THINK OF THE SEVENTY-EIGHTH TEXAS Legislature as an adolescent phenomenon. Republicans, giddy about their new driving privileges, leaped behind the wheel and careened down the road, hitting a few curbs and cats along the way. Democrats, their car keys confiscated, muttered a lot about living under a dictatorship. In some ways, two sessions happened simultaneously. Let’s just say that the Texas House is from Mars and the Senate is from Venus. Temperatures soared so high in the west side of the Capitol that Democrats fied to Oklahoma, whereas the Senate’s equanimity was preserved by its self-imposed rules requiring bipartisanship. Democrats were cheered by constant sniping among the all-Republican leadership—Governor Rick Perry, Lieutenant Governor David Dewhurst, Comptroller Carole Keeton Strayhorn, and the first GOP Speaker in 130 years, Tom Craddick—over the state budget. While Perry defined the session’s mission (balancing the budget, enacting tort and homeowners’ insurance reform), what he chose not to work on—namely, school-finance and tax reform—spoke volumes about his administration’s priorities (repaying contributors, enhancing party power, ducking tough decisions). The criteria for our lists of Best and Worst legislators have remained unchanged for thirty years. The Best legislators work hard, understand the process, check their egos at the door (usually), and tell the truth. The Worst legislators don’t do any of the preceding. This session, especially, the pickings were slim, but somehow we found 10 good folks. As for the remaining 171? Well, we hope it’s just a phase.
THE BEST: Teel Bivins
He was the point man for the good guys on the most important issue of the session. He spent his days and nights fighting the bad guys, and it almost did him in. With the Legislature facing a $9.9 billion shortfall, it fell to Teel Bivins, the chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, to fend off the ax-wielding House and the cleaver-waving governor’s office and produce a budget that met the state’s needs without raising taxes.
Budget hearings can be nonotonous affairs, with bureaucrats droning on on in endless acronyms. Bivins changed the course of the debate by scheduling hearings to portray what a pared-down budget would look like and who would be hurt the most. One afternoon, as the committee listened to more testimony about proposed health care cuts, the doors to the hearing room swung open again and again to the soft hum of electric wheelchairs. Soon the aisles were jammed with paraplegics who had come to beg lawmakers not to cut state funding for home health aides. The faces of committee members registered deep empathy. Reality had sunk in.
From that point on, the Senate focused on needs, not numbers. With the help of Lieutenant Governor Dewhurst, Bivins produced a bipartisan list of 23 senators who favored more spending without raising taxes (for instance, using money from the Rainy Day Fund and postponing some state payments). House members, seeing that they were about to be forced to vote for draconian cuts while the Senate was getting credit for making them unnecessary, demanded that their budget writers loosen the purse strings. The course was set toward a budget that would show as much mercy as possible.
The final budget negotiations with the House were excruciating. The level of spending was lower than Bivins wanted, but at least he had a deal. He asked himself, “Was it enough?” Late one night, when all but a few details had been worked out, he sat in his office and wondered if he could have done more for higher education, kids needing health insurance, the disabled, and the elderly. “I didn’t want to let egos get in the way,” he sighed. In a capitol brimming with lawmakers greedy for attention, he never let himself forget that writing a humane budget was a task too important for gamesmanship.
THE BEST: Dianne Delisi
Dianne Delisi has a peculiar idea about politics: She thinks that you can succeed just by coming up with good ideas, working hard, and being nice. Well, that might work for the president of the PTA back home, but everybody knows that the way to get ahead in the Capitol lies in making powerful friends, raising the flag of your ambition, valuing loyalty over independence, and learning how to manipulate the legislative process to your benefit. The system is particularly cruel to women who are classy and–dare we use a description that’s deadly in politics?–sweet. So here’s to classy, sweet Delisi. Patronized and punished in the Democratic years (she helped Spoeaker Craddick mount electoral challenges aginst incumbent D’s), she had a great session, doing things her way.
She came up with good ideas. Delisi solved one of the session’s biggest diilemmas: how to fund the state’s red ink-stained trauma hospitals when no money was available. A staffer came across a New Jersey plan to assess points against drivers who speed, cause accidents, or get ticketed for DUIs; drivers who accumulate six points must pay large penalties to the state to have their licenses renewed. The rationale is that bad drivers cause trauma injuries, so they should help pay for the treatment. The program will raise $200 million in the first two years after the law takes effect, then $240 million a year after that.
She worked hard. She lobbied colleagues to co-sponsor her bill, signing up more than two thirds of the House in support of it. In the meantime, she had to fend off the governor’s office and later the doctors, both of which cast greedy eyes on that huge pot of new money.
She was nice. When Senator Florence Shapiro, of Plano, likewise discovered the New Jersey plan, she wanted to use the revenue to fund Governor Perry’s traffic-mobility bill. Delisi and Shapiro reached a handshake deal to split the money.
