The Best and Worst Legislators 1993
Every legislative session is different, but the Seventy-third Legislature was really different. When it was bad, it was awful. There were raucous debates over sodomy and handguns, attacks on sex education, and a rodeo war between Mesquite (honored as the Rodeo Capital of Texas) and Pecos (honored for its Oldest Rodeo in the World).
At times, though, the Legislature resembled a serious body interested in making Texas a better place. This occurs more often than the arrival of a new Ice Age, but not much more often. The Legislature was unable to pass any good education laws, but it did do the next best thing: repeal the bad laws. In fact, it repealed most of the education code. Two years from now the Legislature will have the chance to rebuild the education system from the ground up. Lawmakers dealt with overcrowded prisons by starting a system of state jails for nonviolent offenders. Presumably people caught violating the sodomy law will be sent there, although one lawmaker said the punishment should be hanging. There wasn’t anything funny about a constitutional amendment providing property tax relief. To get it, Texans will have to vote for an income tax.
Two things made the legislature a more serious place. One was the 1991 ethics law, which eliminated a lot of nighttime wining and dining. The other was the unique geography of the session. A renovation project moved most representatives and all senators out of the Capitol. The result was an instant loss of camaraderie. Instead of going out, people worked. Very unusual.
The decline of the social side of the Legislature had an effect on our selection of the Best and Worst. Everybody felt more isolated this session. The usual consensus about who was being naughty and nice did not exist. The Legislature started to resemble Congress, a place where members know only their small corner of the political universe and talk to their staffs instead of colleagues.
In choosing our lists, we sat in on committee meetings, listened to floor debates, and interviewed staff and members. Our criteria for the Ten Best list (which includes twelve legislators this year, since three share one slot) included integrity, initiative, effectiveness, and commitment to a public purpose. On the Ten Worst list, we looked not only for the absence of these qualities but also for a lack of respect for the legislative process of compromise and good faith. And did we ever find it.
High Water Marks
Democrat, Victoria, 46. They said it couldn’t be done, but Ken Armbrister did it. He forged an agreement on the session’s most hotly contested issue—allocating the waters of the Edwards Aquifer. Last session he made the Ten Best list as a detail man; this session he again played the role of the Senate’s human data bank, but he also proved he could see the big picture.
The aquifer struggle resembled something out of the Balkans, filled with warring factions who hated each other. Farmers asserted the right to pump all the water they wanted for irrigation, and city dwellers asserted the right to pump all they wanted for swimming pools and lawns. The issue was as much a clash of cultures and lifestyles as it was a question of policy. Into this holy war stepped Armbrister at the request of Lieutenant Governor Bob Bullock. He proved to have the perfect training for the job—a stint as a Little League coach, which gave him the ability to inspire teamwork among people acting like rowdy, self-absorbed eight-year-olds.
Armbrister insisted that the participants drop their philosophical diatribes and specifically address what they liked or disliked about his bill. When a farmer began ranting about the sanctity of property rights to underground water, Armbrister listened politely and then asked if the witness had read his bill. No? End of discussion.
Finally, with time running out in the session, Armbrister worked around the clock to produce an agreement for creating a water district that would divvy up the Edwards. He kept House and Senate negotiators up all night, never called a break, and created a sense of momentum as the dog-tired panel went through the lengthy bill, item by item. One by one the other members of the conference committee began to wilt, but not Armbrister; a feisty ex-cop, he runs a security service, and the wee hours are his home turf. By sheer effort of will, Armbrister fashioned a deal just before dawn.
Only one thing prevents Armbrister from being in the very top rank of senators. He sometimes plays errand boy for the lobby. This session, for example, he passed a controversial bill allowing a few developers to escape a tough Austin environmental ordinance that was applied retroactively. Whether the bill could be justified or not is beside the point, which is that the great senators never touch blatant special interest bills. It’s one detail Armbrister has overlooked.
Take a Vow
Democrat, Corpus Christi, 44. To borrow a line from Mark Twain, reports of his death were greatly exaggerated. After five heady sessions as right-hand man to Speaker Gib Lewis, Berlanga seemed consigned to oblivion when Pete Laney took over as speaker and removed him as chairman of the powerful Calendars Committee. Instead of quietly accepting a secondary role, Berlanga made a presession vow: “I’m going to prove there’s life after Gib Lewis for Hugo Berlanga,” he told a medical lobbyist. He made it good. Short, combative, and intense, Berlanga turned his consolation chairmanship of the previously inconsequential Public Health Committee into a power base for public good. When a bill requiring nonprofit hospitals to provide more charity care stalled, Berlanga addressed opponents with his trademark tough-guy preface—“Lemme tell ya somethin’”—and warned them against killing the bill. They capitulated. He also embarked on a campaign to have medical schools use their income from patients to train more family physicians. Just when it looked as if the universities had blocked Berlanga’s efforts to audit their fees, he made a deal in the Senate and won that battle too.
On the House floor Berlanga was ubiquitous. He passed a slew of public health bills, including one establishing a register of birth defects, which will pinpoint environmental problems. He added beneficial amendments to the controversial handgun bill (by requiring more firearms training and a longer Texas residency before a permit to carry a gun could be issued) and to the bill setting up a new commission to administer the lottery. He waged a surprisingly close fight for school vouchers for disadvantaged students, losing by just five votes. His debate with a Hispanic opponent—Why, Berlanga wanted to know, do you send your children to private schools but oppose vouchers that would give other parents the same choice?—was one of the memorable confrontations of the session. Said a lobbyist watching from the gallery: “Hugo didn’t just gut him; he field-dressed him.”
With his political savvy and his focus on big-picture issues instead of piece-of-the-pie politics, Berlanga ought to be a role model for younger minority legislators. But while he has always been successful, he has never earned the full respect of his colleagues. In the past he had a reputation as someone who did more for his friends; interests than for the public interest—and to make matters worse, his friends had some pretty unsavory interests, such as gambling and booze. His closeness to Gib Lewis, and the frequency with which he exploited it, inspired jealousy and contempt. The jealousy lingers, but any doubts about his ability have been put to rest.
