The Best and Worst Legislators 2007
This e-mail exchange is between senior executive editor Paul Burka and writer-at-large Patricia Kilday Hart.
Wednesday, May 16, 2:33 p.m.
This is our seventh time to work together on the Best and Worst Legislators story, and I don’t think we’ve ever had more material. I’ve never had to get up in the morning and think, “Am I going to have anything to blog about today?” These guys—and especially the Republican leadership triumvirate of Rick Perry, David Dewhurst, and Tom Craddick—are the gifts that keep on giving.
Every time we do this story, people joke, “How are you going to find ten for the Best list?” This session it’s no joke. Covering the House, I sometimes felt as if I’d walked into the Capitol’s Green Zone, where no bill was safe from the insurgency that was determined to oust Speaker Craddick from his job. When he won the crucial test vote for reelection by just six votes on the first day of the session, the Speaker’s race became continuous. Craddick is such a polarizing figure—not so much because of his political views but because of his Machiavelli-like enthusiasm for the tactics of reward and punishment—that the two warring factions in the House are not Republicans and Democrats but bipartisan alliances of pro-Craddicks and anti-Craddicks. Every day the anti-Craddicks have been out for blood. They try to goad him into losing his cool with parliamentary maneuvers: Point of order, Mr. Speaker. Parliamentary inquiry, Mr. Speaker. Would you explain your ruling, Mr. Speaker? It’s great political theater, but the public wouldn’t be amused.
Craddick was not the only wounded leader in the Capitol. Perry got just 39 percent of the vote in winning reelection last fall, and despite his vow that he would be a “100 percent governor,” he was closer to zero. Lieutenant Governor Dewhurst’s penchant for treating senators as if he were the team owner instead of the coach soured his relationships with members of the upper chamber.
What it all adds up to is that the session was much more about politics than policy. Some of the battles were turf disputes between the executive and legislative branches, with Perry on the defensive regarding his unpopular human papillomavirus mandate (he lost) and his even more unpopular Trans-Texas Corridor (he may escape with a draw). Most of the politicking, however, focused on upcoming elections: November ’08 (Republicans and Democrats jockeying for advantage, with control of the House at stake); January ’09 (Craddick trying to solidify his support for a fourth term as Speaker by feeding his loyal troops lots of opportunities to vote on red-meat Republican issues); and November ’10 (when Dewhurst hopes to be elected governor).
One has to ask, What did this Legislature accomplish? With the school finance issue resolved during last spring’s special session, the only thing lawmakers had to do this year was pass a budget. And that’s probably all they are going to do. The sad thing is that there was a chance to do a lot more. I just don’t think there was the leadership or the will.
Thursday, May 17, 12:06 p.m.
No, darling. This is our tenth anniversary, not our seventh! We began writing the Best and Worst story together in 1989. (Quick: How many years have you been married? No fair asking Sarah.) And that’s precisely why I had my midlife crisis last summer and swore I wouldn’t take on this project again. I despaired that I was living the magazine version of the movie Groundhog Day. Would I never wake up to something, oh, you know, different?
It’s official: I’m lousy at political prognostications. Don’t ask me how I could possibly have underestimated the ability of the Legislature to provide first-rate entertainment. Its proceedings are a contact sport—albeit wrapped in parliamentary niceties and sweet traditions, like opening each bone-crunching, backstabbing session with a prayer. Here’s the one that was given two days ago, just before the Senate publicly erupted into angry chaos: “May you give wisdom and guidance to all in attendance today, that they may continue to lead this great state to be a place of love, peace, and prosperity. Allow us to dwell together in unity and like-mindedness that your favor may continue to shine upon us . . .”
Well, you can’t say the Reverend Neal Terwilliger, of Taylor’s First Baptist Church, didn’t try. Bad luck, that—being the Senate’s invited spiritual counselor on the exact day that its longest-serving member explodes at its presiding officer.
How on earth did we get here? Back in January, the 31 members of the Senate did indeed dwell in unity and like-mindedness. As the saying goes, they were singing from the same hymnal, praising God that school finance and redistricting—at long last—would not dominate the agenda, giving thanks for the bountiful surplus and seeking absolution for past sins regarding toll roads, college tuition, and electric utility deregulation. It didn’t take long for the first false note to be heard, in the key of Dewhurst’s political ambitions.
Tension has been building all session, and that’s what was behind the eruption of two days ago. Dewhurst refused to allow the dean of the Senate, John Whitmire, who was momentarily off the floor, to register his vote against the controversial voter ID bill. Whitmire went ballistic, bellowing profanely at the top of his lungs. And I was worried I’d be bored?
