A Fish Rots from the Head

With these three in charge, the session was a stinker
by Published on

When all was said and little done, the gavels dropped, and adjournment let lawmakers escape from the political implosion that was the 80th Legislature. Like high schoolers who had just blown up the science lab, Texas’ three leaders stood dazed and giddy at having survived.

Gov. Rick Perry, Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst, and House Speaker Tom Craddick entered the session with grand ambitions. Looking to fortify his legacy as the state’s longest-serving governor, Perry seemed to have his eye on the history books or national office. Dewhurst was eyeing Perry’s job and wanted a legislative portfolio to undergird an expected gubernatorial bid in 2010. Craddick’s sights, as always, were fixed on the exhilarating exercise of raw power and the rewards it brings to friends and supporters.

What’s remarkable is how quickly it all fell apart. As leadership dissipated, chaos rushed in to fill the vacuum.

PERRY’S SELF-INFLICTED PREDICAMENT

The governor seems to have awakened to this year’s session in a fit of hubris. Few saw it coming. After all, if ever a situation called for humility, it was Perry’s. He had barely squeaked to re-election, winning as the least unpopular choice in a crowded field. Before the session, he had infuriated parts of the electorate by trying to speed up state approval of 11 coal-fired power plants, and to ram through his sweeping plans for superhighways and toll roads. Legislators were wary of Perry’s agenda from the day they arrived.

Gov. Rick Perry, Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst and House Speaker Tom Craddick

Nonetheless, in January, he issued an executive order requiring that Texas girls be vaccinated against a cause of cervical cancer, human papillomavirus, before entering sixth grade. The unprecedented mandate made headlines across the country. More significantly, it startled Republican legislators who might have been Perry’s allies had he bothered to give them advance notice. Then Perry proposed selling the state’s lottery to a private company, using the cash to make Texas the nation’s unrivaled leader in cancer research.

Backlash against the HPV vaccine mandate was swift. Conservatives in and out of the Legislature argued vaccination would encourage promiscuity. They complained that government was usurping an important decision rightly belonging to parents. More cynical critics saw evidence of pay-for-play: Merck & Co., the only maker of HPV vaccine, stood to make millions from Perry’s mandate. One of the company’s lobbyists was Mike Toomey, Perry’s former chief of staff.

To many, Perry’s failure to seek legislative input was more offensive than the HPV order. Questions about a governor’s authority to issue such a mandate led to an informal ruling by Attorney General Greg Abbott, who said Perry’s order had no legal weight. (Abbott’s reasoning also threatened to undercut a previous Perry order fast-tracking state permits for the 11 new coal plants.)

Angleton Republican Rep. Dennis Bonnen quickly introduced House Bill 1098, which not only overturned Perry’s HPV executive order, but also prohibited state agencies from requiring the vaccine for school enrollment. When the bill was heard in committee, opponents attacked the science behind the vaccine, arguing its safety was suspect and testing incomplete. Rep. Jessica Farrar, a Houston Democrat who agreed with Perry on the vaccine’s merit, called it a “campaign of misinformation.”

Perry turned to public relations, bringing in a woman with terminal cervical cancer for press briefings and photo opportunities. But Bonnen’s bill passed early enough in the session that lawmakers had time to overturn a potential Perry veto. The governor harshly criticized legislators and announced that he would let the bill become law without his signature. Debate on the merits of Perry’s idea, Farrar observed, got lost amid his ill-conceived tactics. “It was the first time I’ve seen him abuse his power to do good for somebody,” she said.

Perry’s notion of selling the lottery sank almost as quickly as it surfaced. But lawmakers did agree to let voters decide in November if they want to issue $3 billion in bonds to fund the Cancer Prevention and Research Institute of Texas. Another Perry priority-capping increases in property tax appraisals-met a similar fate, which rankled many longtime GOP members, including Tom Pauken, the former state party chair who headed a task force Perry appointed to gin up the plan. “The Republicans have squandered a majority,” Pauken told the Houston Chronicle. “We could have gotten a lot more done if we’d had strong Republican leadership. We’ve got to quit simply saluting because they are Republicans.”