Delisi has become more partisan over the years, which is not surprising: Her son, Ted, is a Republican consultant and her daughter-in-law, Deirdre, works for Perry. But she remains a conservative who cares about education and health care and talks about helping the “kiddos.” Says a Democratic colleague: “She cares. She tries. If all one hundred fifty cared and tried, we’d be in great shape.”
THE BEST: David Dewhurst-R
For thirty years our policy has been that presiding officers are not eligible for the Best or Worst list except in exceptional circumstances. These are exceptional circumstances. David Dewhurst began with the lowest of expectations and ended with the highest of praise. The former land commissioner’s election as lieutenant governor last November touched off speculation that senators would strip him of the powers of the office. Everyone assumed he would take his cues from the more experienced members of the Capitol triumvirate, Governor Perry and Speaker Craddick.
Yes indeed. He met with every senator, not to talk but to listen, and flabbergasted them by taking notes. He told lobbyists who had supported his Democratic opponent, John Sharp, that he would not hold it against them. He assembled a superb staff. And he made committee appointments that delivered on his pledge to engage R’s and D’s alike and take the best ideas from each.
Having put himself in a position to govern, Dewhurst then made the defining decision of the session: While Perry and Craddick pledged to erase the mammoth budget deficit through spending cuts, Dewhurst announced that he would instead identify “essential services” and look for ways to fund them without raising taxes. A huge sigh of relief went up all over Texas.
Dewhurst and the Senate kept hitting the bull’s-eye. They cleaned up in the House’s tort-reform mess. They avoided the blowup over redistricting that brought the House to a standstill. They even came up with a school-finance bill that slashed property taxes in half, as if to prove Perry wrong for saying that the colossal problem should be put off until a special session. The House ignored that bill, and some would argue that dewhurst’s anger over the snub revealed a newcomer’s naiveté. No matter. He was the unlikely hero of the session. He put the state’s needs ahead of an ideological agenda. He took the moral high ground and held it. That’s what being a leader is all about.
THE BEST: Robert Duncan
Like the Good Samaritan who assisted the injured stranger, Robert Duncan couldn’t resist the call of friendless but worthy causes. If there was a difficult job that absolutely had to be performed, senators could always count on him to do the right thing (or, as he says in his West Texas twang, the “raht thing”). Just as in the parable, he made sure that dying bills were restored to health.
Nothing had a more dire prognosis this session than the health insurance program for retired teachers, which has been sliding toward bankruptcy for a decade. When Senate Finance Committee chairman Teel Bivins saw the gravity of the situation, he turned the complex and politically treacherous problem over to Duncan with simple instructions: Fix it. And fix it Duncan did, though the only viable prescription for solvency–raising premiums on teachers and forcing school districts to chip in–would not be popular. During Senate debate on the issue, he told his colleagues, “It’s pay now or lose later. Although it hurts today, I will tell you we will pay the price. We have put our head in the sand too many years.” They swallowed the medicine.
Duncan performed many more good deeds out of the limelight, knowing he would receive no public acclaim. He doggedly pursued a better system for selecting judges (it died in the House), tweaked procedural rules to make mental-competency hearings fairer for criminal defendants, and served on tort reform sponsor Bill Ratliff’s kitchen cabinet. He backed away from his initial support of a controversial proposal by builders to resolve disputes with homebuyers without lawsuits, sending lobbyists into a tizzy, then fashioned a compromise that protected buyers from shoddy workmanship.
If there is a rap against Duncan, it’s that he’s a great ally but not yet a leader on big issues. He started his career as general counsel to a committee chaired by his predecessor, John Montford, and his low-key manner and self-effacing style are more suited to advising Senate bulls than being one. Still, he does have a threshold of outrage, as a House member discovered during a work session on the budget after suggesting that the health benefits of children of undocumented immigrants be cut off. “These are children we’re talking about!” Duncan exploded, ever the Good Samaritan.
THE BEST: Craig Eiland
Think of the change in leadership in the House, from Democrat to Republican, as a geological cataclysm akin to the meteor crash in the Yucatan Peninsula 65 million years ago that led to the extinction of the dinosaurs. Now imagine that, as the dust settles, one loneTyrannosaurus rex survives to find his place among the mammals. Meet Craig Eiland, the only Democrat who kept his independence from the Craddic team yet managed to grow in stature and influence during the session.