I was cynical early on when Dan Patrick passed a resolution to have the words “In God We Trust” inscribed on the frieze above the lectern in the Senate. Typical pandering, I thought. But in this godforsaken atmosphere, it now seems like a pretty good idea. It will take a miracle for important legislation to get worked out, and that includes the only bill that has to pass: the state budget.
Friday, May 18, 1:43 p.m.
I’m so sorry. My heart is all mixed up. I mean, my Harts are all mixed up. I must have been thinking of how long your husband and I have been fantasy baseball partners. That’s a sore subject right now. The Capitol Punishers have a winning percentage that resembles Rick Perry’s.
Speaking of whom, we need to settle something. Are the three leaders eligible for the Best and Worst lists? Traditionally, we have avoided putting the leaders on either list. Do you remember what you wrote in 2003? “For thirty years our policy has been that presiding officers are not eligible for the Best or the Worst list except in exceptional circumstances. These are exceptional circumstances. David Dewhurst began with the lowest of expectations and ended with the highest of praise.” Well said, but . . . it turned out there was a good reason for our policy. Within a couple of months Dewhurst had blown up the Senate and passed Tom DeLay’s congressional redistricting plan, causing you to compose a mea culpa in which you asked, “Had Dewhurst’s evil twin taken over the lieutenant governor’s office? Was the real Dewhurst bound and gagged in a closet somewhere in the Capitol basement?”
I think our old policy made a lot of sense, but I also think, to quote a certain wise political observer, “These are exceptional circumstances.” Nobody in the Capitol had worse sessions than the three leaders. Nobody was even close. How can we ignore this without looking like we spent the session on Mars?
Saturday, May 19, 3:05 p.m.
We can’t. The past three sessions have been rendered ineffective by the dysfunctional relationships among Dewhurst, Craddick, and Perry. The three men simply cannot communicate, nor do they trust one another. Add to that unstable mix Dewhurst’s ambitions and you have a toxic brew that’s deadly for the legislative process. Ginning up for the 2010 race, he’s attempting to please everyone, writing checks he can’t possibly cover. When the Senate unanimously voted to place the Texas Youth Commission in conservatorship, Dewhurst fretted about offending Perry, whose political support he badly wants. His obsession with passing Jessica’s Law, a get-tough-on-child-predators bill, left him deaf to concerns from victims’ rights groups and district attorneys that it would actually make prosecuting perverts harder. (Senators forced him to compromise but had to work around the Dew’s consultants.) His sly strategy to pass the voter ID bill, a sop to Republican primary voters, left such bruised feelings that emissaries from the Senate were sent to complain to him about his leadership style. They feel they’re being treated like an auxiliary campaign committee.
A few days ago, he found himself in an imbroglio involving, of all people, Lance Armstrong, over a proposal creating a bond fund for cancer research. Dewhurst opposed the legislation as fiscally irresponsible. Upon hearing this, Armstrong phoned him and told him he planned to hold a press conference and would mention Dewhurst’s opposition if asked; late Thursday, Dewhurst appeased Armstrong by promising that the package would receive a committee hearing. At his Friday morning press conference, Armstrong held his tongue about Dewhurst; but it took a behind-closed-doors outburst from sponsor Jane Nelson to secure the committee meeting later that day. The bills ultimately passed, but many senators—and cancer research advocates—were steamed. Like the cyclist who loses the race because he keeps glancing back at his rivals, Dewhurst is squandering his opportunity to lead.
Tuesday, May 22, 8:39 a.m.
I’ll see your Dewhurst and raise you a Craddick. He’s Tom DeLay without the indictment, the archetype of a politician who would rather be feared than loved. His closeness to donors like James Leininger and his willingness to allow them to spend millions of dollars to defeat apostate incumbent Republicans in primary races (as Leininger did in 2006) stifles the independence of members. His speakership represents a total departure from the years when his Democratic predecessor and onetime friend, Pete Laney, ran the House in a bipartisan fashion and helped George W. Bush build a legislative record that enabled him to become president. Craddick has ostracized Democrats who don’t support him; they have responded by attacking his every move. Fear and loathing permeate the atmosphere of the House every day. Craddick has diminished the stature of committee chairs by centralizing power in the Speaker’s office; stripped of their prestige, they suffer the indignity of seeing their bills voted down in floor debate.