Democrat, Montalba, 57. He drew the black bean, the hardest, most thankless job in the Seventy-third Legislature: making a no-new-taxes budget possible by keeping a lid on human-services spending. The job description required someone tough enough to say no, smart enough to separate the essential from the nonessential, and diplomatic enough to mollify disappointed supplicants. Bomer fit the specs perfectly.
– Tough. Ann Richards’ immunization bill, making vaccinations available for all children, was sailing through the Legislature when Bomer questioned a provision prohibiting parents from receiving welfare payments if their children weren’t immunized. Richards confronted Bomer, demanding to know if he was trying to kill her bill, but he wouldn’t budge. “It’s bad enough that kids are sick,” he said. “I don’t want them to be hungry too.” Richards ended up thanking him.
– Smart. A former IBM salesman, Bomer concluded that a proposed computer program for child protective services was unlikely to work. He eventually saved taxpayers more than $20 million. He determined that Richards’ goal of immunizing all children was impossible to meet and that a funding level of 70 percent would be sufficient. He favored projects that actually provided services to people over those, such as the Texas Cancer Council, whose function was to “coordinate.”
– Diplomatic. Bomer had been on the wrong side of the speaker’s race as an inner-circle backer of losing candidate Jim Rudd. He met with Pete Laney, indicated his intention to be a good soldier, and went about doing his job instead of sulking on the back benches. He made up more lost ground than any other member.
Bomer desperately wanted to be named to the House-Senate conference committee that negotiated the final state budget. But it was not to be. He took the setback hard, but fate gave him another opportunity to go mano a mano with Senate budget chairman John Montford. In the last week of the session, Montford pressed hard for dedicating a portion of the cigarette tax to the arts. Bomer, who opposes earmarking taxes on principle, especially during a budget crunch, blocked it. Montford had to settle for getting more money for the arts this year rather than getting a permanent source of future funds. Of his adversary, Montford said in rueful admiration: “It took Bomer about half a second to tell me no.”
Striking a Balance
Democrat, Dallas, 45. The perfect man in the middle. Like the assayer in a gold rush, he is the unbiased person everybody in the House relies on to tell whether their claims have value. Cain weighs issues on an internal scale that enables him to strike a balance between competing sides.
Although his presession bid for speaker was stillborn, he was able to resume his role as mediator, brokering three of the session’s biggest battles: trucking deregulation, telephone deregulation, and an overhaul of the Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission. The pivotal moment in the trucking negotiations came when Cain, previously a defender of regulation as chairman of the House Transportation Committee, decided that the time had come to allow more competition—but not too much more. The compromise was fashioned in the Senate, but it would not have happened without Cain’s green light. To make sure that the notorious liquor lobbyists known as the Booze Brothers did not dictate the writing of the Alcoholic Beverage Commission bill, Cain became a member of the committee that deals primarily with liquor regulation—the legislative equivalent of volunteering to clean the sewer.
The sole criticism of Cain has always been that he isn’t really committed to anything except getting an agreement. A bear of a man who once played college basketball, he is reminiscent of the talented athlete who drives coaches crazy because he lacks a burning desire to win. On the rare occasions when he takes the microphone in opposition, he seems almost apologetic. “I hate to oppose this,” he began as he launched a successful attack on a proposal to open medical disciplinary hearings.
This session, though, Cain fought when it counted. Prior to the session, he had been chairman of the sunset review process, under which state agencies are scrutinized to improve their performance. Cain sponsored many of sunset’s good-government recommendations, only to find that the process itself was in grave danger: Ann Richards, Bob Bullock, and Pete Laney all had their own reasons for wanting to get rid of it. Cain’s opposition kept the anti-sunset bill on the back burner all session, but it’s not his way to go for the kill. In the end, with sunset safe for another two years, he decided to—what else?—compromise and allow the leaders to save face.
Salt of the Earth
Democrat, Hale Center, 50. Can it be true: A Speaker of the House made the Ten Best list instead of the Ten Most Wanted list? Three of the previous five speakers, after all, were charged with crimes while in office. But Pete Laney did a lot more than merely stay out of trouble. As the newly elected speaker, he used his moment of power for the noblest of purposes: to restore public confidence in the House of Representatives.
Laney ran the fairest, cleanest, most open, most democratic House in memory. He directed members to write new rules that reformed House procedures. No longer could the Calendars Committee, which sets the daily agenda for the House, kill bills behind closed doors. No longer could members be forced to vote on major bills at the end of the session without having time to read them. Laney made his executive employees take a no-revolving-door pledge prohibiting them from becoming lobbyists; he ended lobbyists’ access to the hall behind the House chamber that is closed to the public; he refused to accept lobbyists’ gifts on Speakers Day (the cost of the affair, a reunion of former members, dropped from $110,000 last session to $13,000); he was uncomfortable at the idea of charging a fee to Hollywood producers wishing to use his office for a film scene, saying, “It’s not something you rent out,” and suggested that they contribute to a scholarship fund honoring Bill Blackwood of Mesquite, a respected legislator battling cancer; and he ended the tradition of boozy office parties on the last day of the session.
Laney did all this not for the show but because he believed it would make the House a better legislative body—and it did. He is the archetypal citizen-legislator, a salt-of-the-earth Panhandle farmer who shuns the limelight, drives an old station wagon, and wears polyester suits—though less often than he used to, thank goodness. He visited members in their offices rather than summon them to his, and he dropped in unannounced on late-night committee meetings to hear testimony. He pushed no agenda, played no favorites, and punished no adversaries, and he watched from the podium with obvious relish as the House floor became a level playing field where members could do what they were big enough to do. He never twisted an arm to get a vote, not even on school finance; asked what it took to pass the bill, he deadpanned, “Four bottles of Maalox.” It may sound corny, but Laney meant what he said in a private conversation late in the session: “All I want is for this place to be better when I leave here than it was when I got here.”