Easily recognizable on the House floor for his ramrod posture. Eiland was a major player in three of the biggest issues of the session: human services funding, tort reform, and homeowners’ insurance reform. The reasons he succeeded where other Democrats failed provide an object lesson in how to be a member of the minority: maintain good relations with the other side, operate behind the scenes instead of fighting on the House floor, and value compromise over conflict. Eiland and Republican healthcare guru Arlene Wohlgemuth built a relationship last session out of their shared concern over insufficient funding of nursing homes; it paid off when he and Wohlgemuth generally agreed that any cuts in aid to the poor should fall on the most well-off (participants in the Children’s Health Insurance Program with incomes well above the povety line) rather than the least well-off (Medicaid recipients). In the tort-reform fight, he persuaded the bill’s sponsor, Republican Joe Nixon, to accept an amendment guaranteeing that injured people will not lose their insurance benefits if they win lawsuit damages.
Eiland’s most valuable contribution came in the fight over homeowners’ insurance reform, when he found a middle ground between free-market Republicans, who want companies to be able to change their rates first and then submit to regulation, and regulation-minded Democrats, who want the reverse. His achievements were even more impressive in light of what was occurring in his personal life; in the middle of the session, his wife gave birth to premature twins whose lives hung in the balance. They’re fine now, and thanks to Eiland, so is a lot of good legislation. After the insurance bill passed, its Republican sponsor, John Smithee, paid his Democratic ally a rare tribute from the microphone: “There would not be an insurance bill without the work of Craig Eiland.”
THE BEST: Irma Rangel
If she had been nothing more than the first Hispanic woman elected to the Legislature, Irma Rangel would deserve her place in our political pantheon. But she was so much more. She was a mentor, a role model, and a lawmaker who in 1997 passed a bill that changed Texas: It provided that any high school student who ranks in the top 10 percent of his graduating class automatically qualifies for admission to any state college or university. The bill was a response to a federal court decision that prohibited affirmative action admissions policies at Texas colleges. The prospect of plummeting minority enrollment at the University of Texas at Austin and Texas A&M University imperiled the flagships’ political support, state funding, and ability to recruit and retain top faculty. Rangel’s fix saved the day. At UT-Austin, minority enrollment in the 2003 freshman class is higher than it was under affirmative action; as a whole, the class has the highest academic qualifications in the university’s history.
Rangel’s death in March robbed her crabby colleagues of a much-needed example of bipartisanship and goodwill. During her 26 years in the House, she dispensed more sweets than Hershey’s. She kept a large stash at her desk and used it to great effect. “Ooh, baby,” she would say to the conservative country boys. “Vote for my bill and I’ll give you some candy.” Sometimes she could pass legislation by saying little more at the microphone than, “Ooh, this is such a good bill, I know you’re going to like it.”
In her lasat two sessions, Rangel battled breast cancer, then ovarian cancer, then brain cancer. She took to wearing brightly colored hats to hide the ravages of her treatment; in 2001 a group of women legislators, followed by two male colleagues honored her by traipsing down the center aisle of the House chamber sporting Rangel-style hats. At the end of this session, her memory was honored in a different chamber and in a different way: with a Senate filibuster that killed a proposal to limit admissions under the 10 percent rule to 60 percent of the entering class. For now, thanks to Irma Rangel, any Texas high school student of any race who is willing to work hard can still earn access to the best education the state offers.
THE BEST: Bill Ratliff
Let’s be honest. We knew on the first day of the session that unless Bill Ratliff lost his mind, he was going to be on the Best list. Everybody knew. He is, as one lobbyist put it, “a redwood among the pines.” The question then became what new phrase we could find to describe this man’s public service, when we’d used up so many accolades in previous years. In 1991 we wrote that he was “a totally free man–free of partisanship, egotism, ambition.” In 1997 we noted that his Senate colleagues had knighted him “Obi-Wan Kenobi,” after the Star Wars master, for his wisdom. In 2001 he was “an unwavering North Star in a political universe in serious need of guidance, moral and otherwise.”
What’s left? How about canonization? It is an arduous procedure, requiring proof of “heroic virtue” and two miracles. Saint Bill of Mount Pleasant demonstrated plenty of the former when he returned to his desk on the Senate floor after serving as lieutenant governor, a post to which his colleagues elected him after Perry’s promotion to governor. He bypassed running for a full term rather than mortgage his independence to bigwig Republican donors and handled his reentry with grace and class. He refused to let the bitterness of that experience impede his work with Dewhurst, who used his vast personal fortune to win the office Ratliff coveted. Now for the miracles. Forget loaves and fishes: After he was ingeniously picked up by Dewhurst to fix the overreaching tort-reform legislation passed by the House, Ratliff took a fetid stew of special interests and reworked it into a palatable dish that may become a national model, with creative solutions for encouraging settlements in a fair manner. He held out as long as he could against arbitrary limits on pain and suffering awards to victims of medical malpractice; then, just when it seemed he had chosen martyrdom, he achieved a compromise that doubled the amount injured parties could receive in some circumstances.
