The Eighty-First Legislature was like Seinfeld: a show about nothing. It was dominated by an event that was a year away, the looming 2010 Republican gubernatorial primary battle between Rick Perry and Kay Bailey Hutchison, and by issues that were political rather than substantive, none more so than the session-long battle over voter ID. And it achieved nothing, other than an endless succession of dying bills, forlorn hopes, and bitter recriminations in the closing days.
The major event of the session was a sea change in the leadership, as Joe Straus replaced Tom Craddick as Speaker. This upgrade brought about an instant change in the culture of the House, and for most of the session the lower chamber functioned in a bipartisan manner that was reminiscent of the Pete Laney era. Straus was so immersed in learning his new job that he did not really work closely with the other members of the leadership troika, Governor Perry and Lieutenant Governor David Dewhurst. But it is clear that he is not their kind of Republican, and vice versa. That difference will become evident soon enough.
Of the few success stories, the most notable was the 2010—2011 state budget, which was rescued from red ink by the timely arrival of federal stimulus dollars. Budget negotiators juggled the welcome largesse to provide much-needed funding for public schools (including start-up money for prekindergarten), health care, and highways. But the good news is destined to be short-lived, because—spoiler alert!—a combination of spending needs, tax cuts, and revenue shortfalls have created a structural deficit in future years that even an economic rebound may not be sufficient to overcome.
And so another session is on the books. This legislative wrap-up marks the nineteenth time, beginning with the Sixty-Third Legislature, in 1973, that we have compiled our list of the Best and Worst lawmakers. Our criteria are those that members apply to one another: Who is trustworthy? Who gets things done? Who brings credit upon the Legislature and who brings shame? Who does his homework? Who looks for ways to solve problems and who looks for ways to create them? Who is hamstrung by ideology and partisanship and who can rise above them? Politics is not just about conservatives and liberals and Republicans and Democrats. It is and always will be about personality and relationships and comportment—not that there’s anything wrong with that.
THE BEST: Senator John Carona
Say “Carona” around the state capitol and people immediately think of Mexican beer, but not the brand you’d assume. This session, Carona was the Most Interesting Man in the World, just like the debonair star of the Dos Equis commercials.
Cue the sexy guitar solo:
His reputation is expanding faster than the universe . . .
When his fellow Republicans advocated changing Senate rules to permit passage of the voter ID bill with a simple majority rather than the two thirds required of every other bill, Carona foresaw partisan furor. He voted no, even though he supported voter ID. Changing the rules to win? Not his style.
He once had an awkward moment, just to see how it feels . . .
Despite vociferous opposition from antitax ideologues, Carona sponsored a bill giving local governments authority to raise taxes for transportation projects. When Perry and Dewhurst threatened to kill it, Carona marched the lieutenant governor to the governor’s office for a confrontation. He prevailed in the Senate but ultimately lost in a last-minute power play. In defeat, he was both defiant and resolute, chastising both the governor and lieutenant governor for failing to address transportation funding needs.
He lives vicariously, through himself . . .
At one point, the Senate appeared poised to reject an amendment for more funding for supervision of foster children until Carona pronounced it a good idea. On went the amendment. As chairman of the Transportation Committee, Carona was collaborative but brooked no nonsense. When an irate witness threatened committee members, he promptly had him removed.
After his local tax option failed, Carona vowed to return next session “tougher and smarter.” To which we say, “Salud.”
THE BEST: Senator Robert Duncan
He’s a walking, breathing argument against term limits. A member of the Legislature since 1996, Duncan brings his accumulated knowledge and wisdom to bear on a colossal agenda of real consequence. This session, there was hardly an issue—the budget, eminent domain, health care reform, college tuition—that wasn’t improved by his intellectual rigor and deft touch as a mediator.
Some lawmakers become hardened after too many years in office; Duncan has become more independent. He broke rank with advocates of tort reform, his old allies, because he believed recent court decisions misinterpreted laws involving the injured and the ill. And he should know: He wrote them. Drawing from a deep well of respect, he persuaded his Senate colleagues to make concessions for workers afflicted with mesothelioma, an asbestos-related illness. The normally invincible tort reform lobby beat a hasty retreat to the House to kill the bill there.
A perennial lament in the Legislature is the dearth of nationally recognized research universities in Texas. Duncan crafted an ingenious road map for emerging schools to win additional funding by meeting elevated scholarly criteria. While critics griped that the criteria were skewed in favor of his alma mater and hometown university, Texas Tech, he firmly opposed efforts to water down the bill.
