Craig Washington, 1973
Craig Washington was once a rising star in the statehouse known for his rousing oratory and fierce dedication to racial justice.
Craig Washington, Democrat, Houston. Has done more than any man in history to end racism on the floor of the Texas House.
Vigorously represents the interests of his predominantly-liberal constituency, which includes the University of Houston and Texas Southern University.
Has a remarkable facility for expressing his controversial views without antagonizing the more conservative members. Fought the death penalty bill (HB 200) with a sureness of parliamentary technique and some of the most moving oratory to be heard on the House floor this session. Has a gift for focusing (and forcing others to focus) on the crux of a problem instead of the peripheral issues.
Not always punctual in tending to his committee assignments, but resourceful and quick-witted on the floor and a formidable opponent when he gets down to business.
Mesmerized House members with a personal privilege speech delivered after midnight at the close of the session on May 28:
“From a poor boy across the tracks, you cannot possibly know what it means for me to stand here with you. If we understand each other, then you tell the poor little black boy who still lives across the tracks and the poor little white boy who still lives across the tracks that they can be here too…Go home and tell the people we didn’t do all we wanted to, but we tried.”
Has announced he will not run for reelection in 1974 because of an inability to make financial ends meet on the $400-per-month salary a representative is paid.
Bob McFarland, 1983
Bob McFarland’s ideological independence and willingness to compromise made him the Senate’s best negotiator.
Bob McFarland, Republican, Arlington. Got a problem with a bill? Call McFarland, the Senate’s handyman who can fix anything. The opposite of a cockroach—the legislative term for someone like Al Edwards, who falls into things and messes them up. Messy things fall into McFarland’s hands and he cleans them up.
Rode to more rescues than the U.S. Cavalry. Speaking of which, the horseracing bill would have been stillborn but for McFarland. Looking for a way he could support it, came up with an amendment calling for a statewide referendum that pried it loose from a Senate committee. Helped save the antitrust bill proposed by attorney general Jim Mattox after proponents had written him off as a negative vote; they paid him a courtesy call that turned into a six-hour line-by-line marathon through a 65-page bill. When McFarland finished the bill was palatable to conservatives, and Mattox, the most partisan Democrat this side of Tip O’Neill, was tossing bouquets to a Republican.
Also restored to working order the ethics reform package after state Democratic chairman Bob Slagle claimed that outlawing the conversion of campaign contributions to personal use discriminated against impoverished minority legislators. Some Republicans were all for letting this embarrassing defense of sleaze get the blame for killing the bill; McFarland rejected partisanship in favor of patching up. His remedy: an advisory commission to determine when conversion is okay. Slagle agreed and promptly joined the swelling ranks of Democrats moaning because McFarland is a Republican.
Everybody wanted McFarland on his dance card. In the closing days of the session, served on a Guiness-record fifteen conference committees to settle differences between House and Senate bills. Passed major bills on prison reform, the state’s debt-ridden unemployment fund, nepotism, and the re-creation of state agencies under the Sunset process; also found time to negotiate agreements on interest rates and venue reform. Came close to pulling off the coup of the session, proposing a compromise to the notorious billboard bill that would have made it cheaper for cities to get rid of the signs, but changed only nine votes when he needed ten.
As upright in posture as in principle. Stands, chin pointing heavenward, as though he were posing for an old daguerreotype. Traces his ideological independence to his work as an FBI agent in the South during the racial unrest of the sixties, when he helped track Martin Luther King’s assassin; prides himself on not having knee-jerk reactions to social legislation. The most noteworthy aspect of McFarland’s performance, however, is that it took place during his first session in the Senate, where freshmen are supposed to learn rather than teach. With a little experience, he may amount to something.
Mike Toomey, 1985
Before Mike Toomey became Rick Perry’s chief of staff, his ruthless slashing of state budgets earned him the moniker “Mike the Knife.”
Mike Toomey, Republican, Houston. Mike the Knife. The supreme cutter; a Texas version of David Stockman, who knew where the budget bodies were buried and was intent on exhuming and dissecting every last one.
Though a newcomer to budget writing, had all the qualities essential to mastering this most difficult of legislative arts: industry (toiled late at night, on weekends, and before breakfast), inspiration (hit upon the idea of holding Sunday conferences with individual budget staff experts, extracting information in private that could never be gleaned in public), a mind for detail (“He knows where every office is, what it looks like, who works there, and what they do all day,” marveled one senator after a head-to-head bout with Toomey), and objectivity (a staunch partisan Republican, but never let partisanship guide his stiletto). Said one thirty-year Capitol veteran, “There’s never been anyone who knew the budget like Toomey.”
Bureaucrats feared him. Democrats respected him. But Republicans deferred to him. When they wanted to know how to distinguish cost-covering fee increases from taxes, Toomey came up with a go-no-higher number that GOP leaders called the Toomey line. It virtually became a Republican battle cry: “That good old Toomey line/That good old Toomey line/We’ll never spend a penny more/Till Toomey says it’s fine.”