Welcoming the Enemy
Democrat, Galveston, 33. Except for one little detail, he operates like a veteran senator—the detail being that he serves in the House, though he longs to run for the upper chamber. In just his second term (he made the Ten Best list as a freshman in 1991), he has an aura of professionalism and a seriousness of purpose that seem almost out of place in a body whose collective behavior can resemble a Shriners’ convention.
No one but Martin could have passed the governor’s health insurance bill, which ranks alongside the criminal-justice package as the best public-interest legislation of the session. It guarantees that people will not lose their health insurance if they get sick or move from job to job. Drawn to the issue because his brother, who died of Lou Gehrig’s disease last November, lost his insurance after contracting the disease, Martin crafted a bill that was acceptable to both employers and insurers. He defeated a hostile amendment that was touted as good for small business with a rousing attack: “I can tell you, after three and a half months of working night and day with these folks, along with insurance industry and consumer groups, there isn’t anybody out there who supports this amendment. And let me tell you why: Because this amendment doesn’t do what [its backers] say it does.” Insurance lobbyists, who were naturally suspicious of Martin, a plaintiff’s lawyer, ended up singing his praises. “He welcomes the enemy into his office and says, ‘Let’s work this out,’” said one. “He does that better than anybody in the House.”
Martin never lets back scratching or logrolling interfere with legislating. Even as he was working with the governor’s office to pass the health insurance bill, he was uncovering waste in her pet agency, the State Board of Insurance, as a member of the House Appropriations Committee. While other members dutifully obeyed the hands-off designation on a products-liability compromise negotiated by Lieuntenant Governor Bob Bullock, Martin pored over the bill and found a problem that all sides agreed needed to be fixed.
He never forgot why he came here. In a committee hearing Martin got the Department of Human Services to agree to provide callers with a central 800 help number. (Acting as a private citizen, Martin had called the agency to get assistance for his brother and had been bounced from bureaucrat to bureaucrat.) He ran for the House to right the wrongs his family had suffered, and in just two sessions he did everything he set out to do.
Democrat, Lubbock, 50. If the Senate were the Olympic Games, John Montford would win the decathlon. No one enters so many events or performs in them so well. He is the essential senator, the role model the other thirty could not do without.
Montford was Bob Bullock’s ambassador to trouble. When trucking deregulation negotiations hit one last roadblock, Bullock delegated Montford to steer them through. When war broke out between fast-food franchise operators and their parent companies, Montford helped get a compromise out of the Senate. As a former prosecutor, he backed a proposal to drop sodomy as a crime by pointing out that public lewdness carries a punishment of up to a year in jail and a $5,000 fine, while the current sodomy law is punishable by only a $500 fine. “Are you just trying to politicize this issue?” Montford asked the chief proponent of retaining the sodomy law. “That’s what it looks like to me.”
His major achievement was the $70 billion state budget, which increased spending by 11 percent—mostly to build new prisons and meet federal requirements in health care—without raising taxes. As Finance Committee chairman, he made the budget work by using comptroller John Sharp’s savings recommendations to restore up to $1 billion in human services cuts. Montford completed the Senate budget in record time and then made sure that a House-Senate negotiating team mostly endorsed the Senate spending plan.
No matter how busy he was, Montford never seemed to have even one mussed hair on his perfectly combed silver head. When Laredo senator Judith Zaffirini grabbed more than her share of money for her hometown college, touching off an insurrection by House budget negotiators that threatened the entire budget, Montford stepped in and found enough funds to placate the House Team. He set an example for other senators by avoiding the traps of partisanship, regionalism, and knee-jerk voting on emotional issues. In back-room negotiations, Montford repeatedly shamed lobbyists who got too greedy; during the trucking talks, he responded to proposals he regarded as avaricious with the sincere question, “What’s good for Texas about this idea?”
Starched-looking even in midnight meetings, Montford nonetheless has a low-key likability that makes him accessible to his colleagues. In an institution bursting with careening egos, the fact that he is Bob Bullock’s anointed senator inspires no jealousy or rancor. At the end of the session, Bullock was consulting Montford so routinely on down-to-the-wire issues that he cleared a work area in his office for Montford. That clinched what the Senate had already accepted: John Montford is, for all practical purposes, the deputy lieutenant governor.
Republican, Waco, 45. The unofficial minority leader of the Senate. He was as important for what he did not do as for what he did. For the first time ever, Republicans had enough votes to block gubernatorial appointments and to keep any bill from coming to the floor for debate. David Sibley had it in his power to make the session a nightmare for Ann Richards and Bob Bullock and to create Washington-style gridlock in Austin. He was under constant pressure from Republicans outside the Legislature to do just that. But partisanship for partisanship’s sake is not Sibley’s style. Republicans would only look foolish, he argued, to oppose the Democrats’ no-new-taxes budget just because it was the Democrats’. He saw no reason to tie up a Senate in which Republicans had key committee chairmanships and were sponsoring important bills.
Sibley himself took the lead in health care. Saying “We don’t need more family-practice physicians in North Dallas, we need them in rural areas,” he passed a bill to forgive medical school loans of doctors who agreed to serve their residencies in areas with a shortage of physicians. Another Sibley bill set up pilot programs using young doctors to improve medical care for indigent Texans. He put $10 million in the state budget to fund his proposals. The former Waco mayor was the best member of the committee that screened the governor’s nominees to boards and commissions. He asked tough questions based on policy, not politics, and approached controversial appointees with an open mind. He demonstrated his fairness by grilling Texas Water Commission chairman John Hall, whose intervention in the Edwards Aquifer dispute had angered many Republicans, and when Hall’s answers satisfied him, he helped pave the way for Hall’s confirmation. “If you told me one year ago I would be rising to encourage people to vote for John Hall, I would not have believed it,” Sibley told the Senate. But when Richards tried to appoint Corpus Christi legislator Eddie Cavazos, a pro-labor Democrat, to a slot on the Texas Employment commission that is reserved for advocates of employers, Sibley called foul and forced her to put Cavazos in the slot reserved for the general public instead.