And yet, while he continues to act like a strong Speaker, gaveling down Democratic parliamentary maneuvers with rulings of dubious validity, the truth is that the closeness of the January challenge to his speakership so weakened him that he couldn’t afford to employ intimidation tactics. When Democrats succeeded in amending the budget to rewrite a teacher pay raise to their liking, Craddick couldn’t undo it (although it was later modified in negotiations with the Senate). “The horses are out of the barn,” a leading Democrat said of Republicans who were suddenly emboldened to think for themselves. The Speaker could no longer lead—it is an intriguing philosophical question whether that is good or bad—but he could still punish Democrats. Then, he couldn’t even do that. Two bipartisan rebellions this month—one to reverse a Craddick parliamentary ruling (tantamount to a vote of no confidence), the other to stop his complicity in allowing Democrats’ otherwise uncontested bills to be put in the deep freeze—left him even weaker. Last night, Byron Cook, one of his most respected committee chairmen, made a personal-privilege speech in which he urged the Speaker not to seek a fourth term: “Please don’t put this body through eighteen months of hell,” he said. “Your reelection will result in a bloody and brutal and, I believe, nonproductive eighty-first session.” Sounds a lot like the eightieth.
Paul Tuesday, May 22, 11:26 p.m.
Don’t forget Perry—although a lot of folks would like to. I walked into the Capitol today, and the frustration of lawmakers blasted me like the August heat in Houston at high noon. “If there is an overall theme to this session,” a usually reserved Republican senator thundered at me, “it is NO LEADERSHIP!”
It seemed as if Perry had made a conscious decision to mimic all the bad qualities of the governors he has known: the confrontational style of Bill Clements toward the Legislature, the absence from the fray of Ann Richards, the ambition for national recognition of Mark White. He picked a fight with the Legislature that he couldn’t win by issuing an executive order mandating that Texas schoolgirls get inoculated with the HPV vaccine—manufactured by a pharmaceutical company represented by his former chief of staff, Mike Toomey. What an amazing coincidence. Perry could have endorsed bills that proposed using the vaccine, which prevents cervical cancer, but he chose the in-your-face approach instead. (So did the Legislature: It passed a bill preempting the executive order.) Then he jetted off to Qatar amid persistent rumors that he was angling for the number two spot on the GOP ticket in 2008. His legislative program went nowhere: selling the lottery, having a “czar” oversee the cleanup of the TYC, lowering the ceiling for state spending. He would have done well to read modern books on parenting, which are full of advice that applies to politicians, such as “pick your battles.”
Thursday, May 24, 6:29 a.m.
I see Perry’s main deficiency as being his tendency to work against the Legislature rather than with it. He has a history of making a big speech at the start of the session, going AWOL for the middle, and parachuting in at the end with veto threats. He’s doing it again: threatening to veto the higher education budget, thereby forcing a special session, because the Legislature didn’t adopt his recommendations for making university budgets dependent upon meeting standards in areas like graduation rates. He has vetoed one bill that tried to rein in the excesses of his grandiose highway plan and may veto another. The biggest problem the governor has had is that none of his proposals have had a constituency, inside or outside the Capitol.
I want to move away from the dismal picture of the leadership to some success stories. Sylvester Turner is, next to Craddick, the most important member of the House. Long regarded as its finest orator, he is the leader of a group of Democrats, mostly black and Hispanic, who support Craddick’s speakership. They saved his job at the start of the session, and if Craddick is able to quell a likely rebellion at the end, they will have saved it again. This drives mainstream Democrats crazy, and they’ve sought revenge against the apostates; several former Craddick D’s have lost primary elections in recent years. To protect his group, Turner organized them into “Democrats for Reform” and publicly identified their legislative goals—all of which were Democratic priorities. This was a big gamble; they were providing a scorecard by which they could be held accountable by the voters if they failed. But if they succeeded, they would be positioned to hold off primary challenges. And succeed they did: Fully funding the Children’s Health Insurance Program and providing assistance to help the poor pay their summer electric bills achieved two long-sought Turner objectives. To be sure, some of their aims would have been realized without their involvement, such as defeating school vouchers, but others would not have—especially CHIP funding—without Turner’s cashing in his chits with Craddick. He proved that the D’s could get things done by working with Craddick, rather than fighting him.
