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The Best and Worst Legislators 2009

THE BEST: Representative John Zerwas

Richmond

At the meeting in which Zerwas learned he was going to chair the Appropriations subcommittee on health and human services issues—the most contentious part of the budget—Speaker Straus told him, “You’ve got your work cut out for you.” Translation: Your five-member panel has a Democratic majority. What others saw as an obstacle, though, Zerwas saw as an asset: “If there is any place that you need diversity,” he says, “it’s in dealing with health and human services.”

As a practicing anesthesiologist and former chief medical officer of the Memorial Hermann Hospital System, Zerwas approached health care issues pragmatically. He understood the problems of the uninsured, so he backed a controversial expansion of the Children’s Health Insurance Program to include families whose income is up to 300 percent of poverty level. The biggest battle he fought was over a Senate rider to prohibit embryonic stem cell research. Although Zerwas personally believes that embryos are living tissue that need a body of laws giving parents authority over their use, he urged removing the rider because, he said, “I don’t think the appropriations act is the place to be debating something as serious as embryonic stem cell research.” He prevailed.

This résumé would have been more than enough to earn Zerwas a place on the Best list, but in fact his greatest challenge would lie ahead. In mid-May, a colleague, Edmund Kuempel, suffered a massive heart attack in a Capitol elevator. Zerwas rushed to the scene. Published reports said that Kuempel was unresponsive, not breathing, and without a pulse. Zerwas performed CPR until EMS arrived, and a defibrillator was used to shock Kuempel eight times. Kuempel is recovering. Said House Administration chair Charlie Geren, “John Zerwas was the hand of God.”

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