Sibley did fire one shot across the Democrats’ bow. When they tried to ram through what he considered to be a partisan judicial redistricting plan under the guise of being fair to minorities, Sibley orchestrated a GOP boycott. With the Republicans absent, there was no quorum, and work stopped. But Sibley brought his troops back, relying on Bullock’s word that there would be no trick plays. Sibley didn’t have to flex his political muscle again. He had made his point: Nonpartisanship has to work both ways.
John Whitmire, Allen Hightower, Allen Place
Go Directly to Jail
Together they passed the bill that may finally ease Texas’ crime problem: a lock-‘em-up-and-throw-away-the-key approach to criminal justice that will make the streets safer. The highlights: (1) Violent offenders will stay in prison twice as long as they currently do; to be eligible for parole, they must serve 50 percent of their sentences instead of the current 25 percent. (2) To make room for the bad guys, nonviolent criminals will serve shorter sentences in a new system of state jails, which are cheaper to build and operate. (3) A $1 billion bond issue will help pay for 32,000 new prison beds.
Whitmire (Democrat, Houston, 43), whose only previous contribution to the Senate was a series of one-liners, was the class clown who made straight A’s when he finally decided to do his homework. After being confronted by an armed gunman in his own garage, Whitmire got serious about an overhaul of the entire penal code. His smartest move: fending off opposition in advance by lining up district attorneys and prosecutors from around the state to back his bill.
Hightower (Democrat, Huntsville, 47), the longtime chairman of the Corrections Committee, is they type of member who makes the House work—conservative by instinct, moderate by necessity. His sincerity and country-boy humor have earned him enormous credibility with his colleagues. When minority legislators objected that it was wrong to debate prison bonds while school finance was still unsolved, Hightower responded in typical fashion: “I won’t let the things I can’t do today keep me from doing the things I can.”
Place (Democrat, Gatesville, 39), the rookie chairman of the Criminal Jurisprudence Committee, shepherded the penal code revision through the House so adroitly that not one member questioned the substance of the reforms. All of the excitement was over emotional issues like sodomy. Place handled the tasteless debate with aplomb, but his family, who was watching from the gallery, was appalled. “I’d rather be picking cotton than doing what Allen’s doing,” his father told his wife. She replied: “He’d have made more money and met a better class of people.”
Democrat, Dallas, 43. A loose cannon who shoots straight and true at the mark of good public policy. Fiercely independent, Wolens will inject himself into any issue and take on any adversary. Mesmerizing in debate, indefatigable in preparation, incisive in analysis, he is the House’s most dreaded foe and most welcome ally. When he agreed to sponsor an oft-defeated bill that made it easier to suspend the license of a drunk driver, a lobbyist for the bill said, “I feel like a Third World country that’s just gone nuclear.” Kaboom! Wolens passed the bill.
After backing David Cain’s unsuccessful bid for speaker, Wolens found himself on the outside when major committee chairmanships were handed out. Rather than accept the lesser posts that Pete Laney offered, he became a roving committee of one on any issue that intrigued him—new House rules, telephone deregulation, expansion of DFW airport, insurance regulation, ethics obligations of fast-food chains toward their franchise holders. He researched the telephone issue until, in the words of one anti-deregulation lobbyist, “he knew more about the companies than their own chairmen.” When Wolens came down against deregulation, it was dead; his intellectual purity—he cares about the principle, not the politics—gives him near-absolute credibility on complex issues. On consecutive days in late April he went head-to-head in floor debate with Calendars Committee chairman Mark Stiles, whose control of the daily House agenda gave him leverage over the entire membership. Score: Wolens 2, Stiles 0.
The son of a clothing merchant who is married to the daughter of the Saks Fifth Avenue chairman, Wolens likes to wander around the House floor examining his colleagues’ clothing whenever he is not debating or reading files. In his seventh term, he finally became one of the gang, not because he changed but because the House did: In a session when entertainment came from debate, not partying or golf, no one served up more goodies than Wolens. When opponents of his ethics proposal to make county commissioners file financial disclosure statements argued that there are no problems going on now, Wolens fired back, “Of course there aren’t any problems going on now. How would you know? How do you know if your commissioner is running up to New York with the bond lawyer for Salomon Brothers?” No member benefited more from Pete Laney’s reforms and work ethic.
The Worst Legislators
Democrat, Roby 42. When Stever Carriker says “Just trust me” during a floor debate, the words jolt colleagues like a cattle prod. Little clusters of chatting senators fly apart as the lawmakers scatter to their desks, determined to inspect whatever it is that he is trying to do. They are even more wary when he describes a proposed change as a “technical correction.” Technical, perhaps. Correct? Not likely.
Carriker is the least trusted member of the Senate. In an institution in which trust is as essential as a heartbeat, his reputation is DOA. He still hasn’t lived down his snookering of Senate heavyweight John Montfor during a budget-writing special session in 1991. Taking aim at Rebublican agriculture commissioner Rick Perry, Carriker told Montford that he had a non controversial last-minute amendment to correct some problems with a program at the agriculture department. In fact, Perry’s office considered the amendment very controversial because it caused problems rather than solved them.
Carriker was up to the same sneaky tricks for partisan purposes this session. When Democrats and Republicans wrangled over when to draw lots to determine which senators would face reelection in 1994 and which would wait until 1996, Lieutenant Governor Bullock worked out a solution that was acceptable to Rebublicans. Carriker, while acting as chairman of the Committee of the Whole on Redistricting, tried an end run by requesting an attorney general’s opinion, which might supersede Bullock’s plan. Bullock found out, of course, and forced Carriker to withdraw his request.
The stories abound. A colleague asked Carriker to delay passage of a bill while some problems were worked out. He said he would—but he didn’t. Carriker offered what he said was just a technical amendment to a civil service bill. It wasn’t: The change made it all but impossible for local voters to rein in municipal employee unions. Once the true effect of the language was discovered, angry colleagues reversed the outcome. He played coy about when his ethics bill would be presented in committee, and he said that a key compromise would be in his version of the bill overhauling alcoholic beverage laws, but it wasn’t. “When Carriker gets a bill, anything goes,” complained a Democratic senator. “You’ve got to have some credibility in this process, or you’re dead.” R.I.P.
