In the summer of 1997, a package addressed to me arrived at the Texas Monthly office a few days after the publication of the biennial selection of the “The Best and the Worst Legislators,” a project that I have been involved with since 1975. Inside were four bags of coffee beans, nicely arranged—but no card. The package had come from Laredo. Who did I know in Laredo? Well, there was state senator Judith Zaffirini, who had just appeared on the Best list. Still, I doubted that she would have sent me a gift. The profile of Zaffirini that my colleague, Patricia Kilday Hart, and I had produced, in addition to citing Zaffirini’s considerable accomplishments, had attributed her success in part to her intense and sometimes grating style that made her fellow senators be inclined to let her have her way rather than have to deal with her. Their attitude toward Zaffirini, we wrote, “can best be summed up by Winston Churchill’s famous retort to Nancy Astor, the first female member of Parliament, who had fumed that if she were married to him she’d poison his coffee: If I were married to you,’ said Churchill, I would drink it.'” I lifted one of the bags of beans from the box. The label identifying the flavor read, “Lady Astor’s House Blend.”
Did I drink it? I’ll never tell. But I would like to tell a little of the lore behind the Ten Best and Ten Worst story, the latest edition of which begins on page 76. I did not participate in the researching or writing of the original Best and Worst article in 1973 (except to be interviewed as a Senate staffer), but I have been involved in the fourteen that followed. During that time, the story has changed, the Legislature has changed, and I suppose, I have changed. But the premise of the story has remained constant: that personality, rather than ideology or raw intelligence, is the principal determinant of individual success or failure in a legislative body.
A legislature is a wonderful laboratory of human behavior under intense pressure and constant scrutiny. One hundred and eighty one people come to Austin, all of them prominent in their communities back home, and sort themselves out into the bold and the timid, the upright and the corrupt, the generous and the petty, the sharp and the dull, the cooperative and the confrontational. You can read in the newspapers that Senator Smith spoke for a bill and Senator Jones spoke against it, but you can’t read about the relative weight assigned to their words by their peers. This is the gap that the article attempts to fill: Senator Smith sways votes, while Senator Jones is a tiresome windbag. Just as everybody at a high school knows who are the best and worst teachers, everybody at the Capitol knows who are the best and worst legislators: whose word can be trusted and whose can’t, who understands the bills and who doesn’t, who succeeds and who screws up. The list would exist in the minds of those who ply their trades at the Capitol even if Texas Monthly did not write about the Legislature at all. We simply pull the list out of the ether and convert it into the written word.
I tried to explain our role back in 1985 to a freshman legislator who came over to me while I was taking notes on the House floor. Without introducing himself, he growled at me, “Do you enjoy being an assassin?” I knew he was referring to picking the Worst list. “Those aren’t homicides,” I explained. “Those are suicides in front of witnesses. I just record them.” We have been friends ever since.
Although the premise of the story hasn’t changed, our methodology has. The first article in 1973 was based primarily on interviews conducted with a handful of legislators and staff members. It didn’t reflect a lot of first-hand observation of the Legislature at work. As a result, the list measured long-established reputation rather than performance in that particular session. The article was a stunning success—it was the first must-read piece to appear in the fledgling magazine—but it was a hard act to follow. When Griffin Smith, jr., the principal author of the first Best and Worst story, and I started to work on the 1975 version, we realized that if reputation alone were the standard, the list would see little change from session to session. Reputations seldom change, but performance varies. So we decided to base the list on deeds performed in the current session, good and bad. Over the years, this choice has produced a surprising outcome: lawmakers have moved from the top ten to the bottom and vice versa. The first to make the upward climb was a House member known to all as “Supersnake”; skilled in the dark arts of parliamentary procedure, he put them to use for good causes instead of bad.
In the early years of the story, we made frequent use of anonymous quotes. (No one would talk for the record, of course.) Most of them came from lobbyists, who are particularly astute observers of the Legislature. So it was only natural that in characterizing a hapless Gulf Coast senator on the Worst list, we quoted an unnamed lobbyist who described him as a “real old-fashioned jerk.” Well, the senator may have been a jerk, but he was no dummy. He took out ads in his hometown newspaper that said something like, “Thank you, Texas Monthly, for saying that lobbyists don’t like Senator Doe. Senator Doe works for the people, not the lobby.” We haven’t cited a lobbyist since. (We just steal their best lines.)