Taking a principled stand against Craddick’s speakership was not Byron Cook’s only achievement this session. He took over the chairmanship of the Civil Practices Committee, which had been a cauldron of controversy in recent sessions, and stilled the waters. This was all the more remarkable because the committee deals with complex legal issues, and Cook is not a lawyer. But he approaches issues with an open mind and a willingness to plunge in and learn them. (An ardent pro-lifer, he nonetheless became an advocate of stem cell research after deciding that he needed to study the subject.) He stood up to megapowerful Texans for Lawsuit Reform and forced a compromise on TLR’s number one issue, which was to get more-favorable venues (that is, anywhere but South Texas) for cases involving injured workers on offshore oil rigs. The settlement of the once divisive issue received a unanimous vote on the floor. Another arcane problem—whether injured plaintiffs should be allowed to receive full or partial reimbursement for “paid and incurred” medical expenses—became the first piece of legislation to roll back the draconian tort reforms of 2003. Cook’s ability to work with both sides makes him the perfect arbitrator for future disputes, but his break with Craddick will likely cost him his chairmanship. He deserves better. So does the House.
Saturday, May 26, 1:23 a.m.
After watching the House at war tonight, I’m not sure they deserve anything. Before you weigh in on the pandemonium, let me talk about this session’s Senate Bests, who have much in common: smarts, stamina, and that rarest of virtues, calm.
A cool (his detractors would say icy) temperament served Steve Ogden well as Finance Committee chairman. Early in the session, he boldly vowed to use the budget not just to spend money but to change the culture at three renegade entities: the Department of Transportation, the TYC, and Texas Southern University. As a result, TxDOT’s deals with private companies will be reviewed by legislative budget writers, the Youth Commission will get $50 million to provide better staffing and training, and a new governing structure at TSU will clamp down on financial excesses. When a looming federal court case on the state’s failure to provide Medicaid services to poor kids threatened to break the bank, Ogden urged the attorney general to negotiate a settlement; the subsequent deal eased concerns about an open-ended court order by federal judge William Wayne Justice. During a contentious floor debate on transportation, Ogden—who two sessions ago sponsored the legislation that permitted the private development of toll roads—admitted, “This is really my fault.” I’d bet those words have never before been spoken into a microphone at the Capitol.
At the other end of the emotional spectrum is John Carona, whose hot temper landed him on our Worst list in 2001. (A dominant theme this session has been redemption, as so many of our former Worsts have atoned for past sins.) This time, he kept his passions in check and his eye on the bottom line. Well, mostly. When Transportation Commission chairman Ric Williamson failed to return his phone calls, Carona ambushed him at a House hearing and demanded he pay the Senate committee a visit. Once he got Williamson to the negotiating table, though, he deftly navigated around such potholes as a threatened gubernatorial veto of a moratorium on road building and urban versus rural rivalries. While many lawmakers were eager to cast a vote against Perry, Carona convinced them that a moratorium would cripple the ability of urban areas to proceed with congestion-relieving projects. When Dan Patrick called for his fellow senators to vent their frustrations with Dewhurst by publicly rebuking him, Carona urged restraint. His temper emerged, however, when Patrick killed five of Carona’s noncontroversial bills. Storming into the Senate lounge, Carona gave Patrick a colorful (mainly blue) tongue-lashing. The next morning, Patrick found an odd package when he arrived at his desk: wrapped in a blanket, the severed head of a hobbyhorse. I never said Carona was subtle.
I can’t talk about Carona’s transportation achievements without also crediting Tommy Williams. Let me put it in language that you, the baseball junkie, can understand: Williams is a closer. When the pressure is on and the opposing team is sending up its best batters, you need someone to throw the perfect pitch. Williams was that guy in the Senate this session. When Perry vetoed an attempt to rein in TxDOT, Williams kept the reform efforts alive by expanding one of his local bills: He saved Harris County highway projects from becoming a casualty of friendly fire in the toll road moratorium battle by prohibiting TxDOT from committing highway robbery in selling right-of-way to local road-building authorities at elevated prices. Part of Williams’s effectiveness is that he doesn’t shrink from delivering bad news, whether it’s telling Dewhurst that senators are frustrated about his management style or crushing a fiscally irresponsible House proposal for a gas tax holiday with a simple “That’s dumb!”
Though tagged as an ideologue when he first arrived in the Senate two sessions ago, Bob Deuell marches to the beat of a different drummer, which is fitting for a former member of Ike and Tina Turner’s band in the seventies. Consider family physician Deuell’s advocacy of a needle-exchange program to combat AIDS and HIV. While other Republicans fretted they’d be accused of coddling junkies, Deuell saw a common-sense solution to soaring deaths and health care costs. When the company responsible for carrying out a GOP plan to privatize Medicaid services couldn’t get its act together, he asked the state auditor to assess its shortcomings. Best of all, he’s civil: He publicly rebuked a pro-life lobbyist for sending misleading e-mails, though he agreed with her philosophically, and respectfully thanked a pro-choice committee witness for her testimony. He has even been known to quote Teddy Kennedy and Ronald Reagan in the same floor speech. And he won’t stoop to petty political games. When Democrat Mario Gallegos, who is recuperating from a liver transplant, wanted to remain in Austin for crucial party-line votes, Deuell arranged for a hospital bed to be set up in a room adjacent to the Senate chamber.