Ozzie and Harriet
Democrat, Pampa, 54. Pat Buchanan with a smile. The Texas Legislature never seems to run short of people like Warren Chisum—another narrow-minded rabblerouser out to impose his Ozzie-and-Harriet notions on everybody else. As chairman of the Conservative Caucus, Chisum seized on headline-grabbing issues like sodomy and abortion. But when issues came along that really could make a difference to families, such as keeping criminals locked up or improving public schools, Chisum was nowhere to be found.
He spent the session playing gingham dog to gay Austin legislator Glen Maxey’s calico cat, and sure enough, there was a terrible spat. It happened during the debate over a major bill revising the state’s criminal laws. Maxey wanted to repeal the law making sodomy between homosexuals a crime. Chisum wanted to broaden the law to apply to heterosexuals. This led to the session’s low point, a graphic debate over anal sex that caused one member to ask if there were schoolchildren in the gallery. It featured Chisum against Debra Danburg of Houston. Here’s a portion that is just barely fit for publication:
Q: You’re trying to criminalize behavior between people of the opposite sex?
Chisum: That’s right.
Q: Even if they are married?
Chisum: Especially if they are married.
Q: Even if it’s consensual?
Chisum: Under any circumstances.
Q: Even if they slip?
When Danburg asked, “What’s the penalty?” Chisum answered, “If you were in my county, it could be hanging.”
He was joking, of course. But he wasn’t joking about having sodomy remain a crime—even though prosecutors testified that they preferred to charge violators with public lewdness, which is easier to prove and carries a tougher penalty. Chisum won by threatening to defeat the entire penal code—a law-and-order bill that should have been priority number one for the Conservative Caucus—if it legalized sodomy.
Chisum belongs on the Ten Worst list because he would rather give litmus tests than solve problems. He proposed an amendment he said would prevent fraudulent abortions by clinics that falsely tell women they are pregnant, but he lost because he also insisted that before any abortion could be performed, a doctor had to find that it was “necessary.” The best that can be said of him is that he was amusing rather than spiteful; he killed so many bills by finding technical glitches that the mere sight of Chisum approaching the microphone set colleagues to whistling the sound of falling bombs. Not everyone was amused, however. When one of Chisum’s own bills had a technical flaw, a foe was ready: The bill, she said, violated three House rules—“and common decency.”
Democrat, Knox City, 56. One could scarcely imagine that there were so many ways to fail. Counts was a quadruple-threat disaster: awful as a committee chairman, terrible as a bill sponsor, hopeless as a mediator, defenseless as a floor debater. No one would have predicted such a fate for this mild-mannered West Texan a session ago. But then Pete Laney became speaker, and Counts, as one of his most loyal lieutenants, found himself propelled into the legislative stratosphere. Who forgot the oxygen?
He spent more time in hot water than a Jacuzzi salesman. Counts got burned three times: on regulating the waters of the Edwards Aquifer, on a major review of insurance laws, and on extending the life of the Department of Public Safety. He walked straight into an ambush on the DPS bill, which went down to a temporary defeat after the best response Counts could offer to critics was “I remember our arguments very well, and, ah, I don’t disagree with them.”
The aquifer bill was a fiasco of epic proportions. As chairman of the Natural Resources Committee, Counts was supposed to bring rural and urban competitors for the Edwards together. Instead, he sided totally with the farmers, which would not have been surprising, given his rural roots, except that a federal judge was threatening to take over the aquifer if the Legislature didn’t come up with a plan. Counts’s first proposal was about as feasible as a perpetual-motion machine: Put a cap or a valve on the biggest springs to keep the aquifer from emptying. His second idea was to let the farmers continue pumping all the water they wanted, while San Antonio paid for new reservoirs. By mid-March, he was declaring that an agreement was hopeless. Eventually he suffered the ignominy of seeing the defrocked chairman he had replaced take over the bill and pass it.
His performance on the insurance bill was, impossible as it might seem, even worse. As the bill’s sponsor, Counts publicly requested that all amendments be submitted not to him but to an insurance industry lobbyist. His failure to act as a gatekeeper on his own bill set off a feeding frenzy of pro-industry amendments in committee. Ann Richards denounced the bill as trash, and he reneged on commitments to insurance lobbyists, even on issues in which the facts were on their side. Poor David Counts. He exerted no more control over his destiny this session than a Ping-Pong ball does over the paddles that knock it to and fro.
Democrat, Waco, 46. So many years, so little to show for it. In her ninth term in office, she finally compiled a record. Unfortunately, it was a criminal record. In the first week of the session she was indicted for tampering with government records and perjury. The charge (which she denies) is that she falsified campaign reports to show that she had raised more money than was actually the case, presumably to scare her opponents. The idea that this sort of activity should be subject to criminal prosecution is a little silly, and Denton would have had the wholehearted sympathy of her colleagues had she gone about her business with dignity. But she wasn’t up to it.
Instead, Denton used her position on the House budget writing committee to seek vengeance upon the state-funded Travis County prosecutorial team that had indicted her (and, earlier, her husband, for an unrelated offense). Ignoring stern advice from the committee chairman, she offered a series of punitive amendments against the prosecutors that would have micromanaged what is essentially an arm of county government.
Her efforts in floor debate were equally futile. She is for all the right-sounding issues—education, the environment, consumers—but whenever she tries to do something about them, her reputation precedes her. She tried to amend the school-finance bill and got waxed, 138-9. She tried to keep out-of-state radioactive waste from being stored in Texas and got 14 votes. She tried to stop utility companies from passing on the cost of their charitable contributions to ratepayers and got 13 votes. She did succeed in holding up a bill extending the life of the Department of Public Safety—but only briefly.
As the session wound down, there was Denton, standing before the House again, on an inexplicable tirade against a court reporters’ bill. “I don’t know why somebody continues to do that in spite of all the evidence to the contrary,” the bill’s sponsor said wearily. “Vote aye, and let’s go home.” If only she would stay there.