Over the years we have come to rely less and less on interviews and more and more on what takes place in public. Patricia Kilday Hart and I are at the Capitol to follow floor debate almost every day during the crucial last two months of the session, and when we are not physically present, we are watching on Austin public access television. We hear all the rumors—who is shaking down the lobby for projects in his district, who is drinking too much—and our rule is, Personal misbehavior will keep you off the Best list but it will not put you on the Worst list unless it becomes public knowledge. Our presence in the halls does not pass unnoticed. For the first couple of sessions, our team of writers were “flies on the wall” who were unknown to the lawmakers, but that ceased to be the case years ago. Nor is our photographer anonymous. You can’t miss him: Bob Daemmrich has the longest, widest, meanest-looking lens I have ever seen, and I have seen lawmakers try to figure out who he is focusing on instead of listening to the debate. (He is under instructions to pick random victims every now and then, just to confound the rumor mill.)
This may be wishful—or, worse, self-delusional—thinking, but I suspect that the majority of lawmakers is glad that the story exists. It presents a noncynical picture of the Legislature, it chronicles good people doing good things, and it provides a scoreboard that sets out to be unbiased, unlike the economic and ideological pressure groups who grade lawmakers according to their votes. The best sign of the story’s acceptance is that from time to time a lawmaker will approach a writer to suggest that we look at a colleague who is doing a good job.
Not everyone likes the story, of course. Every version generates at least ten harsh critics. The most frequent rebuttal by members of the Worst list is that we are too liberal (or too conservative)—whatever is the opposite of their own philosophy. Republicans this year will undoubtedly complain that the Best list consisted of seven Democrats and three Republicans. Rather than bias, however, this imbalance reflects Democratic dominance of the House leadership. Most big bills are carried by Democrats who are among the chamber’s most effective members. The Worst list had seven Republicans and three Democrats, just the reverse of the Best list. There was no shortage of Democratic contenders for the Worst list, but the Republicans just tried harder.
Some folks around the Capitol claim that the presence of Texas Monthly writers changes behavior, that legislators audition for the Best list when our writers are around. I disagree. During a particularly heated debate over an important bill back in the eighties, then-speaker Gib Lewis sent me a note that read, “If you would leave for thirty minutes, I could get this bill passed.” I sent a note back: “I’ll give you an hour, and I bet you can’t do it.” He couldn’t. Lawmakers have been known to try to lobby themselves onto the Best list (“Just in case you were wondering what that bill I just passed accomplishes, here’s a memo,” a House member told me this session) and, occasionally, off the Worst list. (“I know you’ve got me in your sights,” a member said in April, “but let me tell you why I supported that bad ol’ amendment.” He had been trying for six years to pass a good bill, he said, and including a stinky amendment to help the Dallas Cowboys avoid a lawsuit got him the votes he needed to get it passed. Explanation accepted.)
The changes in the article from the beginning to the present have been mirrored by changes in the Legislature itself. The 1973 session followed the Sharpstown Scandal, which brought down the conservative Democrat power structure that had ruled the state on behalf of the business establishment for the previous three decades. It is clear in retrospect that 1973 marked the beginning of a new three-decade era of Texas politics, which has now run its course. It has been a time of bipartisan consensus during which legislative and statewide leaders of both parties were in general agreement about the major issues facing the state. It was also a time during which the Legislature evolved from rural to metropolitan, from fun-loving to serious, from almost entirely white and male to almost 35 percent minorities and women, from overwhelmingly Democrat to trending Republican, and from individually oriented to group oriented, as ethnic, party, and ideological caucuses have gained in importance. Now we are on the verge of a new era of Republican rule, and not even the Republicans themselves know what that will bring.
I don’t believe that anyone could watch the Legislature at work for fourteen sessions without being changed by the experience, and I am no exception. I came to the Capitol as a staffer believing that the main purpose of the Legislature was to solve problems. But I have come to recognize that most problems defy lasting solutions, that the public’s desire for change is always at war with its fear of change, and that, as an English political observer once said, “One cannot make man good by act of Parliament.” I am liberal enough to want social issues to be addressed and conservative enough to worry about the unforeseen consequences of laws that address them. I have come to believe that the Legislature’s most important role is to serve as a forum for the public to exercise its First Amendment right “to petition the Government for a redress of grievances”—to act as a pressure valve that serves as a release for the steam of human misery and discord. The first duty of its members is to provide a fair process and good will. Now you know the secret of how to get on the Best list.