Duncan’s low boiling point served him—and the Senate—well when he presided over the contentious hearing on the voter ID bill, gently admonishing lawmakers when they began speaking past one another. Having spent so many years in the Senate, he has a stake in preserving the dignity of the institution.
THE BEST: Representative Craig Eiland
In a normal session, he would have had a wide-ranging legislative program involving insurance reforms and other consumer issues, but this was not a normal year for him or his storm-ravaged hometown. Not surprisingly, most of the bills he passed dealt with hurricane recovery efforts, such as waiving a deadline for paying ad valorem taxes in the event of a disaster.
All members try to direct state money to their districts, but for Eiland and Galveston, doing so was literally a matter of survival. Notwithstanding the economic crisis and the reluctance of conservative lawmakers to tap the Rainy Day Fund, he was able to get more than $400 million to help rebuild the coast. Amid the chaos of the last weekend of the session, a colleague allowed Eiland to attach an authorization for $150 million in construction bonds for the University of Texas Medical Branch to a related bill, and his work seemed to be done. No, it wasn’t. Off he went to negotiate a crucial bill to reestablish the state windstorm insurance fund so that money would be available to pay future claims.
Now Eiland could turn his attention to presiding over the House as speaker pro tem. This job, largely honorific, turned serious when the House became locked in a bitter partisan struggle over which bills should be debated in the closing days and in what order. Day after day, he made difficult parliamentary rulings in a soothing voice that managed to take the edge off the partisan enmity. Then a Republican freshman went to the microphone in a way that suggested he wanted to confront Eiland. “Is the chair aware,” he demanded to know, as the House held its breath, “that he is doing a great job?”
THE BEST: Representative Rob Eissler
This was the best session for the public schools in years, and he was the main reason. Even though his modus operandi is “When in doubt, pun”—the nickname he coined for Representative Cook, whose first name is Byron, is “Get One Free”—don’t think he isn’t a serious legislator. The chair of the Public Education Committee shows a lot of class. He takes his critics to school. He’s been tested. And he sticks to his, er, principals.
The Legislature passes hundreds of bills every biennium, but those that actually make a difference are rare. Eissler’s reform of the state’s public school accountability system will have a significant impact on the lives of countless families. It lessens the consequences for third-graders who perform poorly on the high-stakes TAKS test. It allows all students to take career and technology courses, which Eissler hopes will reduce the dropout rate. And it loosens the course requirements so that students can choose electives tailored to their interests.
Underlying Eissler’s success is his close relationship with Scott Hochberg, of Houston, his Democratic vice chair. It was the model for the nonpartisan approach to lawmaking that characterized much of the session, and it allowed his committee members to produce a flurry of good legislation, including a $1.9 billion school finance bill—which passed without controversy, something that is almost unheard of—and the first steps toward a statewide prekindergarten program. If you were to ask Eissler about their joint efforts on education policy, he might respond with the groaner he offered to reporters before presenting a bill dealing with dyslexia: “[We] know it backward and forward.”
THE BEST: Representative Brian McCall
He was an essential member of the insurgent Republican coalition—known as the ABCs, for “Anybody but Craddick”—that joined with the Democrats to unseat Speaker Tom Craddick. Until Craddick conceded defeat to Joe Straus, the ABCs’ choice to replace him, it appeared that McCall, a longtime Craddick critic who had twice sought the speakership himself, might never have the opportunity to put his manifold talents to use. For most of Craddick’s tempestuous six-year reign, McCall was relegated to legislative purgatory, so far from the center of the action that he had ample time to write a book about how recent Texas governors have exercised power. By the time he was finished, so was Craddick.
In the postrevolutionary House, McCall emerged as chairman of the Calendars Committee, the most important position after the speakership. Calendars is the gatekeeper committee, with life or death power over all bills; nothing can cause more resentment and turmoil than the perception that Calendars is treating members unfairly. When McCall got his assignment from Straus, the first thing he did was contact nearly every living former chairman of the committee to ask his advice. In a House with 76 Republicans and 74 Democrats, he made sure that he set equal numbers of Republican- and Democratic-sponsored bills for debate. Calendars generated less controversy than it had in years, restoring the expectation of fairness for all House members.
McCall and his fellow insurgents did not seek power for themselves; most are nearer the end of their legislative careers than the beginning. Rather, they sought to demolish the authoritarian, partisan model for the speakership that Craddick had created and replace it with one that was based on fairness rather than fear, on shifting power from the Speaker’s office back to the membership. A remarkable thing happened: It worked.