Sunday, May 27, 7:28 a.m.
Our little world remains transfixed by Craddick’s power grab on Friday night. In the middle of a tense colloquy with Jim Pitts, who unsuccessfully tried to topple him in January, Craddick suddenly announced that the House would recess for a couple hours, banged the gavel, and sped to his office. Order broke down; members poured into the aisles; shouts of indignation rang out from the floor and the packed gallery. When Craddick returned, his two parliamentarians had resigned and were replaced by two former members who were among the Speaker’s closest allies. Craddick then issued a series of rulings establishing his right to refuse to recognize members to make privileged motions—contrary to long-standing interpretations of House rules, published authorities, and congressional precedents. The effect of those rulings was to render inoperable the parliamentary guillotine that a bipartisan coalition of his critics was preparing for Craddick—a motion to vacate the chair—and leave as the only option a vote to expel him from the House, thereby raising the bar for removing him from a majority vote to a two-thirds vote. Wow! Our lists are transient; this was history, and Craddick is a historic Worst.
Back to business. One of the most difficult things for any legislator to do is resist the impulse to add more and more prison beds to lock up more and more lawbreakers and throw away the key. Even more difficult is to change other members’ minds about crime and punishment. Jerry Madden did both. As a fiscal conservative, he concluded (as did his Senate counterpart, John Whitmire) that building new prisons was the most expensive way to ensure public safety. His solution, which was embraced by the American Civil Liberties Union on the left and the Texas Public Policy Foundation on the right, was to move people out of prison who shouldn’t be there (drug users and probation violators), making more beds available for violent offenders and saving more than $800 million in construction funds. Thousands of such offenders have been cleared for release from prison as soon as they complete required drug treatment and education programs, but neither the availability nor the funding of these programs is sufficient—so Madden passed a probation reform bill that established and funded them. He also passed the all-important TYC reform bill (in league with Senator Juan Hinojosa), which included his proposal for an independent ombudsman to advocate for the kids. A rare chairman who doesn’t pin his ego on his lapel, Madden twice bowed to the will of his committee, which preferred a conservator to head the TYC in the short term instead of an ad hoc gubernatorial appointee and, in the long term, favored a supervisory board instead of a czar appointed by the governor. His committee members swear by him. Says one, “We really are a team.”
By the time the Legislature began to turn against Perry’s grandiose vision for the Trans-Texas Corridor, Lois Kolkhorst had been fighting it for two years. She took on the governor, TxDOT, its chairman, the bond houses, the foreign road builders, and legislators who championed the Corridor, but, as you might expect of a former collegiate golfer (at Texas Christian University), her competitive zeal always found the fair way. If not for her lonely opposition, the reforms that became law this year might never have happened and surely would not have been as strong. Kolkhorst took up the call for a moratorium on privatization agreements and made it stick. Just as the transportation battle reached its zenith, she was named chief House negotiator on the expansive higher ed budget, successfully defending more funding for research universities. Unfortunately, she found herself in the rough at the end of the session, when House demands for last-minute increases in higher ed funding drew fire from Democrats. Senators practically hung a sign on the revised plan that screamed “Veto me!”
Monday, May 28, 3:59 p.m.
The insurrection against the Speaker is the best show in town. Snipers at the back mike taking aim every hour or so with piercing parliamentary inquiries! Pat Haggerty ambushing Craddick under the guise of a personal-privilege speech! A mass walkout—mostly by Democratic members—to explosive applause by staff members lining the Capitol’s elegant stairwells! Reporters who cover the House have all the fun. (Sigh . . .)
