The Republican from La Mancha

Another frustrating session for the Don Quixote of the Texas Senate.
by Published on

Like any summer camp or high-school clique worth its salt, the Texas Senate produces a distinctive anthology of inside jokes. Of the many tedium-induced, knee-slapping nicknames concocted and whispered in the hallowed chamber—”Sen. Wendy Davis, D-Wisteria Lane,” “Sen. Tommy Williams, R-Bedrock”—the most fitting is surely “Sen. Jeff Wentworth, R-La Mancha.”

A casual observer might think the wiry San Antonio Republican, nearly 70 years old, is too frail to keep battling the giant political windmills he tilts against session after session. Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst, one of Wentworth’s most powerful foes, stands at least 6-feet-5, with impeccable posture and middle-aged vigor to boot. But if diligence is, as Cervantes claims in Don Quixote, “the mother of good fortune,” then Wentworth is way overdue for a triumph over the likes of Dewhurst.

“He does the heavy lifting when no one is looking,” says his fellow San Antonian, Democratic Sen. Leticia Van de Putte. Though she does not back all of Wentworth’s causes—such as the legislation he carried this session to allow carrying concealed handguns on college campuses—Van de Putte supported what Wentworth immodestly but accurately calls “two of the best bills” of this session: unsuccessful efforts to create a less partisan, more genuinely representative Texas government.

Wentworth locked horns with Dewhurst over one of those bills, a resolution that would have allowed legislators to return to Austin for a three-day session to consider overturning gubernatorial vetoes. It was “a significant proposal … to bring about a needed check and balance,” as Wentworth wrote in a fiery protest letter to the balky lieutenant governor. Wentworth had lined up 26 senators behind the measure, five more than the two-thirds majority usually needed to bring up a bill for consideration. The Senate operates under the understanding that when a bill garners the necessary support, the lieutenant governor (as president of the Senate) will recognize its sponsor to introduce it. In this case, Dewhurst refused to recognize Wentworth, letting the veto-override resolution idle and ultimately die.

“He finally admitted to me,” Wentworth says, “that he had been talked to by the governor 20 times on this resolution—in opposition to it—and he had given the governor his word that he would not recognize me.”

Wentworth’s habit of battling seemingly intractable political forces began during his freshman term in 1993. He proposed a bipartisan congressional redistricting commission that would end the gerrymandering that the then-dominant Democrats had been practicing for decades. (In Texas, redistricting is controlled by the lieutenant governor,  speaker of the House, attorney general, comptroller and commissioner. For more than a century, all five had been Democrats.)

After studying other states’ practices, Wentworth crafted a proposal to have both parties, in both chambers, pick two people apiece, creating an evenly divided eight-member commission. The commissioners would choose a non-voting ninth member to preside over the deliberations. The result, Wentworth believed, would be a more equitable divvying of political districts in the state.

The majority Democrats rejected Wentworth’s idea in 1993—and lived to regret it. Ten years later, Republicans had gained control of redistricting and engineered the infamous Tom DeLay–driven gerrymander that gutted Texas Democrats’ power in Washington.

“Transparently hypocritical” was how Wentworth saw it. “We turned around and did exactly the same thing to the Democrats that we had been suing them for doing to us.”

This year’s was the ninth consecutive session in which Wentworth carried that bill. This time, he was sure he had the votes. He’d managed to pass bipartisan redistricting out of the Senate in 2005 and 2007, only to watch Republicans kill it in the House. This time, he had lined up the 21 “yes” votes he needed in the Senate. But before it came up for a third reading and final passage, Houston Republican Sen. Dan Patrick, who’d voted yes on the first two readings, changed his mind, leaving Wentworth in a familiar situation: stymied.

In this case, Wentworth lost in part because of his stubborn sense of fairness, which prevents him from collaborating in a common Senate practice that fast-tracks bills to passage. “We routinely suspend the Constitution of the state, which is offensive to me,” he says, referring to the Senate tradition of overturning the rules so a bill can be passed on second and third reading at virtually the same time. (The Texas Constitution requires three days between second reading and the final vote.) If Wentworth had gone along with that, Patrick would likely not have had time to change his mind. But time and time again, Wentworth has been the lone vote against suspending this rule, repeatedly entering into the Senate journal his explanation: “No circumstance exists in this case to justify the extraordinary act of suspending a requirement of the Texas Constitution. The suspension of this Constitutional Rule has the direct and immediate impact of denying the people of Texas knowledge and notice of the passage of this measure until it has already been finally passed on third reading.”

Being human and a politician, Wentworth isn’t always a purist. When May rolls around, he typically succumbs to suspending the three-day rule so that bills can be passed in the last-minute flurry of action. And this January, he voted with the rest of the Senate Republicans to change tradition and allow the voter ID bill to be brought up without the support of two-thirds of the body.

For the most part, though, Wentworth’s quixotic adherence to principles over party loyalty gives him a distinctive role in the Senate. “I don’t know whether I think of myself that way,” he says, “but apparently I do.” This session, he received the lowest rating of any Republican from the anti-government Texans for Fiscal Responsibility, and he consistently gets a high score—higher than many Democrats—from NARAL Pro-Choice Texas. At the same time, of course, his campus-carry bill (which ultimately failed) endeared him to the National Rifle Association.

Like a knight-errant staying true to a stern (and mysterious) order of chivalry, Wentworth sees no reason to change. “It’s been an ongoing battle since ’93,” he says. In 2011, if he’s elected to a 10th term, he promises to file the bipartisan redistricting bill a 10th time. He vows to take another shot at giving legislators the power to override gubernatorial vetoes after sessions end. Above all, he says, he will try to stick to that most quixotic of quests: “the fundamental responsibility of following the Texas Constitution.”