Evan Smith: Are you leaving the Legislature, or has the Legislature left you?
Pete Laney: Well, everything changes. The Legislature changes with every leadership change. There’s been a lot of change; it’s different now. But there’s always a time to do something else. I decided it was my time.
ES: How do you feel about this particular set of leaders—or this particular leader, by which I mean Speaker Tom Craddick?
PL: Each individual leader has his own style, but the membership lets that style exist. At least 76 of the 150 members dictate who sits in that position. I was very honored—a boy from Hale Center, a town of 2,200 people—to be in the office of Speaker of the House, but it wasn’t because of me; it was because of the other members of the House. I was their second choice. They were their own first choice, but I was their second choice.
ES: So whatever else you can say about the way the House is being run, enough of the members buy into that philosophy.
PL: Or have let it become the norm.
ES: But you’re not one of the members who buy into it.
PL: I didn’t run the House like it’s being run now. My take on running it is that you do it in such a way that the members are able to represent their districts to the best of their ability. Their first obligation is to their districts. They’re not there to represent the Speaker, and they’re not there to represent a political party. Now, you can’t make them represent their districts, and you can’t make them work hard, but you can have a system whereby all 149 have the same equal access to the system. That doesn’t mean all of them will have equal access. Some people are more energetic. Some people get to the Capitol at six in the morning and leave here at ten at night during the session. Some get here five minutes before the session starts and leave the minute the session is over. There’s no way you can control it. The only people who can control it are their constituents, and they get an opportunity to do that every two years.
ES: Contrast your way with the way the House is being run today.
PL: It’s run more from the top down now. But that’s the way the members seem to want it, or tolerate it.
ES: You’ve known Speaker Craddick for a long time.
PL: We went to college together and served in the Legislature together for many years. He and I worked together real well until he decided he wanted to be the Speaker. To his credit, he worked hard for many years to make sure I was unseated. That was his objective from the minute I got elected Speaker [in 1993]. He used all the means he could. That’s the way the process works.
When he became Speaker, he was my Speaker, and I offered to help him in any way I could to make a smooth transition to the office. For whatever the reason, he chose not to accept any of that, which is fine. So our relationship is not as cordial.
ES: It seems difficult for you to talk about this stuff.
PL: It is. It’s real difficult.
ES: It’s personal.
PL: There are some things that have happened that have been very personal. I think so much of the process and the system that I guess it’s hard for me to understand someone who does not.
ES: Forget about Speaker Craddick for the moment. You said the character of the House is different. It’s certainly more partisan and polarized. Is it unrecoverable?
PL: I don’t think anything is unrecoverable. There are cycles to the legislative process. It was very rewarding to me, for instance, when I served as chairman of the National Speaker’s Conference to see how much better our system worked than some of the other states’. It was because we got along—the D’s and the R’s. Once the elections were over with, whether you were a D or an R, you had the right to represent your district.
ES: It was more about bipartisanship.
PL: It was. It was “what’s good for Texas.” I think a lot of people were very comfortable with that.
ES: That phrase reminds me of Bob Bullock.
PL: When Bullock first became lieutenant governor, he decided to be partisan, and it didn’t work. He learned real quick. Ike Harris and some of the other senators explained it to him. In this process, some of the people who will become your best friends or maybe just an ally every once in a while will be those who are 180 degrees from you. You learn a lot from them. You learn how in the world people like that got elected to the Legislature; you go to their districts, and, well, that’s the type of philosophy that gets elected.
ES: How did we get from there to here?
PL: A lot of calculated influences on the process. A good example is the money being spent by a few people in Republican races to defeat incumbent Republicans who are not Republican enough.
ES: You’re referring to James Leininger, the San Antonio doctor in the news of late for his bankrolling of challengers to apostate Republican incumbents.
PL: Leininger has been donating money to my opponents for many, many years.
ES: What did you do to Dr. Leininger to incur his wrath?
