The Kay Place

For the past two decades, the Capitol in Washington, D.C., has been her home, but the first woman from Texas to be a U.S. senator will soon cast her final vote. We sat down with Kay Bailey Hutchison for a long conversation about her life, her politics, and why she finally decided to move on.

October 2012By Comments

Photograph by Sarah Wilson

Kay Bailey Hutchison had already made a name for herself in Texas politics when she ran for state treasurer in 1990. A 1967 graduate of the University of Texas School of Law, she had worked as a reporter at KPRC, in Houston, covering the Legislature before becoming the first Republican woman to win a seat in the Texas House, in 1972. She later served as a vice chair for the National Transportation Safety Board; married Ray Hutchison, a former chairman of the state Republican party; and then lost a race for Congress, in 1982. She reentered private life as a Dallas businesswoman, purchasing a candy manufacturing facility. Politics, it seemed, was behind her.

The race for treasurer, a now-defunct position, changed the trajectory of her career. Ann Richards had decided to leave that post to run for governor, and Hutchison jumped at the open seat. The Republican wave was beginning to wash over Texas, and though Richards would come from behind to beat Clayton Williams, Hutchison would score a narrow victory in the general election, along with a former Democrat named Rick Perry, who upset Jim Hightower in the race for agriculture commissioner.

Three years later, another open seat would catapult her to national attention. This time legendary Democrat Lloyd Bentsen, who had served in the U.S. Senate since 1971, gave up his position to join the cabinet of President Bill Clinton. Hutchison threw her hat in the ring along with 23 other candidates. In the special election, she beat Bob Krueger, the leading Democrat, by 99 votes; in the runoff, she crushed him by more than 612,000 votes. In her three subsequent reelection bids, she would never garner less than 60 percent of the vote. But despite that record, one position eluded her: governor. She passed on races in 2002 and 2006 against Perry, then decided to run in 2010, only to lose handily to him in the primary. 

Now 69, she will end her Senate career at midnight on January 2, 2013, when the 112th Congress adjourns. After nearly twenty years in office, she has seen the wide arc of modern politics: when she arrived in Washington, D.C., the Clinton administration was trying to reform health care; as she departs office, that topic is once again a flash point. She witnessed the economic boom of the 1990’s and the economic crashes of the 2000’s. And she played an integral role in framing military policy after the devastating attacks on 9/11. Through it all, she maintained her reputation for decorum and restraint while fighting for funding for her home state. Now waiting for her back in Dallas are her husband and their eleven-year-old children, Bailey and Houston. But before she leaves office, she invited Texas Monthly to her home in the Bluffview neighborhood of Dallas to discuss her path to politics, her highs and lows in office, and what it really means to be a Republican. 

BRIAN D. SWEANY: Thank you for inviting me to your home, Senator Hutchison. As the father of two young children, I have to say that it’s comforting to be in a house with a toy bow-and-arrow set in the corner of the formal dining room. 

KAY BAILEY HUTCHISON: It is impossible, as you know, to have a house that’s presentable when you’ve got kids. You simply can’t do it. 

BDS: In 2007 you told Texas Monthly that you would not be running for reelection this year, regardless of what happened in the governor’s race in 2010. You’ve said that you want to come back home to Dallas, cheer on the sidelines at soccer games, and attend parent-teacher conferences at school. I’m assuming that right now that life is very much on your mind as you begin to make the transition from Washington to Texas.

KBH: Certainly part of my decision process was that I wanted to raise my children in Texas. At their age, commuting is just not a good thing for them. So while I intend to continue to have a professional career, I am going to be doing it from here and on my own schedule with my own priorities, rather than not knowing on Thursday morning whether I am going to get home Thursday night or Friday. Those are the kinds of issues that you have to address when you have two eleven-year-olds. 

BDS: Let’s talk a little bit about what you expect your life and your family’s life to look like come January 3.

KBH: Definitely I will still have a professional life. I love having interesting things to do; I love having a purpose. I am still going to be goal oriented, so I’m hoping to have a career using the knowledge that I have. I’ve been approached by law firms, not to lobby, which I would not do, but to consult, which I would. And I am going to be speaking. I’ve talked to some speakers’ bureaus, and I think I have a lot to share. I’m looking forward to that. And then I’ll just see what comes.

