The Ten Best and The Ten Worst Legislators
It began with the Capitol almost burning down. It ended with Governor Mark White burning up over teacher salaries. But in between, the 68th Legislature was anything but fiery.
The predominant emotion during the 1983 session was anxiety—something new to Texas politics. In recent years the Legislature has had lots of money to spend, low turnover, and little pressure from the public. Suddenly the rules changed. The good old days of multibillion-dollar surpluses were replaced by a budget crunch. Almost a third of the House and Senate was new, the most radical turnover since Sharpstown. And as is always the case when times are hard, people wanted government to do something.
The budget crunch seemed to take the fun out of the Legislature; there wasn’t even any room to logroll. The session plodded along dispiritedly. Mark White couldn’t decide whether he wanted a tax increase. Then he couldn’t decide what kind of increase he wanted if he wanted one. Early on, the Senate bogged down in a battle over Bill Clements’ holdover appointments and couldn’t get unstuck; the House bogged down while Speaker Gib Lewis tried to undo the damage of his failure to disclose his financial holdings. Nothing happened. Then, when the big issues- trucking deregulation, utility reform, interest rates- finally reached the floor, they all fizzled out into deals with no clear winner. April turned into May and the governor still hadn’t phoned in from Mars to say what he wanted. Horse racing died. The son of son of son of water package died. Teacher salaries died. The tax bill was murdered.
A bad session? Not at all. In fact, while the headline-grabbing issues were running into trouble, the budget crunch was having a completely unforeseeable effect on the session: it was turning out to be a blessing in disguise. After a decade on the crest of the oil boom, the state bureaucracy was cushioned in blubber. The budget crunch forced the Legislature to hunt for all the fat that had accumulated over the years. It found plenty- especially in higher education, which underwent its first close inspection since the huge expansion of the sixties and early seventies.
Almost all the Legislature’s accomplishments can be traced back to the money crunch. Without it, prison reform would have been impossible; the state would have gone on building maximum-security prisons ad infinitum. The crunch eased the way for PUC reform and lower interest rates too.
It was, in sum, a pretty good record. To make it better, this was one of those rare sessions when the good was not canceled out by the bad. The Legislature passed only one bill that should shame the collective conscience: the one that made it next to impossible for cities to get rid of existing billboards—and Mark White saved the day by vetoing it. In fact, the only group that didn’t fare well this session was teachers, who didn’t get their 24 per cent pay raise.
That defeat did not augur well for White, who had made education and teacher pay his number one priority. But then, little did. By remaining aloof from the tough negotiating sessions on PUC reform in the House and Senate, he blew his chance to earn legislators’ respect choosing instead to stick with the one issue, an elected commission, that he couldn’t and shouldn’t have won. His tax bill follies were pathetic, as he successively embraced and dismissed highway bonds, gasoline taxes, severance taxes, and sin taxes. His treatment of legislators, including stumping against several in their home districts, made Bill Clements look like Emily Post. Without question he was the big loser of the session.
Lieutenant Governor Bill Hobby, suzerain of the Senate, was the big winner. If he were eligible for the Ten Best list, he would be at the top. During his tenure, Hobby has reshaped the Senate in his image, changing it from a brawling House of Commons to a restrained House of Lords. The best senators are Hobby’s alter egos on the floor: never provincial, always pragmatic, only interested in sound public policy.
Then there’s Gib. His ethics problems were foolish (and illegal; he paid an $800 fine in May), and his limited understanding of substance was deplorable. Yet he was never in any serious danger of palace coup, even when he was at his nadir. Why not? It was partly because Lewis is not a threat to the House. While his predecessor Billy Clayton was a strong prince with week barons, Lewis is a weak prince with strong barons; in this session the committee chairmen had most of the skill and most of the power. But it’s also because Lewis did some things right this session. He was right to oppose the tax bill (even if their was a lot of self interest in that decision); a tax bill would have destroyed the discipline needed to cut the fat out of the budget. And his rule change to choose the members of the appropriations conference committee exclusively from among chairmen of the substantive budget and oversight subcommittees- that is, from experts- was a stroke of genius. It was a built-in brake on logrolling. This year there are more major committee chairmen on our Ten Best list and fewer on our Ten Worst list than ever before; Lewis deserves some credit for that.
Our criteria for Best and Worst rest on personality rather than ideology, because that is how legislators judge their colleagues. They don’t want to know whether a member is conservative or liberal; they want to know whether he is smart or dumb, honest or venal, industrious or lazy, open-minded or closed-minded, straightforward or backstabbing. Apart from openly partisan battles like redistricting, an accurate assessment of personality is far more useful to a legislator than the knowledge that someone is a Republican or a Democrat.
A legislator on the Ten Best list uses his good qualities to the fullest. He wants to be at the center of action, and his colleagues what him there. He inspires respect rather than fear. To succeed he must be a student of the process- the rules, the rhythms, the reins of power- and the better student he is, the more he will succeed.
Negative qualities are not enough to land a legislator on the Ten Worst list; it is the aggressive use of such qualities that is fatal. The old adage “Lead, follow, or get out of the way” is peculiarly applicable to the intensity of the brief session. In life the sin may be not trying to lead; in the Legislature it is trying when one is unable.
Of last session’s Good Guys, only three repeated: Ray Farabee, Bob McFarland (who moved from the House to the Senate), and Bill Messer. As for the Bad Guys, let us all breathe a collective sigh of relief: eight of them aren’t here to kick around anymore. Two returned to try again. Senator John Leedom was still good for a few laughs, but he’d lost his shock value. As for Senator Carlos Truan, he confined his bumbling to issues so minor that he too escaped.
The Ten Best
Kent Caperton, Democrat, Bryan.
Sophomore Caperton came into his own this term as a brilliant forger of coalitions, the archetypal New Senator: the young moderate who can-and will- deal on anything. Hardly the kind of guy you’d peg as an Aggie; small and unprepossessing, with thinning hair and a prominent forehead, he’s more brain than brawn. Unlike some of his other bright colleagues, uses his intelligence as a tool rather than a weapon: doesn’t put anyone down, doesn’t make enemies. Attacked a huge work load with energy, discipline, and organization; full of enthusiasm for the job of being a senator.
Classic Caperton scene: late at night, in some conference room, extracting commitments from factions warring over utilities regulation or gas credit cards or venue legislation-the kind of major, complex issues that can make a senator’s reputation. Negotiating endlessly with crack lobbyists on such hotly contested issues is even less fun than being locked in a room full of two-year-olds who haven’t had their naps. But Caperton’s blend of patience, humor, and toughness invariably carried the day.
Knew how to play good cop-bad cop despite his deceptively mild appearance; seemed to have a sixth sense about where the pressure points were, where each side could and couldn’t give. Since 1963 one legislator after another has attempted to revamp Texas’ cumbersome venue law, which governs where lawsuits can be tried; not one could get antagonistic trial lawyers and defense counsel into line. Caperton did. With negotiations falling apart, he shrewdly recruited Supreme Court chief justice Jack Pope, in whose soothing presence both sides turned reasonable and gave up points they held dear.