For his second miracle, Ratliff simply spoke the truth. He took the Senate floor to say that the budget was a disgrace, that instread of cutting essential services, the Legislature should have raised taxes. Fora Republican to say that without getting burned at the stake–now that is truly miraculous.
THE BEST: John Whitmire
The lofty title Dean of the Texas State Senate is bestowed each session on the senator with the longest tenure and carries with it the unspoken responsibility of protecting the chamber’s dignity and traditions. As with English kings, however, the line of succession does not always produce someone suited to the job. Carlos Traun, the previous occupant of the post, was the George III of deans, and when the mantle fell upon John Whitmire this year, the first thing that came to naysayers’ minds was his nickname: Boogie. Remember the final scene in Animal House, when we find out what the future holds for the frat boys? John Belushi’s grinning mug flashes on the screen, and we’re asked to believe that his character grows up to be a U.S. senator. No less improbable was Whitmire’s transformation from class clown to steadfast statesman.
He was the reliable anchor that kept the Senate from drifting off into the partisan storms roiling the House budget, Whitmire convinced them that offering floor amendments would weaken Senate solidarity in later negotiations with the House, whose bill was even more miserly. When Democrat Mario Gallegos wanted to show an inflammatory video during the budget debate of several constituents talking about the effects of cuts, Whitmire argued that it was an unprecedented practice that would destroy decorum.
How did Whitmire earn such respect? A few weeks into the session, watching partisan vitriol sweep the House, he invited his colleagues to a Thursday-morning breakfast–no shoptalk allowed–that brought the Senate together and solidified his stature as dean. Never was his role more important than on the second day of the Ardmore adventure. During a meeting of Whitmire’s Criminal Justice Committee, a hotheaded Republican fumed about the absent House sponsors and questioned why the committee should hold hearings on their bills. “You’re fixing to walk out of this meeting because they walked out, and before you know it, it’s a feeding frenzy,” Whitmire said, announcing his intention for senators to go forward with business as usual. And as usual, they did.
THE BEST: Arlene Wohlgemuth
Another session, another letter. Two years ago we wrote to warn you that we were about to ruin your standing with your conservative pals by naming you to the Best list. But you can’t blame us this year. It’s your own fault. Your Republican colleagues were having the time of their lives–gleefully anticipating closing that $9.9 billion budget shortfall by tossing 25,000 people out of nursing homes and by zapping home health aides for 80,000 elderly and disabled folks who can’t bathe or groom themselves–when you ended the party by announcing that you had arranged for $2.75 billion more in human services spending. That was one of the turning points of the session, the kind of stand-up-and-be-counted action that will get you on the Best list every time. There’s even a rumor that you asked Governor Perry to raise the cigarette [expletive deleted] for even more relief.
Not that anyone ought to doubt your conservative credentials: The giant human-services reorganization bill you passed will go a long way toward achieving your goal of changing the culture of government aid to the poor by making recipients demonstrate personal responsibility (such as getting a job). The feds say Texas has to make this change or lose federal funds. Your bill does make it harder to get some services, but it also tries to save money through efficiency. Making drug companies pay rebates to the state for having their madicines put on a preferred list is a great idea.
You’ve come so far from the days when your critics referred to you as Woolly Mammoth, playing on your name and what they considered to be your prehistoric politics. Now a group of female colleagues call you Ice because of the way you keep your cool in debate. Your wardrobe buttresses your image: only solid colors, always a jacket for a shield, everything underscoring the solidity of your arguments–especially that formidable helmet of hair.
Please permit us one suggestion: Since your bill providing for “Choose Life” license plates went down, you might reconsider whether a lawmaker of your stature should politicize something so trivial. It’s bad enough to have to share Interstate 35 with UT and Aggie cars chasing each other down the road; do we have to fight Roe v. Wade at 75 miles per hour?
THE BEST: Steve Wolens
Steve Wolens isn’t much of a sports fan, so he isn’t likely to appreciate a baseball metaphor, but he seemed this session like a Hall of Fame-bound pitcher who has lost a little of his zest for the game. He still throws his fastball as hard as ever, but the new crop of umpires don’t give him the corners like the old ones did. He doesn’t get along so well with the skipper either, although for many years they were teammates. Nor does he enjoy the roadtrips, especially now that his wife is in a league of her own. Plug in Republicans, Speaker Craddick, and Dallas mayor Laura Miller at the appropriate places in this scenario, and you have to wonder how long Wolens will stay on the mound.
Make no mistake about it, though: He’s still got good stuff. At the end of the session, he passed the best ethics bill in the history of the Texas Legislature. It bars lawmakers from representing clients before state agencies; it requires the disclosure of referral fees and legislative continuances to delay trials; it sheds light on lobbyists who are related to lawmakers (does the name Christi Craddick ring a bell?); it calls for electronic filing of campaign and officeholder funds and, for the first time ever, disclosure by county and city officials; and it even implants a bicuspid or two in the previously toothless Texas Ethics Commission.