By midsession, Perry had begun to turn his situation around. Capitol wags agree that most of the credit goes to a Democrat-Perry’s legislative director, former Victoria Sen. Ken Armbrister. Despite overwhelming support for a toll road moratorium, the governor emerged with a compromise that did little damage to his vision of privatized roadways. While an ambitious homeland security agenda foundered, Perry managed to expand his authority in this area as well. After he threatened to veto the entire higher education budget, legislators coughed up $100 million in incentive funds for colleges and $145 million more for financial aid.

“The last 140 days reminded me of watching an old Clint Eastwood movie. It was a session that featured the good, the bad, and the ugly,” Perry told reporters at session’s end without a hint of irony. “If Texans have a bad taste in their mouth from the session, I would say that I couldn’t blame them. Not because progress wasn’t made, but because there was way too much acrimony.”

At press time, Perry had 12 days to use his veto pen. There is still time for a little more acrimony.

DITHERING DEWHURST

Remarkably, among the cognoscente Lt. Gov. Dewhurst is known for his ability to master policy. His political ineptitude often obscures this talent. This session will be remembered as the one in which Dewhurst’s political instincts trumped all else-with disastrous results.

Dewhurst ran the Senate like a man about to hit the campaign trail. Senators groused that the agenda, which catered almost exclusively to Republican primary voters, was driven by polls rather than policy. How else to explain Dewhurst’s focus on child predators and voter fraud? The lieutenant governor forced votes on issues the senators would have happily avoided. What made it worse, some said, was that it’s probably all for naught. Many assume U.S. Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison will join the race for governor in 2010 and obliterate Dewhurst in the primary.

Dewhurst pushed something he calls his “Texas Children First” program. If you think that means investing in worthwhile initiatives like the Children’s Health Insurance Program, you’re mistaken. Dewhurst spent most of the session resisting a proposal that would allow kids to stay on CHIP for a year instead of having to renew every six months. He focused on steroid testing for high school athletes, better access to defibrillators in schools, criminal background checks for school workers, and the death penalty for violent child predators. Those all passed, though it wasn’t always pretty. The sentence enhancement for child predators, known as Jessica’s law, was rushed through the House with “emergency” status from the governor. Then it sat for months while Dewhurst petulantly refused to address concerns of senators and even prosecutors. He eventually agreed to changes, and the bill was approved unanimously.

Requiring voters to show photo IDs at the polls wasn’t one of Dewhurst’s initial goals, but the GOP is vertically integrated, and Karl Rove, at the top of the pyramid, has made voter fraud a priority. Democrats had just enough votes to block the bill in the Senate, but one of them happened to be deathly ill. Dewhurst’s threat to bring the bill up kept Houston Democratic Sen. Mario Gallegos on the Senate floor against his doctor’s orders.

The lieutenant governor saw his chance when San Antonio Democratic Sen. Carlos Uresti missed a morning roll call because he was home sick with the flu. Then Dewhurst bungled the opportunity. He called the vote without all Republicans present. Short one, he tried to invalidate the vote of Houston Democratic Sen. John Whitmire, the Senate’s longest-serving member, on a technicality. Finally, he caved and allowed a second vote, but let senators stall long enough for Uresti to rush to the chamber and restore the stalemate.

The next day, Dewhurst’s office released an angry letter calling Senate Democrats un-American and saying Whitmire “tried to make himself a victim.” Dewhurst then insisted he hadn’t authorized the letter and that a staffer had written it. The Senate took a day off so they could caucus privately. Members sent three delegates to Dewhurst’s office for an airing of grievances.

For the next week or so, the lieutenant governor avoided the dais in the Senate chamber. In a meeting with reporters after the session, Dewhurst claimed victory for everything positive that came out of it. But with a pained look on his face, he carefully explained that he’d just “rather not get into” the voter ID debacle. Freshman Republican Sen. Dan Patrick, the conservative Houston radio host who also might challenge Dewhurst for the governorship in 2010, was less reserved. “If you’re going to run a play, you’d better make sure you run it right,” he told the Observer. “We’re the ones in charge. We have no excuses.”

Speaker Tom Craddick leaves the floor flanked by his parliamentary muscle, former Austin Rep. Terry Keel and former Houston Rep. Ron Wilson.

CONTROLLING CRADDICK’S CRASHES

Even in the best of times, Speaker Craddick looks uncomfortable: reserved, shoulders rounded, at most a thin, impermanent smile traced across his face. But in the last hours of this legislative session, Craddick was downright joyful, sporting a broad, lopsided grin as he backslapped and joked the final minutes away. A near-death experience will do that.

