Mark Stiles, 1983
The House’s peskiest bully, Mark Stiles spammed his colleagues with cartoons and catcalled them on the floor, all in an (unsuccessful) attempt to advance his parochial agenda.
Mark Stiles, Democrat, Beaumont. A good ol’ boy gone berserk. First day of the session, freshman Stiles went around hugging Speaker Gib Lewis and slapping the parliamentarian on the back. Clenching a fat cigar between his teeth, he swaggered into a crowded elevator and bossed the House sergeants around. In short order he found himself on State Affairs and Ways and Means, two plum committee assignments usually denied freshmen. “Gee,” thought observers, “this guy must be going somewhere.” He was—straight downhill.
Promptly made a fawning declaration of non-independence to the press in which he all but vowed to kiss the hem of Gib’s garment daily. Appointed himself apologist for Gib’s failure-to-disclose woes: mere “zip-code errors,” pronounced Stiles. “If the Speaker stopped suddenly, Stiles’ nose would be broken,” snapped one disgusted freshman.
Took to calling everyone Bubba. Made sure little cartoon figures labeled “Bubba Likes It” appeared on members’ desk video screens when certain bills came up; actually thought it helped his cause. Failed to combine his Bubbaship with any real legislative skills, assuming that the Speaker’s blessing was all he needed to get his program through.
Charged into the legislative china shop with the horns of a bull but the hide of a rabbit. Bullied witnesses, yet couldn’t deal with adversity himself: made an art form of the hissy fit, huffing agitatedly back to his desk when thwarted at the mike. Stormed out in mid-hearing when committee chairman Fred Agnich held up his hunting bill. Unwisely called Agnich Daddy Warbucks in private; was then stunned when Agnich, with obvious relish, rose later in the session to smite another Stiles bill with deadly points of order.
Brought a new word into the legislative lexicon—“nimby,” as in “not in my backyard.” Had the most parochial legislative package imaginable, including an ill-fated nimby bill that would have repealed the statewide property tax appraisal system in order to solve some Jefferson County problems and another that would have outlawed hazardous waste disposal sites in Liberty County. When colleagues advised him that someone would surely raise points of order about the narrow scope of this bill, Stiles—feeling his sworn fealty exempted him from the rules—blithely assured them the Speaker would rule his way. He was wrong.
By session’s end, the floor had turned openly hostile, hissing and catcalling when Stiles took the mike. He had even veteran lobbyists mixing their metaphors wildly (“A time bomb heading for a banana peel,” goggled one). But Stiles represented something more than an overweening freshman or a bad joke. He was the bad old days come back to life —a man with no beliefs save in his own advancement, a legislator who shamelessly declared he’d do anything to curry favor, including bargain away his independence for a mess of Speaker’s pottage. “He’s poisoned his reputation,” mused one thoughtful freshman. “And what else does a member have up here?”
Kenneth Armbrister, 1989
Kenneth Armbrister’s frat-like displays of sexism and racism were so flagrant that they earned him a bad name even in the good ol’ boys club of the 1989 Texas Senate.
Kenneth Armbrister, Democrat, Victoria. He must have thought that the Legislature was Animal House. Day and night Kenneth Armbrister’s manner was more that of a fraternity brother looking for a toga party than of a senator looking for influence and respect. Invited to dine with the House Calendars Committee one night, he used the occasion to tell racist jokes in front of a black colleague; at another dinner he shouted down the table to a female lobbyist, “Do you know why God created women? Because sheep can’t type.”
Women staffers and lobbyists braced themselves for sexual innuendo whenver fate threw them in Armbrister’s proximity. In the middle of a Senate session he approached another senator’s top aide and said that he needed…well you’ll just have to guess. His remarks earned him the nickname “TMT,” short for “Too Much Testosterone.” Said one lobbyist, “He wears his hormones on his sleeve.”
No one thought Armbrister was serious-and that was just the point. People stopped taking him seriously, especially when his legislative program turned out to be funnier than his jokes. Mr. TMT carried a bill requiring, of all things, that abstinence be stressed in sex education courses. Another Armbrister bill would allow people to pack concealed handguns. (Both bills died). “Have you heard about the Omnibus Armbrister Bill?” Senate wags asked. “You can carry a gun, but you have to keep it in your pants.”
The gun bill turned out to be no laughing matter for his fellow senators, who knew that it was bad public policy but didn’t want to stir up the National Rifle Association by voting against it. At first Armbrister promised colleagues that he wouldn’t press the issue until he had secured support for its passage. Then, under pressure from the gun lobby, he called for a vote during committee meeting, even though he knew the bill was destined to fail.
The story of Kenneth Armbrister sounds like a comedy; in fact, it is a tragedy. In a Senate that has been drained of talent, he ought to be rising to the top instead of sinking to the bottom. An ex-cop who is smart, tough, and humane, he works hard and wants to be a player. But at this rate he’ll never be anything but a joke.
Al Edwards, 1989
When it came to criminal justice reform, Al Edwards took a page out of Hammurabi’s Code, making national news for wanting to cut off the fingers of convicted drug dealers.
