State Rep. Patrick Rose tries a difficult balancing act in the new Texas House
On the morning of Nov. 12, 2001, Patrick Rose stepped inside the Red River Cafe wearing a crisp white shirt, blue jeans, and a grave expression.
Driving into Austin from his home in Dripping Springs, he had been fiddling with the radio dial when he caught word of an airline catastrophe in New York. Early reports were sketchy and speculative, and the prevailing fear was that the devastation wrought by a plane that plowed into a Queens neighborhood was an act of terror and not, as it turned out, an accident caused by engine failure.
Rose slid into a booth, ordered a plate of migas, and considered the tenor of the times in the two months since 9/11. He spoke with a level of maturity one expects of someone who has years of public service behind him, not of someone who had just turned 23 and was about to embark on an ambitious bid to oust an incumbent state representative.
Though Rose had not yet officially announced, his campaign had been churning for months, with political contributions arriving at a steady clip. It's rare that a little-known 23-year-old can enjoy such momentum even before leaving the chute, but Rose was an early favorite among the state's most influential Democratic leaders, including former Lt. Gov. Ben Barnes and former comptroller and lieutenant-governor candidate John Sharp. The Princeton University graduate, born and raised in Dripping Springs, was the party's new golden boy, the answer to Dist. 45 incumbent Rep. Rick Green, a freshman Republican underwritten by big GOP dollars despite persistent questions concerning potential ethics violations.
"I intend to win," Rose pronounced on that gray morning in November. A big fundraiser -- this one at Sharp's ranch -- was just days away, with more than 300 people expected to drive down for "barbecue and fellowship" from the topographically diverse yet politically homogenous region that makes up Dist. 45: the rolling hills of Hays Co. (Rose's home base), the flat prairies of Caldwell Co., and the rugged splendor of Blanco Co., otherwise known as "LBJ Country." In recent years, the district had become increasingly Republican territory.
As Rose mentioned the newscast, then began chatting about his campaign over breakfast, his interviewer -- mistaking a vessel of hearty red for cream -- accidentally dispensed hot sauce into her cup of coffee, and promptly choked on the result. Rose's courtesy and political savvy were immediately evident. Deftly switching from seriousness to lighthearted laughter, he took the edge off both a moment of embarrassment and an otherwise somber morning.
Rose says he acquired his taste for politics at the age of 6, handing out pickles for Austin's long-serving Democratic U.S. Rep. Jake Pickle. His entry into Democratic circles came by way of personal connections; the path to power started with his first-grade teacher, whose husband was a ranch hand for former attorney general, gubernatorial candidate, and Pickle buddy John Hill.
"That was how I got roped into passing out pickles a few times," Rose recalled. He went on to stuff envelopes and knock on doors in 1996 for Dripping Springs Democrat Alec Rhodes, then the district's state representative who served until he lost by a few whiskers -- 35 votes -- to Republican Rick Green in 2000.
In 1998, Rose volunteered for Garry Mauro's unsuccessful gubernatorial run against George W. Bush in 1998. He spent the following summer working for the U.S. House Democratic Caucus in Washington, then helped Loy Sneary's unsuccessful 2000 campaign against U.S. Rep. Ron Paul.
By the time Rose himself ran for office, at the age of 23 in 2002, he took to the campaign trail as an experienced hand. "I just love people," he says. "I really do."
A few weeks ago, sitting in his Capitol office, Rose recalled the spicy coffee incident with a smile. "I was laughing with you," he said. He had indeed kept his vow to defeat Green last November, by the grace of a mere 333 votes out of nearly 40,000. His fellow Democrats hadn't done quite so well. Republican statewide candidates -- with the single exception of Sharp opponent Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst -- carried Dist. 45 by respectable margins.
Bouquets and Thorns
Rose's freshman session had just ended, and now at the advanced age of 25, he was enumerating the highs and lows while catching his breath for another go-round. A special session would begin the following week, called by Gov. Rick Perry to revisit redistricting -- the mid-May flashpoint that had prompted Rose and 50 other House Democratic colleagues to hightail it to a Holiday Inn in Ardmore, Okla.
