The Kay Place

For the past two decades, the Capitol in Washington, D.C., has been her home, but the first woman from Texas to be a U.S. senator will soon cast her final vote. We sat down with Kay Bailey Hutchison for a long conversation about her life, her politics, and why she finally decided to move on.
Photograph by Sarah Wilson

Kay Bailey Hutchison had already made a name for herself in Texas politics when she ran for state treasurer in 1990. A 1967 graduate of the University of Texas School of Law, she had worked as a reporter at KPRC, in Houston, covering the Legislature before becoming the first Republican woman to win a seat in the Texas House, in 1972. She later served as a vice chair for the National Transportation Safety Board; married Ray Hutchison, a former chairman of the state Republican party; and then lost a race for Congress, in 1982. She reentered private life as a Dallas businesswoman, purchasing a candy manufacturing facility. Politics, it seemed, was behind her.

The race for treasurer, a now-defunct position, changed the trajectory of her career. Ann Richards had decided to leave that post to run for governor, and Hutchison jumped at the open seat. The Republican wave was beginning to wash over Texas, and though Richards would come from behind to beat Clayton Williams, Hutchison would score a narrow victory in the general election, along with a former Democrat named Rick Perry, who upset Jim Hightower in the race for agriculture commissioner.

Three years later, another open seat would catapult her to national attention. This time legendary Democrat Lloyd Bentsen, who had served in the U.S. Senate since 1971, gave up his position to join the cabinet of President Bill Clinton. Hutchison threw her hat in the ring along with 23 other candidates. In the special election, she beat Bob Krueger, the leading Democrat, by 99 votes; in the runoff, she crushed him by more than 612,000 votes. In her three subsequent reelection bids, she would never garner less than 60 percent of the vote. But despite that record, one position eluded her: governor. She passed on races in 2002 and 2006 against Perry, then decided to run in 2010, only to lose handily to him in the primary. 

Now 69, she will end her Senate career at midnight on January 2, 2013, when the 112th Congress adjourns. After nearly twenty years in office, she has seen the wide arc of modern politics: when she arrived in Washington, D.C., the Clinton administration was trying to reform health care; as she departs office, that topic is once again a flash point. She witnessed the economic boom of the 1990’s and the economic crashes of the 2000’s. And she played an integral role in framing military policy after the devastating attacks on 9/11. Through it all, she maintained her reputation for decorum and restraint while fighting for funding for her home state. Now waiting for her back in Dallas are her husband and their eleven-year-old children, Bailey and Houston. But before she leaves office, she invited Texas Monthly to her home in the Bluffview neighborhood of Dallas to discuss her path to politics, her highs and lows in office, and what it really means to be a Republican. 

BRIAN D. SWEANY: Thank you for inviting me to your home, Senator Hutchison. As the father of two young children, I have to say that it’s comforting to be in a house with a toy bow-and-arrow set in the corner of the formal dining room. 

KAY BAILEY HUTCHISON: It is impossible, as you know, to have a house that’s presentable when you’ve got kids. You simply can’t do it. 

BDS: In 2007 you told Texas Monthly that you would not be running for reelection this year, regardless of what happened in the governor’s race in 2010. You’ve said that you want to come back home to Dallas, cheer on the sidelines at soccer games, and attend parent-teacher conferences at school. I’m assuming that right now that life is very much on your mind as you begin to make the transition from Washington to Texas.

KBH: Certainly part of my decision process was that I wanted to raise my children in Texas. At their age, commuting is just not a good thing for them. So while I intend to continue to have a professional career, I am going to be doing it from here and on my own schedule with my own priorities, rather than not knowing on Thursday morning whether I am going to get home Thursday night or Friday. Those are the kinds of issues that you have to address when you have two eleven-year-olds. 

BDS: Let’s talk a little bit about what you expect your life and your family’s life to look like come January 3.

KBH: Definitely I will still have a professional life. I love having interesting things to do; I love having a purpose. I am still going to be goal oriented, so I’m hoping to have a career using the knowledge that I have. I’ve been approached by law firms, not to lobby, which I would not do, but to consult, which I would. And I am going to be speaking. I’ve talked to some speakers’ bureaus, and I think I have a lot to share. I’m looking forward to that. And then I’ll just see what comes.

BDS: So you obviously have a lot of opportunities, but you haven’t finalized your plans yet?

KBH: Right, it’s a little early to pin things down. But starting this fall, I am going to begin to winnow down what I would like to do. I want to set my professional career in place first and then decide what outside things I would like to do. For instance, I have a chair in Latin American law at the UT School of Law that is named for me, and I want to build on that. I want to have more opportunities for people to come to the law school and know that this is the place for anyone who wants to study Latin American law. I also hope to start a think tank, probably based in Washington, and I’ve been very active in the area of national defense and the military, so hopefully there will be something along those lines that I

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