Big Red

Is John Cornyn too conservative to get reelected to the U.S. Senate—or just conservative enough?

tough but his tone was unperturbed. Nowhere did I see him get wound up emotionally or cheerlead for Republicans or attack Democrats. (It was too early for that sort of thing, a Cornyn staffer told me. The election was still fifteen months away.) On this day he stuck close to military topics. He talked about how a story in the Washington Post about injured veterans “living in horrible conditions” had led to the passage of the Dignified Treatment of Wounded Warriors Act. “It passed unanimously,” Cornyn said, calling it “a bright spot of bipartisan spirit.” This was one of four times when he would invoke bipartisanship. “I hope we can lay aside our partisan and other political differences,” he later said. I wondered if this was genuine or if, as I suspect, Cornyn had seen polling, or sensed intuitively, that partisanship was not playing well those days, even in Texas and even before a sympathetic audience.

After his remarks, Cornyn took questions. The first one was “What has the current government in Iraq done to merit our confidence and get our support?” I wondered whether Cornyn was as surprised by the query as I was. If people in this audience were unsure about our mission over there, then who wasn’t? (Well, Cornyn, for one.) His answer was that the Iraqis “are not stepping up as we wish they would … but in the long run, the consequences of a failed state are too horrible to contemplate. Iran would have a free hand in the region. Syria would intervene to protect the Sunnis. I don’t see an easy solution.”

The next questioner asked why the families of 9/11 victims got $2 million while the families of dead soldiers receive $20,000 in life insurance—another indication of dissatisfaction. Someone in the audience said that the insurance payout was much higher—it is—and Cornyn said he would look into it. Other questions addressed illegal immigration—Cornyn responded in considerable detail about proposals he had offered—and the lack of health insurance for children. If this had been a focus group that was asked the classic political pollster’s question about whether the country is on the right track or the wrong track, it appeared to me that even this group of highly patriotic Americans would fall in the “wrong track” camp.

The last question was about the atmosphere in Washington: Is it a mean town? Have you made friends? Cornyn cited Harry Truman’s famous quip: “If you want a friend in Washington, get a dog.” Then he added, in a tone that was almost wistful, “Political adversaries should not be personal enemies. I’m not looking forward to the things my adversaries are going to say about me.”

He has come a long way for somebody who started his political career in the wrong party, the wrong town, and the wrong office (Republican, San Antonio, state district judge). And, I should add, the wrong law school (St. Mary’s). On occasion, Cornyn reveals a suppressed resentment at colleagues and critics from elite institutions; when he was enlisted in the hopeless cause of trying to sell Harriet Miers’ Supreme Court nomination, he lashed out at “East Coast elitism,” which he described to an Austin American-Statesman reporter as “people looking down their noses at folks here in Texas and not giving people like Harriet Miers credit for incredible accomplishments.” Part of Cornyn’s antipathy toward the Supreme Court, which he also expressed to the Statesman reporter, is that it is dominated by the “Eastern seaboard legal elite.”

Cornyn was a medical malpractice defense attorney in the late seventies and early eighties, frustrated by “the good-old-boy system at the Bexar County courthouse,” when a Republican-led judicial reform committee was looking for candidates. A longtime local GOP warhorse, Douglas Harlan, suggested he run for district judge, and he won the race. By the late eighties, a similar movement had targeted Democrats on the Texas Supreme Court who tilted toward plaintiff’s lawyers, and Cornyn ran for an open seat. When I asked if Rove had recruited him, Cornyn bristled as much as I’d ever seen. “I contacted him,” he said. “He said he was getting on an airplane but would draft a letter on my behalf. I never heard from him again.”

Cornyn joined the court in 1991, just as it was wrestling with the school finance issue. His most important contribution proved to be a January 1995 opinion upholding the constitutionality of the Robin Hood school finance law, resolving a thorny six-year legal battle over the meaning of “equitable” public education funding. Cornyn held that Robin Hood met the state standard of establishing an efficient school system—no easy decision for an aspiring Republican politician, since it validated a law that required property-rich school districts (including affluent suburbs chock-full of Republican voters) to share their local tax revenue with poorer districts. Influential Republicans in Dallas—and in particular, Highland Park, one of the wealthiest school districts in Texas—hated the ruling. “They were really mad,” Cornyn recalled. “So was the Dallas Morning News.” He called Tom Luce, formerly Ross Perot’s attorney and a strong advocate for public schools, to ask what he should do. “Tom told me, ‘Go see them and let them vent.’ It was the best political advice I’ve ever had.”

Aside from the school districts that profited from Robin Hood, the major beneficiary of Cornyn’s decision was the state’s new governor, George W. Bush. The court’s threat to close the schools if its finance directives were not obeyed had been a continuing crisis for his predecessor, Ann Richards, and would be a continuing crisis for his successor, Rick Perry, but Cornyn spared Bush the same ordeal. If he had ruled differently, Bush might have been forced to resort to an unpopular solution—say, raising taxes—and he might not have been positioned to run for national office. Instead, Cornyn became a Bushie: “Corndog,” as the future president would nickname his reliable ally.

He won reelection to the court in 1996—with Rove as his consultant this time—but he would not serve out his second


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