Not loath to take on the big guys. During negotiations over the credit card processing fee that oil companies charge gas station operators, took on Exxon’s world vice president for marketing- and prevailed. Never too full of himself to attend to the small stuff: testified for his compromise gas credit card bill in front of a House committee, something few senators deign to do.
Keeps the pressures at baby by relying on a top-notch staff. As a new member of the important Finance Committee, hired an LBJ School of Public Affairs graduate specifically to follow financial issues. Some fault him for overreliance on aides during PUC negotiations but as legislative issues grow more complicated, Caperton’s efficient use of staff may be the wave of the future.
Senate-watchers occasionally gripe that Caperton has a finger too often to the wind and is too eager to deal rather than fight. They point to the PUC legislation, where, they say, he didn’t wrest enough consumer concessions. In fact, he was far better for consumers on the PUC than was Lloyd Doggett, who bothered to attend precious few of thirty-plus negotiating sessions. And whenever Caperton appeared on the scene, things just worked better. It once seemed almost too much to hope that mossback Bill Moore would be replaced by someone who would undo some of the mischief his district has been responsible for over the years. But it’s happening.
Bill Coody, Democrat, Weatherford.
What’s this? Bill Coody (rhymes with “grody,” which before this session accurately described his reputation) on the Ten Best list? Did the printer get mixed up? No, and neither did we. True, Coody is a rogue who reeks of old-style politics. But it just so happens that Bill Coody, of all people, did more good for the people of Texas than any other member of the Legislature, and if that doesn’t qualify someone for the Ten Best, what does?
Like an old tree that had done nothing for years, Coody finally burst into bloom. The cause of this totally unexpected flowering was his escape from the seedy Liquor Regulation Committee. Switched to the chairmanship of the Financial Institutions Committee and proceeded to astonish colleagues, lobbyists, and perhaps even himself by declaring war on banks. The result: Visa and MasterCard interest rates that will be among the lowest in the country, saving Texans millions of dollars.
Brilliantly irascible, profoundly, profane. Called bankers “greedy bastards,” and “loan sharks with college degrees and three-piece suits.” In a private meeting with three bankers, interrupted their explanation of graphs showing that banks were losing money on credit cards by turning to a colleague and saying, “They actually think I care about their problems.” When the bankers tried to repeat their case for public consumption, Coody broke in with “I could hardly sleep last night thinking you had lost that money.”
This is not exactly material for the how-the-legislature-works pamphlets that tour guides hand out to Capitol visitors. But there are rare times when such tactics are exactly what’s called for-and this was one of them. The banks, used to getting their way, needed to have it drummed into them that the Legislature wasn’t going to roll over and play dead for them this time; Coody’s very orneriness made the point better than a more conciliatory approach would have. His antics drew press coverage that put interest rates on the front pages all acrossTexas and drove the haughty banks to the conference table. The legislature might have voted for lower interest rates anyway, but not without a bloody floor fight that would have forced members to choose between consumers and an awesomely powerful lobby. Coody spared his colleagues that agony; by the time his bill reached the floor, it was a done deal. One of the best in floor debate; has the cunning of an old boar that knows every path and hiding place in the hicket. Rooted out one of the sneakiest ploys of the session: after a six-hour debate over trucking deregulation, caught Charlie Evans of Hurst trying to slip a controversial amendment past a weary House. Evans said it was innocuous; Coody knew it wasn’t. A master of more moods than a house cat; knows when to be belligerent and when to be shamelessly charming. Adopted the latter tactic to accomplish the near impossible feat of killing a state agency by stripping it of its budget in floor debate (the victim was an energy advisory council that, sad Coody, “couldn’t find a quart of oil in an Exxon station”) –and used the money to fund a pork-barrel amendment to the appropriations bill. Rather than boring the House with long-winded justifications, Coody simply said, “Members, we don’t need this agency, but I need the million bucks.” It was outrageous but effective- an epitaph for Coody’s entire session.
Ray Farabee, Democrat, Wichita Falls.
The refutation of former U.S. Speaker Thomas Reed’s observation that a statesman is a politician who is dead. The most respected member of the Legislature: carries the best bills, runs the most important committee, and has the longest vision, though the competition in this category is limited. Not a technician to equal Bob McFarland or a master compromiser to equal Kent Caperton, but has a higher role- to define, by example, what a senator is supposed to be.
A case in point: his handling of a bill that, depending on your point of view, either protected struggling offshore oil operations from annexation by greedy coastal cities or protected greedy offshore oil operations from annexation by struggling coastal cities. Senate regulars, whose frequent pastime is the inspection of Farabee’s feet for evidence of clay, hinted that he had sold out to Big Oil in furtherance of his suspected ambition to seek statewide office. Some sellout. By the time his bill reached the floor, Farabee had already cast the tiebreaking vote in his State Affairs Committee to keep alive an unrelated bill Big Oil was sworn to kill. Then he agreed to a compromise on the annexation bill despite having the votes to run over the opposition. “If I were in a fight to the death at the Alamo, I wouldn’t want Farabee as my second in command,” griped one observer. “He’d be out cutting deals with Santa Anna.” But the Senate got the message: consensus over confrontation.
Involved in everything, though not always visibly. One of the few senators who will work just as hard for a bill that doesn’t bear his name as for one that does. Farabee’s own achievements bore the same low-profile but high–import stamp: the first major revision of the mental health code in 25 years, three prison reform bills, and a constitutional amendment to allow garnishment of wages for child support. Once again the Senate got the message: substance over show.
Reached his peak- as usual, without advance fanfare or ensuing glory-in the final negotiations over the state budget. Sat aloof from the usual haggling, hoarding his chips for a raise in Texas’ paltry welfare spending (forty-ninth in the nation). Up against tradition, which dictated putting off welfare until the very last-when, not coincidentally, there is never any money left; also up against unsympathetic colleagues eager to claim dwindling dollars for their own purposes. Farabee pounced at exactly the right time in exactly the right way, slipping welfare into a package that incorporated all the loose ends, including the solution to an impasse over state employee raises. This time the whole Legislature got the message.
Jay Gibson, Democrat, Odessa.
The closest thing to a hero the 68th Legislature produced. Did the best job on the most thankless task against the longest odds and the strongest opposition-and not only won but won for the best reasons: he worked hard, he fought clean, and he was right.
As chairman of a budget subcommittee, Gibson tackled the session’s Mission Impossible: cut the higher education budget enough to avoid a tax bill, without doing harm to the state’s colleges and universities. Among the obstacles were (1) his immediate superior, House Appropriations czar Bill Presnal of Bryan, whose primary mission in life is to claim in the name of Texas A&M every loose penny in the state treasury; (2) the Senate, which was determined to protect politically potent UT and A&M from the knife at the expense of smaller- and less influential-schools; and (3) the University of Texas, which adamantly refused to accept any cuts and vowed to defy Gibson to the death. It didn’t look like a fair fight, especially since in two previous terms Gibson, by his own admission, had done little more than have a good time. But the job made the man.
Came up with a novel way of minimizing the pain, telling schools how much to cut and letting them decide for themselves what to sacrifice-a handsoff approach that was anathema to senior budget writers, who have been known to dictate details as small as the color of car paint. Went eyeball to eyeball in conference committee against grizzled Senate veterans who resisted his upstart notions with the ferocity of Pharaoh resisting Moses.