At the beginning of the session in January, Craddick may well have thought the unpleasantness was over after he survived the first floor challenge to a sitting speaker in 40 years. Few in Texas are as adept as he at the insider game of politics. Craddick skillfully divided the opposition, in all likelihood seeding it with at least one double agent, while winning the allegiance of an unlikely group of mostly minority Democrats. With a slim majority in place, a somewhat contrite Craddick then promised members he had heard their complaints and would do better in this, his third session.

“It’s hard for a leopard to change his spots,” said Houston Democratic Rep. Senfronia Thompson at the time.

Remarkably for an institution that produces so much bad policy, the main complaints against Craddick were about process. Under past speakers, controversial legislation that could become campaign fodder was handled in committee to avoid potentially damaging floor votes. Committee chairs were given a fair amount of leeway to run their committees and reach consensus. The knock against Craddick was that he holds too tight a leash, often on behalf of special interests, limiting what his chairs can do and forcing members to take bad votes. The result was that policy was created, even entire bills written, on the House floor. It was here that the speaker ruled with absolute authority, at times through a capricious interpretation of the rules. Craddick didn’t change his modus operandi much during the session. When it started to fall apart is hard to pinpoint. An event in early May seems to have been key. One way that Craddick controlled the chamber, and punished enemies, was by deciding which bills could be heard for a vote. Since he had many enemies this session, a number of them couldn’t get their local bills onto the calendar. Local bills matter most to constituents. For this reason, when a local bill of a Craddick lieutenant, Rio Grande City Democrat Ryan Guillen, received special treatment by jumping ahead on the calendar, many members were upset. Thompson raised a point of order that the bill’s appearance on the calendar violated House rules. The speaker overruled her. Then something happened that hadn’t occurred since 1973. Craddick’s ruling was challenged, and after much discussion, a vote of the House overturned it. Suddenly, Craddick looked vulnerable again. The insurgency rebounded.

Removing Craddick depended on the Republicans. Democrats could deliver a bloc of votes, but not enough to elect one of their own. Republicans who wanted Craddick gone faced the same problems they had in January. Each of the rebellion’s leaders wanted to be speaker, so no consensus candidate emerged. And they couldn’t trust each other. Some on the team seemed to waver between the two sides.

This uneasy status quo might have continued until the end if not for a question asked of the speaker on the Friday before the end of session. The insurgents had speculated on how a sitting speaker could be removed. Euless Republican Rep. Todd Smith asked Parliamentarian Denise Davis whether Craddick would have to recognize a member for a motion to vacate the chair. Davis apparently told him that while Craddick didn’t have to recognize, the ruling could be appealed. Enough confusion remained that Waco Democrat Rep. Jim Dunnam, head of the House Democratic Caucus, decided to ask the speaker himself from the back microphone of the chamber.

Dunnam posed a parliamentary inquiry on whether he or someone would be recognized on a motion to vacate the chair. At this point, Craddick could have said he would not rule until the motion was made, and that would have been the end of it. The insurgents probably didn’t have the votes, and the challenge would have likely fizzled. Instead, Craddick responded no. Dunnam then asked whether that ruling could be appealed. Craddick again responded no. The answer sent shock waves through the chamber. Craddick-ruling against his own parliamentarian-was saying there was no way he could be deposed during the session. It was an incredible demonstration of raw power and steely resolve.

Parliamentarian Davis and her deputy promptly quit. Craddick took a hurried recess as they were escorted from the building. The speaker returned hours later with two new parliamentarians-former Reps. Terry Keel and Ron Wilson-who had been privately advising him for at least a week. The rest of the session was akin to a mouse in a box sniffing out each side to determine the shape of its confinement. As it became clear that the box was solid, the antics of the insurgents grew more theatrical, culminating on the session’s last Sunday night with an aborted roll call to remove Craddick, and then an impromptu walkout.

While Craddick survived, it may have been a Pyrrhic victory. Even his stalwarts doubt he will be re-elected in 2009. The only way to change that dynamic would be to elect new, Craddick-friendly members to the House. This will make for an interesting election cycle.

David Pasztor, Matt Wright, and Patrick Michels also contributed to this report.