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Freshman Class Act

By Amy Smith, Fri., June 1, 2001

Freshman state Rep. Ann Kitchen, D-Austin, proved a quick study during her first session at the Texas Legislature, which wrapped up May 28.
Freshman state Rep. Ann Kitchen, D-Austin, proved a quick study during her first session at the Texas Legislature, which wrapped up May 28.
Photo By John Anderson

As a meticulous lawyer who made her living trying to influence public policy, Ann Kitchen was already versed in the bruising world of Capitol politics when she won election last year to Austin's District 48 seat. But when Kitchen crossed the brass bar to the House floor for the first time in January, the freshman representative was instantly relegated to the lowest rung of a seniority-driven ladder.

In the end, Kitchen proved a quick study. One of nine members of a largely ignored freshman class, Kitchen performed like the quintessential overachieving student this session. "More like the gifted and talented," Austin Rep. Glen Maxey chimed in the other morning before checking in on the House floor. "Ann Kitchen has been around this place for a long time, and she came in with a wealth of knowledge. She quickly became what we call a 'go-to member,' the one senior members would defer to on issues. Ann did a lot of the legwork on bills that other legislators will get credit for."

On that score, Kitchen's mark this session will likely be on health care legislation for which, as Maxey noted, other lawmakers will receive credit. But her senior colleagues are quick to point out the depth of knowledge she brought to the table in shaping HB 1156, which expands women's access to health care, and SB 11 -- the Medical Records Privacy Act. Kitchen contributed to the process by drawing on her work history, which includes managing the health care regulatory group of PricewaterhouseCoopers, serving as a policy adviser to the Texas Health and Human Services Commission, and working in the state attorney general's consumer protection division. Although Kitchen sits on two different House committees -- Criminal Jurisprudence and Energy Resources, her pet interests are health care and education.

Rep. Patricia Gray, a Galveston Democrat who chairs the Public Health Committee, recalled Kitchen's immediate grasp of the issues in the medical records privacy debate. "We got a bill that the Senate took nine months to put together and pass. We got the bill, reconstructed it, and passed it in nine minutes. A lot of that was because of Ann's work," Gray said.

In April, Rep. Paul Sadler, chairman of the Public Education Committee, took the floor to thank several representatives for their work on the far-reaching health insurance plan for teachers. Kitchen, Sadler told House members, "sat in on every single meeting and brought ideas to us."

Kitchen sums up her freshman year this way: "My basic approach was to be straightforward in a reasonable way. You have to know when to fight and when to step back and observe the process." Kitchen knew to stand her ground, for example, when fellow Austin GOP Rep. Terry Keel set about, as Kitchen put it, "ripping my district apart" with an amendment that would have paired Democrats Kitchen and Maxey in the same district, leaving Maxey's south and southeastern Travis County district without an incumbent. Keel's amendment was narrowly defeated. Kitchen knew going into the session that her district, which includes south and southwest Travis County, would be a target for Republican maneuvering. "Terry and I had serious disagreements over redistricting," Kitchen said. "The plan he was advancing was completely unreasonable, but I knew it wasn't personal."

Having campaigned on the potential dangers of the proposed Longhorn gasoline pipeline in South Austin, Kitchen made good on her platform by introducing measures that would have imposed strict safety requirements on Longhorn Pipeline Partners. The company plans to move gasoline, diesel, and aviation fuel from Houston to El Paso through a pipeline built more than 50 years ago. "She didn't get everything she wanted on pipeline safety," Maxey observed, "but, damn, she represented her constituents. Because of Ann, there's not anyone in the House who doesn't know something about the Longhorn pipeline."

Kitchen vows to revisit the Longhorn matter in the next session. While the Lower Colorado River Authority recently settled its differences with the company, with Longhorn agreeing to build six miles of new pipeline near the Pedernales River, the city of Austin and other plaintiffs (now minus the LCRA) are challenging the federal government's approval of the pipeline in federal court. "I'm happy they're putting in new pipeline to protect water, but you would think they would at least put new pipes in where people are living and going to school," Kitchen said. On a high note, though, Kitchen did manage to tack on some pipeline amendments to a bill extending the life of the Texas Railroad Commission, which regulates the oil and gas industry.

Last Thursday afternoon, Gray, the Galveston Democrat, reflected on the three personality types she believes best describe incoming freshman representatives. "There's one group that's more focused on dealing with their party structure and trying to move up the ranks within their party. That's more common among Republicans. There's a second group that's purely local. They never move beyond their local water districts or their local hospital districts, and they never take an interest in things like how public schools are financed. Then there's the third group," Gray concluded. "They're very responsible and committed to their districts, and they also have an intellectual curiosity that gives them the edge in moving beyond purely local issues. I would put Ann in that category."

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