Not understanding his approach, the Senate at first accused him of overspending; he immediately produced a handout proving that his budget spent less than theirs. Then they argued that the two budgets were irreconcilable; he disarmed them with country-boy explanations like “I just said, ‘assuming you have to die, where do you want to be shot?’” Never lost his temper or his sense of when to fight and when to yield. Slowly but relentlessly, like grass pushing up through concrete, broke through the Senate’s resistance.
With each imperiled small-college program snatched from the Senate guillotine, it became apparent that the smaller schools were getting a fair shake for the first time in years—and that oil-rich UT and A&M would have to shoulder their share of the cuts. A&M surrendered gracefully, but UT began dropping nukes, sending the chairman of the Board of Regents to Odessa to get influential alums to encourage Gibson to see the light. It didn’t work. On the climactic day, Gibson and the Senate had a stare-down over his insistence that the UT medical schools ante up millions from their dubiously accumulated discretionary funds, and the Senate blinked. The final package was a total victory for Gibson, including a fledgling desert-study program at Sul Ross State that he had been battling to save since day one; when it was salvaged, the crowded room erupted in cheers.
Within a week Gibson won the budget battle, solved an acrimonious dispute between Odessa and Midland, and received, in the Legislature’s closing hours, a humanitarian award from the Black Caucus. On the final night of the session, while revelry was going on all around him, Gibson stood quietly off to one side, tie loosened, subdued and reflective, with the air of someone who had proved himself to himself. A playboy no more, he was a player now.
Gerald Hill, Democrat, Austin
In baseball, when a pitcher’s fastball is swifter than it looks, he is called sneaky fast. In the Legislature, when a player is swifter than he looks, he’s called Gerald Hill.
A mild-mannered, low-profile kind of guy who speaks softly and carries a small stick—or so it seems. “He’s not really a bill passer,” said a House committee chairman, but when the House totted up the scorecard, lo, Gerald Hill’s name led all the rest. Had more bills set on the regular calendar than any other member; passed legislation taking on political heavies like the Gabler textbook fanatics (Hill’s bill gives textbooks supporters a chance to answer their critics) and South Texas nabob Clint Manges (Hill limited the size of campaign contributions in judicial races after Manges contributed $340,000 to one supreme court candidate last year).
Sometimes the best measure of a member’s effectiveness is what doesn’t happen.
Consider the case of the Local and Consent Calendars Committee, which oversees those all-important local bills that endear reps to the home folks. When Hill was named chairman, there were a few groans because he was in position to pile up bargaining chips for future Speaker’s race. But when the session was over, for the first time in memory the committee had not drawn a single protest.
Plays the legislative game almost as though he wants to be underestimated. A Mr. Nice Guy in committee; as former chairman of Elections, became the rock of his panel without ever upstaging this year’s successor. “You can go to him with the dumbest scheme, and he’ll tactfully tell you what’s wrong with it and how to fix it,” says a committee colleague, who didn’t find out secondhand. Never attacks, but digs in to defend his own positions with the tenacity of a tick. The only member of the Legislature who said he was for a tax bill and would vote for a tax bill, and then did vote for a tax bill even as members of the Ways and Means Committee shrank from Mark White’s tax package as from the Green Slime. Refused to give up on a state employee pay raise despite an empty treasury; added a rare floor amendment to the appropriations bill, ensuring state workers a pay hike—and did it with a shrewd parliamentary trick that saved rather than cost money.
Put a stop to the worst power play of the session after discovering that the Speaker’s lieutenants, in a rage over Agriculture Commissioner Jim Hightower’s intervention in the truck deregulation fight, had vowed to shred his agency’s budget. Didn’t rail about right and wrong but gave exactly the right advice; you can’t win a press release battle with Jim Hightower. The best thing about Gerald Hill is that the House isn’t likely to turn into a snake pit as long as he’s around.
Lee Jackson, Republican, Dallas
The case for Lee Jackson was succinctly stated by a colleague on the Ten Best list: “He’s so far ahead of the rest of us it’s not even a race.” Why this kind of tribute for someone who is not quite in the top rank as an orator, a power broker, or a bill passer? Because Jackson is to the Legislature what Greenwich is to time—the standard reference point for what is right. Approaches every issue and every vote by considering not whether it will affect his buddies or his reelection but whether it is good public policy.
Inspires more tributes to fairness than the rose in English verse. When a bill abhorrent to his civilian employer was sent to his Business and Commerce Committee, Jackson had an opportunity to curry favor with the boss by burying the bill in a hostile subcommittee. Instead, he warned company lobbyists that if he got so much as one phone call from corporate executives about the bill, he’d make certain that it passed. Cast the decisive vote in subcommittee to keep alive a controversial bill benefiting service station owners, even though he found it philosophically objectionable, because of what he believed was a larger principle: major bills shouldn’t be killed without giving the full committee a chance to express its will. Because of Jackson’s clemency, the bill survived to become law, leading a lobbyist to say, “He’s so fair that sometimes you’d rather he was on the other side.”
One of the most recognizable figures on the House floor: walks with his head sticking forward, in a pose reminiscent of a figurehead on the prow of a ship. One of the most active figures as well. A ringleader in the floor fight against a spendthrift college-construction plan; then followed through in a House-Senate conference committee by insisting on, and getting, strict controls on bonding authority. Opposed a dumb bill creating native-Texan license plates by appealing to the members’ sense of dignity. Rising to the compliment, the House discovered same and killed the bill.
His own legislative program, like his demeanor in debate, is clean and scrubbed: a strong ethics bill (most of which was incorporated in the law that finally passed) and a variety of good government ideas (most of which, sad to say, died in the Senate after Jackson had shepherded them through the House).
Jackson is not and will never be a member of the House inner circle. It is not a place for the urban or the urbane. But even his exclusion by the good ol’ boys is a sign of respect, an acknowledgment that he has the same shortcoming that Disraeli observed in Gladstone: “He has not a single redeeming defect.”
Ray Keller, Republican, Duncanville
The right man in the right place at the right time. Untied the Gordian knot of prison reform, but unlike Alexander of Macedon, did it with common sense rather than the sword.
Could have pouted away the session on the back benches after getting stiffed by Speaker Lewis in committee assignments (though made a chairman, Keller received neither the committee he asked for nor the seat on the power-brokering Calendars Committee he was promised as a consolation prize); instead, used his minor committee to play a major role. As a law enforcement chairman, refused to follow the traditional legislative script: give prison officials all the money they want and tell the folks back home that you’re for law and order. When a rock-ribbed, tough-on-crime conservative like Keller decided that the business-as-usual approach cost far too much money and showed far too little success, he made prison reform respectable.
Jaws hit the floor the day Keller began talking in committee about a no-growth policy, sounding like an environmentalist who’d wandered into the wrong meeting by mistake. Not only would there be no new prisons but he also wanted to take $200 million from the prison system and spend it on halfway houses and better parole supervision. In the beginning even his own committee was against him. In the end—after Keller shrewdly arranged for the poor fellow burdened with defending the sate prison system in federal court to show up during the budget deliberations—heresy became doctrine. The House passed the entire reform package without a single hostile question in floor debate and without a dissenting vote on six of the seven prison reform bills.