THE BEST: Representative John Otto
Politicians love to hold forth about the big picture, but when state spending approaches $200 billion every two years, it is just as important to have lawmakers who worry about the little picture and keep an eye out for problems that others may have missed. Otto whacks away at Gordian knots like the state budget and the property appraisal system, which threaten to snarl everything. He’s the Legislature’s premier fiscal watchdog.
The burly accountant is anything but flashy—he has the stolid look of a subject of a Rembrandt portrait—and he frets about problems most of his colleagues don’t even know exist. You could go for years without hearing about the constitutional ceiling on debt—except that this obscure benchmark happens to be one of his foremost concerns. As the chief number cruncher on the House Appropriations Committee, he questioned the Legislature’s increasing reliance on issuing bonds ($9.25 billion in 2007) to pay for purposes ranging from cancer research to building highways. Otto warned that if revenue collections continued to fall short of expectations, the ceiling could be exceeded in 2011, and his fellow House budget writers responded by cutting their reliance on bonds to a level far below the Senate’s.
His biggest achievement of the session was property appraisal reform, a contentious issue that has confounded lawmakers—and the public—for thirty years. One of his proposals would prevent appraisal boards from raising the value of a residence based on nearby commercial development. The best measure of the respect Otto has earned is that his reform package passed the Senate on a calendar that is reserved for uncontested legislation.
THE BEST: Representative Jim Pitts
His daunting task as chairman of the House Appropriations Committee: to write a state budget in the throes of an economic crisis that adequately meets the state’s needs and wins approval in a chamber almost evenly divided between Republicans and Democrats. Oh, and one more thing: Don’t even think about dipping into the nearly $7 billion stashed away in the Rainy Day Fund, because, notwithstanding the forecast of imminent precipitation, conservatives will rebel.
One of the assets Pitts brings to the job is a personality that leads his colleagues to want him to succeed. He is dignified but not aloof, and it’s a rare moment when he is not wearing a smile. Beware of such moments, as representatives of the governor’s office learned when Pitts questioned them about a $50 million grant to Texas A&M that, in his view, had not followed prescribed procedures. Nor did he find anything to smile about in a Senate rider banning embryonic stem cell research.
Shortly before the budget debate, Pitts asked to speak to the Texas Conservative Coalition. He emphasized that the House was proposing to spend $4 billion less than the Senate and would leave the Rainy Day Fund untouched. When the budget bill reached the floor, Pitts told the House, “This is a conservative bill that reduces general revenue spending, but not at the cost of essential programs and services. . . . It is not full of special items, earmarks for specific members.” After eighteen hours, the time came to vote. Astonishingly, every light on the scoreboards at the front of the chamber flashed green—an unprecedented vote of confidence in the chairman.
THE BEST: Representative Senfronia Thompson
In a lackluster session that produced few worthy achievements, it is fitting to honor as a Best legislator a member who is universally loved and respected, not just for what she does but also for who she is. For nineteen sessions, Mrs. T, as she is known to all, has stood near the dais at the front of the House chamber during debate, acting as a guardian angel of the process, checking amendments as they are proposed to make sure that nobody tries to pull a fast one. The words no member wants to hear are Mrs. T’s disapproving “Now, looky here . . .”
Do not interpret Thompson’s appearance on the Best list as akin to an honorary Oscar awarded to a director who is too old to make films anymore. She was at the top of her game as chair of the committee that schedules uncontested bills for debate. This is a position that is rife with the potential for abuse. Previous chairmen have come to grief over charges of punishing one’s enemies, rewarding one’s friends, and using the position as leverage to win support for one’s own bills. Indeed, a row over just such shenanigans landed Thompson’s predecessor on the Worst list. This session, there wasn’t a peep of protest.
But then, there wouldn’t be. Nobody crosses Mrs. T. One senator, explaining why he had done her bidding, said, “She called me and said, ‘Baby, I need your help,’ and so Baby helped.” Machiavelli said that it is better for a prince to be feared than loved, but he never reckoned that a politician could be both.
THE BEST: Senator Kirk Watson
He’s the Galápagos penguin of the Texas Legislature. That rarest of birds—an effective liberal—Watson has adapted, Darwin-style, to the inhospitable habitat of the Republican-dominated Senate. This session he emerged as the thoughtful leader of the loyal opposition, armed mostly with a pragmatic survival instinct.
In the battle over reforming the state’s insurance regulatory agency, Watson used the Democrats’ ability to block debate long enough to win crucial consumer-oriented concessions. Stealth attacks by Senate leadership against his solar energy legislation proved no match for his vigilance.