The pivotal figure on the ten-member House-Senate conference committee that wrote the final budget. Sat by himself on a separate tier, surrounded by mountains of file folders containing notes about every state agency, so that he could readily gain the ear of Chairman Rudd. Without grandstanding, quietly forced cut after cut upon reluctant senators, whose knowledge of the bill was no match for his. Even managed to eliminate $4.4 million from attorney general Jim Mattox’s budget—no easy feat, considering that two of the senators on the committee would like Mattox’s job (and budget) for themselves.
The sight of Toomey at work was one of the lasting images from the session. Walking around with his arms folded, a very private man, protecting himself and his space; or seated, dark and intense, with a piercing, quizzical gaze that looked through the eyes of an adversary as if to probe his brain. He was unforgettable, essential, a person without whose contributions there would never have been money to balance the budget. But for all his brilliance, Toomey held fast to a narrow ideology that had room for no-new-taxes, law-and-order, and little else. The question now is whether he will grow beyond technical artistry into the kind of statesmanlike leader that Republicans in the House so desperately need before, as will inevitably occur, their party ascends to power.
Judith Zaffirini, 2001
The first Mexican American woman in the Texas Senate, Judith Zaffirini, or “Lady Z,” mastered the details of every bill she worked on—and hardly ever missed a vote.
Judith Zaffirini, Democrat, Laredo. In the midst of heated negotiations with house members over the state budget, Senate Finance chairman Rodney Ellis received an unexpected package from his colleague, Judith Zaffirini. Though she sent no note, the gift conveyed an unmistakable message to Ellis to stand his ground on the Senate’s priorities. The box’s contents? A pair of brass balls.
Never, never underestimate Zaffirini, or Lady Z, as she is called by her colleagues with . . . affection? No, it’s more of a grudging respect. After all, this is a woman who, when asked to reach an agreement with two colleagues on a South Texas redistricting plan, rose to announce the place and time—in her office, at five in the morning. No problem for Zaffirini, who gets there each morning at four.
Nor does anyone question whether she knows her stuff. When it came time to debate a complete overhaul of Medicaid, Zaffirini took about five minutes of the Senate’s time to explain it and pass it. No one had any inclination to get in the way. Having spent her fourteen years in the Senate mastering Medicaid—the minutiae of court orders, federal regulations, and state budgeting—Zaffirini had won the total confidence of her colleagues.
She deserves great credit for generously increasing state spending on poor children’s health care, no easy feat in a tight-money session. She convinced the two Republicans on the Senate’s negotiating team that she had wrung the most care out of the available dollars and wore down House leaders with her inimitable relentlessness. Crisp and businesslike, she displays a grating sense of self-importance that should limit her ability to succeed, except that her colleagues know that no one works harder or shoots straighter. In mid-May it was announced that she had cast her 25,000th consecutive vote in the Senate—an unmatched feat, mainly because no one else cares about missing a vote now and then. But Lady Z cares about everything, which is why her colleagues gave her a standing ovation.
Robert Duncan, 2011
As a centrist Republican, a dying breed in the Texas Legislature, Robert Duncan wasn’t afraid to criticize conservative policies.
Robert Duncan, Republican, Lubbock. Legislatures can’t function without members like Robert Duncan. “He has become the fixer,” one colleague said of the soft-spoken attorney from Lubbock, who seems to find himself doing more than his share of the Senate’s heavy lifting every session. This time around Duncan spent months negotiating “loser pays,” a controversial bill backed by perennial lobby heavy hitter Texans for Lawsuit Reform that forces plaintiffs to pay the other side’s legal fees if a judge determines that a lawsuit is frivolous. Duncan has always been sympathetic to tort reformers, but in recent years he has pushed back against overreaching by TLR, showing an independent streak that has caused his stature to grow at the Capitol. As filed, loser pays was so hostile to plaintiffs that it was possible to actually win a suit and still have to pay the defendant’s legal fees. Negotiations came to a head in mid-May with seven straight days of talks, at the end of which Duncan reached a compromise that constituted a minor miracle: A terrible bill had been pounded into a consensus document agreed to by both TLR and its archenemy, the Texas Trial Lawyers Association. “Nobody but Duncan could have done that,” said one participant in the negotiations.
What did Duncan do for an encore? He stepped in to jump-start the stalled negotiations on reforming the state’s regulation of hurricane insurance, an issue that had the same two combatants, TLR and the TTLA, embroiled in another death match. Dallas senator John Carona, a master negotiator himself, was stuck, despite months of diligently plugging away at a compromise. Duncan couldn’t rescue the deal before the clock ran out, but watch for him to play a key role when the issue comes back up during the special session.
The secret to Duncan’s success is that people genuinely like him. He can occasionally sound like a professor on the Senate floor, but he doesn’t demagogue, and he takes pains to never embarrass another member. As a result, when he speaks, members of both parties listen. When freshman senator Brian Birdwell tried to hike college tuition for DREAM Act students—undocumented kids who grew up in the U.S., excelled in school, and are trying to earn a green card by finishing college—Duncan rose in opposition. “This amendment doesn’t solve any problems,” Duncan said. “It’s symbolic, and I think the symbol is not one that we’d be proud of.” Birdwell, happy enough to debate the Democrats who opposed his measure, had no stomach for taking on Duncan. He withdrew his amendment and sat down.