IN EARLY AUGUST the state’s elite lobbyists gathered at the elegant Austin Club to plan a fundraiser honoring Lieutenant Governor Rick Perry. State senator Ken Armbrister (Democrat, Victoria), flanked by senators David Sibley (Republican, Waco) and Bill Ratliff (Republican, Mount Pleasant), rose to address the assembled representatives of Big Money—and promptly stuck his foot in his mouth.

George W. Bush’s bid for the presidency could catapult Perry into the Governor’s Mansion, Armbrister began. But, he continued, one thing is certain: Today, you know you are here with the next lieutenant governor of Texas. Barely stifled laughter immediately rippled through the politically sophisticated group, prompting Ratliff and Sibley to turn bright shades of red. Armbrister had unintentionally spotlighted the behind-the-scenes jockeying to succeed Perry taking place within the 31-member Senate. He, Ratliff, and Sibley are among the most likely members to become the body’s next presiding officer if Bush wins, Perry ascends, and the office of Lite Guv, as it is affectionately known, comes open. “It was one of those things where, as soon as it comes out of your mouth, you think, ‘I’d better say something else quick,’” Armbrister told me later. “I said, ‘Don’t read anything into that last statement.’”

In a curious turn of events, presidential politics has touched off an internecine competition to determine who will take over a state office that is not now vacant and may never be. Just as curious, while Texas’ lieutenant governors usually are chosen by voters, the next person to assume the post could be selected by Senate members in a procedure that one legislator likens to a “sixth-grade election for class president.” At stake is one of the most powerful legislative positions in all fifty states. The Lite Guv controls the Senate agenda, determines committee membership and appoints the chairmen, and decides which committees vote on which bills. In short, the lieutenant governor has the ability to determine whether a bill lives or dies. Added to that roster of responsibilities in 2001 will be the issue central to every politician’s being: redistricting, in which the Legislature carves up the state into political districts that shape the outcome of elections for the next decade.

Under the terms of the Texas Constitution, senators must elect one of their own to assume the duties and responsibilities of lieutenant governor within thirty days of a vacancy in the office. In this case the vacancy would occur only when Bush resigns as governor following his election as president November 7, 2000. At that moment, Perry would automatically assume the governorship, opening the way for the selection of a new number two. The last Lite Guv vacancy occurred in 1961, when Ben Ramsey resigned to become railroad commissioner and Culp Krueger, then the president pro tem of the Senate, automatically assumed Ramsey’s seat. The Legislature changed that procedure in 1984 to require a vote by Senate members.

The specter of a vacancy has prompted a flurry of polite letters, phone calls, and personal visits in an effort to position the Senate’s leading candidates. And, much as in the sixth grade, a lot of notes are being passed in the hall. Ratliff, the chairman of the powerful Senate Finance committee, fired the opening salvo in the campaign by promising, well, not to campaign. He would, he said in a letter to his colleagues, “not be a party to any ‘Speaker’s race pledge drive,’” an allusion to the brawling method used by the Texas House to select a presiding officer. A campaign is unnecessary, Ratliff reasoned, because “the thirty-one [members] of the Senate are intimately knowledgeable of each other’s strengths and weaknesses.” But, he added, “should the occasion arise in which the Senate would be faced with making such a selection, I would consider it the highest compliment that members of the Senate might select me as their choice for this position. Further, should I be selected by the Senate, I would very much like to serve…”

Ratliff’s letter was followed by a missive from Senate Education Chairman Teel Bivins (Republican, Amarillo) stating that he also would not campaign for the office that he also would like to hold. Sibley, the Economic Development Committee chairman, then sent a letter saying that he would like to be lieutenant governor and would campaign because he thinks the Senate would not be prepared for the next session if it waits until the last minute to select a presiding officer. Not to be outdone, J. E. “Buster” Brown (Republican, Lake Jackson), the chairman of the Senate Republican Caucus, urged members to remain uncommitted until Perry actually resigns—and let them know that he too wants the job.