But, speaking of show business, the Senate has staged its share of theater too. Talk show host Dan Patrick brought his performance to town, both figuratively and literally. While Patrick will argue that we targeted him as a Worst before he ever darkened the Capitol’s huge oak doors, our only pre-session commitment was to our historic criteria. It was his colleagues who shook their heads at the mention of his name, weary of his lectures about overspending and ignoring taxpayers. In the closing days of the session, he told them how his northwest Harris County district provided the money for their constituents to spend, as if poor people don’t pay sales taxes too. Floor debate served as the set for scripted pieces on red-meat issues like illegal immigration, abortion, and appraisal caps. When his dreaded nemesis in the House, Fred Hill, announced his candidacy for Speaker, Patrick sent a mass e-mail referring to him as Fred the Snake. His fellow senators tried to school him, but nothing worked. “Don’t showboat,” they’d say, only to have him arrange for $1 million in cash as a prop for a press conference that was critical of the Senate’s version of the budget, then claim to have discovered $3 billion in savings that their months of work had overlooked. Too bad he didn’t mention his ideas to anyone before the budget was debated. It finally became obvious to all that Patrick was here for the wrong reason: not to be a serious student of state policy but to amass sound bites for a run for higher office in 2010.
At the beginning of the session, it looked as if Troy Fraser would join the ranks of the rehabilitated Worsts. Indeed, Fraser deserves credit for seeing that a few greedy utility executives, personified by TXU’s John Wilder, were taking advantage of loopholes in the state’s electricity deregulation plan to gouge ratepayers. Yet after public equity firm KKR proposed a megabuyout of TXU, he insisted upon trying to break up the utility, force it to sell off its transmission lines, and allow the Public Utility Commission to have a retroactive review of the buyout. Fraser was on the consumers’ side of the issue, but his bull-in-a-china-shop negotiating technique alienated everybody else working on the bill. As negotiations reached a crucial stage, Fraser resorted to name-calling and threats, holding hostage an unrelated bill that would have given rate relief to another utility’s customers, simply because its executives were reluctant to join his jihad against TXU. When he went public with criticism of his fellow senators who were working on the bill, Dewhurst had to pull him out of the negotiations and assign another senator to mitigate the damage he was doing. His inability to deal with his adversaries nearly accomplished their goal: killing the bill. The tragedy of Fraser is that even when he’s right, he’s wrong.
There is no more unreliable senator than sixteen-year veteran Eddie Lucio. His nicknames say it all: Sucio (“Dirty”) Lucio and El Resbaloso (“the Slippery One”). Want to get a laugh from a colleague? Claim you’ve got eleven signatures to block a bill and produce a list with Lucio’s name on it. That’s a good one; Lucio uses disappearing ink. When the city of Houston needed to block a bill undercutting its ability to manage air emissions in neighboring suburbs, Lucio promised to provide a crucial vote against the bill. He voted “present” when a “no” would have killed the bill, then voted “no” when it no longer mattered. He pulled a similar stunt when the Finance Committee was looking for funds to pay for a Medicaid lawsuit settlement. Lucio voted for an amendment designating that the money come at the expense of health and human services for the poor. Later, he changed his vote, but it was too late. Here’s how he explained himself to the Web-based publication Rio Grande Guardian: “I am pleased I had the opportunity to address the issue one more time, even though we were on the losing side. It sent a message.” It sure did.
Monday, May 28, 9:16 p.m.
You captured Dan Patrick perfectly. I think he is the most interesting person on the list. He doesn’t play the game by the same rules as everyone else. He’s an outsider by choice. Building relationships, the basis of legislative success, means nothing to him. And yet I’m sure he regards his session as highly successful. He established himself as the foremost critic of the status quo, which is a lot more useful to his political ambitions than passing bills.
There is never a shortage of would-be Worsts in the House. Most are malevolent, but some, like Debbie Riddle, are so innocent that I ought to turn myself in to the Humane Society for putting them on the list. (She once happened by two Democrats who were looking at the Bibles that remain in members’ desks from session to session, with notations of the previous occupants’ favorite verses. “Oh,” said the Riddler, as she is known to those who have been stumped by her vacuousness. “I didn’t know Democrats read the Bible.”) Riddle represents the largest gap between sincerity and talent in the Legislature. She wouldn’t harm a fly, but she is lethal to bills that require a depth of understanding. I can’t imagine who thought it was a good idea for her to manage the floor debate on Jessica’s Law. Obviously the bill had widespread support, but it also raised some difficult issues, such as the constitutionality of imposing the death penalty for repeat sex offenders who don’t take a life. Riddle made such a mess of answering queries that two fellow Republicans, both respected lawyers, called a halt to the proceedings (“It doesn’t do us any good to pass a bill that then gets struck down by the courts,” one told the House) and suggested that members use the weekend to confer with prosecutors and victims’ rights groups back home. When the House reconvened, Riddle was no longer the bill’s floor manager. While other members passed her bill, she hovered in the background, still clueless.