Along the way, however, Wolens had to deal with Craddick weakening his bill, the Senate trying to kill it, and fellow House members complaining publicly that he was negotiating solo, as is his wont. Wolens fought back with a press conference in which he assailed everybody, the theory being that the only way you can pass a good ethics bill is to make it too visible for opponents to kill it. In the end, the bill passed 133-8, and Craddick graciously let Wolens’ young son Max bring down the gavel. One of the great legislators of the modern era logged another big win. Now let’s all hope he continues to be a player. And if he doesn’t, he can always manage…Laura’s campaigns.
THE WORST: Lon Burnam
“For Texans who’ve wondered whether there’s a politician walking the halls of the state Capitol who actually votes his or her conscience without first taking an opinion poll,” began a January 16 editorial in the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, “wonder no longer.” And who might that rare fellow be? Why, it’s Lon Burnam, “the lone dissenting voice in the path of the juggernaut” that propelled Craddick to the speakership. As for the likelihood that Burnam might face retribution, the editorial noted, “Let’s be real—in a GOP-controlled statehouse, Burnam was roadkill before the first gavel pounded.”
The editorial reflects a certain view of politics: that your fate is determined by which team you play on, not how well you play. But even in the highly partisan House under Craddick, that just wasn’t true. Craig Eiland wasn’t roadkill. Steve Wolens wasn’t roadkill. They followed their conscience and made the Best list. There’s an easy way to avoid being roadkill: Stay out of the road. Burnam jumped onto Interstate 35 during rush hour when he voted against Craddick. Other Democrats voted for Craddick not because they were craven but because they didn’t want to look petty and partisan on a meaningless vote. There would be plenty of meaningful issues to take a stand on later.
But not for Burnam. Craddick banished him to the Agriculture and Livestock Committee, one of Dante’s lower circles—particularly for someone like Burnam, who doesn’t eat red meat. (To his credit, Burnam, who has a sense of humor, marked his first committee meeting by showing up on the House floor in blue jeans, a denim jacket, and a cowboy tie given him by a colleague.)
In the previous session, he served on the Insurance Committee; had he remained on the panel, he would have been in the middle of the fight over soaring homeowners’ rates, thereby situated to help his constituents. Instead, he was reduced to defending his relevance. “Are you aware,” he asked the author of an amendment, “that I started talking about the homeowner-insurance crisis my first term as a freshman legislator, six years ago? . . . And are you aware that we filed legislation to try to address the crisis? . . . [N]obody wanted to listen.” They didn’t then, Lon, and they don’t now.
THE WORST: Gabi Canales
What a dismal story this is. A young lawyer gets elected to the House, and even before she is sworn in, she cashes in, using a legal but long-discredited stratagem available only to legislator-lawyers: the legislative continuance. State law provides that lawmakers with pending cases can ask for a delay until after the 140-day session is over, and judges have no choice but to grant it. The device has long been criticized as allowing legislator-lawyers to rent themselves out to anyone who wants to delay a lawsuit. Gabi Canales, whose law practice involved mainly family matters and criminal cases, was hired by Wyeth, a maker of the diet drug fen-phen, to help defend the company against major lawsuits filed in Texas. With her on board, the trials had to be postponed.
Legislative continuances often fly under the radar, but—unluckily for Canales—not this time. Texans for Public Justice, an Austin-based watchdog group, asked her and two other legislators to disclose the continuances they had sought; the other two complied, but she didn’t. TPJ then sued her to force disclosure (the suit is still pending). A state appellate court ruled that Wyeth’s legal team had “engaged in, at the very least, questionable conduct by using the tactical advantage the legislative continuance provides,” but it was powerless to prevent the delay.
Another Canales continuance also raised eyebrows. Not only did her participation delay the trial, but it also forced the recusal of the trial judge—her father, Terry Canales, who had been overseeing the case for two years. Longtime connoisseurs of the Best and the Worst list may recall the elder Canales as the “Unidentified Flying Object” of the 1975 session; as a sophomore legislator, he missed all but three roll calls from January to mid-March, and when he finally showed up, we wrote, “the Speaker asked to see the credentials of this ‘stranger in our midst.'” At least that was humorous. His daughter’s antics were not. She besmirched the body, brought opprobrium upon it, and gave a cynical public one more reason to loathe politics. That is the surest way to get on the Worst list.
THE WORST: Yvonne Davis
Some people carry a chip on their shoulder. Yvonne Davis carries the whole tree. So frequently does her participation in debate turn sour that the Capitol crowd refers to her as Whyvonne, as in, “Why is she acting like this?” Never was that question on more lips than in the final minutes of the final calendar of the session, when Davis engaged in a serial killing of five harmless, innocent, otherwise uncontested bills.