Democrat, Houston, 56. A habitual bottom feeder; the only suspense is whether his malefactions will surface to become public knowledge. (The last sighting came in 1989, when Edwards made the Ten Worst list for such shenanigans as sponsoring a bill to amputate the fingers of convicted drug dealers.) It’s hard to catch a fellow when the highlight of his legislative program is a resolution inviting Bill Clinton to speak in the House chamber, but Edwards hooked himself with his heavy-handed fundraising tactics as chairman of the Legislative Black Caucus.
Most legislators raise money in order to run for office. Al Edwards runs for office in order to raise money. Recent reforms prohibit lawmakers from seeking campaign contributions during the legislative session, but no such strictures apply to groups like the Black Caucus—and Edwards took full advantage of the loophole. He badgered lobbyists for funds, told some donors that a $500 contribution wasn’t enough, and asked them for $1,500 instead. This gambit was usually successful.
To their credit, reform-minded members of the caucus wanted Edwards to account for the money he raised. Led by Karyne Conley of San Antonio, they suggested that the caucus follow the same rules that the rest of the Legislature does: Report contributions and abide by a budget. Edwards took it personally. In apparent retaliation he later declined to vote for a top caucus priority: a proposed constitutional amendment aiding minority-owned businesses. His timing for this churlish display of ego could not have been worse. The amendment needed 100 votes to pass, but without Edwards, the tally was stuck on 99. Speaker Laney, who normally doesn’t vote, had to provide the winning margin. Later that day Edwards offered his resignation as caucus chairman, but the members, fearful that the crisis would cause the caucus to fall apart, declined to accept it. The reforms weren’t personal, they said in asking him to stay on while the caucus developed guidelines about handling money. It was Conley who resigned instead.
In the waning hours of the session, the Black Caucus gathered on the speaker’s podium so that Edwards could present Laney its G.J. Sutton Award—Edwards kept calling it the C.J. Sutton Award—for helping the caucus. Conley remained stoically at her desk, but Edwards summoned her forward. Her embarrassment was palpable. She slowly walked to the podium, but she would not climb the stairs. The message was clear: She would honor Pete Laney, but not Al Edwards.
Republican, Dallas, 61. If he ever had any sense of public mission, it hasn’t been evident for years. After more than a quarter of a century in office, the dean of the Senate has become the disgrace of the Senate. His office is known to Senate staffers as Club Ike for its late-afternoon party atmosphere. He doesn’t even make a pretense of proper decorum. When Dallas freshman Royce West asked for a moment to read an amendment during a meeting of the State Affairs Committee, chairman Harris was clearly irritated. “I thought you told me never to vote on anything I hadn’t read,” West said. “Some damn fool may have told you that,” Harris retorted, “but it wasn’t me.”
His public agenda is inseparable from his private agenda. Harris practices law before state agencies regulating alcohol and insurance and has close ties to racetrack interests; his list of bills reads like the lobby’s letter to Santa. He proposed authorizing tastings at liquor stores, letting beer companies advertise at racetracks, giving a racetrack permission to switch sites, and placing a gag rule on the consumers’ advocate at the State Board of Insurance. He single-handedly killed a bill requiring topless dancers to be at least 21 years old. At first he said he opposed it because the bill didn’t apply to male strippers (wrong), but later he told reporters, “I sure know what I prefer to see. And it ain’t guys.”
He was equally in the lobby’s pocket when it came to other senators’ legislation. Backers of tougher drunk-driving laws had to sacrifice a bill strengthening the open-container law just to get a hearing in Harris’ committee on a bill streamlining procedures for suspending drivers’ licenses. “He forces you to give things up for the lobby,” says a Senate staffer.
“Ike is Ike,” say his defenders—and they are surprisingly numerous. Translated, this means that his foibles are forgiven because (1) he isn’t a partisan obstructionist; (2) he knows how to pass contested bills, even if they usually aren’t very good bills; and (3) in the words of a veteran lobbyist, “Even after lunch, he’s still smarter than most of the Senate.” It doesn’t matter. Ike Harris has spent 26 years accumulating knowledge and power only to expend it for topless bars, racetracks, and his own legal practice. A colleague summed Harris up: “He’s a poster child for term limitations.”
One of a Kind
Republican, Richardson, 53. Fred Hill is unique in the Texas Legislature. He is a suspicious and uncivil man in an institution that is totally dependent upon mutual respect and civility. “He’s got the Phil Gramm problem,” said a fellow Republican. “Even his friends don’t like him.”
Hill was involved in more tacky exchanges during debate than the other 149 members combined. “I resent it when you know something and don’t disclose it to the House,” he told the sponsor of a bill to move supervision of the lottery. If there was a nefarious plot going on, it wasn’t apparent to Hill’s colleagues, who voted for the bill. In a fingernails-on-a-blackboard exchange with Appropriations Committee chairman Rob Junell, Hill said in successive comments, “All I’ve heard so far is a lecture,” “You bet I want you to answer my question,” “Okay, you kind of got emotional here without knowing all the facts,” until his patronizing attitude finally drove Junell to explode: “You don’t be smart aleck to me!” While questioning a supporter of the school finance bill, Hill, an opponent, took his adversary to task for receiving whispered advice from Public Education Committee chair Libby Linebarger: “I know she’s telling you the answers. I’d just as soon hear it directly from her,” Hill carped.
To someone unfamiliar with the formalities of the legislative process, these gratuitous irritations may seem like small potatoes. In fact, they have reduced Hill’s effectiveness to zero and made him a pariah, even among fellow Republicans. (“If I don’t vote like he does, he thinks I’m a bad Republican,” said one. “He doesn’t understand that my district isn’t like his.”) When a college in his district asked him to help get funding for a special project, Hill had no one to turn to. At the last moment a senator had to come to the rescue. Hill’s chairmanship of the Urban Affairs Committee was doomed from the start; Hill and the urban Democrats on the committee quickly reached a stalemate of mutual distrust.
No one even wants to listen to him. When word got around that Hill was going to fight a motion to send a liquor bill back to committee (he wanted to amend it on the floor), the bill’s sponsor raised a point of order against his own bill. This ingenious procedural ploy sent the bill back to committee without debate—just to keep Fred Hill quiet.