A team player in the best sense of the term. When other lieutenants were besieging the Speaker with self-serving advice that plunged Lewis into hot water with the Senate, Keller established himself as a loyal voice of reason. In the heated battle over trucking deregulation, when most team insiders were all for running over the pro-deregulation forces, Keller made sure that Lewis didn’t give his imprimatur to a phony compromise. Used teamwork on his own program as well. Drew on colleagues for his ideas on prisons (Jim Rudd of Brownfield), but he was no mere coach getting the credit for his players’ touchdowns. Says a fellow member of the Ten Best list: “Only Ray Keller could have made it happen.”
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.
Bill Messer, Democrat, Belton.
Everybody puts him on their Ten Best list—except, that is, those who put him on their Ten Worst list. The case for Messer as best: he manipulates the levers of power in the House better than anyone since Ben Barnes. The case for Messer as Worst: he manipulates the levers of power in the House better than anyone since Ben Barnes.
Confused? So is everybody else. Messer is the most dominant, formidable, elusive, and ultimately fascinating character in the Legislature. Let’s dispense with the items everyone agrees on. First, has no peer in passing major legislation: carried a huge load, from the Railroad Commission Sunset bill to the revision of the antitrust laws, and knew every line of every bill. Second, he’s smart as hell: made the session’s most reprehensible bill—protection for billboards against tough local ordinances—sound like it was devised by Solomon himself. Foes were stunned when Messer, answering their claim that the industry was welshing on a deal cut in 1973, cited ten-year-old transcripts from memory to show that there had been no meeting of the minds. Third, he was the most prominent member of the House this session, by virtue of his position as chairman of the absolutist Calendars Committee—a maze with dozens of blind alleys through which a bill must travel before it can reach the floor. Fourth, he’s part of the business lobby family (literally, in one case, since chemical industry advocate Harry Whitworth is his father-in-law). Fifth, he is utterly fearless, as befits someone whose name in German means “knife.” Sixth, there is more to his cherubic face and rosy cheeks than meets the eye.
For the anti-Messer camp, composed mostly of lobbyists on the losing side of Messer bills and some wary legislators, it will be the blackest day in Texas since the Alamo if Messer ever realizes his ambition to be Speaker. They grimly forecast the return of the days before 1973 when the business lobby called all the shots and legislators were either on the team or total outcasts.
What’s wrong with this picture? Everything. Unlike, say, a Bob Vale, who always has one eye on his contributions list, when Messer sides with the lobby it is out of informed conviction. The proof lies in the independent way he handles his bills (he accepted an amendment to the trucking compromise against the wishes of the industry) and in his successful sponsorship of some of this session’s best public-interest bills—antitrust, a new civil code, a major change in the civil service law that allows local police and fire chiefs to choose their top assistants.
As for power, sure, Messer uses it. He used Calendars to delay bills he didn’t like and hurry along bills he did, as has every Calendars chairman before him. Unlike most of his predecessors, though, he based his decisions solely on substance and philosophy; he didn’t use his power to reward his friends or hurt his enemies or further his Speaker ambitions (which, if anything, were slightly diminished after he became controversial). The problem in the House this year was not that Messer was too powerful but that almost everyone else was too docile. Instead of fighting back, they just grumbled. Messer didn’t have to run over anyone; he dominated by default. What the House could use is more people with his ability and appreciation of power. He needs the competition.
Steve Wolens, Democrat, Dallas.
Talented, independent, and fearless—a combination as hard to find this session as a ground swell to declare quiche the state dish. Craves a good fight for its own sake; the kind of legislator who would rather hurdle a high fence than walk through an open gate. More often than not, landed on his feet rather than his derriere.
A carnivore who tore into the meat of the House rather than its plenteous vegetables. Invariably, when Wolens got up to speak both the subject and the opposition were weighty.
Revels in taking on complicated issues; his mind stores facts like a camel stores water—they’re there when he needs them. Within one week, handled controversial bills on three of the most difficult issues of the session—securities, antitrust, and credit insurance.
Mounted the session’s only successful challenge to House titan Bill Messer, amputating a gangrenous section of an otherwise worthy Messer bill—over the loud objections of the victim. Took on a close ally of the Speaker’s in a battle over securities regulation, something no one except the two of them understood, and came within seven votes of winning—an amazing achievement, considering the herdlike proclivity of the House to follow the team blindly when faced with a soporific subject. In the best debate of the session, a duel in the Appropriations Committee with Jim Turner of Crockett, destroyed a team scheme to let members vote for a teacher pay raise without actually setting aside any money. Even the Speaker was not immune: Wolens induced the committee colleagues to submerge their sense of self-preservation and strike $14 million for a new osteopathic library in Fort Worth that was coveted by Lewis.
At his best in debate; not even Messer is his peer. In their one confrontation, left his adversary no room to maneuver, offering to withdraw his amendment if Messer could find a single precedent “in Texas law, in federal law, in the law of any state or country” for the provision Wolens found objectionable. Messer couldn’t. Won his appropriations duel over teacher salaries with a crisp attack on the team plan—“I have three objections. One is procedural, one is technical, one is substantive”—that even the most obtuse member could follow.
He was the House’s consummate lawyer: his arguments were sharp and even brilliant, his analysis keen, his research first-rate. But as with any good lawyer, you sometimes felt that Wolens would have argued just as brilliantly for the other side had the mood so struck him. He simultaneously led fights against regulation of securities and for regulation of air conditioning contractors.
For all Wolens’ unquestioned skills, the nagging question that won’t go away is this: to what end? To reach the very top rank, a legislator must have a consistency of philosophy and purpose to give meaning to all those skills. Otherwise he is a mere air plant, nice to look at but never rooted. In Wolens’ case, the roots are still lacking.
The Ten Worst
Al Edwards, Democrat, Houston
So unseemly was Edwards’ performance during the past session that it is destined to become the stuff of legend. In an ordinary year, Edwards is a legislative nonentity who cleaves unto his pet issues: trains and Juneteenth. But his role in this year’s horse-racing battle left colleagues longing for those days—and left Edwards the pariah of the decade.
Found himself the swing vote on the committee empowered to strike horse racing dead or send it to the House floor for a vote; proceeded to milk the situation for far, far more than it was worth. Unlike Lubbock senator John Montford, who used a similar position to win concessions for his district, Edwards never made it clear what he was looking for in exchange for his crucial vote—and therein lay the problem. To be blunt, there was no evidence that Al Edwards was trying to solicit a bribe, but if he was not trying to solicit a bribe, he acted exactly like a man who was.
Coy as the town strumpet, hinted at God-knew-what to the press, sometimes shifting position three times in a single interview. “Right now my vote is no, but I’ve got some things working” was one enticingly vague quote. Members and lobbyists, aware that Edwards was contemplating an expensive race for Harris County commissioner, grew nervous about the implications.
What was clear was that Edwards was reveling in the attention: the constant temperature-taking by the press, the hand-holding by bill sponsor Hugo Berlanga, the audiences with heavies like Speaker Lewis. Ultimately—and too late, as it turned out—voted to send the bill to the floor, but not without lots of posturing about his convictions as a Christian that sent eyeballs rolling heavenward.
