Kay Bailey Hutchison
The 61-year-old United States senator on whether she’s after Rick Perry’s job, where she really stands on abortion, and the difference between men and women in politics.
Evan Smith: What everybody wants to know is, Are you going to run for governor in 2006?
Kay Bailey Hutchison: I haven’t made a decision. I’m thinking about it.
ES: What thoughts are going through your mind?
KBH: First, I’ve always been inclined to serve only two terms. That was what I said when I started running. I think that it’s good to give other people a chance—you get new energy and new enthusiasm. Also, the timing makes a difference. I wouldn’t have stepped aside earlier than this, after Phil Gramm decided to leave, and left Texas with two brand-new senators.
ES: That’s all very noble, but I’m wondering about the reasons that relate to your interest in being governor.
KBH: I have to ask myself: Is that a job I want or one I could be effective in? Would it be a good thing for Texas for me to do something like that?
ES: Do you think Texas is being well run?
KBH: Texas is a huge, growing state on a border, so it has a lot of problems that need leadership. We have some very basic issues that need addressing, and I don’t think they’re being addressed right now.
ES: Can you give me an example? You went after the governor publicly a few weeks ago on the Children’s Health Insurance Program.
KBH: Well, I was asked a question about CHIP. I’m not looking for places to be critical, but I was asked about it. In general, the issues that I think are important for Texas to address right now for a solid future are quality public education, a fair tax system to pay for it, transportation, and quality higher education. Higher ed has been a concern of mine for a long time. Our founding fathers set aside public lands to make sure that we would have quality higher education, and we are not in the top tier of public colleges and universities in America. And we should be.
ES: Why do you think we’re not?
KBH: I don’t think we have made it a state priority. I don’t think we’ve kept up with what it takes. If the University of Michigan can become a top-tier public university, why can’t the University of Texas? Why can’t Texas A&M and Texas Tech? Why can’t the University of Houston? The largest city in Texas doesn’t have a premier public institution. We need for U of H to be top-tier.
ES: At whose feet should we lay the blame for that?
KBH: Not at anyone’s feet. You can’t do it in two or three years. You have to build toward it. When I went on the Appropriations Committee and learned that Texas was sixth in the nation in terms of federal dollars going to our research institutions, I said, “There’s something wrong here.” We have some great institutions. We have our share of Nobel laureates and National Academy members. Why aren’t we in the top three? And so for the past five years I’ve brought together the chancellors and presidents of our research institutions, including our medical schools, and I’ve brought in the heads of the federal agencies with the most dollars to talk about their priorities. I’ve encouraged those chancellors and presidents to create niches in which their institutions can be the best, rather than all of them trying to be UT or A&M. And I’ve asked them to collaborate with each other. That has produced phenomenal results: We’ve gone from sixth to fourth in funding. Whether I’m here or someplace else, it’s going to be a mission of mine.
ES: Should the state be doing something to augment your efforts?
KBH: Yes. One of the things we need to do is create funds to attract researchers. The researchers are looking for labs with equipment where they can do their great discoveries. We could have a state fund that would focus on attracting those bigger projects. Also, a bill was passed in the Legislature last session allowing federal money to be kept in those research projects as opposed to having to give the state millions of dollars. I wrote a letter to legislators asking them to pass the bill, and they did, and the governor signed it. Now we need to keep up on salaries. We need to have the capability to recruit faculty and spouses.
ES: None of that seems that controversial. Why isn’t it happening—or why isn’t it happening without your prodding?
KBH: Everyone sets his own priorities. And this would be my priority for Texas.
ES: What’s the problem with transportation? Isn’t the governor already tackling that?
KBH: I think he’s right to prioritize transportation. We have a highway crisis. But we’ve come way too late to the importance of rail in our transit system and our urban areas. I think that rail can be a viable alternative to clogging our highways. Eighty percent of the NAFTA cars and trucks in the U.S. come through Texas. We’re helping at the federal level with the NAFTA corridors, I-69 and I-35. I put a separate fund in the highway bill for border corridors, because this is such a huge issue for us. But I don’t want a cement Texas. We cannot just pave over our urban areas. And I don’t want a toll Texas. I’m opposed to slapping a toll on a highway that’s already built. Now, if people vote a bond issue for a toll road, fine. But to build a highway with taxpayer dollars and then go in and put a toll on it and clog up the rest of the arteries in the city—it’s not right.
