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When Dewhurst Goes Back to Senate

How Cruz and Campbell's run-off wins rewrite the Legislature

By Richard Whittaker, 8:00AM, Fri. Aug. 3, 2012

Cheer up, David Dewhurst, at least you still get to be senate president! Oh, yeah, sorry.
Cheer up, David Dewhurst, at least you still get to be senate president! Oh, yeah, sorry.
Photo by John Anderson

So amongst all the national crowing and boo-hooing about Ted Cruz defeating Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst for the GOP US Senate nomination last night, there's been surprisingly little mention of how much the Texas House and Senate were shaken up Tuesday night. Let's just say lunatics, asylum, power struggle.

Let's just cut to the the chase and say the 82nd Legislature was a catastrophic mess. The GOP may have passed a slate of repressive bills (sonograms, voter ID, redistricting, school finance reforms, etc etc etc) but all ended up facing a growing stack of legal challenges. Bonnie Bruce, chief of staff for retiring rep Burt Solomons, has issued a chart saying that there are only confirmed 70 returning house members and 39 freshman. Now, some calculations are saying there may be as many as 65 freshman or sophomore lawmakers on deck next session – many driven more by dogma than common sense – there's little doubt we'll see the same mess again.

Here's the core issue. Dewhurst, who is seen as an absentee landlord in his role as senate president, is crippled. Gov. Rick Perry endorsed him over Cruz, and now faces questions about whether he is a worthwhile ally or a liability. Speaker Joe Straus survived his own re-nomination in May, demolishing challenger Matt Beebe by a two-to-one margin. Now the far right hates him, and has indulged in some very ugly rhetoric about him and his allies. Yet the suspicion now is that the Democrats and the moderate GOP reps may repeat 2009, when their coalition made him speaker over conservative protests. That said, the fringe right targeted just about every one of Straus committee chairs just for being a committee chair.

In many ways, Tuesday just re-enforced what had been built in the May first round. The rag-tag band of 'throw the bums out' enthusiasts dubbed the Tea Party continued their attempt to purge everyone they saw as a liberal. The big exit in the Senate was undoubtedly Sen. Jeff Wentworth, R-San Antonio, who was replaced by 2010 Congressional also-ran Donna Campbell.

Now we're been mocked by some conservatives for saying that Wentworth is not a moderate. To which we reply, when you buy Chik Fil A just because the firms opposes gay marriage, then you have no grasp of what moderate or radical is.

But the simple reality is that Wentworth, even if he is an old grump and annoyed his gerrymandering peers by continually pushing for redistricting reform, was a very traditional Texas Republican. He didn't leave the party. The party, dragged by the increasingly rabid rhetoric of its rump right, left him.

And he's just the latest in a long line of veteran senators to step down or be tossed out. Senate Finance committee chair Steve Ogden, gone. Senate Education chair Florence Shapiro, gone. Now we were scarcely huge fans of their work, but at least they knew where the bathrooms are. In their place are a plethora of rabid conservatives (or, at the minimum, pols who play one on TV.) Most are House veterans taking a promotion, like Georgetown freshman Charles Schwertner. What will be more interesting is the dynamic between three ascending House power players – failed 2012 Speaker candidate Ken Paxton of McKinney, Kelly Hancock of Fort Worth (who does not believe sex ed should be medically accurate) and Larry "Mr. Cultural Sensitivity" Taylor of Friendswood. Sen. Dan Patrick, R-Houston, is already trying to shake off any damage he suffered from endorsing Dewhurst by saying the already-conservative and obviously-dysfunctional Senate will be more conservative then ever. One model suggests he and Taylor forming a new alliance (let's just call it the gruesome twosome), but Taylor is short on diplomacy and like being in charge. Let's see how that lump of personal politics plays out.

But what does it mean for the House? As GOP caucus leader, Taylor was one of the GOP's toughest leaders, and there's undoubtedly going to be a power vacuum in his departure. Moreover, he also steps down as House Elections Committee chair (where he did such a grand job that both voter ID and redistricting are stuck in the courts.) He's not the only exiting committee chair. Add to that list General Investigating and Ethics chair Rep. Chuck Hopson, R-Jacksonville, and Homeland Security and Public Safety chair Sid Miller, both of whom lost their primary run-offs on Tuesday. They're just the beginning of a long list of exiting chairs that began in May, with both Vicki Truitt (Pensions, Investments and Financial Services) and Mike "Tuffy" Hamilton (Licensing and Administrative Procedures) getting bludgeoned for being too liberal. Add Border and Intergovernmental Affairs to the list of vacancies, as Democrat Veronica Gonzales is not running again. But the biggest loss will be Rob Eissler, R-The Woodlands. He, Shapiro and Ogden shaped last session's school finance debacle: However, they all at least understood the issues and that they were passing a bad bill. Without them or – more worryingly – retired Democrat/freewheeling education savant Scott Hochberg on board, who will come up with a fix if/when the courts throw out the current school finance system?

Tuesday was also a bad night for old defectors. Hopson should have been one of the GOP's golden boys, but talk about Faustian pacts. After jumping ship in 2009 (seriously, most people thought he was a Republican anyway), along with 2010 defectors Allan Ritter and Aaron Pena he helped deliver a supermajority to the House Republican Caucus. Out of the three, only Ritter remains. And life may be rough for Rep. Jose Lozano, R-Kingsville, who jumped ship in March. He came up to Austin in 2010 after taking out Tara Rios Ybara in the Democratic primary, but now former rep Yvonne Gonzalez Toureilles (a victim of the 2010 Tea Party wave) is gunning for him in November. Now the seat has been buttressed with some territory out of Republican coastal districts, so it will be interesting to see whether Lozano holds on come November.

Many put Lozano's defection down to redistricting, and that he saw his seat as too Republican for him to win as a Democrat (vice versa, Pena suddenly realized that his Democratic district was – shocker – Democratic and so decided not to even bother this time.) Tenure and experience was no defense for Republicans running from redistricting by seeking non-legislative office either. Warren Chisum got paired up with Rick Hardcastle in remapping: He avoided that fight, only to get wiped out in his run for Railroad Commissioner, losing to Christi Craddick.

That said, it was a pretty good night for aspirational House Dems, especially those seeking a Congressional promotion. Rep. Pete Gallego, D-Alpine, won a base in El Paso, Reeve and Maverick Counties that shoved him past Ciro Rodriguez's high total in Bexar for a ten point lead. Meanwhile Rep. Marc Veasey, D-Dallas, secured nomination in the new Congressional District 33. That's the best-looking minority opportunity district under redistricting: Meanwhile, Republican Quico Canseco holds CD-23, but Gallego is a tough campaigner and very well known in the district. Both Dems have a good shot at joining Texas' congressional delegation. That said, the House Dems lost one of their best strategic minds in Gallego, and now have to ensure that they can at least break the magic 50 seat mark in the house. Otherwise they'll be back where they were last session: Crippled and incapable of blocking the GOP supermajority.

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