A former state Air Control Board commissioner and former Austin mayor, he has the self-assurance to act independently. When Perry appointed Republican political operative Deirdre Delisi to the Transportation Commission, Watson chose not a knee-jerk option (using senatorial privilege to block her confirmation) but a counterintuitive one: He met with Delisi and found common ground on how to improve the controversial agency. When the chair of the Finance Committee, Republican Steve Ogden, of Bryan, launched an effort to ban state-funded embryonic stem cell research, Watson joined his effort to create a state database on the endeavor. The more information, he reasoned, the better.
Occasionally, Watson fails to keep his political ambitions in check, giving long-winded speeches more appropriate to the campaign circuit than the Senate floor. Still, his work ethic, intellect, and negotiating skills ensure his continued success.
THE BEST: Representative John Zerwas
At the meeting in which Zerwas learned he was going to chair the Appropriations subcommittee on health and human services issues—the most contentious part of the budget—Speaker Straus told him, “You’ve got your work cut out for you.” Translation: Your five-member panel has a Democratic majority. What others saw as an obstacle, though, Zerwas saw as an asset: “If there is any place that you need diversity,” he says, “it’s in dealing with health and human services.”
As a practicing anesthesiologist and former chief medical officer of the Memorial Hermann Hospital System, Zerwas approached health care issues pragmatically. He understood the problems of the uninsured, so he backed a controversial expansion of the Children’s Health Insurance Program to include families whose income is up to 300 percent of poverty level. The biggest battle he fought was over a Senate rider to prohibit embryonic stem cell research. Although Zerwas personally believes that embryos are living tissue that need a body of laws giving parents authority over their use, he urged removing the rider because, he said, “I don’t think the appropriations act is the place to be debating something as serious as embryonic stem cell research.” He prevailed.
This résumé would have been more than enough to earn Zerwas a place on the Best list, but in fact his greatest challenge would lie ahead. In mid-May, a colleague, Edmund Kuempel, suffered a massive heart attack in a Capitol elevator. Zerwas rushed to the scene. Published reports said that Kuempel was unresponsive, not breathing, and without a pulse. Zerwas performed CPR until EMS arrived, and a defibrillator was used to shock Kuempel eight times. Kuempel is recovering. Said House Administration chair Charlie Geren, “John Zerwas was the hand of God.”
THE WORST: Representative Wayne Christian
Once upon a time the Texas Republican party produced conservatives who came to the Capitol to govern: Ed Emmett, Lee Jackson, Kenny Marchant, David Sibley, Bill Ratliff, Teel Bivins. That was before social conservatives like Christian took over. The president of the Texas Conservative Coalition, he is emblematic of the problems that have enveloped the party nationwide and have it teetering on the edge of irrelevance.
Christian’s legislative program could serve as the social conservatives’ playbook. No scholarships for illegal aliens. Drug testing for everyone who receives financial assistance from the state, such as Medicaid, with draconian penalties for those who test positive. Abolition of all property taxes. Restrictions on the teaching of evolution. None of these proposals stood a chance of becoming law, and so Christian’s defenders could say “no harm, no foul.” But there is harm: These litmus-test issues stir up ideological constituencies and fracture the GOP.
The strangest aspect of Christian’s program was his hostility to ethics reform. He unsuccessfully tried to cut all funding for the prosecutorial unit that oversees state ethics laws and shift the responsibility to the attorney general. Later, when a fellow Republican proposed to close a loophole that allows a shady campaign practice known as sham electioneering, Christian objected. “Have you seen the tea parties?” he asked his colleagues. “Have you seen the people rising up across the state saying they’re tired of doing things like Washington has been doing things and they want to do it like Texans do it?” Alas, we have.
THE WORST: Representative Yvonne Davis
Her nickname around the Capitol—“Why, Vonne?”—says it all. Why, when she was one of only sixteen Democrats to be named a committee chair, did she fly into a rage and threaten to reject the offer before relenting? Why did she treat her vice chairman like a leper by not allowing him to occupy the customary seat next to the chairman? Why did she persist in killing the local bills of colleagues she perceived had done her wrong?
The common theme of these and other Davis tantrums is an overweening sense of entitlement. She had sought the chairmanship of a powerful committee, but someone with her experience should have known she was aiming too high; in a Republican-majority House with a Republican Speaker, she wasn’t going to get either. She attempted to kill two local bills by Republican Lois Kolkhorst, of Brenham, the chair of the Public Health Committee, because she hadn’t gotten a hearing on a bill she wanted to pass—but Kolkhorst had given her hearings on three other bills. She hasn’t learned a fundamental lesson of politics, as expounded by the Rolling Stones: You can’t always get what you want.
