The Best and Worst Legislators 2007

This e-mail exchange is between senior executive editor Paul Burka and writer-at-large Patricia Kilday Hart.
Illustration by Steve Brodner

Wednesday, May 16, 2:33 p.m.

Patti,

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.

Paul

Thursday, May 17, 12:06 p.m.

Paul,

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.

Patti

Friday, May 18, 1:43 p.m.

Patti,

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

Tags: POLITICS

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