Off the Desk

Hate crimes legislation, Rick Perry, Senfronia Thompson, and the Governor's ex-lobbyist staff members.

Perhaps the best quote of the nascent legislative session was Gov. Rick Perry's greeting to Houston Democratic Rep. Senfronia Thompson. Stepping up the onto the speaker's podium and pausing for dramatic effect, Perry said, "Senfronia, you're still in your place," an altogether unlikely greeting from a white male standing 15 feet above an African-American woman. Perry went on to say that Thompson had been his mentor back when he served in the House, but it was hard to recover. And Thompson is not an easy woman to keep in her place. Perry's predecessor, George W. Bush, learned that during the 1999 session, when Thompson, with the assistance of GOP Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison, managed to get Renee Mullins, the daughter of the late James Byrd Jr., in for an interview with Gov. Bush. Bush was uneasy, as he had opposed the passage of the hate crimes bill named in honor of the African-American dragged to his death in in Jasper one year earlier. Thompson broke the ice. Looking at a nearby portrait of a mustachioed military man, she said to the governor, "Oh my God. Is that Hitler?" The atmosphere reportedly grew chillier, and only got worse when Bush told Mullins that he hadn't yet read the bill...

And for a moment this session, it seemed that Perry would attempt to again keep Senfronia in her place. She has refiled the James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Bill, and initially Perry suggested to reporters that he would oppose it. Not so, says his press secretary, Kathy Walt, who was a reporter for the Houston Chronicle when Bush used the Republican Caucus, and in particular Republican Senators Florence Shapiro and Jane Nelson, to ensure that the bill would not make it to the Senate floor last session -- after it passed by a large majority in the House. Democratic Senators Royce West of Dallas and Rodney Ellis of Houston joined Thompson in a meeting with Perry, and after the meeting Walt said the governor would consider whatever passes out of the house. "It's up to legislators this session to find a way to reach an agreement that will allow a bill to be passed out of both houses. Should that happen, he will give careful consideration to that bill," Walt said last week...

Senfronia may remain more or less in her place, but several members of the corporate lobby accepted temporary demotions, accepting top staff positions with Gov. Perry. Texans for Public Justice, a nonprofit organization specializing in the influence of money in politics, has taken Perry to task for three big lobby hires he made in late December. New gubernatorial staffers Victor Alcorta, Patricia Shipton, and Robert Howden earned a combined $1,185,000 from special interests they represented before the Legislature during the 1999 session. Alcorta's biggest client in 1999 was Exxon -- at $150,000. Shipton's big client was the Texas Civil Justice League, which paid her $50,000 for work last session. The tort-reform group -- which has worked successfully to limit the ability of individual citizens to file suit against corporate defendants -- contributed $31,000 to Perry's campaign last year. Howden, Perry's communication director, has lobbied for the National Federation of Independent Businesses for 10 years. The NFIB -- which has been at the forefront of the tort-reform movement -- has paid Howden as much as $100,000 per year for lobbying.

Texans for Public Justice (www.tpj.org) notes that Perry issued a "strict" revolving door policy defining an ethical line between government and business on the same day he hired nine top staff members -- including the three lobbyists. The public interest group (despite mixing its metaphors) gets it right when it calls on the Legislature and the governor "to enact a tough new ethics law to truly slam the brakes on Texas' runaway revolving door."

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KEYWORDS FOR THIS STORY

Rick Perry, Senfronia Thompson, hate crimes, James Byrd Jr., Texans for Public Justice, Renee Mullins, George W. Bush, Victor Alcorta, Patricia Shipton, Robert Howden

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