Sibley’s self-promotion, in particular, caused a mini-controversy. As Brown puts it, “Where I come from, you don’t try on a man’s suit before his body is in the coffin.” Translation: Sibley’s letter was a slap at Perry, insinuating that his leadership during the interim would be inadequate to prepare the Senate for the next session. But Sibley reasons that Bush’s strong standing as a presidential candidate suggests the Senate should begin planning for the inevitable. “I still think it’s likely that Bush will win the presidency,” he says. “It’s important to start thinking about this possibility.” To that end, Sibley has hired Tony Proffitt, a longtime aide to the late lieutenant governor Bob Bullock, to assist his candidacy.

Since the end of the legislative session, Sibley has met personally with his fellow members to define his priorities (transportation, infrastructure) and explain how he would run the Senate. For instance, he favors loosening the viselike grip the Lite Guv holds on legislation by returning certain powers to the full Senate membership. “I think the Senate should run the Senate,” he said. In recent years Sibley has played a key role in deciding some of the Legislature’s most important issues: telecommunications, electric deregulation, tort reform, and the regulation of health maintenance organizations. Respected by lobbyists and lawmakers alike, he’s the member of the Senate closest to Bush. But his candor about his ambition could backfire. Senate members resent the prominent role given to Sibley during the Bullock era, and they are generally suspicious of colleagues who have received lots of positive press, as Sibley has.

Here’s the lineup of the other candidates in the non-campaign:

Ratliff: In the words of one senator, the Finance Committee chair had a $98 billion war chest—the state budget—at his disposal to campaign with last session. And he put it to good use: If, for instance, your district received funding for a new university, you might feel compelled to support your benefactor. Ratliff’s only handicap is that he dislikes the down-and-dirty side of politics and thus isn’t likely to run for reelection when the office comes up again, in 2002.

Bivins: Considered a longshot by most observers unless the GOP caucus agrees to back one candidate; with so many Republicans vying for the spot, it’s conceivable that he would emerge with the most votes. At 51, he’s younger than some of the other candidates and willing to run the grueling statewide campaign necessary to seek reelection.

Brown: A Senate member since 1981, he has the trust of Democrats and Republicans alike. Easygoing, with a reputation for fairness and the ability to cut deals, he could be the consensus candidate of both parties. Though he is well liked, his history of carrying the business lobby’s water will cost him points with certain Senate members.

Armbrister: The Democratic version of Brown. A master of the legislative process and trusted by members of both parties, he also could put together a bipartisan coalition to win the race. But, many Democrats believe Armbrister is too friendly with Republicans, which may harm his candidacy.

Another interesting issue on the table: Which Senate will get to fill the vacancy? The timing of Bush’s resignation would determine whether a new or the old Senate would choose the Lite Guv. If Bush does not step down until his inauguration, in January of 2001, a newly elected Senate would vote. If he resigns immediately upon his election, the current Senate—whose members serve until the end of the year—would make the selection.

If the Republicans lose their slender majority in the next election, it’s unlikely Bush would time his departure to favor a new Senate, but Lite Guv hopefuls are covering all the bases. Representative Leticia Van de Putte (Democrat, San Antonio), a probable candidate for a Senate seat if ailing incumbent Greg Luna retires, has received many friendly phone calls from Republicans and Democrats alike. “I can’t tell you definitely that they’re courting me because I’ve never been in this position before, and neither have they,” says Van de Putte, who—as a veteran of the Texas House—is unaccustomed to gentle treatment. “I’ve been through Speaker’s races, which have extremely intense lobbying. This has a different quality. It’s so cordial.”

Indeed, in a Speaker’s race, House members are pressured to sign “pledge cards” swearing allegiance to a candidate. Members who sign up early with the winner are generously rewarded with prestigious committee chairmanships. The losers and their allies are banished from meaningful participation in the legislative process. In the smaller Senate, however, long-lasting enmity is unlikely. Most of the leading candidates are genuinely good friends. Ratliff and Sibley, for instance, are regular golfing buddies. “I don’t have a closer friend in the Senate,” Sibley says of Ratliff.

For now, anyway.