The Best and Worst Legislators 2009

The Eighty-First Legislature was like Seinfeld: a show about nothing. It was dominated by an event that was a year away, the looming 2010 Republican gubernatorial primary battle between Rick Perry and Kay Bailey Hutchison, and by issues that were political rather than substantive, none more so than the session-long battle over voter ID. And it achieved nothing, other than an endless succession of dying bills, forlorn hopes, and bitter recriminations in the closing days.

The major event of the session was a sea change in the leadership, as Joe Straus replaced Tom Craddick as Speaker. This upgrade brought about an instant change in the culture of the House, and for most of the session the lower chamber functioned in a bipartisan manner that was reminiscent of the Pete Laney era. Straus was so immersed in learning his new job that he did not really work closely with the other members of the leadership troika, Governor Perry and Lieutenant Governor David Dewhurst. But it is clear that he is not their kind of Republican, and vice versa. That difference will become evident soon enough.

Of the few success stories, the most notable was the 2010—2011 state budget, which was rescued from red ink by the timely arrival of federal stimulus dollars. Budget negotiators juggled the welcome largesse to provide much-needed funding for public schools (including start-up money for prekindergarten), health care, and highways. But the good news is destined to be short-lived, because—spoiler alert!—a combination of spending needs, tax cuts, and revenue shortfalls have created a structural deficit in future years that even an economic rebound may not be sufficient to overcome.

And so another session is on the books. This legislative wrap-up marks the nineteenth time, beginning with the Sixty-Third Legislature, in 1973, that we have compiled our list of the Best and Worst lawmakers. Our criteria are those that members apply to one another: Who is trustworthy? Who gets things done? Who brings credit upon the Legislature and who brings shame? Who does his homework? Who looks for ways to solve problems and who looks for ways to create them? Who is hamstrung by ideology and partisanship and who can rise above them? Politics is not just about conservatives and liberals and Republicans and Democrats. It is and always will be about personality and relationships and comportment—not that there’s anything wrong with that.

Best Legislators

Senator John Carona
53, Republican, Dallas

Senator Robert Duncan
55, Republican, Lubbock

Craig Eiland
47, Democrat, Galveston

Rob Eissler
58, Republican, The Woodlands

Brian McCall
50, Republican, Plano

John Otto
60, Republican, Dayton

Jim Pitts
62, Republican, Waxahachie

Senfronia Thompson
70, Democrat, Houston

Senator Kirk Watson
51, Democrat, Austin

John Zerwas
54, Republican, Richmond

Senator John Carona

Say “Carona” around the state capitol and people immediately think of Mexican beer, but not the brand you’d assume. This session, Carona was the Most Interesting Man in the World, just like the debonair star of the Dos Equis commercials.

Cue the sexy guitar solo:

His reputation is expanding faster than the universe …

When his fellow Republicans advocated changing Senate rules to permit passage of the voter ID bill with a simple majority rather than the two thirds required of every other bill, Carona foresaw partisan furor. He voted no, even though he supported voter ID. Changing the rules to win? Not his style.

He once had an awkward moment, just to see how it feels …

Despite vociferous opposition from antitax ideologues, Carona sponsored a bill giving local governments authority to raise taxes for transportation projects. When Perry and Dewhurst threatened to kill it, Carona marched the lieutenant governor to the governor’s office for a confrontation. He prevailed in the Senate but ultimately lost in a last-minute power play. In defeat, he was both defiant and resolute, chastising both the governor and lieutenant governor for failing to address transportation funding needs.

He lives vicariously, through himself …

At one point, the Senate appeared poised to reject an amendment for more funding for supervision of foster children until Carona pronounced it a good idea. On went the amendment. As chairman of the Transportation Committee, Carona was collaborative but brooked no nonsense. When an irate witness threatened committee members, he promptly had him removed.

After his local tax option failed, Carona vowed to return next session “tougher and smarter.” To which we say, “ Salud.”

Senator Robert Duncan

He’s a walking, breathing argument against term limits. A member of the Legislature since 1996, Duncan brings his accumulated knowledge and wisdom to bear on a colossal agenda of real consequence. This session, there was hardly an issue—the budget, eminent domain, health care reform, college tuition—that wasn’t improved by his intellectual rigor and deft touch as a mediator.

Some lawmakers become hardened after too many years in office; Duncan has become more independent. He broke rank with advocates of tort reform, his old allies, because he believed recent court decisions misinterpreted laws involving the injured and the ill. And he should know: He wrote them. Drawing from a deep well of respect, he persuaded his Senate colleagues to make concessions for workers afflicted with mesothelioma, an asbestos-related illness. The normally invincible tort reform lobby beat a hasty retreat to the House to kill the bill there.

A perennial lament in the Legislature is the dearth of nationally recognized research universities in Texas. Duncan crafted an ingenious road map for emerging schools to win additional funding by meeting elevated scholarly criteria. While critics griped that the criteria were skewed in favor of his alma mater and hometown university, Texas Tech, he firmly opposed efforts to water down the bill.

Duncan’s low boiling point served him—and the Senate—well when he presided over the contentious hearing on the voter ID bill, gently admonishing lawmakers when they began speaking past one another. Having spent so many years in the Senate, he has a stake in preserving the dignity of the institution.

Craig Eiland

In a normal session, he would have

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