texasmonthly.com: What got you interested in politics?
Paul Burka: My first love in journalism was sportswriting. Politics is the closest thing to sports that isn’t played with a ball. Now, it isn’t as important as UT versus A&M, but it is even more fascinating, because the teams change, depending upon the issue, and you have to be able to tell the players without a scorecard.
Patricia Kilday Hart: I became interested in politics at an early age, probably because so many dramatic events occurred in my junior high and high school years: the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Bobby Kennedy, Vietnam, Watergate. I was riveted by news accounts of all of those events and fascinated by the personalities involved.
texasmonthly.com: Since you have a great interest in politics, why did you never run for office?
PB: I had a history professor who said that there are three kinds of people in the world: historians, journalists, and everybody else. I took that to mean that historians are students of the past, journalists are students of the present, and everybody else acts instead of studies. I prefer to be a student rather than an actor. But I have enormous respect for politicians. They have to be comfortable with the realization that 40 percent of the people can hate their guts and yet they still win by a landslide. That math won’t work for a journalist.
PKH: I believe strongly that the media play an important role in a democracy in informing the voting public, and my talents best fit that role.
texasmonthly.com: What is your definition of good politics and how does that affect this list?
PB: As a general principle, politics can work in one of two ways. One is that it can be driven by ideology; another is that it can be driven by pragmatism. In the ideological model, left and right battle it out and the center disappears. The key issues are “wedge” issues that force people to take sides. This has been a very successful strategy for conservatives. America is a conservative country, and if people are forced to choose between left and right, a solid majority of people will choose the right. In the pragmatic model, politicians try to address an agenda of problems in a practical way. Think Bob Bullock. The best politics, as I see it, combines both elements, ideology and pragmatism, with the balance struck in favor of the latter. Regardless of how I define good politics, I have always thought that in evaluating a session, we have to follow the pragmatic approach of honoring people who advanced their ideas in ways that won the respect of the Capitol community and taking a dim view of people who behaved in ways that lost respect.
PKH: As Paul and I wrote in the introduction to the story, legislators who practice good politics are problem-solvers and good listeners and they know how to work well with others and reach compromise.
texasmonthly.com: Would you say that Texas Monthly has a viewpoint on particular political issues?
PB: We don’t sit around in editorial meetings and say, What is our position on (for example) telecommunications? The Best and Worst story is primarily about the use and abuse of the process rather than about a particular result. The one exception, which we set forth in our introduction to this year’s story, is education. We believe that the success of the public schools is essential to the future of this state, and we think that our readers share this belief. Unfortunately, some members of the Legislature do not, as you can see from this year’s story.
texasmonthly.com: Before the session even started, did you have anyone in mind for the lists?
PB: Sure. The Capitol works on reputation. There is wide agreement about which legislators have established themselves as good or bad, and it’s pretty obvious who will have an influence on the issues of the session. But as events unfold, there are always surprises, and in the hectic final days of a session, the list can become quite volatile. That’s why we spend so many hours at the Capitol. You have to be there. Both lists experienced additions and subtractions on the last weekend.
texasmonthly.com: Did anyone surprise you in his performance this session?
PB: What surprised me was that some good legislators did some bad things. I like to think that people at the top of the legislative pyramid understand that they are supposed to be role models, the way former senators Bill Ratliff and David Sibley were in the Senate, and, in the House, former legislators Paul Sadler and Steve Wolens. That sense of responsibility for the process, the code of conduct that endures from session to session, seems to be lacking. One example is Al Edwards’s bill trying to stop sexually suggestive cheerleading routines. In the old days, that bill would never have been allowed to reach the floor for debate, because such a law could not be enforced. It’s silliness. Now they debate it for two hours. I hope I don’t sound like some old codger saying that things were better in the old days, but things were better in the old days.
texasmonthly.com: Are most of the legislators, lobbyists, and staff members you talk to cooperative? Why or why not?
