Looking Like Texas
District 51's Eddie Rodriguez represents the future of the state's people and policies
The northwest border of the 51st House District of Texas begins and ends roughly in the vicinity of Rep. Eddie Rodriguez's central East Austin neighborhood, a quiet, working-class enclave of tidy bungalows flanked on the west by I-35, on the east by the roundly detested Holly Power Plant.
From there, the district's boundary follows a wavering path east to the county line, takes a sharp turn south to Mustang Ridge, and then loops back around toward town with a western swing across South Austin before ending its sawtooth journey in Rodriguez's back yard. The district used to take in a larger share of progressive neighborhoods west of I-35, before a contentious redistricting flap (the 2001 legislative preview of the 2003 congressional donnybrook) displaced former Rep. Glen Maxey, who responded by recruiting his young aide Rodriguez to run for his House seat in 2002.
Rodriguez, 33, likes to say that the future of Texas will look a lot like his district that is, predominantly Hispanic and economically precarious. "I know it sounds so much like a cliché, but it's so true," he says. Like other members of the Mexican American Legislative Caucus, Rodriguez consistently points to statewide demographic trends to argue the necessity of putting more state dollars into public education. "If we don't fund our schools adequately and equally," Rodriguez points out, "Texas could very well look completely like my district low to moderate income, a high dropout rate, little or no college ..."
Like his mentor, Maxey, Rodriguez believes a state income tax is the most viable approach to tackling the school finance dilemma, and even a few Republicans have privately come around to agreeing that, at the very least, the idea is worth exploring. But beyond tacit interest, Rodriguez says, "The political will just isn't there." This session marks his third quixotic attempt to pass an income tax proposal in a decidedly anti-tax climate. Even with few funding options on the table, legislators remain more inclined to vote for a sales tax "because it's easy to do," Rodriguez says. As the debate over House Bill 2 the major public education bill grows louder as it moves toward a floor fight, Rodriguez uses the increasing opportunities to pitch his income tax bill.
As proposed in his HB 90, the average Texas family would see about $40 less in monthly income, while realizing because of corollary reductions in property taxes a $135 drop in monthly mortgage payments. Renters, Rodriguez concedes, wouldn't benefit as quickly, because property owners might be reluctant to reduce rates until market forces leave them no choice. The bill is pending in the House Public Education Committee, where its fate is pretty much already determined. "We're going to be passing on this because of a lack of courage to do what's right," Rodriguez says. "And the kids are going to suffer for it."
Maxey, for his part, is pleased that Rodriguez has persevered on the income tax fight. "He didn't have to take up that position," he says, "but he has very doggedly set out with an issue that is intrinsically unpopular." Maxey is confident the effort won't be in vain. "Before Eddie Rodriguez leaves the Legislature, I'm sure people will be telling him, 'You were right, Eddie.'"
Despite a reputation for unabashed liberalism, Rodriguez, soft-spoken and with a seemingly ageless baby face, impresses his older colleagues as someone who was brought up to address grown-ups as "sir" and "ma'am." These kinds of manners go a long way in the time-honored traditions of the Legislature. During down time on the House floor, he can be seen striking up friendly chats with any number of far-right social conservatives. A particular favorite is Rep. Warren Chisum, R-Pampa, a senior member of this crowd, meticulously polite in manner himself, and also the most active filer of anti-gay legislation. This session Chisum has filed the so-called marriage amendment bill, which would effectively put a Constitutional lock on the state's existing prohibition on same-sex unions. Even as Chisum works against everything that Rodriguez stands for (not to mention the obstacles his ex-boss Maxey faced as the first openly gay Texas legislator), the younger representative concedes that he "thoroughly enjoys" talking to Chisum. "But do we ever talk about politics? Probably never."
Rodriquez learned very quickly the value of building these types of relationships, Maxey says. "Eddie knows that you have to keep your enemies as close as your friends in the legislative process."
Houston Republican John Davis, who chairs a special House Appropriations committee on health and human services, points out that he and Rodriguez don't see eye-to-eye on most things except in the area of care for those home-bound or hospitalized with debilitating injuries or illnesses. With Rodriguez taking the lead, Davis has signed on as co-sponsor of a resolution (HCR 48) urging Congress to eliminate the required 24-month Medicare waiting period for patients receiving benefits under the Social Security Disability Insurance. "Eddie," says Davis, "surrounds himself with good people, he's reasonable, and he can articulate his position in a way that forces you to at least think about it," says Davis. "In our business, a lot of your success depends on your demeanor or your personality or as my wife says, 'your tone.' So you could say that Eddie has good 'tone.'"