Ardmore. Just the mention of the place evokes politically polarized reactions -- bitter scorn from Republicans, defiant celebration from Dems. Rose himself is not immune from the tensions. Early in the session he had angered many of his Democratic colleagues when he voted, with a handful of other Democrats, for the massive tort-reform measure (HB 4) so eagerly sought by Gov. Perry and the new Republican majority. Rose added insult to injury when he sponsored a friendly amendment to the accompanying resolution (HJR 3) that, if approved by the voters in September, will amend the constitution to protect the tort-reform damage caps from potential legal challenges. Rose's amendment, which many Dems thought naive at best, would mandate lower malpractice-insurance rates -- unless the insurance commissioner approves an exemption. It's not at all clear the amendment will do what it promises, but it did effectively provide cover for Rose and 13 other Democrats to join Republicans in delivering the two-thirds vote Speaker Tom Craddick needed to pass a constitutional amendment.
Despite the fallout from that vote, Rose managed to redeem himself with fellow Democrats with the unifying trip to Ardmore, which wrapped a blanket of solidarity around Democrats often at odds on the House floor. Yet when Rose returned home and voted for a budget that most of his party believe will decimate social services and public health care, he reignited hard feelings all over again.
Few were more disappointed with Rose's fledgling House record than Charles Soechting, a San Marcos attorney, member of the Houston law firm of O'Quinn, Laminack & Pirtle, and counsel for the state Democratic Party. Soechting had high hopes for Rose and helped him raise campaign contributions from lawyers and doctors. The freshman legislator's vote for tort reform was bad enough, Soechting says, but his vote for a budget that slashed funding for the Children's Health Insurance Program and home health care for the elderly defies basic Democratic principles of helping the less fortunate. Rose defends his budget vote, pointing that he fought, unsuccessfully, for a number of amendments to preserve social-service funding.
Soechting had initially vowed to recruit a Democratic primary opponent for Rose but more recently has tempered his anger. "Am I mad at him? You betcha," Soechting said. "Do I think he let the Democrats down? Absolutely. He was scared of what the Republicans were going to do to him. I understand as well as anyone that you have to make compromises -- but he's got to stop trusting people like Tom Craddick, because they're not going to do anything to help him."
Soechting and others appeared ready to give up on Rose midway through the session but now say they're willing to write off that disappointment, reasoning that the young representative faced tremendous pressures as a Democratic freshman trying to work within a new -- and vengeful -- GOP-controlled environment. Says Rose supporter and former Austin Mayor Kirk Watson: "We know that's a tough district, and the district was smart to send him to the Legislature, but I think Patrick is -- how can I put this -- rehabilitatable." Watson has firsthand knowledge of the difficulties of first-time office holders. Looking back on his first six months in the mayor's office, Watson says he could cite specific examples (which he declined to do) of "clear mistakes" that he made. "You are dealing with diverse constituents," he said, "and frankly, you screw up."
Indeed Republicans are convinced the Ardmore episode will ring a death knell for Rose and several other swing-district legislators who were quickly targeted during their absence by the GOP in a series of radio attack ads. Republicans followed their radio campaign by blanketing the districts with recorded telephone messages the week before the special session. The Democrats countered with ads praising the courage of the group that has since come to be called the "Killer D's." (For more on the targeted Democrats, see "Endangered Species?," facing page.)
"Patrick worked very hard at making friends," said Bill Miller, an insurance lobbyist and political consultant to House Speaker Tom Craddick. "He's a smart guy who knows his business. But he made a mistake by going to Ardmore. That was fatal."
It wasn't Ardmore, responds Rose, that underlies Miller's prediction of dire electoral consequences. "I voted against big insurance all session," he says. "If insurance lobbyists are the ones criticizing my record, that means I'm going to be just fine in Blanco, Caldwell, and Hays counties."
In 2004 Dist. 45 Republicans will be gunning for Rose in a big way. Local GOP leaders, including the man he defeated, former Rep. Rick Green, are eyeing Alan Askew, a 28-year-old Wimberley resident, as a potential candidate. Askew, a custom homebuilder, ranch owner, and graduate of far-right televangelist Jerry Falwell's Liberty University, says he'll decide by the end of summer. Should he run, he'll campaign on water rights and transportation issues, and, of course, on Ardmore. "Personally, I think most people believe that [Rose] should have stayed here in Austin, at least to vote and let his voice be heard," Askew said.
