Republican, Waco, 51. This was not supposed to be one of David Sibley’s better sessions. Long before lawmakers arrived in Austin, rumors flew that he was not a favorite of incoming lieutenant governor Rick Perry’s and might be stripped of his prestigious Economic Development Committee chairmanship. Indeed, Sibley was one of a troika of veterans excluded from the inner circles of power in favor of junior senators who were more reliable Perry loyalists. He retained his chairmanship, but he was hamstrung by a newly created subcommittee that further reduced his sphere of influence.

No matter. Such obstacles were mere trifles to a man who lost his successful oral surgery practice because of nerve damage that affected his hand but went on to become a lawyer instead. As usual, Sibley was the ablest senator on the widest range of important issues: electricity deregulation, telecommunications competition, protection of the rights of religious institutions, tax cuts. A shrewd tactician, a master at legislative mechanics, a scholar of public policy issues, and a mentor to those willing to listen, Sibley proved that the Senate is a meritocracy, where talent and knowledge of the institution are more important than the blessing of the lieutenant governor. Whom did Perry turn to when he needed someone to mediate a foundering bill dealing with continuing supervision of paroled sex offenders? The heaviest lifter in politics this side of Jesse Ventura.

The same qualities that helped Sibley overcome personal adversity serve him well in public life. He never gives up: When his efforts to pass an electricity deregulation bill in 1997 were doomed by opposition from rural co-ops, he kept working and, on the first day of this session, unveiled a new bill with his former adversaries standing beside him to offer their endorsement. He’s willing to try new things: When his proposal for a research and development tax credit ran into opposition in the House, he won over Ways and Means chairman Rene Oliveira of Brownsville with a plan to double the tax credit for businesses that locate in 92 low-income counties. And he operates with grace under pressure: Whenever the Senate is on the verge of chaos, Sibley offers a way out (he proposed a compromise on the emotionally charged hate crimes bill) or a piece of advice (he persuaded a fellow Republican bent on folly not to kill Bush’s tax cuts with an eleventh-hour filibuster). The only criticism of him is that he can act a bit lofty—but that is hardly surprising from someone whose big-picture advice to colleagues is to look at complicated issues “from thirty thousand feet.”