotiators would tinker with it, then he would abandon it and toss out a new proposal just when progress was being made. “He’s like a bullet in a concrete room,” said a legislator. “You can’t figure out where he came from, and you can’t figure out where he’s going.”
Finally Glasgow produced his bill. It was a home run, but the game was over—he had taken too long and had lost all credibility. He had such a small following that no one wanted to figure out what the bill did or negotiate with him further. The Senate, under pressure to do something about worker’s comp, passed a face-saving, do-nothing bill that was predestined to be rejected by the House, forcing a special session.
On the day of the debate Glasgow, whether from fatigue or pique, violated Senate rules by questioning colleagues from a sitting position, his body language conveying contempt. When another senator demanded that Hobby instruct him to stand, Glasgow snapped, “If my questions are annoying the members of the Senate, I’ll just withhold them.” Then he hurled down his microphone, slumped in his chair and disappeared in a cloud of cigarette smoke.
Just Say No
Republican, Houston, 49—No, no, a thousand times no. That’s Talmadge Heflin’s political philosophy. His voting record has more nos than Pinocchio,more nays than Churchill Downs, more negatives than Ansel Adams. Heflin is the spiritual descendant of isolationist Senator William Borah, of whom it was written, “Borah, in his only avocation, rides regularly in Rock Creek Park, his only regret that he must proceed in the same direction as the horse.”
Watching Heflin vote on spending bills became a House diversion. The suspense lay not in how he would vote, but in how few of the 150 House members would join him. The House appropriations bill: 145-2. An emergency appropriations bill: 129-15. Dedicating funds for groundwater cleanup: 143-1. One day he voted against three bills that created dedicated funds (money that can be spent only for one purpose, such as building highways): 138-2, 131-6, and 120-12. Then one passed without a dissenting vote, 133-0. What happened? Heflin didn’t vote.
Heflin’s knee-jerk contrariety grated on Democrats and Republicans alike. “He gets mad about the federal government intruding in state business,” said a senior conservative Democrat, “but then he votes against spending the money to alleviate the problem.” A young Republican wanted to protest an action by the House leadership but thought better of it because “I don’t want to be someone who falls on his sword all the time like Talmadge Heflin.” When a fellow Houston Republican proposed a plan that would encourage banks to make small-business loans, Heflin mounted a one-man floor fight. “This is such a conservative approach,” pleaded the author, hoping he had found the key word that might get through to Heflin. No luck. Replied Heflin: “It’s a small-business welfare bill.”
What makes Heflin the way he is? “He’s smart but suspicious about everything,” said one lobbyist. “He thinks your information is tainted.” But another lobbyist had a different idea. Noting that members raise one finger to vote yes and two for no, he said, “Talmadge can’t vote aye. He was born with his index and middle fingers welded together.”
Eddie Bernice Johnson
Democrat, Dallas, 53—When things don’t go her way, look out. Her primary legislative tool is anger. She hasn’t learned-or won’t accept-that in politics you can’t always get what you want and that your opponents can have motives as good as your own.
During one memorable exchange, another senator started to ask her about her bill setting goals for contracts to be awarded to minority businesses. “This doesn’t take anything away from white men,” she interrupted. When the legislative budget staff examined one of her bills and produced what she thought was an inflated estimate of its cost to the state, she threatened a lawsuit. At the end of the session, one of her bills died on the House calendar, speared by a point of order. Numerous other bills had met a similar fate, but that didn’t stop Johnson from marching to the lower chamber, brandishing a letter from Harvard constitutional scholar Laurence Tribe, and warning that she would sue the House for racist parliamentary rulings.
When she controlled her anger, as when she protested Bill Clements’failure to appoint minorities to state boards, she could be effective and even eloquent. But her rages undercut her own best interests. Johnson co-sponsored a bill allowing nurses to work more independently from doctors—a personal cause of hers as a registered nurse. But she harbored so much resentment toward physicians that she grilled friendly doctors testifying for her side. She voted against the bill in committee because it didn’t advance the cause enough.