Indifferent to the important stuff; anything but indifferent to his own self-interest. Proposed a preposterous $1 million interim study of bullet trains (normal budget for such a study was $50,000), which left Edwards-watchers wondering how much time he wanted to spend studying where to locate tracks in that commissioner’s precinct he covets. Got himself appointed to the subcommittee considering a county roads bill introduced by El Franco Lee, his prospective opponent in the commissioner’s race, then took a walk to prevent a vote on his rival’s bill.
The extent to which Edwards had been ostracized was demonstrated the last weekend of the session. He wandered into the Quorum Club, which was packed with legislators, all of whom were letting bygones be bygones and downing a few with people they had fought with all session. From table to table drifted Edwards, a Flying Dutchman looking for a safe harbor. But none would have him. Finally he gave up and vanished into the night, alone.
Frank Eikenburg, Republican, Plano
Natural furniture whose explosive temper catapulted him out of that neutral category—right onto the Worst list. At his best, a harmless rich kid who careens around the House like a wobbling top, blissfully unaware of what’s what. At his worst, a snit-throwing disturber of the legislative peace, possessed of a bush-league mean streak that makes it impossible for him to deal effectively with other members, even when he has it under control.
Burst into prominence as a freshman last session by telling Craig Washington, who was opposing draconian drug penalties, that he hoped Washington’s children grew up to be drug dealers. Has subsequently proved that that venomous attack was no fluke. Exhibit A: during his 1982 campaign for reelection, called rape “a victimless crime.” Exhibit B: fuming about the Plano Planning Commission’s tabling of his wife’s zoning request, Eikenburg threatened a lobbyist for Texas cities that he’d better “take care of business”—then ranted and raved to other members about the situation. Exhibit C: when a woman lobbyist forgot to deliver a legal memorandum to Eikenburg on the appointed day, he threatened to condemn her to other House members as the worst lobbyist in Austin, and he chewed her out savagely in public until another member felt obliged to come to her rescue. “His mind,” says one Capitol veteran, “is not sufficiently connected to his tongue.”
Some might dispute that his mind is connected to anything at all. Nowhere was Eikenburg’s inability to think straight more apparent than on a classic bit of news film masterminded by Capitol reporter Carole Kneeland, who caught the Eik (pronounced as though you’d just seen a mouse) voting repeatedly for the absent Randy Pennington—violating a House rule often honored in the breach—and asked him why he’d done it. With camera rolling, Eikenburg stared goggle-eyed at Kneeland for a full minute and nineteen seconds and then, like a kid with his hand in the cookie jar, mumbled, “Excuse me, I have to go back to a committee meeting,” and ignominiously fled. Almost any other member could have finessed the moment by explaining that everybody does it, by claiming he had permission, something. Not Eikenburg.
Innocent of skills, Eikenburg was nevertheless quick to blame others for his misfortunes. Accused Kneeland of having been put up to that embarrassing news film by the horse-racing lobby. Accused trial lawyers of killing one of his four paltry bills; they hadn’t even known it was on the calendar. Had the temerity to complain to colleagues about how hard it was to be rich.
Wants to be a state senator. But perhaps his true calling was apprehended by the lobbyist who, seeing Eikenburg leaning over the rotunda railing and pointing downward, said, “That’s what he’s suited for! A tour guide!”
Bill Hollowell, Democrat, Grand Saline
The most misunderstood member of the Legislature—and that is not a compliment. Yes, he accepts no campaign contributions and always speaks and votes his mind. Unfortunately, that is the locus of all the trouble. Blustery, parochial, obstreperous, and uninformed; a reincarnation of the worst qualities of William Jennings Bryan, of whom Woodrow Wilson said, in words that apply equally well to Hollowell, “He is absolutely sincere. That is what makes him so dangerous.”
At his worst on the powerful appropriations conference committee, where he was one of ten legislators with the final say on the state budget. This should have been his hour to shine: the treasury is short of money, the conferees have to cut the budget to the bone, and Hollowell postures as a guardian of the public purse. The committee rose to the occasion, all right, but Hollowell was a Lilliputian among Gullivers.
A know-nothing and proud of it; made no effort to see beyond his multitudinous prejudices and repeatedly had to be set straight by senators and staff. Griped that too much of the state’s money went to Houston; fought urban appropriations without regard to merit. His resistance to a vocational education program caused a rural senator to make a speech—something that never happens in conference committees—directed at Hollowell, on the importance of vocational education in general and the high success rate of the program in particular.
A total stranger to rational argument. When Jay Gibson tried to preserve a Chihuahuan Desert study at Sul Ross State because the low-enrollment college needed special programs to attract students, Hollowell retorted, “Let them study something worthwhile. That desert will be there awhile.”
Ignored the significant for the trivial. Reserved his greatest wrath for an obscure segment of the educational bureaucracy known as regional service centers; carried around a file folder stuffed with audit reports documenting misuse of state funds at one center. Threatened to unleash the General Investigating Committee, which he chairs, to hound the centers. It was vintage Hollowell: uninformed (the offending employee was fired as soon as his indiscretions were uncovered) and misdirected (the committee ignored indiscretions much closer to home, namely, the exorbitant expense reports filed last year by Houston legislator Ron Wilson).
Hollowell did leave one legacy for the session: a proposal that if adopted by the voters will become the silliest amendment ever added to the Texas constitution. In the case of nuclear attack, the Legislature would be authorized to fill sudden vacancies from the ranks of former members. Poor Texas. It is not enough to bear the tragedy of nuclear war; we must then suffer the indignity of entrusting our survival to the likes of Bill Heatly and Bill Moore. Thanks, Mr. Hollowell, but it was hard enough the first time.
Sam Hudson, Democrat, Dallas
Stop. Consider this a warning. What follows is not for the skeptical. They will never believe a word of it. But we’re not making it up.
Poor Sam Hudson doesn’t have any more idea of what is happening on the floor than the schoolchildren who file into the gallery, sit for five minutes, and leave. It took him—no kidding—two sessions to figure out that the phone on his desk on the House floor was a direct line to his office. One day this year he saluted colleague Tom DeLay with “Hi there, Ron,” which might be dismissed under the heading of “accidents can happen” if the incident had not occurred (a) during the last week of the session after (b) DeLay and Hudson had shared an office suite for four months.
Still not convinced? Try this one. Hudson introduced a bill calling for the reorganization of the Texas Indian Commission. At a committee hearing on the bill, he called, with great flourish and fanfare, his first and only supporting witness—who proceeded to tear his bill apart.
More? No problem. Hudson actually got a bill up for debate this year without going on a hunger strike, no small feat considering that in 1977 he had to resort to a 68-day fast. The current bill was aimed at preventing voter intimidation by banning all signs at polling places except those prescribed by the Secretary of State’s office; not a bad idea, only—oops—the bill read, “proscribed.” House members had hardly stopped yukking over that one when here came another Hudson bill, this one making it a felony to wear masks at Ku Klux Klan rallies. Oops again: it also made felons out of kids on Halloween.
Despite five terms in the House, remains oblivious to basics. Even the teenage pages know the procedure for debate—bills are voted on twice, but the second time is usually a formality and amendments then are discouraged both by rule and by custom—but not Sam. Dormant while the House gave preliminary approval to a dogfighting bill, then erupted with ten amendments during the ritual of final passage. Mercifully, Speaker Lewis shut him off after four had failed by overwhelming margins, less in the interest of saving time than of quieting the dozens of members who had seized the opportunity to practice yelping and howling.