Republican, Tyler, 33. Hilariously inept. Not a bad guy, really—just someone whose understanding of the legislative process is fatally flawed. Kamel has the misguided notion that the way to get ahead in the Legislature is to plant bombs and hurl hardballs rather than build relationships. Like the cartoon coyote, he forever ends up the victim of his own schemes when his bombs explode in his face and his pitches behave like boomerangs.
Here’s Kamel at work. It’s a key vote on school finance, and the leadership is desperately searching for Republican support. Kamel decides that this is the moment to play tough. He’ll vote for school finance, he tells Speaker Laney, if the speaker will support Kamel’s bill to make UT-Tyler a four-year institution. Laney’s response: I’ll meet you halfway. You vote for school finance, and I’ll let you keep the two years you have now.
Undeterred, Kamel tried to bargain again on a bill protecting owners of fast-food restaurants against companies like McDonald’s that grant franchises. As the chairman of a subcommittee studying the proposal, Kamel held up the bill in hopes of forcing a key senator to drop his opposition to UT-Tyler’s four-year status. The stratagem failed when the full committee simply found a different version of the bill to vote on.
Kamel tried to pass a bill regulating roadside vendors but did such a poor job that a colleague had to go to the microphone to tell him how he should have argued the bill: “You need to tell these members this is about local taxation, equity, and local small businesses in compliance with health standards and not get deviated into other business.”
“You have effectively taken the words right out of my mouth,” said Kamel.
Then there was the time Kamel reminded a Democrat who was pleading for Republican votes that just the night before, a Republican had had to make a similar plea for votes. “Where were the swing votes when we needed help in the House for a fellow Republican?” Kamel asked. Good point, except the reason the fellow Republican had to plead in the first place was to remove a gutting amendment backed vociferously by…Ted Kamel.
These antics may seem harmless, but they’re not. They take up time, fray tempers, cause rifts, and undermind serious issues. Perhaps it was symbolism, not chance, when smoke began pouring from the wiring under Kamel’s desk on the next-to-last day of the session: Those who play with fire get burned.
Not Yet a Hero
Democrat, Austin, 41. To some people around the Capitol, Glen Maxey is a hero. He is the first openly gay Texas legislator, a champion of reform, underdogs, and the environment. Why, then, is he on the Ten Worst list? Because he reflects so much that is wrong with contemporary politics: posturing for the media, focusing on interest-group politics, and demanding to be treated like an insider while reserving the right to behave like an outsider.
Case 1: It is a scant few days before the end of the legislative session, and Maxey has just blocked consideration of an ethics bill with a point of order. The measure cannot be reconsidered until the last day for debating bills—a delay that will prove fatal. He is surrounded by angry legislators on the House floor: at first five, then eight, ten, twelve. Everybody wants to know why he did it. After all, in his two terms in the Legislature, he has been a strong advocate of ethics. If he didn’t like the bill, why didn’t he just offer amendments to make it better?
Maxey’s answer, according to two members who were present: “I wasn’t invited to participate. I’m never invited to be on the inside of things.”
The next day, however, the Austin paper has a different story: “By threatening the bill, Maxey said he hoped to get stronger ethics legislation.”
Case 2: The House has just approved the state budget. Only four members have voted no. One is Glen Maxey. A member asks why. Maxey’s answer: There isn’t enough money for AIDS.
Case 3: Maxey is speaking against the bill to legalize the carrying of handguns. “The next time I’m standing on the corner of Fourth and Congress and someone yells out ‘faggot’ at me, I may be carrying a gun,” he warns. Maxey votes no. The bill passes.
These and similar incidents add up to an egocentric view of politics that is destined to produce failure. Good legislators don’t wait to be “invited” into the process; if they truly care about an issue, they throw themselves into it. Good legislators don’t vote against a budget because one item isn’t everything they want it to be. Of course there isn’t enough money for AIDS. There isn’t enough money for schools or prisons or anything. There never is. But the new budget does have a record amount for AIDS—everything the Health Department sought and enough to get all the federal funds available. (Maxey eventually switched his vote on the budget to yes.) Good legislators don’t inject their causes into inappropriate issues. It’s counterproductive to mix handguns and homosexuality. Single-issue legislators, whatever their obsession, quickly wear out their welcome. Glen Maxey has talent. If only he would broaden his interests, use the process instead of his mouth, and recognize that in politics one has to settle for what is possible, not wait for what is perfect, then he could do more for homosexuals and AIDS victims than just make speeches. And he would be a real hero.
Talk Is Cheap
Republican, Flower Mound, 41. There’s a reason why freshmen are supposed to be seen and not heard. It’s called self-protection. Jane Nelson proved the wisdom of the rule this session. She was loud and uninformed, a lethal combination.
You’ll never guess why Nelson opposed a bill to give all children access to immunizations. Because it might allow children access to abortion pills. When a fellow Republican suggested that the bill be limited to “preventable diseases,” Nelson still wasn’t satisfied that pregnancy was excluded. She told a staffer that she would have to check with the ultraconservative Eagle Forum.
Nelson’s style was to shoot off her mouth first and ask questions later. On the Senate floor she said that she had serious questions about a bill prohibiting discrimination by private clubs—but when the bill had been considered before Nelson earlier in committee, she had raised no questions at all. When the Senate passed its version of the state budget, she voted no, telling reporters, “My greatest concern was that my colleagues and I did not have adequate time to review the budget.” Senate Finance Committee chairman John Montford was furious; he had told senators that he would give them three days to study the bill, during which time budget staffers were available for private briefings. “Jane doesn’t want to get things done,” said a Republican colleague. “She wants to make speeches.”
This is the way it went, all session long. In the final week it was crystal clear that she had learned nothing. She challenged Montford again, claiming that the final budget spent too much money. Montford quickly whipped out a long list of spending items in Nelson’s district that he had included in the budget at her request. Was she volunteering to cut these? Then Nelson questioned the spending for debt service. Do you know what most of our debt service goes to pay? Montford asked. She didn’t.