PB: The Capitol works on relationships, and that is as true for journalists as for legislators and lobbyists. Most of the people we talk to are those with whom we have built up relationships over the years, who know that we will treat their comments confidentially. All of our interviews are “on background,” and if we want to quote someone, even anonymously (and we seldom do it anymore), we ask his permission. The first installments of the Best and Worst stories, back in the seventies, relied primarily on interviews, but today we rely mostly on events that take place in public view. Consequently, the story is less dependent on interviews than it used to be, although interviews are still very important for filling in gaps in our knowledge and finding out what is really going on. Staff members who watch the session on TV are invaluable to fill in the gaps when I have to work in the office and can’t come to the Capitol. The people we interview are usually cooperative. I hope it is because the Capitol community feels that it has a stake in the story and the members want it to be right as much as we do. I confess that I may be under a delusion here.
texasmonthly.com: What’s the hardest part of coming up with the Ten Best and Ten Worst Legislators?
PB: It all seems pretty hard to me. First, the values are changing. When [George] Bush, Bullock, and [Pete] Laney were the legislative leaders, this place had a pretty high-minded tone. It was more practical than ideological, and there wasn’t a lot of partisanship. It’s more like Washington today—not as bad as last session, but still pretty bad, still a lot of petty partisanship. So as the Legislature gets more like Congress in its conduct, it’s harder to know what is the acceptable level of bad behavior. Second, it’s an old joke—you should do five best and fifteen worst, people tell us—but there’s some truth to it. It’s always harder to find Bests than Worsts. The Worsts volunteer. The Bests, due to the changing values, seem to be more flawed than they used to be. Third, it’s always hard figuring out what is really going on. Did that bill get killed because the sponsor mishandled it or because the lobby had the votes against it all the time? There are some very sophisticated moves up here, with layers and layers of possibilities. It’s fairly easy to spot them but it’s another thing to figure them out. No matter what your role is here, it’s the most important skill there is up here other than making friends.
PKH: I find it hard to put aside personal likes and dislikes. I like an awful lot of people who aren’t on the Best list and who have even made the Worst list; there are some on the Best list I wouldn’t especially care to invite home to dinner. But it’s important to put aside personality issues to determine who are the best—those who are most effective and most driven by good public policy.
texasmonthly.com: Talk a bit about the process of writing up the list. How do you divide it up between the two of you?
PB: Patti covers the Senate and writes its Bests and Worsts, and I do the same for the House. We have around three hundred words for each profile, so it’s a six-thousand-word story. The Legislature usually adjourns on the last Monday in May, and from that point we have a week to get all our write-ups in and another three days to process them, checking for writing and research glitches. We are blessed with an editor, Evan Smith, who loves politics and keeps up with what’s going on, so as late April comes around, he wants to know how the lists are shaping up. He’ll push us pretty hard if he disagrees with a choice, but in the end, it’s our call. This year we got the story written and processed earlier than anyone can remember.
texasmonthly.com: Does the list change drastically from session to session, or are there some legislators who make it in all the time?
PB: We make our choices based on what happened in the current session. Every member starts with a clean slate. However, it’s the nature of the Legislature that the leadership pool doesn’t run deep, so the best members tend to make the list frequently. This session the repeaters on the Best list were Delisi, Duncan, Whitmire, and Zaffirini. A lot of members of the Worst list had been on the list before, but not necessarily in the previous session. I haven’t figured it up, but my guess is that from one session to the next, the average change is more than 50 percent on each list.
texasmonthly.com: Are there more legislators you would have put on the Best/Worst list if it was a longer list? If so, who? Why?
PB: There are always near misses, people who are worthy of being on the list but don’t quite make it. This year, I would say that the closest miss was Senator Todd Staples. He did a lot of heavy lifting, which is the term for passing big bills, like workers’ compensation reform. The problem was that he did not meet the test of being a consensus Best. He had become the sponsor of the constitutional amendment banning gay marriage (which was already illegal in Texas) after it sat unclaimed in the Senate for 21 days after it passed the House. No other Republican senator would touch it. As a result, he couldn’t meet the test of being a consensus Best. Other members of the Best list had their detractors—it’s only natural—but not so publicly or unforgivingly.
texasmonthly.com: Did the amount of space you got for the list affect what you put in there? What kind of things did you leave out?
