The Class of 1985
The Texas House of Representatives, 69th Legislature, cast a long shadow
If you want to know who runs the state of Texas you can consult the constitution, enroll in a course on state government, or even check at the Ethics Commission to see who's giving money and who's taking it. But an easier way to quickly get the big picture is to go to the third floor gallery of the Capitol, to the House chamber. There, on the east wall, you'll find a composite photograph of everyone who served in the 1985 group of state representatives, the Honorable Members of the Texas House.
Many of the people who are now writing budgets and busting balls at a statewide level were in the House then. Not all, of course, because the majority party at that time was Democratic, and many of those members have moved on, willingly or unwillingly or have long since changed party. Some, like Irma Rangel from Kingsville in the Rio Grande Valley and Erwin Barton of suburban Houston, have passed away. Dan Morales, who during that legislative session represented San Antonio and eventually rose to attorney general, recently boarded a bus with his ankles shackled, headed for a four-year membership in Club Fed. But others are still around and have assumed power and first and foremost among them is Tom Craddick of Midland, the new speaker.
If you've never seen Craddick in person, he's a bantamweight. "Doesn't quite fill his suits," his aides laugh. The politically big man definitely looks as if he needs a good meal.
One morning a few weeks ago, the undernourished shape of Texas leadership stood before the 1985 composite. Craddick looked at the faces behind the glass and talked about who they were and where they are now. The composite, taken each session, is like an extended family photo. As among all families, there have been some differences since '85, even some splits. Not everyone is still part of the family, and of those who remain, not everyone is still on speaking terms. There have been a few prodigal sons like Morales, and daughters too Lena Guerrero, who also rose to statewide office and fell to political scandal. Some of those pictured have lived up to expectations and some not, and there has been a least one big surprise from a member of the family of whom nobody ever expected much.
It's been a long time, 19 years, and Craddick himself has risen steadily with the fortunes of his party. He's been very busy taking power, in fact, and as he stood in front of the photo, you couldn't help but get the impression that he hasn't had much time to reflect about history since he's been making it. Uncertainly, he ran his fingers across the glass of the picture frame, one face at a time.
"Passed away ... Passed away ... Lobbyist for ... I heard he has cancer. ... Killed in an airplane crash. ..."
Flustered, the speaker looked back over his shoulder. "It's hard to remember," he said.
Surprised by the difficulty of the task, he looked again at the faces of members. Some of them, he himself had "assisted" to find other careers.
Of course, many of the fates of these 150 members have been no different than that of any other group of people of comparable age and time, but this group of men and women, because of their profession, was touched not just by fate but by Fate. Two, Sam Johnson of Plano and Gene Green of Houston, went to Congress and are still there, helping to direct the nation's affairs. Mike Toomey, also from Houston, is now the governor's chief of staff and has the distinction of being both one of the most powerful men in Texas government and the most feared. Bruce Gibson from Godley is now the lieutenant governor's chief of staff, sans the dark Toomey reputation. And Cliff Johnson of Palestine spent last year in the governor's employ, after having earlier been power behind the throne of Gov. George W. Bush.
Gwyn Shea just resigned after two years as Texas secretary of state. Bill Ceverha now helps run the Big D, whence he held a Republican seat in '85, while Bob Eckels is county judge in Houston, which he represented during the same session. A half-dozen members of the class of '85 went to the Texas Senate and three, Frank Madla of San Antonio, Ken Armbrister of Victoria nicknamed "Senator Dow" for his almost unnatural closeness to the petrochemical companies in his district and Chris Harris of Arlington, are still there.
Terral Smith served in the Travis Co. delegation back then, later became Gov. George W. Bush's legislative director, but opted not to follow the president-elect to Washington. Bill Hammond, who was an "R" from Dallas, now runs the Texas Association of Business, which has played no small part in the Republican conquest of state government.
Tom DeLay, now the majority leader of the U.S. House of Representatives, left the Texas House as the freshman class of '85 arrived. It's important to mention DeLay, because he is a good example of the influence of this body. The Texas Senate is prestigious and is traditionally presided over by the single most powerful figure in state government, the lieutenant governor. But it is the Texas House and the people who come out of that House who run the state and in DeLay's case the country.
Few close Capitol observers would quarrel with that analysis, though there is some disagreement about why it's true.
If you ask Speaker Craddick why he believes the Texas House generally produces more formidable leadership than the Senate, he answers with a single word, "networking." The speaker explains that if a House member wants to run for higher or statewide office, for example, he (or she) has 149 colleagues he can call on for support. Other observers have similar but slightly different takes.