Republican Rep. Elvira Reyna, a staunch conservative from the Dallas suburb of Mesquite, recalls her first impression of the young freshman as "another liberal." But it wasn't long before Reyna, who chairs the House Local and Consent Calendars Committee, saw another side of the liberal freshman that she liked his willingness to listen to all sides of an issue. "One day he pulled me aside and said, 'I just want to know why you think the way you think.' We talked for a long time and afterward, we just decided we would agree to disagree in an agreeable manner," she says. "I found that very refreshing."
In the House, representatives measure how they square with the Speaker by their committee assignments. When the session opened on Jan. 11, Rodriguez's committee prospects appeared questionable after he cast a PNV present but not voting on the re-election of Speaker Tom Craddick. As expected, Craddick won overwhelmingly, despite four "no" votes three more than the previous session. Later, Rodriguez met privately with Craddick to personally explain his nonvote. He told the Speaker he couldn't in good conscience vote for him in view of last session's congressional redistricting battle and drastic budget cuts to children's health insurance and other programs, all of which adversely affected his district. Craddick, according to Rodriguez, thanked him for his candor and wrapped up the conversation on a surprising note. "He said, 'Let me know what [committee seats] you want.'"
Maxey chatted with Rodriguez a couple of days after his "white light" vote on Craddick. "I said, 'Well, that could come back to haunt you, but I'm pleased you had the integrity to cast your vote in that way.' Then he said, 'Hey, I've got to go. I've got a meeting with the Speaker.' That," Maxey went on, "told me more than anything else about Eddie's political courage. For him to tell Tom Craddick to his face how the [budget cuts] affected his district ... very few people have the political maturity to do that. It's very rare to find people willing to sail into the wind and have the ability to move forward while sailing into the wind."
When Craddick handed down assignments two weeks later, Rodriguez, to his own surprise, was assigned seats on two of the committees he requested Pensions and Investments, and Urban Affairs. Neither is highly sought by most members, but Rodriguez says he wanted committee slots where he could actually benefit people in his district retired school teachers and government employees on the first committee, and affordable-housing clients on the second. Between his two key issues income tax and affordable housing Rodriguez's best chance for success lies in his bill (HB 525) that would give cities the authority to establish Homestead Preservation Districts, enabling cities like Austin to keep housing affordable for inner-city, low-income families under pressure from downtown redevelopment efforts. "This is what I want more than anything this session," Rodriguez says. (See "Eddie on the East Side," p.36.)
A Taste of Politics
As a South Texas native, born and raised in McAllen, Rodriguez holds a special kinship to Valley representatives, one of whom is a distant relative by marriage. "I've known Eddie's family for almost 40 years," says the newest Valley delegate, Rep. Juan Escobar, D-Kingsville, who was sworn into office the same day he joined House Democrats in Ardmore, Okla., to thwart congressional redistricting efforts. (Escobar replaced Rep. Irma Rangel, who died during the 2003 session.) "Eddie is one of those young people who came into politics at the right time," Escobar says. "He represents the average person who works hard to get ahead, and he represents the person who wants to come to the U.S. for that very reason."
Rodriguez, the oldest of two children, grew up in a middle-class family of two working parents; his father worked as a lab technician for the U.S. Department of Agriculture in nearby Weslaco, and his mother was a school attendance clerk. While his parents and relatives addressed one another in Spanish, English was the primary language spoken at home. If there was a drawback to that practice, Rodriguez says, it's that today he understands Spanish better than he can speak it.
Life changed dramatically and traumatically for the family when, two days after Rodriguez's 15th birthday, his mother died of complications stemming from an early bout with rheumatoid fever. "It was especially hard on my dad, trying to raise two teenagers," he recalls. After graduating from high school in 1989, he left home to attend St. Mary's University in San Antonio, majoring in political science while working part-time at Henry's Puffy Tacos. "After a while, the [student] loans got to be pretty burdensome for me and my dad, so my dad asked me to transfer to UT," Rodriguez says of his move to Austin two years later. Once here, he got a taste of politics and was immediately hooked. He teamed up with Texas Victory Democrats to work for Bill Clinton's 1996 presidential victory, and was sent to his old Valley stomping grounds to coordinate get-out-the-vote efforts in Hidalgo, Starr, and Webb counties.