It’s not hard to figure out why Davis was mad this session. The Republicans had taken over the House, she had lost her committee chairmanship, and her legislative program was destined for oblivion. A lot of her fellow Democrats were in the same situation, but only Davis had a public temper tantrum over it. When a bill she favored died in a Senate committee, she sought vengeance against the chairman’s bills awaiting passage in the House, even though they were on a special calendar for noncontroversial local and consent bills. House rules, however, allow any member to defeat such a bill by talking about it for ten minutes. And Davis had a lot to say: All the grudges she had been nursing for the session spilled out.
One bill authorized municipal development districts to create jobs. “Are there other ideas in the state that might provide jobs?” Davis asked. “I think you had some,” acknowledged the House sponsor. “‘Had’ is the operative word,” Davis shot back. “This isn’t a session where any of that matters, apparently.” Senate Bill 1903, R.I.P. Next came a proposal for a bioscience economic development district in Temple. Davis fired away: “Do you know my district needs jobs as well? Do you think your bill is the only one that will help with the tax base? Do you know how many bills we passed on this floor that directly impact my district in a negative manner? Do you know how many children are not going to get health care because of the bills we passed on this floor?” Senate Bill 1944, R.I.P.
This is just plain old legislative terrorism—blowing up something not for any justifiable reason, but because the world isn’t the way you want it to be, and if you can’t have what you want, the next best thing is keeping somebody else from having what he wants. Why ask why?
THE WORST: Governor Rick Perry
Referring to California’s budgetary woes, Governor Rick Perry said, “I get up every day and thank God I don’t live in California.” To which Hilary McLean, the chief deputy press secretary to California governor Gray Davis, replied, “I’m sure there are millions of Californians who wake up every day and are glad of that too.” Love-15.
THE WORST: Tom DeLay
Would someone please give Tom DeLay a map? No, not a redistricting map. He has plenty of those. A road map. He’s a member of the House of Representatives, all right, but it’s the one in Congress, not the one on Congress Avenue. That didn’t stop him from trying to force a congressional redistricting bill through the Legislature and, in the process, blowing up the session.
DeLay, of course, is a former pest exterminator turned majority leader of the U.S. House. The pests he hopes to exterminate these days are Democratic members of Congress from Texas. His plan called for the Legislature to draw new districts that could enable Republicans to defeat as many as five Democratic incumbents, solidifying what is currently a precarious 23-seat GOP margin (see Texas Monthly Reporter: FAQ, “Map Quest,” page 56). The justification was that the current boundaries, adopted by a federal court in 2001, elected seventeen Democrats and fifteen Republicans, a ratio that does not reflect the parties’ true voting strength.
Regardless of whether the argument is reasonable, the process was not. Months passed without any action. Then, in the final weeks of the session, DeLay produced a series of bizarre maps, turning Capitol onlookers into instant art critics. A Jackson Pollock masterpiece? Or a Picasso in Silly Putty? DeLay totally disregarded Texas’ interests; he put Fort Hood into a district anchored in San Antonio, forcing the world’s largest military installation to compete with San Antonio bases for funding, and carved Austin, a major research center, into four districts, two of which ran to the perimeter of the state.
You know the rest. As the session wound down, Speaker Craddick scheduled DeLay’s bill for debate, putting it ahead of critical state legislation. Democrats bolted for Oklahoma, killing the bill for the time being. (Redistricting will probably return, with public input and less-ridiculous cartography, in a special session.) The rest of the session was thrown into chaos. Craddick’s defenders say that he was under pressure from the White House; the Democrats’ defenders say they were standing on principle. And DeLay’s defenders? You mean, not counting the Republicans who want to run for Congress?
THE WORST: Jim Dunnam
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.
THE WORST: Debbie Riddle
Following testimony before a House committee about health problems along the border, she told the El Paso Times, “Where did this idea come from that everybody deserves free education, free medical care, free whatever? It comes from Moscow, from Russia. It comes straight out of the pit of hell.”
THE WORST: Troy Fraser
Two sessions ago Troy Fraser made the Worst list because of his propensity for snatching bills from other senators. We noted then that his ambition to handle major legislation exceeded his colleagues’ faith in his competence. Could this raucous kindergartner handle the difficult first-grade requirements: Wait your turn, don’t shove, think before you speak? Alas, the answer is still no.