PL: I don’t know. I’ve never met the man. It’s probably that I’m a very strong advocate of the public school system.
ES: Whereas Dr. Leininger supports vouchers. There’s a sense out there that Republican members were hog-tied during the last session and told to vote for a voucher bill that might have been against the best interests of their districts.
PL: It’s a pretty good indication that several members who voted against vouchers ended up with primary opponents, and others had polls run in their districts to see if they were vulnerable.
ES: Beyond individual people who try to affect the outcomes of races, why else has the House become so polarized?
PL: Redistricting had something to do with it. They needed a partisan House for Tom DeLay to do what he needed to be doing in Congress. Of course, the Republicans were able to do something during redistricting that I was never able to do as Speaker and that was organize the Democrats.
ES: Did you try to talk your fellow D’s out of going to Ardmore?
PL: No, no. I told two or three of them that it probably wouldn’t work. Until I was told where they had gone—I was initially in Hale Center—I thought the probability of it happening was less than the probability of it not happening.
ES: All of a sudden you got a phone call, saying, “We’re here.”
PL: And I said, “I’ll be right there.”
ES: Did you know the FAA would be tracking the tail number of your plane?
PL: The FAA always does that, and I want them to, because if something were to happen, I want them to find me right away. What’s ironic is that a young man who used to work for me happened to be on his computer that morning when we took off, and he ran a $10 computer program that could follow any airplane in the United States. He plugged our tail number in, and just as soon as we landed, my phone rang. He said, “What are y’all doing in Ardmore?”
ES: If your former staff member had access to a $10 computer program, why was it necessary for Tom DeLay to ask the FAA to find out where you were?
PL: It wasn’t me he was trying to find. It was the whole group.
ES: He succeeded.
PL: Yeah. The only thing that bothers me is that a reporter from the Dallas Morning News showed up before all these Homeland Security folks.
ES: You understand, surely, that an awful lot of Republicans peg the breakdown of relations between the Democrats and the Republicans to the decision of the D’s to go to Ardmore. They say you should have stayed here like men and women and fought.
PL: We used the only alternative we had left to fight. It was the only shot left in our arsenal.
ES: Nonetheless, the Republicans say—
PL: “We’re in the majority and we can dictate whatever.” I think the relationship had already been established when the new members came in. A lot of these people won in very partisan campaigns.
ES: The die was already cast.
PL: And a lot of Republicans would be amazed at the number of calls that all of us got on our cell phones from Republican members on the House floor thanking us for doing what we were doing. A certain number of those members were hurt by redistricting, but they thought they needed to do it for the cause.
ES: It’s also said that the problem of the two parties getting along these days is that the “Pete Laney conservative Democrat” is an endangered species, that Democrats in office today tend to lean more to the left, that there aren’t many folks in your party who could conceivably cross party lines and get along.
PL: The same thing is happening on the other side. It’s gotten to the point where they say, “Why should we even consider brokering a deal? We’re in the majority.”
ES: So the problem is unwillingness on the part of the Republicans to work with you? Because you hear them saying all the time, “It’s the Democrats who are the problem. They won’t work with us.”
PL: There’s a difference between working together and succumbing.
ES: One of the reasons that there aren’t that many conservative Democrats in the House is that they’ve switched parties.
PL: I think that happens. Maybe it looks like it’s easier to win campaigning with a Republican philosophy.
ES: Let me ask you a variation of my earlier question: Did they leave their party, or did their party leave them?
PL: The only reason that a party leaves you is because you let it. It’s like being on the playground with the bully beating you up every morning. If you hold your hands behind your back and don’t ever say anything, you’re going to get beat up worse. If you work with him, work with the bully, you might make a decent person out of him. The course of least resistance is why they chose to switch parties.
ES: You never switched parties. Did you ever think about it?
PL: Nope. Did not.
ES: Even though you’re quite a bit more conservative than a lot of Democrats.
PL: I’m more conservative than a lot of Republicans.
