The Best and Worst Legislators 2009

that are put out there by right-wing extremists.”

Ruth Jones McClendon, Democrat, San Antonio
For helping to persuade homebuilders to let the Texas Residential Construction Commission die.

Mark Strama, Democrat, Austin
For being as interested in other members’ successes as his own.

Michael Villarreal, Democrat, San Antonio
For advocating increased funding for the Texas Grants scholarship program.

Bull of the Brazos

Senator Judith Zaffirini 63, Democrat, Laredo
Two things are certain each time the Legislature convenes: She’ll accomplish miracles, and she’ll get on the last raw nerve of everyone in the Capitol. No one works harder. No one is more organized. No one is more relentless. Her list of credits this session includes provisions for prekindergarten, controls over college tuition, and assistance for universities attempting to achieve national recognition through faculty and student recruitment. Unfortunately, to achieve her goals, she conducts toxic psychological warfare on her colleagues, treats her staff like indentured servants, and resists sharing credit.

Therefore, we bestow upon her our Bull of the Brazos Award, which recognizes that the categories of Best and Worst don’t quite cover some of the outsized personalities occupying the Legislature. As we first wrote back in 1973 of the inaugural recipient, larger-than-life Bryan lawmaker Bill Moore: “Sometimes the line between a scoundrel and a statesman can be hammered too thin to recognize.”

Leadership

Speaker Joe Straus
He had eleven days to prepare to lead a House almost evenly divided. He struggled for weeks over how to appoint members he hardly knew to committees whose jurisdiction he hardly understood, and the resulting delay bollixed the timetable for the entire session. But he was elected to let the body work its will, in the hope that bipartisanship and independence would flourish anew and the memory of the failed Craddick speakership would fade away. He followed the game plan. He never lost his cool, never issued an order, never took a policy position, and never imposed his will—not even when the divisive voter ID bill hit the House floor and the Democrats launched their delay-of-game strategy. With the end-of-session deadline fast approaching and bills expiring with each ticktock, this was the moment when the trains really needed to run on time. Craddick would have acted as stationmaster. Straus let the clock run out, and few members seemed to mind. It’s a strange kind of leadership, but it appears to be what the House wants: He has enough pledges to be reelected Speaker in 2011.

Rookie of the Year

Senator Wendy Davis
46, Democrat, Fort Worth
A former Fort Worth city councilwoman and Harvard-educated attorney, she tackled substantive subjects like oil and gas drilling, electric utility regulation, and consumer debt in her debut session. That old rule that freshmen are supposed to stay quiet? She proved it can be ignored if you’re smart, tough, and well prepared.

WORST LEGISLATORS

Dishonorable Mention

Carl Isett, Republican, Lubbock
Sometimes legislators can find themselves in water that’s over their heads. Isett fell into the Marianas Trench. He totally botched his job as chairman of the sunset process that scrutinizes state agencies, allowing time to expire with a safety-net bill awaiting action as he dithered over whether to answer questions about it or move for passage; as a result, the session ended in chaos, with the existence of the Texas Department of Transportation, the Texas Department of Insurance, and several other agencies in doubt. He embarrassed not only himself but the entire Legislature.

Betty Brown, Republican, Terrell
For remarking that voters of Asian descent should adopt names that are “easier for Americans to deal with.”

Norma Chávez, Democrat, El Paso
For her petty session-long text-messaging feud with fellow El Pasoan Marisa Marquez over an ethics bill. (“U R on the Dishonorable Mention List!!!”)

David Leibowitz, Democrat, San Antonio
For undermining TxDOT reform efforts with a silly proposal for elected highway commissioners.

Tommy Merritt, Republican, Longview
For having the DPS station a helicopter in his hometown at a cost of $600,000.

Leadership

Lieutenant Governor David Dewhurst
When press accounts remarked on his absence from the podium during most Senate sessions, he promptly took command of the gavel. And the machinery of government promptly began to sputter, as he carried on multiple conversations and otherwise proved too preoccupied for the task of passing bills. “Thanks a lot,” exasperated senators groused to reporters. Dewhurst was engaged this session—but not with the Legislature. His impending marriage, as well as his possible U.S. Senate race, made him as distracted and unpredictable as a third-grader in desperate need of Ritalin. While he can rightly claim success for his role in finding a windstorm insurance solution and a health care initiative, his leadership and communications weaknesses were on stark display. A prime example occurred during the final weekend, when, standing at the podium, he scolded the House for its work schedule, interrupting himself at one point to take a cell phone call from Straus. A Camp David moment it was not.

Governor Rick Perry
Nothing better sums up his performance this session than his itinerary for Thursday May 28. With deadlines bearing down on a fractious Legislature, much of the people’s work still unresolved, he left Austin to attend a fundraiser in Houston for Congressman Michael McCaul, where he presented talk show host Rush Limbaugh with an Honorary Texan Award. From his State of the State address to his secession silliness to sine die, Perry preened for the hard-core Republican base. As for the dirty work at the Capitol, he kept his hands clean. He threatened vetoes or surreptitiously dispatched allies in the House and Senate to kill bills to save him the trouble. His major accomplishment was finding ways to postpone tough decisions—transportation funding, for example—until after the 2010 election.

Schnookie of the Year

Roland Gutierrez
38, Democrat, San Antonio
Maybe it’s okay to talk . . . and talk . . . and talk as a freshman on the San Antonio City Council, but it’s not okay in the Texas Legislature, especially if you make repeated

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