Austin has been said to have the most beautiful of state capitols. On a recent visit I could see why. True beauty is in an elegant design that makes a tool useful for real people. Like a watch or an iPod, the Texas statehouse can be figured out by anyone in a few minutes. Public space and offices: first floor. House and Senate chambers: second floor, on either side of the rotunda. Lobbyists: lying about outside the chambers, hugging briefcases and cell phones. During the legislative session that just ended, I spent a couple weeks walking around the place and observing the action. What I found was a nonstop cavalcade of sublime and absurd contrasts, the best and worst of Texas politics in various stages of conflict and harmony.
One of the tour guides stopped before the portrait of Governor Ann Richards, told a story about Richards riding a Harley, and then walked on. Afterward, when I asked about George W. Bush, her face darkened. Her son served in Iraq and returned injured, she said. This was what Bush meant to her.
The grounds are interesting. On the north side is a small replica of the lady who stands overlooking New York Harbor. From afar, the likeness is good, but on closer inspection, this one has an ethnic look. I kept thinking of her as the Streisand of Liberty.
On the south lawn is a huge monument to Texans who fought for the Confederacy. It stands in an area where school groups gather before entering the building. One afternoon, kids, many of them black, sat or played around the statue, oblivious to the ideas behind it, and in this moment the whole scene fused together, creating a more profound monument.
Below the rotunda, tourists stand amid a cluster of Texas historical symbols and raise their cell phones as if in salute, snapping pictures of the grandly lit dome and its descending balconies, where people are likewise using cell phones—to lobby like mad.
Throughout the interior, rich, polished wood adorns and frames everything: banisters, doors, windows. The ornamentation and accessibility of the Capitol bespeaks a time when public buildings weren’t thought of as places for the elite but as grand meeting spaces—palaces with boots on.
On their way up to the chambers, touring schoolchildren glide past the balusters, which, curving around and around, begin to look like carousel horses.
This is the garrulous chamber. Unlike in the Senate, everything is out in the open. Bills are not lined up behind closed doors. Here, politics is a contact sport. Representatives hunch together in conference, piling up in little mounds. They grab one another, hugging, holding, clasping. Hold your friends and enemies close, it says to me. And business gets done.
This is the stately body, far smaller than the House. Each senator has room to stroll and ponder. With so much space around them, they seem like independent celebrities dealing not just with legislation but with their own distinguished personas. One day while I was there, Walter Cronkite was being honored with a Texas Medal of Arts award. Senator Dan Patrick couldn’t wait to shake his hand.
During my visit one of the biggest fights was over coal plants …
A Waco farmer and rancher who opposes the building of power plants near his property
“We have seen the effects of these plants. My wife and I both have asthma. Two of our children have asthma. We’re both cancer survivors. We have problems on the farm with soil becoming too acidized. Most people have a 401(k). But for farmers and ranchers, their land is their 401(k). Seeing what it’s going to do to my family, my children, my nine grandchildren—I would be a damned wimp if I didn’t fight this thing all the way.”
Rep. Charles “Doc” Anderson
A traditional conservative who, after listening to both sides of the issue, found himself spearheading a coalition of environmental groups, corporate leaders, Republicans, and Democrats in opposing the plants, as well as rethinking the way Texas uses energy.
Rep. Anderson’s chief of staff
“Pulverized coal. He just hates that technology, the emissions that it generates—the oxides, the mercury, the particulate matter, sulfates, C02 . There are better technologies right in front of us. I think we’re on the verge of adopting an energy policy. It may be something in the tax code or in the natural resources code. It will be piecemeal but it will be a policy.”
Tom “Smitty” Smith
State director of Public Citizen, a consumer and environmental watchdog group
“I didn’t go approach Doc Anderson. The ranchers who use him as a vet to deliver their calves or work on their horses were saying, ‘Doc, what the hell are we going to do about all these damn coal plants?’ We in the environmental community were out there alone trying to stop the plants. Then suddenly the ranching community and the farmers started calling up and saying, ‘We’re heavily affected too. We’d like to help.’ And the cities began to call up and some mayors began to realize this was going to affect their economies. Very quickly thereafter a group of businessmen self-started and said, ‘We’d like to help in this fight as well.’ Shortly after that we began to get calls from physicians saying, ‘We’re concerned about this issue as well.’ Not long after that the state of Oklahoma joined in and said, ‘We’re worrying about the impact of these emissions on our ability to come into compliance with air quality.’ Then the Chickasaw Nation joined in, and we couldn’t say that every other week it felt like the cavalry was coming over the hill because suddenly that was politically incorrect.”
A lobbyist representing coal industry interests
“We’ve polled people: ‘What if we could build a coal-fueled power plant that removes 90 to 95 percent of all emissions. Would you support it?’ If you want to see the only country on earth that regulates mercury emission, it’s the United States. If you want to see