The House Is Not A Home

In which our hero, an intrepid freshman, manages to survive 140 days of lobbyists, parties, wheeling, dealing, Christians, Lions, whites, blacks, reds, greens, and other hazards of the Texas Legislature.

Update, May 22, 2013: “A lot has changed” in the Texas House in the 18 sessions since former state representative Chase Untermeyer penned a colorful journal of his first term in office for Texas Monthly in 1977. “Despite its meager reputation, the Legislature is a much more serious body than it used to be. And there are few, if any, characters of the sort that I tried to illustrate, some of the people who are good at wisecracks or had sort of eccentric personalities,” Untermeyer said. “That, for better or for worse, has changed.”  

Still, those familiar with the pink dome find that Untermeyer’s words still resonate. “I keep hearing, pretty much every other year, that there are people on legislative staffs who somehow have been given or found a copy of that article and read it and tell me about it, which is a great compliment,” Untermeyer said.

Untermeyer said the lessons he learned during his two terms in the Texas House applied to his future pursuits, as a senior staffer for President George H.W. Bush and, later, as the ambassador to Qatar. He is now an international business consultant in Houston.

“Having been a local vote getter, a person who rang doorbells and stood in front of polls passing out my card, put me in direct touch with citizens in a way that a lot of people that I came in contact with at those senior levels of American government never saw. They had much more gilded resumes—they may have worked for a Wall Street law firms or they’d been involved in great financial houses and they may have gone to graduate school and gotten many degrees—but they had never really met the people—the voters—the way I had,” Untermeyer said.

****************

November 3, 1976, 10 a.m.: A knock at the door. Still groggy from last night’s bittersweet election partying, I open it to find a messenger from the University of Houston with an invitation from the president of the Board of Regents to a dinner honoring the Speaker of the House, Bill Clayton, tonight. The invitation is addressed to the Honorable Me. What a difference a day makes: only a few hours ago I was a Republican candidate for the Legislature in a white-socks and silk-stocking district on Houston’s west side, and this morning I’m honorable. In the expansive good mood I have on this day of general GOP gloom, the state representative-elect from District 83 accepts with pleasure. So the lobbying starts this early. In the next several days I am also to receive a bronze paperweight bearing the Texas A&M seal and an application for free tickets to the remaining games in the University of Texas football season.

November 22: Today begins “freshman orientation” for the 38 newly elected members of the House at UT-Austin’s LBJ School of Public Affairs. In the shuffle from conference hall to seminar room to reception, I am pleased and somewhat relieved to find that the old stereotype of a state legislator—a boozing hayseed out to have a good ole boy’s good ole time in Austin—is nowhere in sight. Observers already are remarking how serious, dedicated, and knowledgeable we freshmen seem to be. Perhaps serving in the Texas Legislature won’t spread too bad a stain on the family reputation after all.

December 19: Back from a three-week trip to the East Coast, I find three paper sacks full of Christmas mail. There are warm and personal messages from university presidents whom I’ve never met and others from people I’ve never heard of at all. Later, in Austin, I learn they’re lobbyists. In addition, there are cards from organizations that anxiously await another time of Santa Clausery once the Legislature convenes. “When we count our blessings at Christmastime,” one reads, “we think of friends like you!” It was signed the Pasadena Police Officers Association. Another card says on the cover, “To faithful old friends, to cherished new friends, and to those whose friendship we hope to earn …” Flipping it open, I find it’s from the Texas Public Employees Association.

January 10, 1977: My last full day as a civilian. I walk from my room at the Stephen F. Austin Hotel and for the first time see my small but serviceable Capitol office. Surrounded by staff asking questions, visited by colleagues, lobbyists, and assorted other well-wishers, I have a premonition that for the next 140 days I shall never be completely alone.

January 11: The normally somnolent “Stephen F” has come alive overnight and is filled with old-timers greeting acquaintances from past legislative sessions.

“Why, looky here! Who you lobbyin’ for this session?”

“Beer ’stributors.”

“Boy, they sure are smart to hire you!”

“Well, I figger they didn’t get where they are by bein’ dumb.”

I am introduced to Tom Uher of Bay City. As chairman of the House State Affairs Committee, Tom plays the role of monster man during the session, sitting on bills that members (especially the Speaker) never want to see again.

“Another U!” he exclaims, pumping my hand. “Ain’t never been another U the whole time I been up here!” We agree on the spot to form the exclusive U Political Caucus.

The caucus never gets very far, but it is much more of a reality than a larger and presumably more political association with which I am affiliated, namely the Republican party. There are eighteen Republicans in the Texas House of 1977, up two from the previous session and the biggest GOP contingent since Reconstruction. But in the entirety of the 65 th session we are never to have a leader or even to caucus, save for an informal and poorly attended weekly gathering at state headquarters.

Bob Davis of Irving grabs me off the street and sweeps me back inside the hotel to have breakfast. Bob is probably the shrewdest Republican in the House, acclaimed for his knowledge of its rules. He is also one of the most valued members of Democratic Speaker Clayton’s “team”;

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