Al Edwards, Democrat, Houston, 52—A perennial Worst, skilled only in inventing new ways to bring ridicule upon the Texas Legislature. This year’s device: sponsoring a bill to amputate the fingers of convicted drug dealers.
The unconstitutional proposal didn’t pass, of course, but it did accomplish its primary mission-reaping publicity for its author. Even the lurid tabloid Weekly World News got in on the act, prominently featuring a story about Edwards’ bill (Gutsy Politician’s Sure Cure For Pushers) along with headlines like Baby Born With A Wooden Leg And Elvis Tribe Found In Jungle. Was Edwards embarrassed? Hardly. He had copies distributed to his House colleagues. When the ink stopped flowing, he generated more publicity by announcing that he would postpone a hearing on his bill so that he could invite the family of Mexican drug-cult victim Mark Kilroy to testify. (They didn’t.)
But the spotlight has its hazards. In defending his bill, Edwards attacked lawyers who oppose stiffer penalties because they represent drug dealers. Who do you suppose got caught writing a federal judge to request leniency for a convicted crack dealer? You guessed it—Edwards.
No wonder Edwards became the laughingstock of the session. “Know what this is?” House members chortled to each other, extending a hand with fingers curled. “An Al Edwards handshake.” Later, colleagues gave Edwards a miniature wooden guillotine with a digit-size aperture. During an Edwards attempt to pass a local bill, colleagues were ignoring him as usual until Speaker Lewis called for a vote. Detecting the sudden alarm on the floor, Lewis announced, “This is not the finger bill, members—go ahead and vote.”
Rick Perry, 2007
Somehow both absent and overbearing, Rick Perry picked too many fights and lost them all.
Rick Perry, Republican, Governor. Don’t forget Perry—although a lot of folks would like to. I walked into the Capitol today, and the frustration of lawmakers blasted me like the August heat in Houston at high noon. “If there is an overall theme to this session,” a usually reserved Republican senator thundered at me, “it is NO LEADERSHIP!”
It seemed as if Perry had made a conscious decision to mimic all the bad qualities of the governors he has known: the confrontational style of Bill Clements toward the Legislature, the absence from the fray of Ann Richards, the ambition for national recognition of Mark White. He picked a fight with the Legislature that he couldn’t win by issuing an executive order mandating that Texas schoolgirls get inoculated with the HPV vaccine—manufactured by a pharmaceutical company represented by his former chief of staff, Mike Toomey. What an amazing coincidence. Perry could have endorsed bills that proposed using the vaccine, which prevents cervical cancer, but he chose the in-your-face approach instead. (So did the Legislature: It passed a bill preempting the executive order.) Then he jetted off to Qatar amid persistent rumors that he was angling for the number two spot on the GOP ticket in 2008. His legislative program went nowhere: selling the lottery, having a “czar” oversee the cleanup of the TYC, lowering the ceiling for state spending. He would have done well to read modern books on parenting, which are full of advice that applies to politicians, such as “pick your battles.”
Leo Berman, 2011
Leo Berman gained fleeting notoriety for challenging President Barack Obama’s citizenship on national television in 2012—and praising Donald Trump.
Leo Berman, Republican, Tyler. You have to give him credit. For most legislators, making the Ten Worst list is the result of an endurance run over 140 days of a regular session. Not so for Leo Berman. Weeks before the Eighty-second Legislature even convened, Berman got a huge jump on the field when he appeared on CNN to debate Anderson Cooper about the validity of a certain Hawaiian hospital document. Berman, you see, is a birther, someone who believes that Barack Obama was not born in America—and therefore should not be eligible to serve as president. He came to CNN’s attention because he filed House Bill 295, prohibiting the Texas Secretary of State from certifying the name of a candidate for president or vice president unless the candidate has produced his or her original birth certificate. If Berman’s bill had passed, President Obama would not have been able to run for office in Texas in 2012 unless he produced the certificate. But of course it didn’t pass; this was only the latest in a long run of hopeless, embarrassing pieces of legislation from Berman over the years that do little more than draw snorts and derision from the national press corps—and phone calls from cable news producers.
On CNN, Berman’s courtly behavior was impeccable (he is, it must be said, a decent sort). His arguments, alas, were not. He indirectly accused the governor of Hawaii of lying and demanded to see the certificate. Five months later, he got his chance when the White House released a copy of the original long-form birth certificate. And guess what? Berman still didn’t believe it. “It will take someone like a Donald Trump to really determine whether the president has pulled the greatest swindle, the greatest hoax, in the history of the United States,” he declared.
This is Berman’s distinguishing characteristic: Once an idea is in his head, it’s embedded. There’s no reasoning with him, on birtherism or anything else. Consider the vote for House Speaker on the first day of the session. The anti-Straus forces didn’t want to look like sore losers, so both Warren Chisum and Ken Paxton withdrew from the race, and the plan was to let Straus be elected by acclamation. This was carefully explained to Berman, but to no avail. When the motion was made, Berman couldn’t help himself: His right hand shot skyward in defiance.