Don’t mistake lack of restraint for lack of talent. When the co-authors of a major transportation bill lost control of the floor debate, it was Davis who stepped forward to blow the whistle. But her best moments are undone by her worst, leaving a familiar question hanging in the air: Why, Vonne?
THE WORST: Representative Jim Dunnam
The Democratic leader was the dominant figure of the session from start to finish. Hard to admire but even harder to ignore, he is the rare member who can scale the heights one moment and crash to earth the next. There was never any question that he would make the list—but which one?
The case for Dunnam as a Best: He united the Democratic caucus in a way no one else could to provide the votes that ended Craddick’s speakership; he swallowed his disappointment when he and his party did not get the influential positions they hoped the new Speaker would deliver and turned his lemon of a consolation prize—the chairmanship of the temporary committee to oversee how federal stimulus funds might be used—into lemonade; and he forged a relationship with Republican caucus leader Larry Taylor, of Friendswood, that kept the House mostly free of partisan rancor.
But the case for him as a Worst is stronger. Years of fighting Craddick have taken their toll on Dunnam, and at times the old warrior seemed to be suffering from parliamentary post-traumatic stress disorder—never more so than when he killed a bill that was to be named in honor of an Austin policewoman who had died in the line of duty because the bill’s sponsor was holding up one of Dunnam’s bills. (And the slain officer’s family was in the gallery!) The main reason Dunnam is on the Worst list, though, is that he was the Democratic counterpart of Senator Tommy Williams: He destroyed the session over voter ID. Under his leadership, the Democrats adopted delaying tactics that killed hundreds of bills, wiping out the good work they had done all session and opening deep divisions in their caucus. It wasn’t worth it.
THE WORST: Representative Allen Fletcher
Never let it be said that we are without compassion when it comes to choosing members for the Ten Worst list. We understand that the ways of the Legislature are mysterious and that freshmen should be judged differently from veterans. A freshman has to be awful, really awful, to be named a Worst. Fletcher cleared that high bar with room to spare.
There are two things that even the rawest rookie must not do. One is to bring shame upon the body. This Fletcher did when he and several business associates became ensnared in a stock-manipulation investigation initiated by the Harris County district attorney’s office, which later turned the probe over to the U.S. Department of Justice. A federal complaint alleged that press releases quoting Fletcher and touting his political prominence had helped inflate the value of the stocks that were involved. (No charges are pending in the case.)
The other no-no is neglecting your homework before you try to pass legislation. Fletcher, an ex-cop, offered a bill that he described as “trying to catch the bad guys for identity theft.” Good idea, but a keen-eyed member noticed that it had been drafted so that it actually deleted the laws, such as a prohibition against possessing or duplicating a phony driver’s license, that made identity theft a crime. By this time, the lamb was ready for the abattoir. The House sent Fletcher a message by killing his bill with the meanest parliamentary maneuver in the rule book, a motion to reconsider and table. In short: Go away.
THE WORST: Representative Kino Flores
Interviewed for a TEXAS MONTHLY story about his 2008 race for reelection, he boasted, “There is no other rep like me.” Thank goodness; two would be unbearable. Flores represents the last vestiges of the patrón system, the kind of pol who would run an opponent against his own aunt if she stood between him and control of a school board. This is not a hypothetical example. She did. And he did.
No sitting member has brought more discredit upon the Legislature. He has been investigated for bribery and for accepting free travel on a private airplane in violation of state ethics rules. Clients of his consulting practice have received lucrative state contracts. (No charges have resulted from these investigations.) A Travis County grand jury probing his transactions was so frustrated by lax state ethics laws that the panel issued a report urging the Texas Ethics Commission to tighten its disclosure requirements.
Normally Flores operates below the radar, but this session he made repeated trips to the microphone to demand passage of his bill giving disabled veterans a homestead tax exemption. He interrupted a debate over cockfighting to make a parliamentary inquiry about whether cockfighting was more important than veterans and why trivial bills were being scheduled ahead of his bill, and he had an in-your-face confrontation with the chairman of the committee that schedules bills for debate—all this for a bill that had no opposition and was certain to pass. This was vintage Kino: ever the bully, ever acting as though the established rules and procedures didn’t apply to him. They never do.