There was a poignant moment late in the session when Johnson seemed to sense that something was wrong. She had made a snide remark about senators who were absent from a committee hearing while she was presenting a bill, and a colleague had said, “Now, Senator…” Johnson pointed to a fish pin she was wearing and said, “I always feel like I’m swimming upstream.” Yes, but why blame the stream?
Absent without Leave
Democrat, Houston, 38—An Achilles who spent the session sulking in his tent; a mighty warrior who refused to join the fray. His vulnerable spot was not his heel but his ego, and he was constantly tending to its wounds.
Just a session ago, Luna was a general on the front lines of the House—the head of the Mexican American Legislative Caucus, the chairman of the Science and Technology Committee, a master at floor debate, an emerging force on the tax-writing Ways and Means Committee. But his troubles began with a smear-filled reelection campaign in which his opponent was managed by another Houston legislator, Roman Martinez. Returning to the Legislature, an embittered Luna set out not to get things done but to get his enemies. Once the model for the kind of minority legislator who rises above parochial concerns, Luna became the living stereotype of a pol consumed with his personal feuds. When Martinez tried to pass an uncontested local bill, Luna used a parliamentary maneuver to block it. Said a non-combatant member: “Nothing will get you in trouble here faster than picking on the author instead of the bill.”
Luna was mad at the Speaker for again naming him chairman of Science and Technology instead of a more prestigious committee; he went AWOL from many of the weekly chairmen’s lunches. He was mad at the Mexican American caucus for not picking the chairman he wanted; he went AWOL from their meetings too. He was AWOL from floor debate except to battle Martinez.
Late in the session Luna finally moved himself to action, like a great beast struggling to extricate himself from quicksand. He pushed his bill to provide scholarships to keep potential dropouts in school; he helped kill a proposal to impose paperwork on biotechnology research. It was so good to see the old Luna again. He still grabbed the lectern as if to shake some sense into it; his stentorian baritone filled the great chamber, penetrating right to the brain. But he fell off the high ground by blocking consideration of a bill whose lobbyist was related to a Luna foe back home. The next day opponents killed Luna’s dropout bill with their own point of order. He was back in the muck, and the whole Legislature was the less for it.
Just a Zero
Republican, Austin, 44—A political football who is kicked by all but claimed by none. With a look of deep concern perpetually etched on his face, Richardson gives the impression of someone who is expecting the worst—and he is usually right.
The debate over the criminal-justice reform package was not one of Richardson’s better moments. For once, the House was in a statesmanlike mood; leaders of all ideologies had agreed that the prison-overcrowding crisis was so severe that the Legislature couldn’t afford to engage in law-and-order demangoguery. Everybody got the word except Richardson. First he offered a “Willie Horton” amendment restricting prison furloughs. Richardson got no votes. Zero. Even old-timers could not remember another shutout. Undaunted, or perhaps just unwise, Richardson came right back with a silly amendment requiring parolees to take a drug test at their own expense before being released. Most House debate is formally polite, but not this one. “You realize that statistics are no substitute for common sense?” asked one opponent. Another was more blunt: “You’ve got to be a zero.” He lost again.
Things happened to Richardson that happened to no one else. One committee chairman explained a simple Richardson bill and waited for a motion to approve it. Someone asked the fatal question: “Who’s the author?” The chairman ‘fessed up. Snickers. The chairman: “It’s good legislation.” Silence. No motion. Meeting adjourned.
Richardson’s problem is that he just can’t seem to relax and fit into the summer-camp legislative atmosphere. He sounds like he is posturing even when he is not—a holdover, perhaps, from his days as a TV newsman. He loves to ask theoretical, what-if questions in committee, leading a colleague to say: “We get a lot more done when he’s not here.”
Public Enemy Number One
Republican, Houston, 42—It’s not easy for a freshman to become a pariah, but Dalton Smith worked hard at it, he achieved it, and he deserved it. Something about him rubbed legislators the wrong way-and they knew exactly what it was. “I don’t know how we got along without him all these years,” sneered a veteran Republican. “Why, he’s so much smarter than everybody else.”
Catch Smith in action: The House leadership is backing a bill that will allow the state to delay sending some sales tax revenue to Houston for one day—a bookkeeping device to help balance the budget. Smith approaches Appropriations Committee chairman Jim Rudd, wags a finger under the chairman’s nose, and says, “You can’t do that. It’s not your money. It’s Houston’s money.”