A House Is Not a Senate
When ordinary citizens have a problem, they call their representative, not their senator. That's another fact of life in the House. Rep. Pete Laney, D-Hale Center, who was chair of State Affairs in '85 and became speaker when Gib Lewis got on the wrong side of a grand jury, talks even now about going down to the supermarket or the corner restaurant in his district and learning about leadership there. "You sit down in the coffeehouse with constituents when you're at home," he says, describing the prosaic life of a state rep not much different from anybody else. Living among your constituents you learn what they want and the danger of not getting it for them. Even a speaker has to face re-election every two years, and that biannual reminder of political mortality keeps a rep listening very closely to the voters.
A state senator moves in a more rarefied atmosphere, further removed from the people he represents. In the Senate, too, there's a parliamentary peculiarity of the upper chamber, the "two-thirds rule" a temporary (in theory) casualty of last year's congressional redistricting wars which requires approval by two-thirds of the senators to consider any bill. Consensus is mandated by the system. That means that the votes are already counted, and with few exceptions issues are effectively decided before the roll is called.
"I think that in the Senate," Laney says, the members "already know what's going to happen because they've decided in conference, and then they come out in public and vote." In the House it's impossible to touch base like that with every rep on every issue, Laney says. Although it was much less true in last year's GOP-heavy 78th Legislature, there's still an opportunity to sway votes through debate, Laney says, through what was once called "speechifying" in order to survive, a member must learn the value of public persuasion. That skill too can be helpful later, if you're planning on moving up, or moving on.
The upper chamber's very prestige seems to work against it. People get comfortable in the Senate, while in the House there's ambition everywhere, thick enough to touch and feel. The clubbiness of the upper chamber means that members are sometimes afraid to vote against one another, for fear of breaking friendships. In the House as a recent member described the process you can pair with someone to pass a bill in the morning, spend the afternoon trying to stake that same person out over an anthill, and then that evening go drinking with the same colleague. The missing Senate ingredient, until recently, has been that creative tension, or any uncivilized display like real debate. (Last year with redistricting there was plenty of Senate tension, but what it left in its wake remains to be seen.) Walk out on the floor of the Texas House at any time, however, and you may be taking your life in your hands.
Terral Smith, who learned a lot about these two institutions while rounding up votes for W., says all of these considerations are important, and something else as well. Simple arithmetic plays a part. There are five state reps for each senator, and not everyone with gumption, or an itch to scratch, can move to the east wing of the capitol. Even good people with ambition sometimes have to look elsewhere. That's what he did.
"As a Republican, I knew I was blocked from the Senate from Travis County," he says. He retired to private practice, and later went to work for the other man from Midland not the new speaker, but the future president.
There's one more face we all know in the 1985 composite photo. Like all of them, he was younger then, although he has aged well, and he was handsome then as now clean, all-American features, but none of the imperiousness in his glance then that we're used to today: Rick Perry, current occupant of the Governor's Mansion.
The Quiet Man
That was Rick Perry's first session in the House, his first public office, and those who remember him at all, that first session, were not bowled over and did not pick him, among 149 others, for greatness. "He was very quiet," says one of his fellow members, speaking of Perry's legislative persona as a freshman in '85, while everyone, friend and foe, says he was a party animal outside of work babes and booze from the first day he hit Austin. From the start, too, he appeared to like the legislative lifestyle, according to those who knew him. "Living large," a fellow rep calls it, especially considering the genuinely modest circumstances of Perry's birth and upbringing. "He was seen as a fun, partying lightweight, until he got on Appropriations," says one of his closest friends.
"He did not come into his own," Speaker Craddick says diplomatically, looking at the young Rep. Perry staring out from the far right upper corner of the composite, "until the next session, I believe, when he got on Appropriations."
On the Appropriations Committee, Perry ran with the legendary (or infamous) "Pit Bulls" who controlled the committee and were determined to rein in state spending. Other Bulls included Toomey, the Republican who would eventually be bounced from the committee for his more-fiscally-responsible-than-thou demonstrations; Perry's close friend Ric Williamson, now a TxDOT commissioner; and Debra Danburg, a Houston Democrat who got redistricted and then beaten last term. Those were especially bad years on Appropriations, with school finance issues, like today, and prison construction mandates and only one rule, then as now: no new taxes. There's some question whether Perry's bark was worse than his bite. He certainly didn't lead the pack.
He did, however, do his share of heavy lifting on Appropriations and became master of a kind of "personal politics" in which, whenever anyone came to testify before the committee, the representative from Haskell already knew "who they were, how they got their job, and who they were sleeping with." He was still a Democrat then, and a fellow Democrat who worked with him that first session and beyond reports that when Perry finally switched parties, in 1989, the ambitious young Democrat-cum-Republican made no effort to hide his motivation from his former fellow party members: "He said that as a conservative white male he had no future as a Democrat. The Republicans promised him statewide office."
No one, friend or foe, then or now, speaks of the governor's intellect, except to question it. But even his enemies credit Rick Perry with the greatest gift in politics, immaculate timing. He knew when to make his move to the GOP and, more important, when to tie himself to George W. Bush's coattails. The rest was serendipity. He happened to be under the ball and it dropped into his hands, yes. But he probably deserves some credit for holding on.