THE WORST: Senator Troy Fraser
When assessing Fraser, it’s tempting to simply say: See TEXAS MONTHLY’s “Best and Worst Legislators,” July 2007. His performance this session has such a forehead-smacking déjà vu quality that we’re certain we’ve already written this story: worked brilliantly during the interim on the side of consumers, sabotaged by his own insatiable ego when the Legislature convened.
But we must give Fraser his due. This session, he plumbed new depths of self-absorption. Consider this exchange with Democratic freshman senator Wendy Davis, of Fort Worth, during the voter ID debate. Speak up, he exhorted her: “I have trouble hearing women’s voices.” Jaws were still agape when Democratic senator Royce West, of Dallas, who is African American, asked whether Fraser had discussed the bill’s impact with any minority voters. “I don’t want to get cute with you,” Fraser replied, “but you are an ethnic minority, and you and I have had a conversation about it.”
As chairman of the Business and Commerce Committee, Fraser insisted on authoring a critical windstorm insurance bill, but his solution was so extreme he couldn’t even get it to the floor of the Senate. As in previous sessions, the lieutenant governor had to wrest an issue away from him. Democratic senator Kirk Watson overcame Fraser’s opposition to liberate a solar energy bill from Business and Commerce, which then won easy passage on the Senate floor despite a Fraser counteroffensive. To prove he wasn’t a sore loser, Fraser congratulated Watson. And then, true to form, he reminded everyone that the bill’s core elements were originally his idea.
THE WORST: Senator Mario Gallegos Jr.
Last session, Gallegos was sidelined by a debilitating illness, narrowly averting death thanks to a liver transplant. Now he looks better than he has in years. In fact, you could say the old Mario is back.
We don’t mean this in a good way.
When Gallegos makes the trip to Austin every two years, he packs his bags with old scores to settle and tucks in a few schemes to help his friends. The Houston Rodeo books alternative Latin music, rather than the Tejano bands that Gallegos prefers? He’s got a bill for that: an outlandish requirement that the charitable organization follow state bidding laws. An old opponent runs for Houston City Council while serving on a community college board? A Gallegos proposal would have required her to resign her board position. Houston firefighters, on the other hand, have their own personal representative on the floor of the Texas Senate. Gallegos, formerly one of their ranks, filed a bill requiring sports authorities operated by the City of Houston and Harris County to hire only City of Houston firefighters—to the exclusion of county and suburban forces. Then there was the bill to ban large trucks from parking overnight in driveways of residential areas. You guessed it: He had a problem in his own neighborhood. Thanks to the vigilance of Gallegos’s colleagues, most of these bills were sent on permanent vacation. Considering his recent health ordeal—and his track record in Austin—we believe Gallegos deserves the same, and more: a long, happy retirement. Soon.
THE WORST: Representative Richard peña Raymond
He has spent a career on the legislative docks, waiting for his ship to come in. Sure enough, there it was on the horizon, sails set to the wind, in the form of a plum appointment as vice chairman of the Appropriations Committee. Eagerly, he jumped on board, took the helm—and charted a course for Davey Jones’s locker.
The problem here is the gap between ambition and talent. One is present (he ran for land commissioner against Dewhurst in 1998), and the other isn’t. Raymond has never learned how to play with others on the playground. On the budget conference committee with the Senate, he kept creating problems that colleagues had to undo, as when he told the media that he intended to close two Texas Youth Commission facilities in other members’ districts. It didn’t stand. He insisted on establishing a $5.5 million regional emergency operation center in Laredo. That didn’t stand either. But he did get a $6.9 million Department of Public Safety crime lab that the agency didn’t ask for. He wanted to be the person other members came to with their requests but wouldn’t tell his fellow conferees what the supplicants wanted, presumably because he hoped to hog the credit. He complained that his fellow House negotiators didn’t respect him while never grasping that respect must be earned.
Raymond engaged in the controversial Democratic strategy of killing voter ID by “chubbing”—House parlance for dilatory debate—other bills. But he failed to realize that most Democrats had lost their appetite for the maneuver; instead, he went rogue and forged on, a shipwreck waiting to happen.
THE WORST: Representative Debbie Riddle
“Lead, follow, or get out of the way” goes the adage. To these directives, Riddle adds a fourth: Provide comic relief. “Where did this idea come from?” she famously asked about public education in 2003. “It comes from Moscow, from Russia. It comes straight out of the pit of hell.” Equally inscrutable was her assertion this session, in opposition to a shield law for the media, that the bill would give journalists more rights than the pope. This drew giggles, but nothing as rib-tickling as her “who’s on first” routine. While engaged in debate with Democrat Rafael Anchía, of Dallas, over literacy, she called him Mark Strama, the name of a Democratic member from Austin. After Anchía cracked that he was really Jose Menendez, a Democrat from San Antonio, she started calling him Menendez. As laughter rippled across the floor, a clueless Riddle rebuked her colleagues: “This is a serious bill and I have a serious question.”