Unlike Riddle, Charlie Howard cannot plead innocence. He was the perpetrator of one of the session’s high crimes: the mugging of the Democrats’ uncontested bills in the House Local and Consent Calendars Committee. Local and Consent is supposed to serve as a shortcut through the legislative process for bills that spend no money and engender no opposition. It is standard practice in both chambers that members get their noncontroversial local bills on the calendar. It fell to Howard as chairman to determine which bills qualified. He used a simple guideline: Republicans’ bills made it; Democrats’ bills (with rare exception) didn’t—unless the bill’s sponsor supported Speaker Craddick. Those who didn’t saw their bills linger. And linger. And . . . all hell broke loose. As time began to run out in the session, the ostracized D’s retaliated with the only weapon available to them: Debate Republicans’ bills on the local calendar for ten minutes, after which they’re considered dead. Howard did nothing. Democrats went to the microphone to call him out publicly. Still Howard did nothing. More Republican bills died. By this time it was apparent that Speaker Craddick was complicit. Either he had ordered Howard to kill the Democrats’ bills or he had allowed Howard to kill them with full knowledge that Republican bills would die as a consequence. In a show of solidarity with Democrats, Republican members with bills on the calendar voluntarily pulled them down. Senior Republicans went to the back microphone to demand that Howard prepare another calendar, with the ostracized Democrats’ bills on it, and he had to swallow the medicine. Thus began the uprising that almost brought Craddick down. Like the Boston Tea Party, Howard provided the spark that ignited revolution.
A few weeks ago, Warren Chisum was headed for the Best list. After years of being known primarily as a batty social conservative (he was the sponsor of Proposition 2, the constitutional amendment prohibiting gay marriage), he proved himself last session to be a serious legislator, working his way back from exile to become the shrewdest floor debater on the Craddick team. When he was rewarded this session with the chairmanship of the House Appropriations Committee, Chisum had made it to the legislative mountaintop. Elfin in stature, humble in attitude, popular with colleagues, Chisum found himself responsible for a $150 billion budget. Then, unaccountably, the old Chisum resurfaced with a string of controversial bills and ill-judged parliamentary moves. Here’s the perfect world according to Warren: Couples contemplating divorce would have to take a course in “forgiveness skills” (those who didn’t would have to wait longer before being granted a divorce). Couples contemplating wedlock would get free marriage licenses if they took a premarital education course (those who didn’t would have to pay more for their marriage licenses). School districts would have to offer a Bible study class. Criminal penalties for abortions would be restored, contingent upon the Supreme Court’s overturning Roe v. Wade. Chisum squandered his gravitas, the aura of invincibility that is crucial to the success of top-ranked legislators. Inevitably, some of his far-out bills were voted down. Even the budget bill was at risk, though in the end his lieutenants helped pass it, and the only casualty of Chisum’s backslide was himself.
Why doesn’t someone intelligent and principled and knowledgeable about an important issue—the environment— enjoy more success? It’s not such a mystery. Lon Burnam is a true-blue liberal whose legislative program resembles no one else’s: Reregulate utilities, raise the minimum wage, provide health services to immigrants, tighten ethics laws, pass universal health care, impose an income tax. He can be forgiven for getting discouraged, but he has a bigger problem: You just can’t succeed in the Legislature if you walk around with a chip on your shoulder. To survive, you have to accept that politics is not a battle between good and evil. Burnam has never cleared that hurdle. Consequently, he spends his time taking potshots at (evil) Republicans. Angry about Betty Brown’s bill to require picture IDs as a prerequisite to voting, he retaliated by zapping all of her local bills—and bragged about it to the media: “She will never have another local bill as long as I’m here. She so disrespected my constituents.” Never mind if a Republican fights for a Democratic cause like the Children’s Health Insurance Program; if he crosses Burnam in debate, zap! More bills ticketed for the crematorium. If Burnam is ever going to fulfill his potential, his reason for being a member has to be something bigger than revenge.
Let’s close on an upbeat note with the two remaining Bests. If the Legislature were a stock market, Rafael Anchía would be Google. He is the future—the son of immigrants (from Spain and Mexico), a lawyer with a blue-chip firm, the League of United Latin American Citizens’ onetime national Man of the Year, and the Democratic Rookie of the Year in our 2005 Best and Worst Legislators story. In only his second term, Anchía emerged as a top floor debater in the fight over the voter ID bill. After hearing Republicans argue that the bill was designed to prevent voter fraud, Anchía responded, “That’s like burning down the forest in case Bigfoot exists.” When another voting bill was considered in committee, this one requiring that a person seeking to register to vote be able to prove that he is an American citizen, Anchía confronted state GOP chair Tina Benkiser, who was testifying for the bill. “Can you prove today that you’re a citizen?” Anchía asked—the point being that most people (including, it turned out, Benkiser) don’t typically carry around their passport or birth certificate. When his ambitious legislative program of environmental bills—mostly improving energy efficiency—stalled, he looked for donkeys on which to pin the tail, and he found Republicans willing to let him attach his proposals to theirs. Recommendation: Buy.