Common legislative courtesy was not Smith’s strong point. He called a senior committee chairman and told-not asked-him to give a Smith bill a hearing. (Smith got one-around midnight.) He introduced a bill banning some bars in a colleague’s district without checking with the other member. No wonder the rest of the House started salivating when Smith popped up with an amendment to the appropriations bill. He wanted to cut 1.25 billion from the budget and put it in the rainy-day fund—a savings account for hard times. The trouble is, these are hard times. Legislators came rushing over to Rudd, who was managing the bill, begging for the right to fight the amendment. It was bloody. Smith’s predecessor, respected gubernatorial aide Mike Toomey, scurried around the floor, telling one and all that he didn’t advise Smith or agree with him. Smith got only seven votes.
As the session wound down, Smith once again provided target practice. He needed 100 votes (out of 150) to pass a bill. Opponents could have killed it with a point of order; instead, they chose to make a different point. They worked the floor and got 102 votes-against Smith’s bill.
Yak, Yak, Yak
Democrat, Corpus Christi, 54—A lethal combination of ego and incompetence. Deadly to causes that he favors, harmless to those he opposes—but, in either case, infallibly in the way of progress. Says a colleague: “If there’s one person you have to keep stepping over to get something done, it’s Truan.”
Take his number one priority of the session-getting a law school for Texas A&I in Kingsville. Against the wishes of Senate leaders, Truan insisted on including the law school in his bill merging several South Texas universities with the UT and Texas A&M systems. All he accomplished was (1) endangering the vital merger plan and (2) making all the other senators stop what they were doing to squash him. Only when they threatened to take the merger bill away from him did Truan back down.
To make matters worse, he’s noisy: The man simply does not known when to shut up. Once he took so long to praise a bill preventing former state employees from lobbying their old agencies that opponents had time to prepare a killing amendment. “Truan filibustered a bill he was for,” went the Senate joke. Hearing a beleaguered gubernatorial appointee testify that he had walked out on a fellow board member who kept repeating herself, a senator offered some sympathy: “I have to confess—I’ve even walked out on Senator Truan once in a while.”
Every now and then Truan passes a good bill (he tightened state regulation of uranium mining, for example), but more often he is embarrassed because he doesn’t do his homework. He got the Senate to reject two gubernatorial appointments to the Radiation Advisory Board, then decided that one of the nominees was really okay after all. There was worse to come. Late in the session, Truan warned Senator Bob McFarland that he planned to filibuster a McFarland bill. Replied McFarland: “You’d better get permission from the Speaker of the House about that, because we passed it in the Senate this morning. And you voted for it.”
The Killer Tees, the appellation given to a group of golfing senators who fled the Capitol on sunny afternoons, abandoning committees striving for quorums. Like 1979’s Killer Bees—the senators who disappeared in order to sabotage a presidential primary bill-this year’s fugitives killed bills by their absence.
Rookies of the Year
After a dismal freshman class in 1987, the Legislature received a much-needed infusion of talent from potentially the best group of newcomers since 1981. In the House, although 14 of the 27 new members were Republicans, Democrats appeared to have the corner on future stardom. Some, like Rod Junell, 42, of San Angelo and Sylvester Turner, 34, of Houston, debated on equal terms with veterans. Others, like Karyne Conley, 35, of San Antonio and Parker Mccollough, 38, of Georgetown, won respect by quietly learning the rules and listening to their more experienced colleagues. In the Senate, Republican Teel Bivins, 41, of Amarillo looks like a future star.
During Rob Junell’s (Democrat, San Angelo, 42) explanation of a bill establishing the proper way to pledge allegiance to the Texas flag, a House colleague challenged him to recite the pledge. Replied Junell: “I pledge allegiance to Texas, Bob Bullock, and Stan Schlueter, so help me God.”