If only she would restrict her activities to resolutions honoring constituents, she could bumble in obscurity. But she won’t accept her own limitations, so her incompetence ends up doing real harm. Through some inexplicable miscalculation, she was named chair of the Appropriations Subcommittee on Criminal Justice. The top priority of legislative budget writers has been to fund programs that allow nonviolent inmates to be released, thereby alleviating the need to build new prisons. But Riddle shifted money from these programs to items that weren’t requested, such as $20 million for new cars for the Department of Public Safety. Everything she did had to be undone by more-knowledgeable members. If she won’t get out of the way, she should at least get out.
THE WORST: Senator Tommy Williams
“Be gentle,” he said, as he sat in his Capitol office a few days before sine die, telegraphing his tacit understanding that he would be on the Worst list for his contribution to the deadly voter ID debacle.
It was Williams, after all, who unleashed the malicious partisan germ that went viral in the last weeks of the session. Had he not changed the Senate’s two-thirds rule to permit debate on the contentious issue, House Democrats would not have locked down the Legislature and killed essential legislation in the session’s waning days.
The Senate’s claim to thoughtful deliberation rests with its 21-vote rule, which requires lawmakers to convince colleagues representing other philosophical, political, and geographical interests that a particular bill should be debated on the floor. It weeds out bad bills and allows the entire body to determine which issues deserve priority. Williams argued that the 21-vote rule had been skirted before, but past departures either involved pressing state business or ended badly. Voter ID is an issue ginned up by political consultants; modern-day instances of voter impersonation are rare.
In the final week of the session, grief consumed the Capitol for all the waste of work. And let us add: waste of talent. Williams possesses both natural leadership abilities and a bright mind. In 2007 we acknowledged this by naming him to the Best list. This year he squandered those attributes for partisan reasons—much to the state’s detriment.
Senator Kip Averitt, Republican, Waco
A modest and understated certified public accountant, he applies financial principles to look beyond the “liberal” and “conservative” labels. On the Senate Finance Committee, he won the support of fiscal conservatives for a proposal allowing families who can’t afford private insurance to buy into the state’s Children’s Health Insurance Program. (The bill was consumed by the end-of-session chaos.)
Dan Branch, Republican, Dallas
For putting Texas on the path to developing more top-tier universities.
Senator Bob Deuell, Republican, Greenville
For his stern warning to fellow Republicans who killed a needle-exchange program:”If we’re to remain a viable party, we need to start looking at medical facts and dealing with reality and not dealing with black helicopters and other myths that are put out there by right-wing extremists.”
Ruth Jones McClendon, Democrat, San Antonio
For helping to persuade homebuilders to let the Texas Residential Construction Commission die.
Mark Strama, Democrat, Austin
For being as interested in other members’ successes as his own.
Michael Villarreal, Democrat, San Antonio
For advocating increased funding for the Texas Grants scholarship program.
Bull of the Brazos
Senator Judith Zaffirini 63, Democrat, Laredo
Two things are certain each time the Legislature convenes: She’ll accomplish miracles, and she’ll get on the last raw nerve of everyone in the Capitol. No one works harder. No one is more organized. No one is more relentless. Her list of credits this session includes provisions for prekindergarten, controls over college tuition, and assistance for universities attempting to achieve national recognition through faculty and student recruitment. Unfortunately, to achieve her goals, she conducts toxic psychological warfare on her colleagues, treats her staff like indentured servants, and resists sharing credit.
Therefore, we bestow upon her our Bull of the Brazos Award, which recognizes that the categories of Best and Worst don’t quite cover some of the outsized personalities occupying the Legislature. As we first wrote back in 1973 of the inaugural recipient, larger-than-life Bryan lawmaker Bill Moore: “Sometimes the line between a scoundrel and a statesman can be hammered too thin to recognize.”