BDS: So you obviously have a lot of opportunities, but you haven’t finalized your plans yet?

KBH: Right, it’s a little early to pin things down. But starting this fall, I am going to begin to winnow down what I would like to do. I want to set my professional career in place first and then decide what outside things I would like to do. For instance, I have a chair in Latin American law at the UT School of Law that is named for me, and I want to build on that. I want to have more opportunities for people to come to the law school and know that this is the place for anyone who wants to study Latin American law. I also hope to start a think tank, probably based in Washington, and I’ve been very active in the area of national defense and the military, so hopefully there will be something along those lines that I can do.

BDS: The chair in Latin American law is interesting to me because your law degree certainly opened up a range of possibilities for you professionally. My recollection is that when you were at UT Law in the sixties, you were one of only 5 women in a class of 269 students. What is your sense of how things have changed since you were a student?

KBH: Of course, the big change is that approximately 50 percent of the students are women. When I was in law school, we had so few women that we met in a lounge next to the women’s restroom. That was our little enclave, and we went there to talk and enjoy each other’s company. Now women are fully integrated into the law school, and it’s very exciting. One of the reasons I’m in the Senate today is that I couldn’t get a job after I graduated. I interviewed with the major law firms, but I did not get an offer until four months later. By that time I had decided to do something different and on a lark stopped in to the offices of KPRC.

I had an interview with Ray Miller, who was the news director, and later he called and offered me a job over the phone. And then when I called my father to tell him the news, he said—well, at first he was very disappointed, and he said, “With your law degree?” And I said, “Yes, I’m going to be a news reporter, covering the Legislature and the courts.” And he said, “For radio or for TV?” And I said, “I don’t know.” I had never thought to ask if the job was for radio or television. 

BDS: A few years later you ran for a seat in the Texas House, but I remember your saying once that you didn’t even know there was a Young Republicans Club at UT when you were there. Did you know back then, or even when you were covering the Legislature at KPRC, that you leaned Republican?

KBH: No, and the reason was this: my father was a small businessman in La Marque, and he talked in general terms as a conservative. I knew he was for Eisenhower, but he actually sent money to both the Republican and Democratic state parties because he thought that was an important civic responsibility. So I had this sense of being interested in business and being conservative, but we had never had a Republican primary in Galveston County. For years there was just a Democratic primary, and so I never even thought about being Republican. Then when I went to work at KPRC and covered politics, I didn’t vote in the primary because I didn’t think that was right. I thought you should not participate in primaries if you were covering politics, because I worked with the party leaders.

BDS: Did you vote in the general election?

KBH: Yes, I did vote in the general election. But when I ran for the Legislature, my opponent in the Republican primary ran against me by saying that I had not been a real Republican. The fact was, I had never voted in a Republican primary until my own, so that was used against me. 

BDS: Let me take two things that you’ve told me and fast-forward to the present. One was that your dad would contribute to both parties. Given the divisiveness we see today, I suspect that most small business owners would contribute to only one party. And if they do contribute, they believe very strongly in the mission of that particular party.

KBH: Correct.

BDS: So that marks a change from today’s political climate. What does sound familiar is that in your very first race, your opponent was questioning your credentials as a Republican. Now there’s enormous energy in the party that’s being channeled in a new direction, and the party is changing as a result. How do you describe what it means to be a Republican today?

KBH: I feel like there is the “my way or the highway” conservative and there is the “effective” conservative. I’m in the effective conservative category. And I think if we’re going to continue to govern, we have to understand that you cannot be 100 percent. Ronald Reagan was very clear that you can’t get everything you want, but if you are moving in the right direction and you’re taking the country with you, that’s leadership. Leadership is winning elections and governing well; it’s not just winning elections. So I think that our party right now is different, but we will continue to be the party for better, responsible government as opposed to the standing-on-the-outside-screaming kind of party. And I think voters are moving in that direction because they are truly scared. They’ve never seen such government overreach, and I agree with them. I agree with what the tea party says. If we don’t do something about the debt, which is going to kill our economy, and if we don’t have an understanding of the proper use of the military in foreign affairs, then we’re not going to be America anymore. That’s what the tea party is saying: “We are just going to vote for the most conservative person, because we’ve got to have a standard that brings us back into responsible governing.”

