The Ten Best and The Ten Worst Legislators

Nineteen people you voted for and one you didn’t.

What went wrong with the 67 th Legislature?

Why, at sundown on the final night of the session—usually a time of frenetic last-minute bill passing—were members wandering aimlessly about the House and Senate chambers? Why did the session’s four most important issues—congressional redistricting, water planning, college construction, and property tax reform—come hopelessly unglued that last day? Why did the session fail?

The answer, curiously, is that it didn’t. The unresolved business will be taken care of in July and August, and what difference, really, does two months make? The truth is, this was one of the smoothest—and most productive—sessions in years.

Indeed, it is hard to remember such a something-for-everyone session. The Legislature raised the interest ceiling, but it also raised the welfare ceiling. It declared war on drugs, but it also okayed the sale of low-cost generic drugs. It did knuckle under to the governor on wiretapping (among other things), but it at least made that odious law more palatable by setting a 1985 expiration date.

The reason that all these bills passed while the big issues bogged down is simple. Although there is occasional squabbling between liberals and conservatives, city and country folk, and Republicans and Democrats, Texas is enjoying an era of good feeling, caused mainly by the state’s robust economic health. A rising tide lifts all boats; all the diverse factions are caught up in the larger consensus that things are basically okay as they are. And any proposal that threatens the existing order—say, an earmarking of the state surplus for water projects—makes people nervous.

Unfortunately for those who like their politics steeped in conflict, the current atmosphere in the statehouse is more redolent of study, hard work, and—can it be?—agreement. Almost every piece of major legislation that passed was the product of a behind-the-scenes agreement: interest rates were passed by a coalition of banks, auto dealers, and retailers; products liability was hammered out between trial lawyers and their victims at Speaker Billy Clayton’s insistence; and generic drugs passed because this time the Texas Medical Association agreed to let it.

In fact, the only contentious voice was the governor’s. Unlike last session, Clements got just about everything he wanted. But like last session, he showed no real leadership on issues outside his personal agenda. (Fighting crime is fine, but it hardly constitutes a vision for Texas’ future.) Meanwhile, the Senate descended into near-terminal gentility with the departure of feisty veterans Bill Moore, Babe Schwartz, and Tom Creighton. Minus that trio, it became more than ever a reflection of its presiding officer, and to say that Bill Hobby is low-key is like saying Eddie Chiles is slightly upset. Hobby was content, like Clements, to focus on a few items—albeit weightier ones like education and finance. He was no match for the governor when they clashed over tough issues like wiretapping. And as for the House under Clayton…well, more on that later.

As always, our criteria in selecting the Ten Best and the Ten Worst did not include political philosophy—which is less and less important in a consensus state—but did place a premium on technical skill. A good legislator understands power and uses it skillfully but without malice, he sees the big picture, and he has unassailable integrity. The qualities that define a bad legislator are more elusive. We have always held that stupidity may be forgiven so long as it is not accompanied by aggressiveness; the very worst legislators are those who have power and misuse it.

To determine the Best and Worst, we talked to almost two hundred people, including legislators, Capitol press, legislative aides, lobbyists, and state agency scouts. The final list represents a consensus of the votes of the Capitol community, tempered by our own observations.

In addition to the legislators who reached the pinnacles and the depths, a few deserve honorable mention. In the Senate, the absence of Moore, Schwartz, and Creighton let senators shine who had been overshadowed in the past; three were John Traeger of Seguin (a workhorse who passed more than sixty bills), Peyton McKnight of Tyler (the heir to Moore’s Senate tough-guy title), and Carl Parker of Port Arthur (who plays the clown but is nobody’s fool). In the House, Gerald Hill of Austin was a superb chairman of the Elections Committee and a force in redistricting. Tim Von Dohlen of Goliad preformed a nearly impossible feat: he drew up and passed a House redistricting plan that got over 120 votes. Bennie Bock of New Braunfels and Stan Schlueter of Salado did yeoman’s service on the nuclear waste and redfish bills, respectively.

Both the Best and the Worst lists underwent tremendous turnover in the last two years. Among the white hats, only Ron Coleman, Lloyd Doggett, Bob McFarland, and Craig Washington repeated. John Bryant and Bob Davis had to be content with special awards. Grant Jones lost his place when the Senate Finance Committee fell apart around him. Nub Donaldson quit to become a lobbyist, and Lance Lalor left—why would anyone do a thing like this?—to become a Houston city councilman. Babe Schwartz lost his race for reelection.

The black hats did not have a single repeater. Bill Hollowell of Grand Saline just couldn’t match last session’s performance for rural demagoguery on the Appropriations Committee. And though Senator Bill Meier of Euless looked like a real comer with his sneak attack on money market funds (the session’s single dirtiest trick), he just didn’t carry enough other lobby trash to make the list. Of the rest, two had the good grace to retire, and one had the bad fortune to get beaten, but most just had the excellent sense to keep quiet. Thank heaven for small favors.

THE TEN BEST

Billy Clayton, 52, conservative Democrat, Springlake. So outstanding in his fourth term as Speaker that he caused us to set aside the tradition that presiding officers are ineligible for the Best and Worst lists. It wasn’t just that he ran the House evenhandedly, or that he sponsored some of the most significant legislation to pass the House in

More Texas Monthly

Loading, please wait...

Most Read

  • Viewed
  • Past:
  • 1 week