Democrat, Galveston, 52. If Patty Gray had done nothing more than negotiate a compromise between the optometrists and the ophthalmologists, she would have been on every legislator’s Ten Best list. Lawmakers long ago grew weary of these Hatfields and McCoys bringing their feud over the human eye to the Legislature; this time, however, Gray was able to work out a compromise that included a promise by both sides not to set foot in the Capitol for five blessed years. Thank you, thank you, thank you.
But Gray did far more. Her legislative package exceeded the weight limit: a crateful of bills reorganizing state health care agencies; a plan to combat coastal erosion; a tort-reform bill declaring that an expression of sympathy to someone injured in an accident is not an admission of liability; an effort, ultimately unsuccessful, to find a middle ground in the debate over parental notification of abortions; and one of the top achievements of the session, the Children’s Health Insurance Program. The CHIP bill, as it is known, uses tobacco settlement money to provide health insurance for thousands of kids whose families earn too much money to qualify for medicaid but too little to afford private insurance. The unanimous vote it received belied the intensity of the floor debate, in which Gray and her allies fended off damaging amendment after damaging amendment. She has become one of the best bill sponsors in the House; her husky voice conveys sincerity and deep conviction, and her habit of respectfully answering hostile questions—by conceding that her opponent has a point and then explaining why her way is better—enhances her credibility.
Indeed, when Gray ran into trouble this session, the problem was what the military oxymoronically calls “friendly fire.” Pro-choice Democrats shot down her attempt to reach an abortion compromise with pro-lifers (personally pro-life, Gray wanted to allow girls under eighteen who did not live at home to have a grandparent or other close relative notified of their pending abortion instead of their parents). Then, in the closing hours of the session, one of her closest allies attacked her efforts to mediate between those who wanted to increase the powers of the health and human services commissioner and those who didn’t. She won that battle, but when it was over she sagged with exhaustion and dismay. “I can handle my enemies,” she told a colleague, “but, Lord, deliver me from my friends.”