And once we do that, we are not going to overregulate and burden business and overtake our health care system and get so out of control in our spending. At that point, I think we will have a more responsible dialogue. But right now, voters are scared. And I think that’s why they are going toward more of a level of intolerance. 

BDS: So you think that some of the volume we are hearing in political discourse is because people are worried about the direction of the country? In that way, perhaps, voters are turning to more-conservative candidates who they think will bring government more in line with their expectations. Is that a fair way to say it?

KBH: Yes, it is. That said, I don’t think people truly believe deep down that you can get everything you want. I don’t think voters believe that if they send someone to Washington and he doesn’t get them everything they want, then you throw him out. 

BDS: Do you worry that the gridlock we’re seeing on Capitol Hill will only get worse before it gets better? Olympia Snowe, the longtime Republican senator from Maine, announced in February that she’s leaving the Senate at the end of her current term, and she said that one of her concerns was the partisanship in Washington. She has referred to the environment in D.C. as “political domination as opposed to governance.” In July veteran Ohio Republican Steve LaTourette also announced that he would not run for reelection in the House, saying, “The atmosphere today no longer encourages the finding of common ground.”

KBH: Well, I don’t think you should throw up the people who haven’t been able to be effective in the system as the standard. Olympia and I are very different, just like Maine is very different from Texas. I am a real conservative, and the people who are truly moderate liberals, like Olympia, are frustrated because the partisanship has gotten more pronounced. I understand that. But there’s a tendency to point to the people who are leaving and say, “The moderates are being thrown out.” 

I don’t know as much about the House, but in the Senate, the conservative majority is 40 out of 47, and the members are people who want to get something done, who want to take us in the right direction, who have original ideas and want to govern correctly. 

I’m one who believes there is no such thing as a RINO—“Republican in Name Only.” A lot of times, the hard-core tea party people love to call someone a RINO because they don’t agree completely with their views. But if you want to be a Republican, you’re a Republican. There are Republicans of varying degrees, from hard right to center right to true moderate liberals, but nobody’s a RINO. Because, I mean, you could say some of the people on the hard right are RINOs because they’re really Libertarians, and I don’t think that. I think that everybody who wants to be a Republican is a Republican. That said, senators like myself or [Arizona’s] Jon Kyl aren’t leaving the Senate for the same reasons as the more liberal members. We believe that you can be conservative, be principled, and still get things done.

BDS: Speaking of the tea party, on the night of the primary runoff election in July, you had a conversation with Ted Cruz, who had just defeated David Dewhurst for the Republican nomination for your seat. You said in a press release that you had a “pleasant and productive” conversation. Can you give me any deeper insight into what you talked about beyond that?

KBH: Yes, we had a good conversation, and I told him that I wanted to be helpful with any advice that he wanted on how to set up an office and what opportunities there are. Then, in a second conversation, I called and said, “I think you should come up to our policy lunch,” which is held every Tuesday. The Republican conference meets for lunch and discusses our week ahead. I said, “I think you should come and let Senator [John] Cornyn and I introduce you to people so that they have a chance to get to know you.” And he’s been totally positive.

I will say, he told me, “You know, I’m not elected yet.” He’s very aware that he’s got a general election in November, so he’s not overstepping in any way, but he’s also realizing that the probability exists, failing something out of the ordinary, that he will win. He also said, “People have told me that you’re the go-to person for casework and helping people who have problems, wherever they are in the world, and I want to know how you do it.” So he’s been very, very good.

BDS: Let’s assume the math holds and Cruz does go on to win the general election in November against the Democratic nominee, Paul Sadler. What would be your best piece of advice for him as a freshman in the U.S. Senate?

KBH: I don’t want to give him advice that he doesn’t ask for. My hope is that he will be a conservative who is staunch in his beliefs but wants to be effective and therefore have the Reagan mantra of “Getting something in the right direction is better than nothing.” That would be my hope for Texas.

BDS: You said earlier that there are shades of Republicans but that there are no RINOs. By all accounts Cruz is a different kind of Republican from you. How would you say you differ from him, if at all? 