As chairman of the Senate Business and Commerce Committee, Fraser was the class bully who needed to be given a time-out. Senators sighed with relief when the huge tort-reform bill was assigned to heavyweight Ratliff, but then the homeowners’ insurance-reform bill ended up in Fraser’s purview. He muscled aside Mike Jackson, the bill’s author, to force a one-sided, pro-industry version through committee, only to have eleven Democrats send a letter to Lieutenant Governor Dewhurst threatening to use procedural rules to block the bill altogether. Fraser sulked. The Democrats, he told reporters, “don’t really want insurance reform.” Having questioned their scruples in public, he questioned their intelligence in backroom meetings: “If you understood how competition works . . .” began one Fraser lecture to a fellow senator. He has yet to figure out that the Senate works through collegiality, not confrontation. His solution to the insurance stalemate was to try to win over a Democrat or two and run over the remainder. The leadership had to point out that it was better to compromise than to risk having the snubbed Democrats harden into a permanent opposition that could ruin the session.
Fraser slid off the learning curve again when he fumbled his explanation of a bill allowing homebuilders to avoid lawsuits from disgruntled buyers through administrative appeals. He had to withdraw it from consideration until other senators who did understand it could help him rewrite it. Heard enough? Let’s let Fraser have the last word. A colleague was arguing against a constitutional amendment that would tie the hands of future Legislatures when Fraser leaped to his feet with a rebuttal: “I don’t want to go home this session and have to explain to my voters, ‘Trust me. I’ll do the right thing.'” It was the most convincing argument he’d made all session.
THE WORST: Eddie Lucio
Your cheatin’ heart will make you weep.
You’ll cry and cry and try to sleep.
But sleep won’t come the whole night through.
Your cheatin’ heart will tell on you.
Some might argue that all’s fair in love and politics. But in the Senate, fidelity is the essential virtue. A margin of two thirds of the 31 senators is necessary to pass most bills, and members work behind the scenes to collect the 21 commitments needed to pass a bill or the 11 needed to defeat it. But Eddie Lucio’s vows meant nothing. Take his performance on a constitutional amendment imposing limits on lawsuit awards. Twelve Democrats signed a letter to Lieutenant Governor Dewhurst vowing to block debate. Unfortunately, Lucio was one of them. Three hours after he signed the letter calling the bill a “patently anti-civil justice, anti-consumer” proposal, he voted for it, and two other signatories followed suit. Perhaps it was those sugar daddies at Texans for Lawsuit Reform who made a pass, causing Lucio to swoon.
If he was a sweet talker at some times, he seemed to be a streetwalker at others. When Republicans pressed early in the session for redrawing congressional districts, Lucio said he’d support the idea as long as South Texas—we took that to mean “Lucio”—got a new district. Then Democrats pressured him into changing his stance to what Lucio not-so-coyly described as a “soft no,” the legislative equivalent of lifting his skirt in the rotunda, just in case Republicans hadn’t gotten the message of how easy it would be to recapture his affections.
Fast Eddie was at it again on a bill restricting asbestos lawsuits. Proponents, including Governor Perry, were counting on his vote. So, of course, were opponents. When Lucio ended the suspense by coming out against the bill, Perry was so infuriated that he barged onto the Senate floor without waiting for the required invitation, gripped Lucio by the lapels, and loudly expressed his displeasure. Even tears, that old trick—Lucio blamed his switch on a misty-eyed colleague—couldn’t save him from himself. Cue music:
Your cheatin’ heart will pine some day,
And crave the love you threw away.
The time will come when you’ll be blue.
Your cheatin’ heart will tell on you.
THE WORST: Joe Nixon
In the different fates of Joe Nixon and Bill Ratliff lies a message about how politics works. Each is a Republican. Each worked hard on tort reform. Each guided a version of the bill through his chamber pretty much intact, without unwanted amendments. Yet Nixon is on the Worst list and Ratliff is on the Best list. What’s the difference?
In a word, perception. Ratliff long ago made his reputation as his own man, someone who is totally independent, but Nixon was carrying his first important bill. It was crucial for him to establish his independence, but when he kept opposing reasonable amendments (along with a lot of clearly unreasonable ones), he began to look like a lobby lapdog. Sometimes he was disingenuous, as when he described the tort-reform effort as being about how we live together as a society. Everybody on both sides knew better. It was about making it easier for defendants to win lawsuits, that is, about money.
At times Nixon didn’t even bother to make cogent arguments. When Democrat Steve Wolens, a lawyer, asked in debate whether a judge was required in class-action lawsuits to refer the case to a state agency for review—”Am I reading this wrong? Please tell me I am?”—Nixon’s response was “I’m not sure that you are or are not. And this is the great thing about the law. Anytime you get two lawyers together, you get four opinions.” Very authoritative.
Nixon’s bill started to leak credibility, especially when Democrats forced him to send it back to committee briefly because he had held an impromptu meeting behind closed doors, apparently in violation of House rules. By the time the bill passed the House by the expected large margin, Nixon had lost the message war. Ratliff had a clear field to write the fair tort-reform bill he wanted; only in medical-malpractice damage limitations did he have to compromise with the House. The provisions Nixon had failed to make a case for disappeared—as did his chance of staying off the Worst list.
