Austin Powers

Images of influence and intrigue at the wild and woolly eightieth legislative session.

July 2007By Comments

Illustration by Steve Brodner

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.

The Dome

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.

The House

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.

The Senate

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 …

Robert Cervenka
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
Republican, Waco

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.

Matt Welch
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.”

Randy Eminger
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 bad air, go to China. There is a bridge you have to cross to a hydrogen economy. It can’t be done overnight. It can’t be done just like this. In the meantime, you look at the individuals in the United States that make over $50,000 a year. Only 9 percent of their monthly budget goes to energy. If you make $30,000, you’re looking at 20 percent of your monthly budget. I’m sitting here and I’m painted as this insensitive industry hack because I represent coal-fueled electricity, which is one third the price of natural gas electricity in Texas. I’m fighting to keep low-cost electric plants alive in this state.”

Down in the Cafeteria Eminger and a colleague told me the facts of lobbyist life …

Anonymous lobbyist: “There are people here who are face painters, who think that whatever the issue is, it’s their lifeblood. They’d probably do it for free. There are only a few issues that strike people like that. Abortion. Stem cell research. I have become conversant in the coal issue. I have learned to argue both sides. I think our point of view is probably the most realistic one and the right one, but that doesn’t mean the other side doesn’t have some good points too. The other side always does. You’ve got to be able to find a balance. The Legislature is looking for balance. Most of us who do this understand what the other guy is going to say. I go in showing my member how my point of view will impact his district. What I’m looking for is for him to give me an answer as a member. All I want is a yes or no. It’s much better for me to work on my yeses and my maybes than on someone who says no.”

Eminger: “There’s a lot of misinformation that floats around the Capitol. You don’t lie to a representative. If you do, you’re out the door. You’ve burned your reputation with that person for the rest of your time. Word gets around and then all of a sudden, as a lobbyist, nobody wants to pick you up. You’ve got to trust the person to bring you the cold, hard facts of the issue. Then you ask, ‘How does my constituent want me to go?’ ”

Anonymous lobbyist: “This is not a win or lose game. It’s a game that never ends. It’s hard for clients to understand that. Once you start playing, you can never stop. If you do, someone will take from you what you’ve done. This is about money. Only. It’s about the movement of money. The state, federal, and local governments are there for one reason and that’s to take money from the taxpayers to do things with. As taxpayers, we have roads we like, schools we like. We think these are good things to spend money on. Right? When the state does that, that’s the appropriations bill in the budget. If you remove that, we still have six thousand bills filed every session. What do you think that represents? It’s greed. It’s industry versus industry. You’ve got one industry, phones, and you’ve got another industry, cable, who are competing against each other. As a consumer, you don’t really care who owns what as long as your phone works and your cable works. But they file legislation to screw the other guy, then they hire a guy like me to come in and help do it. There are hundreds and hundreds of millions of dollars at stake.”

The Shark Tank

The mystical performance space. A place for good cellular reception, this glassed-in courtyard in the basement extension is the stage where lobbyists wander and wave their cigarettes while talking on their phones, like characters in a Pirandello play. A must-see.

Bill Miller
Lobbyist, sorta (nobody really knows what he does)

“The bread and butter of the business is a big client base that is happy, that pays us well, and that people here are pleased to work with. I have a bill that got amended, and I’ve got to go see the author because he amended it. You know, it’s complicated. I go see the guy and say, ‘You know, we gotta kill it. If it is going to be fixed, we can be for it.’” “So what you do is untangle things?” I asked him. “Or tangle things.”

Ultimately the Capitol is about influence. It comes from many directions, sometimes from within, sometimes from without.

Sen. Chuy Hinojosa
Democrat, McAllen

“With voter ID Republicans are trying to suppress the vote to stay in power. The pendulum is swinging to the middle, but they are trying to hold it back. They’re going to pay a price at some point. The best example I can give you is that a lot of the Hispanics who supported Bush and the Republican party feel unwelcome there because their actions speak louder than their words. Here they file this legislation—tinges of racism, if you will—that is not in the best interests of Hispanics. Sometimes I joke with them. I say, ‘You want us to assimilate. What else do you want me to do? I’m a U.S. Marine Corps Vietnam veteran. I wear cowboy boots. I got a cowboy belt. I got a hat. I carry a concealed handgun. Y’know? How much more Texas do you want me to be? I’m a redneck Hispanic.’ I convince my colleagues from West Texas, the Panhandle, that we South Texas Hispanics are no different than they are. We come from good families. We want good homes. We want good jobs, good schools. We want criminals behind bars. We like cold beer, good music, and loose women. And you know, we high-five and they give me their vote.”

Rep. Patrick Rose
Democrat, Dripping Springs

“I believe there is a decreased lack of faith and trust in both political parties. Voters who have voted straight-party tickets, largely Republican, will begin to be more independent in their decision making. That does not necessarily mean the Democratic party will fill that void. I think independents have equal distrust for both parties right now. I do think there are opportunities for moderates on this House floor. It is important that moderates run this place. You’d see fairness, balance, a progressive government that brings people together and forms consensus.”

Diana Estrada
Protester at the May 1 immigration demonstration

“We’re trying to get some rights because we have been so discriminated against here. There are many people like me who are working. All I do is work, work. I help the USA to grow. We help you guys, and we don’t deserve to get so discriminated against. Like, if I need to go to the doctor, I don’t have the right to go. I like this country. I go for UT in sports. Those are my teams. Football and basketball. I root for those teams.”

Anne McAfee
Anti-war protester

“It’s a building that I love. I’ve loved it all my life. I’ve been here for seventy-six years plus. I’m a fifth-generation Austinite, so it’s a building I’ve been in and out of for years and years. It’s something I have great affection for. I consider it as a symbol for the whole state of Texas.”

Related Content