KBH: I don’t think in reality that there will be much difference. I really don’t. I think he is very strong in his convictions, and he ran a campaign that was very clear. I don’t think that the political differences are as great as they might seem given the different kinds of styles we have and the different campaigns we’ve run. I am a conservative with kind of an easygoing temperament. Well, “easygoing” is the wrong word because I am a hard charger, but I’m not a person who uses a “take no prisoners” rhetoric. I don’t talk, but I do deliver—that’s my mantra. He has been very direct and strong and pugnacious, and I’m not, but I think if you look at our voting records a couple of years in, they probably are not going to be much different. 

BDS: Still, I can’t help but think back to the differences between you and Phil Gramm, for example, when there was a general sense that you were focused on Texas and he was focused more on national issues. You worked hard to bring back federal dollars to Texas for military affairs, transportation, higher education, health care, and NASA. Do you think that Cruz will be more like you or Senator Gramm?

KBH: I’m not going to speak to Ted Cruz because we don’t know yet, but I will say that even before the primary, a number of county judges, mayors, and other members of Congress came up to me and said, “Oh my gosh, what are we going to do without you?” Because I’ve taken each of those areas you listed and worked with the congressman, Republican or Democrat, who is on the right committee to make sure Texas gets its fair share. I would go to that congressman and say, “This is a Texas issue, and you need to help on this.” And they did. So for Houston, it would be the port or the Medical Center. If it’s San Antonio, it would be the military bases. If it’s Dallas, it would be the Trinity River. I don’t get everything, but I do get what they need the most. I have looked out for Texas because in the Senate, large states are at a disadvantage since they have the same representation as the smaller states. And if you don’t have a fighter for your state, you are going to see all of your money go to other states where they do fight. 

For instance, NASA is a Texas issue, but it’s also a national issue. I changed appropriation subcommittees because I thought this administration was killing NASA. I’ve been a ranking member on both the authorization and the appropriations side on NASA, and we’ve been able to overcome what I think are severe deficiencies in the administration’s view of NASA. Now look at what’s just happened. I mean, if we can go on an eight-month trip and put a rover on Mars, think of the possibilities of what that is going to tell us about what’s out there. We’re going to know how to function better in space, and when the data comes back, we may discover a new source of energy. I don’t know what we’re going to find, but we’ve got to stay ahead in technology and we’ve got to set the priorities for spending. And that’s what I’ve done. I think if we don’t have someone fighting for Texas, it won’t happen.

My philosophy is that I want to cut the debt and the deficits. And I think the way you do that is to set the top line [federal spending] at 18 percent of the gross domestic product. That would help control spending, but after you set the top line, it is Congress’s constitutional responsibility to determine the priorities for spending, and if you don’t allow Congress to earmark, the president is going to have all the earmarks, and he doesn’t know the priorities. The bureaucrats don’t know the priorities. I can guarantee you that no one in the administration knows Texas the way I do.

So when I was defeated because of my earmark record, I never could explain the whole thing and why it’s so important to Texas. I didn’t do well enough at explaining it because I just don’t know how anyone could want their own elected representative to not fight for them. We get back 100 percent of what we send in federal tax dollars to Washington, which is, I think, the right thing. 

BDS: Since you’ve mentioned it, let’s talk about 2010, because in some ways your race for the governor’s office against Rick Perry was a fight over whether the Republican party was too conservative or not conservative enough. When you look back on that campaign, what are your thoughts about it?

KBH: Well, our campaign was not as good as his, that’s for sure. I didn’t have the opportunity to establish who I was and put the best face on it. I think my campaign did try to make me a conservative on Perry’s terms, rather than say who I was and why that was better. You know, some pundits say, “They just liked her in Washington and they liked him in Austin.” And I think that’s probably part of it.

The other important thing was that Governor Perry made the case that I was challenging him, which wasn’t true. I announced and was on the road because every person who had talked to him had been told he wasn’t running, and I didn’t even think to ask him because it was so clear he wasn’t running. People had already made commitments, and so when he announced in August 2009, it was, “Gosh, am I going to turn and run from that or not?” But I feel like I was not challenging him. If I had known up front that he was running again, I don’t know what I would have decided. Every other time I had backed off. 

BDS: In ’02 and ’06?

KBH: Yeah, in the name of party unity. And so I think he effectively made it look like I was challenging him, which became a matter of “Oh my gosh, am I going to run from him now that I’m out there?” I already had my whole finance team in place. People were put in a terrible position, because they were people who had supported him and had been told he wasn’t going to run again. 

