All Rodney, All the Time

Senate Finance Chairman Rodney Ellis had an outstanding legislative session. But don't quote him on that.
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As the effort to pass a hate crimes law entered its final round last month, Rodney Ellis was caroming around the Senate chamber like a billiard ball with good taste in suits. Though he is a reasonably big man, always nattily dressed down to the pocket handkerchief, and stiff-legged due to gout, the Democratic senator from Houston has a way of darting nimbly about the room. On the last day of debate over his hate crimes bill, he was all over the place: now leaning over to talk to one senator, now huddling with another, now back at his desk talking on the phone, now at the Lieutenant Governor’s podium. He hardly seemed to be paying attention to the floor debate.

After the bill he has been pushing for ever since he joined the Senate a decade ago finally passed, Ellis’ forehead was covered in sweat. Though its passage had been expected, Ellis had been working up to the last minute to get the votes he needed to advance the bill, as he later explained to reporters at a press conference. (According to the Byzantine rules of the Senate, in order to move a bill to “third reading” and final vote on the same day it has been debated, two-thirds of the Senate must approve.) “I wasn’t running around doing nothing,” he joked. It was a good example of how Ellis operates: He keeps his eye on what he needs to win, and exercises his considerable powers of charm and persuasion to get what he needs.

Generally speaking, trying to follow what happens in the Texas Senate is like watching a basketball game where all you can see are the baskets. You know the identity of the players and the baskets made or missed, but the overall strategy, the plays, and the individual drives are hidden from view. Between the whispered floor meetings and the back room deal-making, it’s all pretty opaque. Still, over time the box scores printed in the daily papers give an idea of who the playmakers are–or at least, who the flashier ones are. Chief among them this session has been Ellis. In his role as chair of the Senate Finance Committee, and as the driving force behind a package of criminal justice reform bills, Ellis has had a hand in most of this Legislature’s major accomplishments. He passed a hate crimes bill. He was instrumental in passing a law changing how lawyers are appointed to indigent defendants, a law impeding the execution of the mentally retarded, and a law providing better access to DNA testing for convicts with innocence claims. As Finance chair, Ellis managed in spite of the tight budget to fund four priority items: a major Medicaid expansion, state employee pay raises, teacher health insurance, and financial aid for college students.

Swish, swish, swish. In late May, as the session wound down, he had the look of a player who all of a sudden can’t miss, grinning and gadding about the Senate floor, yet still focused on the day’s objectives, the last few easy shots, an anti-fraud sweepstakes bill or a bill granting modest amounts of research money to universities.

The session itself has been a relatively quiet one. Governor George W. Bush’s 1999 tax cut drained the state’s coffers of money for new initiatives, and the specter of a redistricting fight further reduced legislators’ ambitions. On the other hand, members of the Senate this session enjoyed a kind of freedom to maneuver they haven’t had in years. Until his retirement in 1998, former Lieutenant Governor Bob Bullock kept a tight rein on the process, and during the 1999 session the making of law was kept subordinate to the making of a president. This session, in the absence of strong directives from either Governor Rick Perry or Lieutenant Governor Bill Ratliff, the power has swung back to the senators, and in a legislative body where the ability to forge relationships and negotiate deals matters far more than ideology, Ellis, who is persuasive, pragmatic, and often very funny, has wound up wielding a good share of that power himself.

He has amassed that power in a conservative state, by methods that some on the left have criticized as too conciliatory. During last year’s presidential campaign, Ellis took advantage of the national media spotlight to criticize deficiencies of the Texas criminal justice system, but he was careful not to go after George W. Bush himself. (If he had become the vocal Bush critic many Democrats would have liked him to be, he almost surely would not have been appointed Finance chair, one of the most powerful positions in the Legislature, by a Republican Lieutenant Governor.) And like most legislators who are good at passing bills, Ellis is willing to compromise and to trade votes. “I ask for what I want, and I take as much as I can get,” he is fond of saying.

As Ellis himself acknowledges, “There’s a thin line that you have to walk between passing garbage and making incremental changes.” It would be a mistake, though, to view his political style as simply an instance of the age-old balancing act between a defined set of principles and what’s actually possible. Though newspapers have branded him a “liberal Democrat,” Ellis doesn’t actually claim to be one. “I think my political and policy initiatives defy a label, and I would challenge anyone who could put me in a box,” he says. He is a corporate lawyer and an investment banker by trade, and his votes are not easily predicted.

People who have worked with Ellis marvel at his ability to see the political terrain, to anticipate obstacles to a piece of legislation and to figure out which levers to pull. Much more than other state legislators, he is aware of the media as one of the available levers, and he also knows how to work with different constituencies.