ES: You also mentioned school finance as a priority. We’ve already been through one special session in which the needle didn’t move. For purposes of this discussion, you’re Governor Hutchison. What’s the first thing you do to solve this problem?
KBH: This should have been dealt with long before now. When you’re taking money out of one district and sending it to another, especially when you’re taking out more than 50 percent of that district’s funding, it’s not right. And when property taxes are going up, [it amounts to] a tax increase. We’ve got to make sure that our level of taxation is fair and that it’s spread out over more than just a few people.
ES: So based on what you’re saying, no more Robin Hood.
KBH: Robin Hood would go away. I would look at it from two standpoints. First, what is the funding level needed to have quality education in every school in Texas, and what should be the state’s part of that? Second, once you’ve determined the funding level, you have to work with the Legislature, roll up your sleeves, get everybody in the room who would have an ax to grind—the business community, the homeowner community—and then determine the fairest allocation. And I think it is very important, after you have set a fair standard for every child in Texas, that you have a capability for local enrichment, to allow people to do extra things in their own school districts.
ES: But if you’re going to cut property taxes, where does the money come from?
KBH: Well, I think you have to look across the board at what taxes businesses are paying or if there are businesses that aren’t paying any taxes at all.
ES: Are you amenable to an increase in a tax other than the property tax to offset some of the lost revenue?
KBH: I would do everything possible to avoid new taxes. Now, I want to say that I don’t think Texas has ever really looked at our state budget from the standpoint of whether we can cut in some areas—if agencies could be consolidated, if we’re doing government business in the most efficient way. I don’t think Texas has ever had a real budget scrub. Everything should be on the table. That has never been done.
ES: You’re being very careful to avoid criticizing Governor Perry directly. If you decided to run against him, he would extend you no such courtesy. I’m wondering if you’re reluctant to take your gloves off because, as our United States senator, you need to work with the governor or because you would prefer to run a campaign that’s about you rather than him. In either case, could you enter a Republican primary against a sitting governor and be as sweet and deferential as you appear to be today?
KBH: Well, I’m always going to work with the governor on state-federal issues. If I decided to run for governor, I would have a program. I would have priorities. I’m not going to just say, “I want to be governor.” If I am running, it will be because I think I can do better for Texas and because I care about what I’m doing. And to answer your question, I will run a tough race. I will not unilaterally disarm. I’m not “cowable,” if that’s a word.
ES: Let’s talk about your current job. What do you like about being a U.S. senator?
KBH: I can’t imagine a more interesting eleven years than I have had. I love foreign relations, international issues, military issues—and I’ve been able to address all of them. I’ve been able to have an impact on our foreign policy and our national defense, and I love that.
ES: You’ve managed to be identified as both a conservative Republican and as someone who is perceived, at least, to be a moderate. Is there room for someone in the Senate who doesn’t always vote with her party?
KBH: I am conservative. I remember that even as far back as when I was running for the Legislature, in the seventies, when I would say, “I’m a conservative,” someone would say, “Well, are you very conservative or are you moderately conservative?” And I’m really conservative, although I don’t consider myself extreme. I’m mainstream, regular old, commonsense conservative. I vote with the [Republican] majority in the Senate 95 percent, 98 percent of the time, but everybody is expected to represent his state, and everybody veers off. I just voted against almost every Republican on [cutting funding for] port security. I’m sitting on the biggest chemical complex in the world. I’m voting for Texas.
ES: On the issues in which your commonsense conservatism puts you out of the majority of the people in your party—say, abortion—do you think it’s the sort of thing that ought to be used against you in a Republican primary? Because, obviously, if you ran for governor, you’d be in a contested primary in which every single position you’ve taken would be scrutinized.
KBH: I think most Republicans are where I am on abortion.
ES: For the record, then, state your position on the issue.
KBH: You should be very careful about abortion. You should not have open abortion. There should be reasonable restrictions.
ES: Like parental notification.
KBH: Yes, parental notification. That’s a very easy one.
ES: You’re not looking to overturn the laws that permit legal abortions with exceptions?
KBH: The laws have evolved to allow the states to have exceptions. You know, this really used to be a state right. The states have a lot of leeway in this area, and I think they should.
ES: So you’re comfortable with the laws as they’re written.
KBH: I don’t want to say I’m comfortable, because I’m not sure what else might come up. I don’t want to go into everything that might be possible.
ES: You really believe that most Republicans in Texas see the issue as you do.
KBH: I do. Eighty percent do.
ES: Is your life as a woman in the Senate different than it would be if you were a man?