In addition to timing, politics is a question of place. There, too, Rick Perry was gifted. He was born in West Texas.
If you look at most of the people who have run the state in recent years, they have one thing in common. Bush, Craddick, Perry, Laney, Bill Clayton they're all West Texans. People from other parts of the state tend to ascribe the inordinate power of the lightly populated area west of I-35 to a "vision thing," i.e., the self-reliance and independence that characterizes those who call West Texas home. But it's also attributable to a commonality of interests.
Out of the West
Because the West is so sparsely populated, the House members from there, regardless of party, have tended to stick together and vote as a block. Terral Smith tells a funny story about arriving in the House in 1981 as a Republican representing Austin, a decidedly urban district. "When [Democratic Speaker Billy] Clayton heard that I was born in Shallowater" a bend in the road north of Lubbock "he put me on the fast track to committee chairmanship, because he knew I'd vote for West Texas." Look at a map of the state, says former Speaker Laney, who is from a district near Plainview (which makes Lubbock look like Los Angeles). Take everything west of I-35, but exclude the urban area of El Paso and maybe even discount some of Midland, because there's oil money there, and the rest of the inhabitants of the region all have the same priorities: water, agriculture, rural roads, and Texas Tech University.
The West Texas House delegation has always hung together, Laney says, because they've always known that otherwise they'd hang separately: Without unity, West Texas' rural/small-town needs would be pushed aside by the unquenchable urban demands of Dallas, San Antonio, and Houston. That West Texan unity has always been there, in recent memory. Or, Laney says, "until the present speaker got elected."
"You always saw that the numbers were turning," Laney says of the old sessions, when Democrats still ruled, like '85, as the Republicans even then were pushing toward a majority, "but you didn't have the animosity. People would argue on one bill and then help each other on the next." Speaking of the House's most treasured tradition that has separated the lower chamber from the Senate and created some of the greatest leaders of this state he adds, "The House did encourage debate, until last year."
The recent history of Texas is not really about George W. Bush, who was just passing through Austin, after all, on his way from Midland to Washington. Nor is it about Rick Perry, whose career has always been more about the importance of Rick than anyone else. It's really about two other men: Craddick and Laney, the longest-serving member and one of the second-longest. Both have considerable intellect; more importantly, both also have endurance, as their leadership has depended on it. Both men have spent more than half their lives in the Texas House of Representatives.
The spotlight was on Pete Laney, the Democrat, and now it's on Tom Craddick, the first Republican speaker since Reconstruction.
"When I first came to the House [in 1969]," Craddick says, still standing in front of the 1985 composite, "I didn't join the [state] retirement system because I didn't think I'd be here that long." Thirty-five years ago, as one of only eight Republican members, he thought he'd soon be beaten.
By the 1985 session there were 52 Republicans. And by 2003 ...
"I knew that we'd end up with control after the last redistricting," he says, leaning against a chair in the House gallery, his suit hanging from him, two sizes too big. He recalled the numbers that got him and his party where they are today. "I had guessed 82 [Republican seats] and we ended up with 88." His strategists believe there are still another five House seats they can pick up, and maybe one in the upper chamber when Sen. Dow, the conservative Democrat from Victoria, retires.
In some ways the rise of the Republican Party in Texas is directly reflected in changes in the new House leader himself. Craddick started out as a reformer, allied with liberal Democrats fighting a corrupt speaker, and on a personal level was known as a great gentleman. (John Sharp, who served in both chambers and later rose to statewide office, notes that when he entered the House in 1979, in his interactions with Craddick, "I didn't even know he was a Republican." Certainly no one would make that mistake today.)
By 1985, as a committee chairman, Craddick had already begun to rub some Democrats the wrong way. He still had a reputation for courtliness, but there was no mistaking his real aim. Even Craddick's staff agrees that his style became more aggressive, especially in contrast to the inclusive approach favored by his predecessor. But Craddick was on a mission, trying to grow his party.
Today there's still much courtliness in his manner, although under the pressure of last year's endless sessions it occasionally broke. There's partisanship too, but to remark on it may be unfair to the new leader. It was easy for Democrats to be nonpartisan when they had an overwhelming majority. As time passes, it may become easier for Republicans to be nonpartisan for the same reason. In the meantime, it remains to be seen if Tom Craddick can govern as well as conquer.
As to the last legislative session, whose acrimony caused headlines across the country, the new speaker has no excuses but does offer an explanation. He doesn't mention his nemesis by name his fellow West Texan, Pete Laney but it's hard to talk about one of the men without thinking of the other.
"We had a change in [party] leadership after 130 years," the new speaker says. "The Republicans needed to know they were in control and the Democrats needed to know they were no longer in control."
That's done. What now, Mr. Speaker?