The history of the Fair Defense Act, the indigent defense bill that passed this session, provides a good illustration of Ellis’ skills, as well as the perils of compromise. In 1999, Ellis and others advanced a more modest indigent defense bill, more or less under the radar. (One advocate recalls being advised by Ellis to say as little as possible during a committee hearing on the bill.) After the bill had passed both houses, however, judges raised a stink about what they saw as an infringement of their power to appoint attorneys, and Bush vetoed the legislation.

That was not the end of the push for indigent defense reform, but merely the curtain before the next act. During the interim between the 1999 session and this one, the flaws in Texas’ system for representing poor defendants drew attention from the state and national media. Ellis abandoned the quiet approach, telling The New York Times (in perhaps his strongest campaign criticism of Bush, more than a year before the election) that “there is no compassion on the Governor’s part” when it comes to criminal justice issues. “I certainly used his veto as a step on the bully pulpit to make it an issue for this session,” Ellis now says.

By the time the 77th Legislature convened in January, the issue of indigent defense was widely seen as a pressing one, and Ellis introduced a much stronger bill than he had previously. That bill called for judges to make appointments by rotating through a list of qualified attorneys, and it required the state to establish a commission, made up of citizens from a range of backgrounds, that would monitor local indigent defense systems. The bill would have also established a state office to help appointed lawyers in complex capital and first-degree felony trials.

Judges and victims’ rights advocates again opposed the bill, and negotiations were often difficult. Ellis’ office fought to keep the commission, but by the end of the process it had devolved into a “task force” made up mostly of elected officials. A fallback provision added to the bill would allow judges to opt out of the rotating-selection system, and the appointed-lawyer assistance program was eliminated. “There were a lot of compromises we made along the way that kept me up a bit at night,” Ellis said during floor debate in the Senate in April.

“It’s not the end of reform. More work needs to be done,” says Bill Beardall, an indigent defense advocate who worked closely with Ellis’ office. “But this bill makes a start.” According to Beardall, Ellis played a crucial role throughout the process, not only as reform’s “most visible and most eloquent spokesperson,” but also as a leader on the ground. “On many occasions he would drop into a meeting even for a short period of time, drop into a conference, drop into a strategy session, and provide a pep talk to rally the troops. As sophisticated as people are, it really helped. I also think he was very strategic and astute about how to persuade the opponents of reform that change of some kind was inevitable, and it’s in their interest to get on the bandwagon.”

Other advocates were less sanguine. After the bill passed the Senate, attorney and reform advocate Raoul Schonemann, who had worked on the original legislation, was quoted in the Houston Chronicle questioning whether the revised bill’s provisions might simply institutionalize the status quo. According to some critics, given the broad consensus behind reform this session, Ellis settled for too little. And had no bill at all passed, it would have been easier for advocates to sue the state of Texas over its flawed indigent defense system (a suit the national ACLU is still contemplating) which might have resulted in a mandate for more rigorous reform.

Ellis, though, is an incrementalist, and a politician whose embrace of criminal justice issues stems from personal feelings rather than a professional advocacy background. “I’m a corporate lawyer. In fact I have trouble spelling habeas corpus. But look, but for a few lucky breaks…” he says, his voice trailing off. “I’m very cognizant of the fact that I’m an African-American male. There are those who would write off a whole generation of African-American males because such a large percentage of them have been involved in the criminal justice system. Now if somebody’s guilty, they ought to do their time. But I just think there are a lot of people who are in jail because their lawyers ought to be in jail. To a great extent, one’s income determines whether or not they’re [found] innocent.”

“The bill is not an end-all,” says Ellis, “but it does have some general revenue in it, and for Texas it’s a much more significant step than the bill Governor Bush vetoed.”

One of two Republican co-authors listed on the indigent defense bill was Arlington Senator Chris Harris, a willful and quick-tempered conservative. This session, Harris also helped Ellis pass the ban on execution of the mentally retarded and the hate crimes bill. “He has become a very important ally for me,” Ellis says of Harris. “I think he made a big difference this session helping to get some of those bills out.” Their unlikely alliance dates back to the 1997 session, when Harris and Ellis served together on the Jurisprudence Committee; this year Harris served as Vice-Chair of Finance under Ellis. According to Capitol insiders, Harris often played bad cop to Ellis’ good cop on budget issues. Their close working relationship was readily apparent in committee meetings, as the two men leaned over to confer with one another or one another’s aides, as well as on the Capitol floor.

For a Democrat, Harris is an important friend to have, often serving as a conduit to Republican votes. Where someone like Ellis may not be able to directly persuade an orthodox conservative like Senator Jane Nelson to vote with him, he may be able to persuade Harris, who in turn is respected by those farther to the right.

No one interviewed for this article was inclined to publicly criticize Ellis, but some liberals have privately wondered just what Ellis might have offered in return for Harris’ support of his criminal justice package. Right after the hate crimes bill passed the Senate, Harris’ school district tax abatement bill, which according to the Center for Public Policy Priorities (CPPP) could end up costing the state more than a billion dollars, sailed out of the Finance Committee. But Ellis may well have been in favor of the bill to begin with; he is not hostile to corporate interests. He himself has pushed for tax breaks in the past, and was once hired by the Mexican government to lobby for NAFTA. (Ellis’ office did not respond to a request for comment on this issue.)