KBH: Yes, because I have all the responsibilities that fall to a wife and mother in addition to my Senate responsibilities.
ES: Are you treated differently?
KBH: Not once you’re elected. In the early days, the tough part was getting elected. I had a harder time establishing my credibility than the men running did.
ES: You were one of the few women in the Texas Legislature, right?
KBH: Oh, yeah. There were five of us. But once we were elected, our vote was the same as everyone else’s.
ES: Speaking of women, you’ve written a book, American Heroines, that celebrates the accomplishments of heroic women, many of them Texans, from Clara Driscoll to Selena. What made you decide to do it?
KBH: Let me tell you how it came about. The women senators wrote a book, and I was the instigator. I’m the dean of the Republican women, and Barbara Mikulski is the dean of the Democratic women. I went to Barbara and I said, “We have a common thread that I think is interesting—it’s our stories of how we overcame all these hurdles to get to the United States Senate.” We all came from a different perspective—conservatives, liberals, Easterners, Westerners—but we overcame obstacles. So I said, “We should do a book.” We did, and it was great. The editor of that book and I hit it off, and she said, “I think you should do another book.” And so we started talking about it, and she said, “If you were going to do a book, what would it be?” And I said, “The women who overcame all these things really early on.” And so I started then the process of finding the women who had really broken barriers. Mary Cassatt in the arts. Althea Gibson and Babe Didrikson Zaharias in sports. Clara Barton, of course. Amelia Earhart and the WASPs. And Oveta Culp Hobby. I went to Bill Hobby and I said, “You know, no one has ever written about your mother. She was unbelievable.” He said, “I know. She never would let anybody write about her.” So I said, “Okay, help me fill this out. How did she become one of Eisenhower’s Cabinet officers?” Then we got the idea, after we had already selected the pioneer women, to have me talk to contemporary women breaking barriers in these same fields. I loved doing the interviews. I love Sally Ride. I love Jackie Joyner-Kersee—oh, she’s wonderful! Carly Fiorina.
ES: I want to end by talking about the presidential race. Has the tenor of the race, which everyone agrees is pretty nasty, surprised you?
KBH: No. We all like to say, “Politics has gotten so bad.” Well, it’s been bad for two hundred years in this country. Go back and look at previous races.
ES: You don’t think this one is appreciably worse?
KBH: I think it’s bad. I cannot believe we are talking about Vietnam instead of the future.
ES: So you’ve encouraged the Swift boat guys to pull their ads?
KBH: Hah. It’s a free country. We have rough-and-tumble politics, and the good thing is, the people generally see through it.
ES: Has the president, whom you support strongly, done everything you’ve expected him to do?
KBH: I think that he has been an extraordinary president. I think he has stepped up to the challenge of 9/11.
ES: Are you satisfied with the prosecution of the Iraq war? Do you buy any of the criticisms of it?
KBH: Oh, we’ve made mistakes—absolutely. Who could have imagined that we would face an enemy who would shoot children in the back? Or teach their children that blowing themselves up and killing other people at the same time is martyrdom? No, we didn’t expect what we got. And yes, we’ve made mistakes. But we’ve done the right thing in not losing our focus and not appearing weak or waffly.
ES: Do you believe, as some have said, that as a result of going into Iraq, we’re safer?
KBH: I think we are safer post-9/11 because we’ve left no stone unturned in gathering intelligence and protecting ourselves against the threats we think might be plausible. As for Iraq, I think it’s too early to judge. You’re going to have to look back on this to see if it was the right time. But never forget what President Bush was looking at. He was looking at the use of weapons of mass destruction on our homeland, and he was not going to wait for the next attack to go get the funder of the terrorists. And in the Middle East, Saddam Hussein was a known funder of Palestinian suicide bombers.
ES: Last question. The outcome of this presidential election notwithstanding, you have been mentioned as a potential national candidate. Have you thought about running for president or vice president? Does it interest you?
KBH: I have thought about it off and on through the years, whether it’s something I would want to do. And I have decided I do not want to do it.
ES: You’re ruling it out?
KBH: I’m not going to run for president.
ES: Are you ruling out running for vice president?
KBH: Generally, yes.
ES: What we’re talking about here is 2008.
KBH: I don’t know where I’m going to be in 2008.
ES: That sort of brings us back full circle, doesn’t it?
KBH: Maybe you’ll be at the Governor’s Mansion. Yeah. I don’t know what I’ll be doing.