Scott Hochberg didn’t figure to be on the Best list. This was not a session in which public education, his area of expertise, was in play. But then a conversation took place in which a Republican lawmaker described him this way: “No legislator is indispensable, but Scott Hochberg is the closest thing to it.” Session after session, he knows more about school finance than anyone, and he’s willing to share his knowledge with friend or foe. Members on both sides of the aisle trust him. When Chisum’s bill requiring high schools to offer Bible electives was sent to the Public Education Committee, it was so riddled with problems Hochberg could have killed it. Instead, he fixed it. When the bill reached the House floor, Chisum tried to substitute his original flawed version—and the House sided with Hochberg. In previous sessions, the former chairman of the Public Education Committee, Kent Grusendorf, did everything he could to keep Hochberg on the outside, only to lose floor battle after floor battle to him; this time, new chairman Rob Eissler was his biggest fan. On the first day the committee met, Eissler placed four Hochberg bills on the agenda—an unmistakable signal that his banishment was over. He passed one major bill this session, polishing up the way the state adopts textbooks (which saved school districts $1 billion), but next session, when school finance formulas will be on the front burner, Mr. Indispensable will be front and center.
Well, Patti, we’re done, and so is the Eightieth Legislature. Only minutes left until midnight. The Senate finished hours ago, and the House’s energy for fighting is spent. And we managed to find ten Bests after all. Have a happy sine die.
Rafael Anchia, Democrat, Dallas
Sen. John Carona, Republican, Dallas
Byron Cook, Republican, Corsicana
Sen. Bob Deuell, Republican, Mesquite
Scott Hochberg, Democrat, Houston
Lois Kolkhorst, Republican, Brenham
Jerry Madden, Republican, Plano
Sen. Steve Ogden, Republican, Bryan
Sylvester Turner, Democrat, Houston
Sen. Tommy Williams, Republican, The Woodlands
Lon Burnam, Democrat, Fort Worth
Warren Chisum, Republican, Pampa
Speaker Tom Craddick, Republican, Midland
Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst, Republican
Sen. Troy Fraser, Republican, Marble Falls
Charlie Howard, Republican, Sugar Land
Sen. Eddie Lucio, Democrat, Brownsville
Sen. Dan Patrick, Republican, Houston
Gov. Rick Perry, Republican
Debbie Riddle, Republican, Houston
Rob Eissler Republican, the Woodlands
Senator Kevin Eltife Republican, Tyler
Dan Gattis Republican, Georgetown
Fred Hill Republican, Richardson
Senator Juan Hinojosa Democrat, McAllen
“The Insurgency” Jim Dunnam, Robert Talton, et al.
John Smithee Republican, Amarillo
Burt Solomons Republican, Carrollton
Mark Strama Democrat, Austin
Senfronia Thompson Democrat, Houston
Senator John Whitmire Democrat, Houston
Kino Flores Democrat, Mission
Pat Haggerty Republican, El Paso
Linda Harper-Brown Republican, Irving
Sid Miller Republican, Stephenville
Mike O’Day Republican, Pearland
Chente Quintanilla Democrat, El Paso
Bill Zedler Republican, Arlington
Rookie Of The Year
Senator Kirk Watson Democrat, Austin
The former Austin mayor (and once and future statewide candidate) instantly earned respect for his intellect and diplomacy—and for knowing enough to let his elders take credit for his accomplishments.
The concept of “furniture” originated in the early years of the Legislature to describe members who were no more consequential than their desks, chairs, inkwells, and spittoons—the equivalent of backbenchers in Parliament. Today the term is only mildly pejorative; the sin lies not in being furniture but in failing to recognize it. Here is the furniture for the eightieth session:
Alma Allen Democrat, Houston
Roberto Alonzo Democrat, Dallas
Wayne Christian Republican, Center
Senator Craig Estes Republican, Wichita Falls
Joe Farias Democrat, San Antonio
Jim Jackson Republican, Carrollton
Senator Mike Jackson Republican, League City
Nathan Macias Republican, Bulverde
Armando Martinez Democrat, Weslaco