None of these shenanigans came as any shock to Hudson’s colleagues; what did shock them, however, was Lewis’ decision to reward Hudson with a committee chairmanship. Lewis tried to minimize the damage by giving him the committee with jurisdiction over ceremonial resolutions, but even that turned to disaster. Like a wayward blade of grass on a putting green, it introduced a fatal eccentricity into the rolling course of events. On the day the horse-racing bill finally came up for debate, 75 members voted to kill the bill, 74 wanted to keep it alive … and Sam was missing. Supporters scoured the Capitol and nearby eateries while tension filled the chamber and metallic voices boomed out: “Is Mr. Hudson on the floor of the House? Is Mr. Hudson on the floor of the House?” It was no use. Sam was presenting one of his resolutions to a political friend—back in Dallas.
Glenn Kothmann, Democrat, San Antonio
Hilariously inept. Enjoyed, if that is the word for it, what everyone agrees was his best session, yet it wasn’t close to keeping him off the Ten Worst list.
Kothmann’s problem: hubris. He actually tried to be a player this session. The Valero bill pretty much sums up the results. Valero, a gas pipeline company headquartered in Kothmann’s district, needed a Senate sponsor for a bill to solve a local problem. But the company had a problem of its own. Kothmann, you see, is not very good at passing bills. So the company bypassed him, choosing instead John Traeger of neighboring Seguin. The slight infuriated Kothmann, and he vowed to kill the bill. As fate would have it, his was the swing vote in committee. Only he voted for the bill by mistake.
May be the only senator in Texas history to climb as high as fourth in seniority without being named a committee chairman. Thank God. Doesn’t have the foggiest understanding of substance; during the hearing on the intricate issue of trucking deregulation, resorted in desperation to letting lobbyists in the gallery signal him how to vote. Doesn’t have the foggiest understanding of procedure, either. Momentarily took over the gavel in State Affairs one day, only to be baffled by a routine motion (to substitute a House bill for a Senate bill) that is used dozens of times each session to speed bills through the process.
Only person to assess Kothmann’s performance as outstanding was Kothmann himself, in response to a question from a local reporter. At Kothmann’s insistence, both the question and the answer were in writing; verbal interviews are just too tricky. But the reporter didn’t mind; “even when he’s talking to you, he’s inaccessible,” says she.
Gets no sympathy for his bumbling, unlike most sad sack legislators, because, in the words of one lobbyist, “I’ve never met a man in politics who’s so petty.” Won his last primary by only 99 votes, a calamity for San Antonio on the scale of the great flood of 1921; spent this session poring over his opponent’s contribution list and swearing vengeance against anyone whose name appeared.
Seeks the spotlight as often as water runs uphill. Even has other senators introduce guests from his district and explain his bills in committee. Couldn’t avoid taking the floor to debate his bill requiring voter registrants to reveal felony convictions; it was a fiasco. Had to be coached through procedural motions by the chair, then looked pleadingly around the floor for help when other senators started asking questions that couldn’t be answered by “yes” or “no.” Silence reigned until someone took pity and spoon-fed him the answers. Senators mercifully called a halt after a series of pointed questions (later described by a colleague as “target practice on a whale tied to a tree”) ended with, “I think you have a bad bill, Senator.” Kothmann responded, “Thank you, Senator.”
Jan McKenna, Republican, Arlington
Every legislator has his element: Jan McKenna’s first session proved hers was hot water. A world-class waffler, developed an abiding fondness for the little white “present” light that lets members off the hook from voting yes or no. “I’ll vote ‘present’ unless you need me,” she assured one lobbyist sincerely. Flaked early on the horse-racing issue, first telling lobbyists she’d vote for it, then changing her mind on the nonsensical grounds that it was local option.
Bounced through the session like a legislative accident looking for places to happen. She found them. Stunned the Criminal Jurisprudence Committee by proposing bills that were already law. Acted the playground brat: when a fellow Republican asked to be recognized in committee and was ignored, McKenna turned to him and, like a three-year-old in a sandbox, said, “Nyah-nyah-nyah.” He responded in expletive-deleted terms – and people drank toasts to him all weekend.
In Urban Affairs, allied herself with mischief-maker extraordinaire Randy Penington to form the 68th session’s Fun Couple. With Pennington egging her on, moved to appeal a parliamentary ruling by chairman George Pierce, a serious breach of legislative etiquette not to be undertaken lightly. After a stern lecture by committee vice chairman Al Luna, sensed the disapproval of her peers and timidly voted “present” on her own motion.
McKenna tried to play with the big kids, then fip-flopped like a demented acrobat when she saw her routines weren’t going over. Reached the depths with her mercifully unsuccessful efforts to resuscitate the defunct Ben Barnes bill, one of the sorriest special-interest measures of all time (named for former lieutenant governor – and law school dropout – Ben Barnes, it allows legislators to become lawyers without attending law school). Unable to win support for her own bill and dearly wanting to be a lawyer herself, McKenna trotted hither and yon searching for a host bill onto which she could tack the odious Barnes parasite. At the eleventh hour, latched on to an Oscar Mauzy bil, assuming it was vital to the senator; she was wrong. When pressed about her shenanigans, denied responsibility and pointed the finger at other members. Typically, ended up voting to reconsider her own amendment.
McKenna herself explains her antics as the errors of a freshman. But she perversely chose to ignore advice from the most-respected strategists and rules pros in the House, who counseled her not to appeal a chairman’s ruling and to go about her Barnes work in a straightforward rather than a sneaky way. That’s not enough to get you onto the Ten Worst list, and neither is picking Randy Pennington as your mentor – although that’s debatable. What made McKenna a Worst was her uselessness in the most fundamental legislative sense: she was incapable of making the decision her constituents sent her to make.
Randy Pennington, Republican, Houston
With his sepulchral eyes and narrow gaze, Pennington may be the only member who unfailingly looks as if he’s up to no good. It’s no illusion. A professional troublemaker, he abhors nothing so much as a dead calm. Some legislators come to Austin concerned about issues; Pennington comes hoping to bring the full powers of his office to bear against his enemies. And who might these enemies be? For starters there’s everyone who has ever run against him. A sore winner, regularly sues his beaten opponents. Took a sudden interest in housing authority reform this session; by golly if his latest opponent, Bob Graham, wasn’t an investor in a subsidized housing project. Tries to stick it to law firms that have supported his opponents too; killed one of Jimmy Mankins’ bills because attorneys involved in Mankins’ water authority bill had contributed to vanquished Pennington foe Bill Carraway. Another pet Pennington hate: the bad ol’ City of Houston, which annexed his Clear Lake homeland some years back. Threw the House into a turmoil when a Dallas hotel-motel tax bill came up for debate; tried to graft on an amendment to hobble Houston’s conventions center plans. Played the spoiler in Urban Affiars, where his chief role was to mess up the committee process by offering endless points of order and plotting untoward parliamentary ploys. Ignoring four months of committee negotiations over Houston civil service reform, staged such a parliamentary song and dance that even Urban Affairs chairman George Pierce – who received $2000 worth of millionaire Pennington’s campaign largess – got fed up. Glaring icily, Pierce slammed down his gavel and interrupted, “Mr. Pennington moves the meeting stand adjourned.”