“Prisons. Which prison unit would you have me close, Senator?” shouted the usually unflappable Montford, pounding his fist on his desk. “Tell me which prison you would close.”
Nelson’s performance was more appropriate to a bygone era when Democrats dominated the Texas Legislature and Republicans had no choice but to complain and vote no. Instead, it came at a time when Republicans exercised unprecedented influence and leadership in the Senate. They have the option to be insiders now to fashion solutions consistent with their admirable principles of keeping taxes low and government efficient. That is a job that requires responsibility preparation, and brainpower—three qualities Jane Nelson did not demonstrate this session. As John Montford said in his parting shot during the budget debate, “Talk is cheap.”
The assignment: Keep the public schools open and solve the school finance crisis with a fair plan that doesn’t hurt any schools. The struggle to meet his standard consumed the talents of two legislators who normally would be material for the Ten Best list. House Public Education Committee chairman LIBBY LINEBARGER (Democrat, Manchaca) displayed a nonthreatening, inclusive style that won the confidence of the House. But she was too reluctant to make concessions to Republicans that might have resulted in an end to never-ending lawsuits. Of course, House Republicans weren’t interested in making concessions either. Senate Education Committee chairman BILL RATLIFF (Republican, Mount Pleasant) kept school finance from becoming a partisan issue. Dignified and humble, he wasn’t so married to his own plan, which allowed poor school districts to annex business property from rich districts, that he couldn’t recognize the that the House’s pick-your-poison plan was more politically palatable and passable. Alas, the final plan satisfied only one portion of the assignment – keeping the schools open. Maybe the rest really is impossible.
Rodney Ellis, Democrat, Houston. Republican senators, objecting to Democratic maneuvers to increase the number of black and Hispanic judges, shut down the Senate for a day by walking out—the same tactic used by a group of senators known as the Killer Bees back in 1979. Said Ellis of the Republicans: “They’re not killer bees. They’re killer WASPs.”
Better than Best
Seldom if ever has one person so dominated a legislative session as Lieutenant Governor Bob Bullock, who ran the Texas Senate like an evangelist on speed. His agenda for the session amounted to addressing every problem facing Texas that he could think of. When the session was over, he had cleaned his plate. A budget that increased spending without raising taxes, a school-finance plan that staved off a court order to close the schools, and tough new penal laws were just the beginning; turf wars that had paralyzed the Legislature for years, from trucking deregulation to use of the Edwards Aquifer, had been resolved.
Topic A was how Bullock had done it. The Capitol was full of street-corner psychologists analyzing his obsession with detail, his compulsion for work, his drive to seal a deal, his impulse to chastise, his need for vote margins that reflected near-unanimity. People queued up outside Bullock’s office, grumbling that he was a control freak who dictated when the Senate inhaled and exhaled; then they went behind closed doors and asked him to dictate a solution to their battles. Bullock was desperate to lead, and everybody else, the Senate included, was desperate to be led.
How did he get his way so often? Through incessant use of facts, flattery, rewards, and old-fashioned threats. He trusted underused senators with major assignments, and they were afraid not to succeed. He communicated with unmistakable intensity, boring his unblinking eyes in uncomfortably close to a senator’s face in a manner reminiscent of Lyndon Johnson. He always knew the substance of an issue better than anyone else, and he had, as always, an unsurpassed feel for politics. Far from being weakened by a large Republican minority, he was strengthened by it; coalition building was essential, and no one can assemble coalitions like Bullock. Underlying everything else, he had a public spiritedness that was genuine; when he demanded that senators do what was best for Texas, they knew he meant it. He dominated the Senate because the Senate knew it could not have done what it did without him.
Rob Junell (Democrat, San Angelo) came oh-so-close to making the Ten Best list. As a rookie chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, he mastered the state budget but not always his temper or the ability to say no in a way that let people feel that he cared about their problems.
Three former committee chairmen who backed losing speaker candidate Jim Rudd looked like outcasts at the start of the session, but their knowledge made them indispensable in the end. The B team, as they referred to themselves, included Robert Eckels (Republican, Houston), Ron Lewis (Democrat, Mauriceville), and Robert Saunders (Democrat, La Grange). Others on the Honorable Mention list are Senator Teel Bivins (Republican, Amarillo), Robert Duncan (Republican, Lubbock), Senator Rodney Ellis (Democrat, Houston), Pete Gallego (Democrat, Alpine), Talmadge Heflin (Republican, Houston), Paul Sadler (Democrat, Henderson), and Ron Wilson (Democrat, Houston).
Best Mixed Metaphor
Lieutenant Governor Bob Bullock. Warning business lobbyists not to oppose the Senate’s eleventh-hour plan to keep the schools open after the voters defeated Proposition 1, Bullock said, “This is the last train, and it’s moving, and if you get between me and the schoolchildren of Texas, I’ll wrap it around your neck.”
Layton Black, Democrat, Goldthwaite. As the new chairman of the committee that oversees the business operations of the House, he could grant or withhold perks—and he never let anybody forget it. He bullied freshmen into changing their votes, tongue-lashed witnesses who favored bills he opposed, and reminded members of who he was before they voted on his bills: “I would respectfully request this committee vote this bill out, not only for the well-being of the people in Killeen, but maybe for the continuing aid and comfort of my colleagues.”
Carl Parker, Democrat, Port Arthur. The wily Senate veteran helped kill a dumb bill that authorized lawsuits against people who disparage Texas produce in a manner not based on scientific evidence by announcing that he wanted to exempt children and sitting presidents who don’t like broccoli.
The term “furniture” is used around the Capitol to identify legislators who are so indifferent or ineffective that they are indistinguishable from their desks and chairs—the Legislature’s least consequential members. Here is the furniture list for the Seventy-third Legislature:
Mary James, Republican, Aubrey
Tony Parra, Democrat, El Paso
Senator Buster Brown, Republican, Lake Jackson
Charles Finnell, Democrat, Holliday
Sam Hudson, Democrat, Dallas
Jim Horn, Republican, Denton
Garfield Thompson, Democrat, Fort Worth