Speaker Joe Straus
He had eleven days to prepare to lead a House almost evenly divided. He struggled for weeks over how to appoint members he hardly knew to committees whose jurisdiction he hardly understood, and the resulting delay bollixed the timetable for the entire session. But he was elected to let the body work its will, in the hope that bipartisanship and independence would flourish anew and the memory of the failed Craddick speakership would fade away. He followed the game plan. He never lost his cool, never issued an order, never took a policy position, and never imposed his will—not even when the divisive voter ID bill hit the House floor and the Democrats launched their delay-of-game strategy. With the end-of-session deadline fast approaching and bills expiring with each ticktock, this was the moment when the trains really needed to run on time. Craddick would have acted as stationmaster. Straus let the clock run out, and few members seemed to mind. It’s a strange kind of leadership, but it appears to be what the House wants: He has enough pledges to be reelected Speaker in 2011.
Rookies of the Year
Senator Wendy Davis
46, Democrat, Fort Worth
A former Fort Worth city councilwoman and Harvard-educated attorney, she tackled substantive subjects like oil and gas drilling, electric utility regulation, and consumer debt in her debut session. That old rule that freshmen are supposed to stay quiet? She proved it can be ignored if you’re smart, tough, and well prepared.
Carl Isett, Republican, Lubbock
Sometimes legislators can find themselves in water that’s over their heads. Isett fell into the Marianas Trench. He totally botched his job as chairman of the sunset process that scrutinizes state agencies, allowing time to expire with a safety-net bill awaiting action as he dithered over whether to answer questions about it or move for passage; as a result, the session ended in chaos, with the existence of the Texas Department of Transportation, the Texas Department of Insurance, and several other agencies in doubt. He embarrassed not only himself but the entire Legislature.
Betty Brown, Republican, Terrell
For remarking that voters of Asian descent should adopt names that are “easier for Americans to deal with.”
Norma Chávez, Democrat, El Paso
For her petty session-long text-messaging feud with fellow El Pasoan Marisa Marquez over an ethics bill. (“U R on the Dishonorable Mention List!!!”)
David Leibowitz, Democrat, San Antonio
For undermining TxDOT reform efforts with a silly proposal for elected highway commissioners.
Tommy Merritt, Republican, Longview
For having the DPS station a helicopter in his hometown at a cost of $600,000.
Lieutenant Governor David Dewhurst
When press accounts remarked on his absence from the podium during most Senate sessions, he promptly took command of the gavel. And the machinery of government promptly began to sputter, as he carried on multiple conversations and otherwise proved too preoccupied for the task of passing bills. “Thanks a lot,” exasperated senators groused to reporters. Dewhurst was engaged this session—but not with the Legislature. His impending marriage, as well as his possible U.S. Senate race, made him as distracted and unpredictable as a third-grader in desperate need of Ritalin. While he can rightly claim success for his role in finding a windstorm insurance solution and a health care initiative, his leadership and communications weaknesses were on stark display. A prime example occurred during the final weekend, when, standing at the podium, he scolded the House for its work schedule, interrupting himself at one point to take a cell phone call from Straus. A Camp David moment it was not.
Governor Rick Perry
Nothing better sums up his performance this session than his itinerary for Thursday May 28. With deadlines bearing down on a fractious Legislature, much of the people’s work still unresolved, he left Austin to attend a fundraiser in Houston for Congressman Michael McCaul, where he presented talk show host Rush Limbaugh with an Honorary Texan Award. From his State of the State address to his secession silliness to sine die, Perry preened for the hard-core Republican base. As for the dirty work at the Capitol, he kept his hands clean. He threatened vetoes or surreptitiously dispatched allies in the House and Senate to kill bills to save him the trouble. His major accomplishment was finding ways to postpone tough decisions—transportation funding, for example—until after the 2010 election.
Schnookie of the Year
38, Democrat, San Antonio
Maybe it’s okay to talk . . . and talk . . . and talk as a freshman on the San Antonio City Council, but it’s not okay in the Texas Legislature, especially if you make repeated visits to the microphone and debate your elders in a grating, fingernails-on-a-blackboard manner.
The term “furniture” is thought to be as old as the Capitol. Originally it applied to lawmakers with a level of participation that was well below average, indicating that they were indistinguishable from their desks, chairs, and inkwells. Today the definition also refers to the least consequential members:
Charles “Doc” Anderson Republican, Waco
Fred Brown Republican, Bryan
Al Edwards Democrat, Houston
Joe Farias Democrat, San Antonio
Senator Chris Harris Republican, Arlington
Tim Kleinschmidt Republican, Lexington
Senator Eddie Lucio Democrat, Brownsville
Solomon Ortiz Jr. Democrat, Corpus Christi
Inocente “Chente” Quintanilla Democrat, El Paso
Ralph Sheffield Republican, Temple