Showed as little regard for legislative codes as for his colleagues. Sneaked through a controversial resolution demanding a Metropolitan Transit Authority audit (take that, Houston!), in violation of the universally held principle that the resolutions should be kept noncontroversial. Declined to answer questions about what the resolution did; then the instant it passed, scurried to the press table with an explanatory news release.
Some actually defended Pennington, saying that he was better this session than last. Poppycock. It was all on the surface. He has learned more about the game and has discovered how to mask his vindictiveness. But Pennington’s newly acquired veneer of civilization only makes him more dangerous.
Carlyle Smith, Democrat, Grand Prairie
Like Hester Prynne, wore a scarlet A around his neck – but his stood for “albatross.” The one member of the Legislature whose support for any cause was instantly fatal.
Spent the session launching assaults on embattled Speaker Gib Lewis; they turned out to be kamikaze missions. So inept at guerrilla tactics that he actually ended up creating sympathy for Lewis. Worse, he scared away others who might have tried, had Smith not preceded them; he gave dissent and independence a bad name.
Had every reason to know better. In three previous session he’d watched John Bryant and Ron Coleman (both now in Congress, to Lewis’ everlasting good fortune) put on a clinic on how to fight a Speaker. Alas, Carlyle wasn’t taking notes. Otherwise he would have known to:
Pick the right issues. Bryant and Coleman chose water, agricultural tax breaks, and school finance, where they could use the complexity of the subject and their superior knowledge to tack on clever amendments, sway uninformed members, hint that skulduggery was afoot, and earn the grudging respect of the opposition. But Smith concentrated on horse racing and banning open containers in cars – emotional issues where there was little chance of changing votes or winning anyone’s respect.
Never get personal. Bryant and Coleman played hardball, but always on the issues, trying to goad the Speaker into pettiness first. But when Smith asked the House to exhume the open-container bill from a committee graveyard, he made the error of trying to cast Lewis in the role of undertaker. The House disagreed – by more than a hundred votes.
Don’t waste your ammunition. The biggest danger for insurgents is that they try to fight too many battles. Eventually no one listens anymore. For Smith, eventually came early. He and an ally proposed an amendment to elect the PUC, with commissioners taking office on January 1, 1985. He lost. Then he proposed and amendment to elect the PUC, with commissioners taking office on January 2, 1985. He lost again. Then, yes, January 3, 1985.
Timing is everything. After they lost a battle, Bryant and Coleman let someone else fight the next one while their wounds – and credibility – healed. But Smith, after getting drubbed on the open-container vote, marched straight into the billboards floor fight – and got drubbed again.
By the time the session entered its last month, Smith carried such a stigma that members begged him not to speak for their bills or amendments. Ignoring pleas to stay away from the microphone, he mortally wounded his comrades’ attack on the worst bill of the session, a scheme to override local billboard ordinances. Lobbyists actually incorporated Smith into their strategies, searching for ways to prod him into opposing their bills. Said on: “There is not another member or lobbyist who wouldn’t love to have Carlyle on the other side. It’s worth an instant sixty votes.”
Mark Stiles, Democrat, Beaumont
A good ol’ boy gone berserk. First day of the session, freshman Stiles went around hugging Speaker Gib Lewis and slapping the parliamentarian on the back. Clenching a fat cigar between his teeth, he swaggered into a crowded elevator and bossed the House sergeants around. In short order he found himself on State Affairs and Ways and Means, two plum committee assignments usually denied freshmen. “Gee,” thought observers, “this guy must be going somewhere.” He was – straight downhill.
Promptly made a fawning declaration of non-independence to the press in which he all but vowed to kiss the hem of Gib’s garment daily. Appointed himself apologist for Gib’s failure-to-disclose woes: mere “zip-code errors,” pronounced Stiles. “If the Speaker stopped suddenly, Stiles’ nose would be broken,” snapped one disgusted freshman.
Took to calling everyone Bubba. Made sure little cartoon figures labeled “Bubba Likes It” appeared on members’ desk video screens when certain bills came up; actually thought it helped his cause. Failed to combine his Bubbaship with any real legislative skills, assuming that the Speaker’s blessing was all he needed to get his program through.
Charged into the legislative china shop with the horns of a bull but the hide of a rabbit. Bullied witnesses, yet couldn’t deal with adversity himself: made an art form of the hissy fit, huffing agitatedly back to his desk when thwarted at the mike. Stormed out in mid-hearing when committee chairman Fred Agnich held up his hunting bill. Unwisely called Agnich Daddy Warbucks in private; was then stunned when Agnich, with obvious relish, rose later in the session to smite another Stiles bill with deadly points of order.
Brought a new word into the legislative lexicon – “nimby,” as in “not in my backyard.” Had the most parochial legislative package imaginable, including an ill-fated nimby bill that would have repealed the statewide property tax appraisal system in order to solve some Jefferson County problems and another that would have outlawed hazardous waste disposal sites in Liberty County. When colleagues advised him that someone would surely raise points of order about the narrow scope of this bill, Stiles – feeling his sworn fealty exempted him from the rules – blithely assured them the Speaker would rule his way. He was wrong.
By session’s end, the floor had turned openly hostile, hissing and catcalling when Stiles took the mike. He had even veteran lobbyists mixing their metaphors wildly (“A time bomb heading for a banana peel,” goggled one). But Stiles represented something more than an overweening freshman or a bad joke. He was the bad old days come back to life – a man with no beliefs save in his own advancement, a legislator who shamelessly declared he’d do anything to curry favor, including bargain away his independence for a mess of Speaker’s pottage. “He’s poisoned his reputation,” mused one thoughtful freshman. “And what else does a member have up here?”
Bob Vale, Democrat, San Antonio
The kind of politician who confirms your most cynical fears about politics. Combines an infinitesimal sense of public responsibility with a spectrum of values that begins with money and ends with money. If money is the mother’s milk of politics, as former California House Speaker Jess Unruh once postulated, then Bob Vale has yet to be weaned.
Not a crook – Vale is too smart to deal in quid pro quos, which is where tawdriness gives way to crime – but rather a parasite on the body politic. Says on lobbyist: “He has all kinds of fundraisers, needs, officeholder expenses he’s always telling you about, or he’ll ask you to ‘throw some business my way.’” (Vale, a lawyer, has used his office to drum up business before: he was reprimanded by the State Bar in 1972 because he represented clients for the sole purpose of obtaining a legislative continuance – the mandatory postponement of a criminal trial as long as the Legislature is in session.) “I don’t deal with him. I won’t deal with him,” says another lobbyist.
Here’s what happened this session to one who did. They lobbyist was explaining his side of one of the session’s major issues when Vale interrupted. “How much did you contribute to my last campaign?” he wanted to know. The lobbyist wasn’t sure, but he remembered making a contribution. “Well, it can’t have been too much because I don’t remember it,” said Vale.