"That's how I met Glen," he says of his then future boss. At the time, Rodriguez's own political aspirations didn't include running for office; but he was certain that he wanted to be involved in politics. "I would always look up at the Capitol, this huge, beautiful building, and say, 'One of these days I'm going to work in that place.'" With Maxey's re-election to a third term in 1996, Rodriguez joined the staff, working for peanuts while holding down another job with the Travis Co. Democratic Party. By 1998, he had risen to Maxey's chief of staff and the party's executive director. In Rodriguez's view, he couldn't have asked for a more knowledgeable and politically savvy mentor than Maxey.
"Glen isn't the easiest person to work for," he says. "He had to put up with crap all the time [owing to some legislators' awkward, and occasionally blatantly offensive, reactions to their first openly gay colleague]. So of course he had to be tough. And he was tough on his staff." At the same time, Maxey empowered staff members with the freedom to craft legislation on issues they cared about. "That's when I learned that there was such a thing as a lobbyist," Rodriguez says, chuckling at the memory of his first "wacky, left-wing" tenants'-rights bill, intended to funnel first-month deposits into an interest-building escrow account. "Of course it died."
In interviewing prospective staff members, Maxey always started out with the same question. "I would ask them if they wanted the job because it would be good experience, or because they wanted to save the world," he says. The ones who wanted to save the world usually landed the job. "Eddie told me he wanted to do something where he could make a difference in people's lives. He's doing this for the right reasons. There are very few politicians who are in it for the right reasons."
By the time of the 2001 session, Maxey's 10th year, he began weighing his political options against the rise of the Republican Party and the likelihood of getting sliced (or packed) out of his district when the House took up redistricting. Ultimately Maxey decided against running for re-election, with the idea that Rodriguez would become his heir apparent assuming he could beat Maxey's former opponent Lulu Flores, who was making a second run for the seat and quickly lining up commitments of support from key Democrats. The election results gave Flores the edge going into a run-off, but Rodriguez won the match in spite of being out-funded. Once Rodriguez made the decision to run for his boss' old seat, he says, "No one could possibly talk me out of running, or convince me that I would lose."
It was with a similar mind-set that Rodriguez made several other life-changing decisions in 2004. He married longtime girlfriend Natasha Rosofsky, a budget analyst for the state; the two bought a house in the Holly Street neighborhood, only four houses down from their rental home in the East Cesar Chavez neighborhood; and, at the end of last year, Rodriguez decided to take the law school entrance exam (since accomplished), with the idea of applying to UT. Regardless of what happens on that score, he says he intends to stay put as the District 51 representative.
Like many freshmen who survive re-election to return to the Capitol, Rodriguez now enjoys the confidence that comes with advancing to the next grade level. His Republican buddies in the House won't like hearing this, but Rodriguez credits his trip to Ardmore as the most important character-building experience of his first term. "It was probably the most memorable thing I've ever done," he says. "I was seeing Austin getting torn to shreds. I love this city, and they were totally screwing with my town, so of course I was angry. It was exciting to see Democrats taking action, actually doing something together. I was so proud to be a part of it."
In January, at first there was a sense that the bitterness of last session would spill over into this one. "It's much less partisan this time," says Rodriguez, "but that could change with [the education bill]. What I see happening instead is a real opportunity for rural Republicans [whose districts would see few benefits from HB 2] and the urban Democrats to get together on this one."
Where does Rodriguez go from here? For now, he says he wants to continue pressing for a state income tax, and he believes it is just a matter of time before Texas joins the majority of other states with such a system in place. But former Austin mayor Gus Garcia believes Rodriguez, like any politician worth his salt, will eventually seek higher office. "He needs to take it slowly though, because building a base takes time and effort. And that's what Eddie knows how to do," Garcia says. As he spoke, he lapsed with familiar ease into the voice of the sage elder hypothetically plotting the political career of a young up-and-comer: "He could go over to the Senate, if Gonzalo [Barrientos] decides to do something else. Or, he would have a good shot at Congress, say, if [U.S. Rep. Lloyd Doggett] decided not to run again. Eddie has contacts up and down the Valley, he knows the political culture down there, and he knows the political culture here."
Whatever direction Rodriguez takes, Maxey adds, he'll be on a mission to save the world. "With Eddie, it's not about the cameras, the press, or the accolades. If he never had a headline in the newspaper, he'd be very happy knowing that he was able to make a difference in someone's life."