ES: Then why not switch?
PL: Because there are a lot more people in the Democratic party who do what the Good Book says: Take care of the poor and the afflicted and the downtrodden. I took flak from some of my Republican colleagues for working with the mentally ill, for working with some of the underprivileged from the Children’s Health Insurance Program. That’s not liberal; that’s trying to use the assets of the state to produce the best economics you can. That’s to keep you from getting sick, to take care of the mentally ill so they don’t have to be institutionalized, to try to have an education program that educates people to be good taxpaying citizens rather than uneducated people who end up in our penal system and cost us $25,000 or $35,000 a year to take care of. I think all of those things—education, mental health, things like that—are conservative rather than liberal.
ES: Remember what former lieutenant governor Bill Ratliff once said about why he’s a Republican? Because he agrees with the Republican party 51 percent of the time.
PL: And that caught him a lot of flak, because they want 100 percent.
ES: The Democratic party is any different?
PL: I have never been criticized by the Democratic party for my philosophy or my beliefs. I’ve been criticized by some members of the party for some of the things I’ve accomplished or not accomplished or tried to accomplish. But a majority of them tolerate a lot of flexibility in what we think and believe.
ES: On the subject of flexibility: You introduced Governor Bush to the nation after the drawn-out resolution of the 2000 presidential election. Do you still support him?
PL: He’s still a friend.
ES: But do you support him?
PL: Our personal relationship is a lot different from our political relationship. I have no problem with him personally. Politically, some of the things I would say to him he would probably not want to hear.I don’t know whether his philosophy has changed or the atmosphere has changed. I think that when he was the governor of Texas, he had some input he hasn’t had in Washington; he had somebody who said “This won’t work” pretty close to every day.
ES: How are things with you and Governor Rick Perry? On paper you all ought to get along. Until he became a Republican, you were both conservative rural Democrats from the same part of the state, and you both care a lot about agricultural issues. But your relationship with this governor seems to be a far sight worse than your relationship with the previous governor.
PL: It’s a lot different. He told me one time that the reason he didn’t support me for Speaker was because when he switched parties, he had to agree to give up some of his friends, and I was one he had to agree to give up. I’ve never said anything bad about him. He’s the one who severed the relationship, not me.
ES: You don’t speak very much?
PL: I haven’t been in his office since he’s been governor.
ES: Hold on. You were Speaker for the first two years that he was governor. You’re telling me you haven’t been in his office one time?
PL: I’ve been in the reception room one time, but I haven’t been in the office.
ES: If the governor reads this and invites you to break bread with him in his office . . .?
PL: I’ll go. I’ll be there.
ES: Last question. What are you going to do when you finally leave office? Do you want to succeed David Smith as the chancellor of Texas Tech, your alma mater?
PL: I don’t think that’s in the cards. I haven’t been approached.
ES: Would you take that phone call?
PL: I’d take the phone call. I don’t know whether I’d take the job.
ES: So what job do you take?
PL: I really haven’t thought a whole lot about what my next venture is, but there is one thing I want to do. I’ve been working with a bunch of college kids who all of a sudden, after tuition deregulation, figured out that they need to involve themselves in the process. I’ve succeeded in getting some of those young folks, men and women, on both sides, involved in political races. And so I want to work with young folks who are of voting age, or fixing to be of voting age, to try to encourage them to give themselves to public service in some way, whether it be on the local level, state level, or national level.
ES: Public service. What a concept.
PL: When you see this capitol building, there’s something wrong with you if it doesn’t affect you, especially if you’ve played any part in the process. I want these young kids to know how I feel about it. I’ve got four grandsons and another grandkid on the way, and I want them to be proud that their granddaddy served in this body. I don’t want them saying, “Why in the world would anybody ever give himself over to public office? Why would anybody want to put up with that?” I want to say good things about the process. I want to work with these kids and let them know that public service is an obligation they’ve got to honor.