On the rare occasions when he chooses to employ his talents, as in his battle to save Bill Clements’ appointment of Sam Barshop to the UT Board of Regents, he is a shrewd and tenacious adversary. Up against the governor, the Democratic party, and a dozen senators, Vale called in every chit and nearly pulled it off, thus demonstrating that he can play senator when he wants to. For the most part, though, he doesn’t want to. Acts like he’s allergic to major legislation; turned down an offer to be lead sponsor of the water package. A member of the conference committee on college construction, an issue vital to UT-San Antonio; appeared to doze through the first meeting and never contributed anything. Serves, sort of, on the powerful Senate Finance Committee, where a colleague evaluated his work as “useless.”
How bad is Bob Vale? During one lunch break, Kothmann was eating with several others in a local lunchroom when up walked Vale. As Vale sat down, Kothmann got up and fled, abandoning a half-consumed sandwich. When Glenn Kothmann runs away from someone, folks, that’s as bad as bad can get.
Flop of the Year
Craig Washington, Democrat, Houston. Seldom has a member fallen so far, so fast. Brilliant two years ago in the House but a bust in the Senate. Wanted to go back. Haunted the House floor like an unhappy ghost, lurking near the back mike, scene of his former triumphs. Started the session by accompanying the House Black Caucus to see the Speaker; got mad; got thrown out of the meeting. Couldn’t adjust to the Senate’s clubby rhythms: do your homework in advance, cut your deals, hustle your votes, then go through the formality of floor debate. Found that the compelling oratory and last-minute rides to the rescue that served him so well in the past did not apply; spent the session lashing out instead of trying to change. Saddest of all, became obsessed with the narrowest kind of ethnic politics, slapping anti-South Africa amendments on everything that moved. The glimmer of hope here is that he’s had a miserable session once before; in 1977 his dismal performance earned him our Missing in Action sobriquet. He bounced back then; Washington rooters hope he can do it again.
Best Single Performance
Chet Brooks, Democrat, Pasadena. Singlehandedly pulled Houston out of the recession with his raids on the state treasury during final budget negotiations. Argued with passion and skill for the small (but, thanks to Brooks, increasing) number of urban programs in the appropriations bill. Knew from long years of experience where his forays would be most effective; every time Brooks said, “One more little item, Mr. Chairman,” you could pack up another million dollars and ship it to Houston. So why isn’t he on the Ten Best list? As usual, he’s too close to folks you ought not to be too close to—as when he gutted a bill requiring nursing homes to install sprinklers. Guess what lobby contributed $5650 to Brooks last year?
The term “furniture” first came into use around the Legislature to describe members who, by virtue of their indifference or ineffectiveness, were indistinguishable from their desks, chairs, and spittoons. It is now used, casually and more generally, to identify the most inconsequential members. Our furniture list for the 68th Legislature:
Billy Clemons, Pollok
Joe Gamez, San Antonio
Noel Grisham, Round Rock
Dudley Harrison, Sanderson
L.B. Kubiak, Rockdale
Erwin Barton, Pasadena
Reby Cary, Fort Worth
Tony Garcia, Pharr
Jim Horn, Lewisville
Kae Patrick, San Antonio
Senfronia Thompson, Houston
Charles Finnell, Holliday
Leroy Wieting, Portland
Rookie of the Year
BILL SARPALIUS, Democrat, Amarillo. The man they call Senator Sap has the unpolished skills and incomplete understanding of the Senate’s mysterious ways typical of the rawest freshman. Passed the DWI reform bill; it was so full of holes that a House committee worked for six weeks to plug them all up. Squabbled with senators over his broken pledges, another characteristic of first-termers. Ah, but that’s just the point. Sarpalius is in his second term; he only acts like a freshman. The Senate’s real first-year class was astonishingly good, contributing BOB MCFARLAND to the Ten-Best list, and the best new legislator—JOHN MONTFORD of Lubbock, who guided the ill-fated water plan through the Senate, played hardball to get an amendment on the ill-fated horse-racing bill, and persuaded senators to add some ill-fated appropriations for Texas Tech to the state budget. Oh, well, you can’t win them all.
At 6:15 p.m. on the last Friday of the session, Ed Emmett of Kingwood torpedoed an extremely complicated, hard-to-argue bill establishing state regulation of boilers, in one inspired moment. “Members,” he said, waving aloft a sheaf of paper as his colleagues milled about like hungry ants, “we can stay here and argue all of these amendments, or we can table this bill and go to dinner,” Down it went, 108-34.
Shortly before the House voted on horse racing, Joe Gamez of San Antonio approached HUGO BERLANGA of Corpus Christi, the sponsor of the bill. Said Berlanga to Gamez, who earlier in the session had been arrested for DWI and at the same time was found to have been driving for years without a license: “Don’t flake on me, Gamez. It may be your only means of transportation.”
First Prize: RANDY PENNINGTON, Clear Lake. While slashing funds for a migrant workers’ program, declared, “I understand migrants. I eat tomatoes.” Second prize: Senator JOHN LEEDOM, Dallas. His response to Craig Washington’s description of what it’s like to be black in South Africa: “Speaking of minorities, you should have been a Republican twenty years ago.”
There was a lot of competition this year for the final slots on the Ten Worst list. It hardly seems fair to the losers to let their efforts go unnoticed.
It’s time for Senator OSCAR MAUZY (Democrat, Dallas) to head for the barn and hang up the old saddle. Once a great senator, he no longer has any fire except for partisan fights like appointments. Perhaps there’s another stall in that barn for nitpicker MILTON FOX (Republican, Houston), who delights in killing otherwise uncontested bills that he discovers cost one penny more than the paper they’re printed on. BILL CEVERHA’s (Republican, Richardson) sodomy bill tried to outlaw such wanton acts as foreplay, but Ceverha was less concerned with the activities of consenting legislators—he crusaded against stronger ethics laws all session. Finally, let’s not forget JIMMY MANKINS (Democrat, Kilgore). Losing to infamous selfshooter Mike Martin in 1980 was bad enough; then he came back with a bill to give prisoners $100 and a one-way ticket to Washington, D.C.
It would be nice to report that the competition for the Ten Best was as spirited as for the Ten Worst; alas, such was not the case. But here are the best of the rest: Senator Ed Howard (Democrat, Texarkana) is a refreshing presence. He won’t barter away his vote, won’t logroll on the budget, won’t carry special-interest bills, and manages to be very conservative without being beholden to the business lobby. Bob Simpson (Democrat, Amarillo) is so trusted as chairman of the Insurance Committee that the rest of the House just goes along with what he decides. Wayne Peveto (Democrat, Orange), who turned a nightmarish DWI bill into a workable law, may not appear in these pages again. If he’s really hanging up his gavel, as is rumored, he can look back and know that he left the state in better shape than he found it. George Pierce (Republican, San Antonio) doesn’t want to look back at all. His Urban Affairs Committee included four of the Ten Worst—Edwards, Eikenburg, McKenna, and Pennington. He deserves an honorable mention just for surviving.
Truth in Politicking Award
To Senator JOHN WHITMIRE of Houston, who complained about the chewing-out he received from Dolph Briscoe after voting for the brucellosis bill Dolph was fighting. Another senator observed that he had voted for the bill and was none the worse for wear. “Yeah,” said Whitmire, “but you didn’t lie to him.”