As chairman of the House Democratic Caucus, Jim Dunnam had the most difficult role in politics: leader of the opposition. You have to decide whether to work within the system, which was the course Republicans generally followed for the past quarter century, or whether to challenge, obstruct, delay, call out the daisy cutters, and put women and children to the sword. Dunnam knows no way but the latter. If the House was awash in partisan animosity, if it was totally divided along party lines, if the level of enmity was more characteristic of Congress than of past Legislatures, then Dunnam has to share blame along with Speaker Craddick. To those who think that political warfare should be waged on the extremes, Dunnam might be a hero, but to those who think that goodwill and compromise are essential to the shaping of public policy—a fundamental assumption behind the choosing of the Best and the Worst legislators—he is, at best, a terrible disappointment.
In mastery of the legislative arts, Dunnam has few peers and fewer superiors. He made the Best list last session for passing major bills on charter-school reform and open-container prohibitions. This session he flashed his skill in parliamentary moves so shrewd and frequent that Craddick’s involuntary gestures—he slumps, he throws his hands in the air—betrayed his dismay at seeing Dunnam approach the microphone. But to what end? Even the trip to Ardmore to kill congressional redistricting, the one Democratic victory of the session, may turn out to be Pyrrhic: Redistricting will probably pass in a special session, and Republicans believe that having shut down the Capitol will cost the Democrats several seats in the 2004 elections.
Dunnam’s worst performance came during the tort-reform debate, in an exchange with Joe Nixon, the Republican sponsor of the mammoth bill. He impugned Nixon’s integrity with questions about a case in which Nixon had been involved as a lawyer—asking, in effect, whether Nixon had given his side preferential treatment in the bill—then interrupted him at least a dozen times when Nixon attempted to answer. Nixon ended up on the Worst list for his own subpar performance in the tort-reform debate (see page 108), but on this occasion he appears to have been blameless: His role in the case was minimal. If only Dunnam’s role in the session had been likewise.