Some Capitol observers see the Harris-Ellis partnership as stemming from the type of close working relationship often forged by the state’s budget writers. Though Republicans and Democrats might argue about how much money should be in the budget, they have a shared interest in making the process work once it comes down to nuts and bolts. “Finance has been a very humbling experience,” Ellis says. “A good deal of my time in the Senate I spent defying the powers that be. Then getting up inside the tent, it gave me a sense of just how many things can go wrong if all the moving parts don’t coincide.”

Any Finance chair is forced to strike a balance between his individual agenda and his role as head of a committee. “Ellis has tried to do a good job of focusing on things like state employee pay raises and health and human services,” says Eva de Luna Castro of the CPPP, which advocates for the interests of low- and moderate-income Texans. But Ellis also pushes for programs, like the sales tax holiday, that the Center sees as less beneficial to working Texans, “and that’s where advocates like us are put in a tough place,” de Luna Castro says.

Given the state’s shortfall, it wasn’t easy to raise funding for anything this session. “There’s a lot of expectations raised when you do see somebody there [as Finance chair] as being maybe a little more friendly to your issues,” says de Luna Castro. “You get all excited and think, ‘Oh, maybe this time we’re going to make really big progress.’ And then you remember no, there’s still not enough money.” That lack of money shaped the budget process more than any senator did.

In 1996, the documentary Vote For Me aired on public television. (The film’s director, Paul Stekler, is currently chair of the film department at the University of Texas and an occasional contributor to the Observer.) Vote For Me consisted of a series of segments spotlighting different politicians, campaigners, and voters, and one of those segments featured Ellis. It was an appreciative and yet less-than-flattering portrait, in which Ellis came across as both charming and cocky. For instance, he stated on camera that fortunately for him, there were more Senators with lower IQs than his own than there were with higher; then the film cut to a scene of Ellis trying to coax former Senator Mike Galloway, who seemed like he might well fall into that larger category, to vote with him on a bill. After the film aired, Ellis drew sharp criticism from some of his colleagues, Plano’s Florence Shapiro in particular. Ellis, they said, had betrayed their trust by wearing a microphone onto the Senate floor.

“It came close to ruining my career,” says Ellis of Vote For Me. The next session, “It was tough for me to get up and come in this building every day.” One lobbyist told me he thought Ellis may have become a more serious, more disciplined worker as a result; what’s certain is that Ellis has been much more circumspect with the press ever since. “I don’t do day in the life of a Senator any more.” These days, Ellis can be seen serving up a few choice quotes to the Capitol press corps, and then sailing through the gauntlet of reporters back to his office. (Moreover, it’s not uncommon for Ellis to half-humorously acknowledge the danger the media poses. After passing the budget out of Conference Committee in May, Ellis thanked the press “for the things they did say, and for the things they did not say. And I hope that the things they say in the future do not do us irreparable harm.”)

“I tell you what, I’m now as excited to end an interview as I am to start one. It used to be the othe
way,” Ellis told me when we finally
et in his office. (Trying to arrange a sit-down interview of more than five minutes with Ellis was a weeks-long experience, which seemed to reflect both his busy schedule and a certain disinclination to speak for more than a few minutes with a reporter.) It was nearly nine p.m., and the Senate had just adjourned after one of the longest days of the session. Ellis sat at his desk signing his way through a stack of honorary resolutions, eating fistfuls of green grapes, and wheeling in his chair back and forth between the desk in front of him and another desk behind him. “Now I’d just as soon end it,” he repeated, looking up at me as he said it. “Anything else you want?”

I confessed that there was. I asked Ellis how he would respond if someone were to describe him as cagey. He didn’t miss a beat. “Cagey,” he said. “What does that mean?”

Many Democrats wish Ellis would run for statewide office. Former Governor Ann Richards tried to appoint him to the Railroad Commission, and he turned her down, saying he preferred his six-figure salary to the Commission’s five-figure one. In explaining his unwillingness (thus far) to run for a top state position or for the U.S. Congress, Ellis has in the past given various reasons: his salary, his family, his love for the Texas Senate. “I don’t have thick skin, that’s probably why I wouldn’t want to run for higher office,” he told me. He also said he doesn’t want to give up his legal and investment work because “I like to do two things at one time. I operate better that way.”

In the meantime, Ellis seems to have fully recuperated from his low moment in 1997. “He really is at the top of his game. He’s Tiger Woods. He’s winning all the tournaments,” says Ellis’ chief of staff Deece Eckstein. “We may never see a session like this again.”

This was, in more ways than one, Rodney Ellis’ session. Yet he is still reluctant to talk about it.

The last thing Ellis told me was not to write anything mean about him.