PB: You know that old saying about trying to change the things you can change and accept the things you can’t change and praying for the wisdom to know the difference? Space is something you can’t change.
texasmonthly.com: Do you ever see the legislators you put on the Worst list? If they were put on the Worst list, does that change the way they treat you?
PB: Of course we see the legislators we put on the Best/Worst lists. Politics is a small world. As for reactions, the most common one is no reaction. Politicians are pros; they know that today’s enemy can be tomorrow’s friends. I start every session with every member having a clean slate. Another common reaction is to chalk it up to our having an axe to grind: We don’t like their bills, their party, their ideology. A few really complain, and when they do, I listen. One member of the 2003 Worst list and I had four or five long conversations about it. The main thing that I say is that “Worst” is not a permanent designation, that people have gone from the Worst list one session to the Best list in the next.
texasmonthly.com: What about the people you put on the Best list? Do they treat you any differently?
PB: Sometimes people on the Best list write thank-you letters, to which I respond that it is we who thank them for giving us something to write about. Occasionally we get complaints when it is necessary to temper the write-up of a Best by mentioning an obvious flaw. My favorite story about correspondence occurred the first of many times that Senator Judith Zaffirini made the Best list. In addition to writing about her many achievements, we mentioned her personality quirks, citing an exchange between Winston Churchill and Nancy Astor, the first woman member of Parliament. Nancy: If you were my husband, I’d put poison in your coffee. Winston: If you were my wife, I would drink it. What should arrive in the mail but a pack of coffee beans labeled “Lady Astor’s House Blend.” Magnificent!
texasmonthly.com: Why does Texas Monthly publish this list after every session?
PB: It’s our duty. A legislative session is one of the most important events in our state. It occurs only once every two years, and when it does, it sets the agenda for our state. Our readers expect us to tell them what’s going on (especially since the daily press seems to be telling them less and less) and whether it is good or bad for Texas. The Best/Worst story is our way of telling our readers not only what went on, but also to give them a glimpse of the rich texture of the Capitol—politics as theater, full of heroes and villains. We hope that the story helps them understand how politics really works, that it isn’t only about left and right, Republican and Democrat, but that it’s also about personality, which, put to good use, can turn defeat into victory and vice versa. There is no other story like it.
texasmonthly.com: I’ve heard people call Texas Monthly a magazine with a liberal bias? What would you say to that comment?
PB: I’d say, “Ask the liberals.” They think I have a conservative bias. In the years that I have been watching the Legislature, I have come to care more about process than outcome—balance, compromise, fairness, good faith. If you have those things, the result will almost always move the state forward by small degrees, whatever the issue.
PKH: We’re accused of bias by extremists from both political parties. The fact is, a lawmaker’s party label has no impact in his or her appearance on either list—it’s based entirely on a lawmaker’s behavior, work ethic, skill, and knowledge.
texasmonthly.com: How much of an impact would you say this Best/Worst list has on the Texas Legislature?
PB: People tell us that members of the Legislature take it very seriously, although they play it down publicly. They do lobby us—to get on the good list, to stay off the bad list, even to be unmentioned. But we don’t write the story to have an impact on the Legislature. We write it to have an impact on our readers. Most of the time the Best and Worst lists confirm what people inside the Capitol already think (after all, the story is supposed to represent a consensus), but sometimes—as when a member makes the Best list for the first time—it can crystallize perceptions. Nor do we write the story with a view toward impacting elections. Texas Monthly does not allow material from the Best and Worst list to be reproduced in campaign literature. For most members it is a tremor rather than a quake.
PKH: Just go back and read some of the early Ten Best and Ten Worst Legislators lists. It’s obvious that behavior in the Legislature has evolved over time—for the better. There used to be far more outrageous incidents involving openly sexist, patently unethical, or just plain mean conduct. I think the list has made the Legislature a better institution by holding its members accountable.