Riding the Fence Line
Caldwell Co. Republican Chairman Terry Alford allows that while he'd prefer to see Green make a comeback bid, he also sees a serious contender in Askew, whom he describes as a good guy who pays his taxes. "Of course," he went on, "we feel it was disastrous for [Rose] to go to Ardmore. We were never happy with him to begin with, but what little effectiveness he had is lost. We just hope Patrick is a one-timer."
Not all Republicans would agree. Kenny Teague counts himself among Republicans for Rose and even contracted his computer services to the Rose campaign. He is also the Dripping Springs resident who filed a complaint with the Texas Ethics Commission against Green that questioned the former representative's payment to himself of about $15,000 from his own campaign fund. (District Attorney Ronnie Earle's office is currently investigating Green for lobbying the Texas Department of Health on behalf of Metabolife, a supplier of ephedrine supplements.) "Before I voted for Patrick, I never, ever voted Democratic," said Teague. "But Rick did some things that I did not like -- and most of them had to do with ethics." In general, Rose believes his moderate positions and votes reflect the philosophy of his district, and that he will be vindicated in his next campaign, whomever the opponent.
With a few exceptions, Rose's Democratic constituents give him high marks as well. "He's a product of his district," said Buda resident Amy Parham. "He's not really swayed by extreme partisan politics but just good, hard-working moderates."
Margaret Dunn, president of the Hays County Democrats, and Carol Wilder, of the San Marcos Area Democrats, echoed similar sentiments. "We think Patrick has been truly a representative of all the people," said Dunn, "and that's because he consults with his constituencies." Wilder pointed out the necessity of malleability for Democratic politicians to survive in Dist. 45. "It's a tricky business," she said. "It comes with a lot of variations."
The range of those variations is embodied in the legislators Rose would like to emulate. He says he'd like to strike a political balance somewhere between two of his role models -- Austin Reps. Terry Keel, the incumbent Republican in Dist. 47, and Dawnna Dukes, the Democratic incumbent in Dist. 46. Keel is a former prosecutor and Travis Co. sheriff who has become a legislative expert and conservative ramrod on criminal-justice issues, while Dukes is among the liberal core of Austin Democrats who help lead the fights for social services, public education, and health care. Keel did not respond to a request for comment, but Dukes was eager to sing the praises of her desk mate, with whom she has disagreed on more than one occasion. "He studied every single bill, which is rare for members because there are so many bills. But he studied them for the impact they would have on his constituency." The redistricting bill was no different, she said. "He looked at the redistricting map and saw what it did to Caldwell County," she said of the initial Republican map that proposed a three-way congressional split for Caldwell Co. and the town of Lockhart. That map, she said, was the deciding factor in Rose's trip to Ardmore. "He was willing to make that sacrifice, which is similar to other sacrifices he made during the session."
The Good Student
Houston Rep. Garnet Coleman, a central presence in the House Democratic leadership, reportedly gave Rose a tongue-lashing over his tort-reform vote, but Coleman says he doesn't remember it that way. "As a member, I would never beat Patrick Rose up over a vote. There was a lot of disappointment when he voted for HB 4, and he took a lot of grief from the lawyers. I may vehemently disagree with him, but the last thing I would do is push a conservative Democrat out of our party -- that would be the wrong thing to do." Rose, he said, "is a very intelligent young man. ... He has knowledge beyond his years and has caught on quickly. But like any colleague, he probably needs to listen a little more."
Last week, the day after the House voted on the inevitable redistricting map, Rose went to Caldwell Co. and reviewed the latest revisions with members of the Lockhart Rotary Club. This time, the map splits the county between two districts. "It still divides Caldwell County two ways and dilutes our voice in the U.S. Congress," Rose said later. "It is not a great map, but it's a better map." When the vote was taken July 7 on what is now HB 3, Rose joined all of the House Democrats (and four Republicans) in voting no.
It's too early to tell how Rose's performance this session will play out in the polls in November 2004, when the Bush-Cheney duo will stand atop the Republican ticket. "We're in a very competitive district," the freshman representative acknowledges. "But we've had a very positive session, and the only way for somebody to beat us is to run a tremendously negative and false campaign. We're going to run on the issues -- insurance reform and ethics reform, tort reform, and education. And if the people of District 45 vote on the issues, we win the race."
Bill Miller, Craddick's political consultant, believes Rose's race will turn, for good or ill, on Ardmore. "Ardmore is just one of those issues that transcends itself," he said. "He's got to run like there's no tomorrow -- literally and figuratively."