BDS: You entered the Senate in 1993, and since then you have witnessed an unparalleled era of modern politics: the years under President Clinton, the Republican revolution, the ascension of George W. Bush, 9/11 and the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, the financial crisis, and now the presidency of Barack Obama. As you look back on your career, what stands out the most? 

KBH: Certainly the most vivid occurrence in that time was 9/11. Like everyone in America, you remember exactly where you were and when you saw it. So it was clearly the biggest thing, and then the war on terror, which is what we’re still dealing with. I think that of the accomplishments I’m the proudest of, it’s the building up of the military and ensuring that it is strong. I tried in every way to set thoughtful, responsible military policy. As chairman of the Military Construction subcommittee, I wrote the bill that became the Overseas Basing Commission because I felt that it was time for us to start deploying our troops from America, using American bases, creating jobs and familial proximity in America. Then [Secretary of Defense] Donald Rumsfeld later announced that 70,000 would come back from Germany and Korea, and I think it was my strategy that made all of that happen. So from a national standpoint, I would say that was probably the biggest stamp that I put on our country.

BDS: Is there an issue that you think was left unaddressed or a problem you regret not being able to solve?

KBH: Yes, addressing this debt crisis. I have put forward a plan for Social Security reform that would save the system, make it solvent for 75 years, and start to bring down the deficit. But it’s such a political lightning rod that Jon Kyl was the only co-sponsor of the bill. I tried to get a Democrat to co-sponsor it, but every Democrat wants to increase the taxes on Social Security, and my plan didn’t. I hope that going forward my plan will be the blueprint for Social Security reform, because that’s part of getting the deficit down: making the age more in line with the actuarial tables and lowering very slightly the cost-of-living increases. So not being able to move forward with that would be my biggest disappointment.

BDS: You mentioned the trauma of 9/11, and after the attacks Gallup measured the approval rating of Congress at 84 percent, the highest number since the survey began asking that question. That was a time when Americans rallied around their government during a moment of crisis. But in February the approval rating for Congress hit the lowest number in history, 10 percent. Do you think that change reflects the anxiety that you talked about earlier? And does it concern you that people see Congress that way?

KBH: When you’re serving in Congress and the approval rating of the institution is at 10 percent, you’re concerned. And I do think it’s because people are afraid, they see this massive government overreach in every respect. It’s not only the continual talk of tax increases but this Obama health care program, which was passed 100 percent by Democrats—not one Republican voted for it, in either house. And you talk to businesses about that, and they’re not hiring because they see Obamacare and tax increases hitting them in January and they don’t know what they’re going to have to deal with. That frustrates Americans. The people I talk to wonder why we can’t get the other side to understand that we are spending too much and that we are not taking control of the debt and the deficit. They see the gridlock and they see a lot of rhetoric, and I think the people are saying a pox on both your houses.

BDS: Let’s turn back to what we discussed in the beginning of the interview, and that’s your family and life back in Dallas. I realize that Bailey and Houston are only eleven, but do you have a sense of whether they’re interested in politics? Is that something you’ve talked about with them?

KBH: They hate politics. Their view is that it has taken me away from them, and getting them to go out on the stage at the state convention in June was just almost impossible. Their idea of a political event is they have to go and stand at my side while everybody talks to me and ignores them. I’m afraid that they’re going to be so turned off by it that they’ll never get involved in it.

BDS: Do you think the transition from public to private life will be hard for you?

KBH: If, on the other side, my career is interesting and I continue to do interesting things, I’m going to love it. I know myself: I need a purpose, and I need a challenge. I want to feel I’m accomplishing something, and the times that I have been out of office and not challenged are the lowest times in my life. So I am cautiously optimistic, and I’m excited about being in the business world. I want to be able to talk about the books I’ve read again. When I first came into the Senate, I was very well read. Over these nineteen years, my reading has entirely been bills and amendments and memos from my staff about what I have to decide. I want to start reading books and having interesting conversations about plays and concerts. But I don’t know yet. I wish I could say, “Oh yes, everything’s going to be great.” Maybe it will. I certainly hope it will. But I’m going to try hard, and that will be the determining factor.

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