THE WORST: Robert Talton
Robert Talton’s legislative program consists primarily of trying to enact his prejudices into law. He is far from the first to come to the House for such a purpose, but what sets him apart are the fury of his biases and the extremity of his remedies. Take, for example, his bill disqualifying homosexuals or bisexuals from becoming foster parents. It makes the Patriot Act look like the Bill of Rights. First, it requires social-service workers to inquire whether the foster parent has a naughty sexual preference. Then, if the answer is no, the workers must still conduct an investigation to determine whether it’s true. How are they supposed to do that? The imagination teems with prurient possibilities.
The bill was so awful that Speaker Craddick sent it to a committee with a Democratic majority to ensure a quick and permanent burial. Talton didn’t get the hint. He drafted a new version that applied to unmarried individuals. Worried that the gay and lesbian lobby might want to discuss the bill, he posted DPS officers at his door to prevent them from entering. Again, the bill died, but not before Talton, trying to escape media questions, batted away a TV reporter’s microphone.
Talton once dominated a committee hearing for around 45 minutes, holding forth on his support of the death penalty and its biblical origins. “None of the books of the Bible do away with capital punishment,” he said. “Some say that the government slayed Jesus. That is not where it came from and why.” He talked about how God punishes the wicked and how one of the ways he does so is by death. When a witness tried to disagree, he said, “I’ll be glad to go and get my Bible on my desk and show it to you.”
At the end of the session, Talton was at it again. This time the object of his ire was gambling—namely, bringing Powerball to Texas. If he was successful, the budget wouldn’t have enough money to balance and a special session would be necessary. The governor’s office wanted him to relent. No chance. Instead, they had to round up the votes to beat him. Count your blessings.
THE WORST: Beverly Woolley
She was Madame Defarge, knitting the names of future victims into the quilt of her memory. Beverly Woolley personified the worst aspect of the new Republican majority in the House: its insatiable appetite for payback against Democrats. And what had the Democrats done, really, except run the state for 130 years—and pretty damn well too—while helping a Republican governor become the president of the United States?
As chair of the calendars committee, Woolley was perfectly situated to be an avenging angel. Her committee guarded the tollgate through which all bills of any import had to pass before reaching the House floor. Let us not be Claude Rains here. We’re not shocked—shocked!—that Woolley used her position to help the Craddick team and its allies advance their bills. Calendars chairs have been doing that for the leadership since the position was invented. What was shocking was that she ran over people publicly. You’re not supposed to leave fingerprints, much less tread marks. But one particularly contentious day during the particularly contentious tort-reform debate, Democrats wanted to appeal a ruling by Speaker Craddick. The motion required no signatures or votes, just an informal show of hands—ten, to be exact. An infuriated Woolley raced to the microphone to say that she wanted a list of the offenders’ names . . . “Now!”
Equally wild and Woolley was her effort to limit amendments to the congressional-redistricting plan. Debate was scheduled for Monday, May 12; on the previous Friday evening, she asked the House to adopt a calendars committee rule requiring amendments to be in by Sunday at noon. Democrats pointed out that a huge calendar of bills was set to be debated on Saturday, and Sunday was Mother’s Day, so when were they supposed to draft their amendments? And what about the state employees who had to prepare the technical data? Might they want to spend some time with their mothers? “Sometimes those sacrifices are necessary,” said Woolley, who claimed that the Democrats were being given one more day than the Democratic House had allowed two years ago in a similar situation. It wasn’t true. Democrats looked it up; they had allowed four days for amendments, not less than a day and a half. All we can say is, If you’d been there, you’d have gone to Ardmore too.
Best Alternative Nickname for The Killer D’s
Weapons of Mass Obstruction
Killer D’s playing cards
U.S. forces in Iraq used playing cards bearing the likenesses of Saddam Hussein and his henchmen to hunt them down. When the Democrats fled the Capitol to defeat the congressional-redistricting bill, political consultant James Bernsen came up with a similar pack to help Republicans track them down. Some of his best customers turned out to be those same missing Democrats, who proved that a half-full House can be a winning hand.
Best Additions to the Legislative Lexicon
CHEMICAL COUNCIL A group of Republican women lawmakers close to Tom Craddick, so named because all dye their hair.
WD-40’S Middle-aged, white Democratic lawmakers, once the backbone of Texas politics but now an endangered species.
LOBBY CRACK Altoids, which are consumed by lobbyists in great quantities during boring committee meetings to ward off involuntary slumber.
OWNERS’ BOX The section of the House gallery where tort-reform advocates, who had made large campaign contributions to Republicans, watched the b