Coach of the Year
When Hugo Berlanga (Democrat, Corpus Christi, 40) came to the House in 1977, the cumulative influence of Hispanic legislators was zero. Now they are an integral part of the power structure. The main reason for the change is Hugo Berlanga. His skills are seldom visible; he is neither a good debater nor a master technician. But no one in the House has a shrewder understanding of politics and power. After Berlanga’s early support for Gib Lewis helped decide the 1983 Speaker’s race, Lewis made him speaker pro tem, a symbolic position that protected him from Hispanic infighting. Berlanga used his position to repeal the unwritten rule that minority legislators always serve on committees that emphasize minority concerns. Instead he picked out the most talented Hispanics and asked Lewis to appoint them to the big three committees that deal with the budget, taxes, and major state issues. They learned how the system worked, accumulated power and prestige of their own, and in several cases surpassed Berlanga in raw talent. But none will leave a larger legacy. Hugo Berlanga taught them how to play the game.
Prisoner of War
An announced candidate for lieutenant governor, Chet Edwards (Democrat, Duncanville, 37) was surrounded by a hostile Senate, whose 31 members included 17 supporters of his Democratic primary opponent, Comptroller Bob Bullock. Edwards fought for consumer causes (stricter insurance rules, lower loan-shark interest rates), but his enemies shot him down whenever they could; an Edwards proposal to strengthen the law protecting buyers of defected automobiles was slaughtered, 24-3. When Edwards achieved a rare triumph, blocking a controversial gubernatorial appointment, colleagues squelched his moment of glory by questioning his competence as chairman of the Nominations Committee. Other senators constantly accused him of posturing for the press and never missed an opportunity to make him look bad. Typical: When Edwards spoke against a Carl Parker bill, Parker agreed to a delay, but only “in view of the fact that some of my colleagues need to get before the media one more time.”
Most Valuable Players
The Legislature’s most important work takes place in glamourless committees and subcommittees, far from the spotlight of the floor. Here are a few key members sharpen their pencils and shape ideas into legislation, disputes into compromises. These are the members who excel at making the wheels turn.
Cyndi Krier, Republican, San Antonio, 39
Robert Eckels, Republican, Houston, 32
Al Granoff, Democrat, Dallas, 41
Ken Marchant, Republican, Carrollton, 38
Jim Parker, Democrat, Comanche, 44
Nick Perez, Democrat, El Paso, 46
Alan Schoolcraft, Republican, San Antonio, 37
Jerry Yost, Republican, Longview, 47
Great Moments in Oratory
Thanking colleagues for reelecting him, Speaker of the House Gib Lewis (Democrat, Fort Worth, 52) proclaimed: “The office and responsibility that you have bestowed upon me fill me with a deep sense of humidity.”
The coelacanth is an ancient fish, thought to be extinct for 60 million years until a fishing boat caught a live specimen in its nets off Madagascar. The Legislatures living fossil is Delwin Jones (Republican, Lubbock, 65), who was last spotted in these waters in 1972, the year he was defeated for reelection. As hatchet man for soon-to-be-convicted (for bribery) House Speaker Gus Mutscher, Jones had written a redistricting bill designed to eliminate Mutscher’s enemies (it did), pass court scrutiny (it didn’t), and get himself reelected (oops). Sixteen years later Jones resurfaced—returned to office at long last. Only this time he seemes to have mutated into a pussycat, his prehistoric rootes evident only when he was elected chairman of the freshman caucus and proposed that the position of secretary of the caucus be filled by “all the girls,” meaning his female colleagues.
Five days after the Alaskan oil spill in Prince William Sound, the house adopted a resolution urging Congress to open Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil and gas development.
Best Source of Bad Jokes
An unsuccessful attempt to prolong the life of the vestigal state Indian Commission generated lines like:
“I have a lot of reservations about this bill.”
“Since the Indian Commission doesn’t have anything to do, can we let them regulate ticket scalping?”
“Did Renato Cuellar [a toupee-clad Democrat from Weslaco] offer an amendment to keep his wigwam?”
During the floor debate over funding for an intercity bullet train, Senator Bill Haley (Democrat, Center, 45) offered a tongue-in-cheek amendment routing the Houston-Dallas line “through a city of approximately 6,000 located 15 miles west of the Sabine River and whose primary agricultural income is chickens, timber, cattle, and watermelon”—a description that fit only his hometown of Center.