Meet the New School

The Biggest Freshman Class in Years Meets the Biggest Budget Deficit

The 78th Texas Legislature boasts one of the largest freshman classes in recent memory. These rookies come at a time when experience is at a premium—the state faces a budget shortfall of at least $9.9 billion. Many of the new legislators are Christian conservatives, part of a movement that has waited years for a chance to lead. They promise to usher in a new age of ideology at the Lege. How that will square with the undeniable fiscal crisis and demographic changes occurring in the state remains to be seen. Meanwhile, Democrats will have to adjust to life as a true minority party. For the Ds the painful task of building for the future is about to begin. Perhaps the foundation of that future will be created among this year’s freshman class, where some legislators are already primed to begin principled opposition to the more extreme Republican positions. And as always, the Legislature’s ability to function depends on moderates; through them, consensus forms and bills actually get passed. They too are represented in this year’s freshman class.

As part of our legislative coverage, we offer this preview of a representative group of freshman legislators to watch. There are so many new faces in this year’s class—36 in the House and seven in the Senate—that we know many who bear scrutiny are not included here. We look forward to bringing them to the attention of our readers as the session proceeds.

Not Just A Pretty Face?

Lieutenant Governor David Dewhurst

If the current hype is to be believed, Lieutenant Governor David Dewhurst is on the way to becoming the pleasant surprise of the 78th Legislature. Only the second Republican since Reconstruction to be elected to what has been the state’s most powerful office, Dewhurst boasts zero legislative experience. The only elected position he has held in the past was land commissioner, and his record in four years at that post was singularly unremarkable. His most notable accomplishment was the gutting of the agency’s lower-level staff. Dewhurst’s stint on the redistricting board earned him the open enmity of both Republicans and Democrats. His reputation as a lightweight convinced nearly every major lobby and business group to shun him in favor of his Democratic opponent for Lite Guv, John Sharp. But that’s the past—before Dewhurst won his election.

In recent weeks, pundits, reporters, lobbyists, and legislators from both sides of the aisle have tripped over themselves to praise the Lite Guv’s performance so far. Some of the fawning tributes are no doubt motivated by a self-interested need to kiss some serious butt. Dewhurst also benefits from the Bush phenomenon of diminished expectations. During the election, Dewhurst was lowballed so severely (and perhaps unfairly) that his ability to tie his shoes now constitutes a major achievement. All that being said, it is undeniable that the Lite Guv has comported himself remarkably well, especially in contrast to his fellow Republicans, Gov. Rick Perry and House Speaker Tom Craddick.

Dewhurst deserves kudos for the relatively evenhanded way he has divvied up Senate committees, appointing Democrats to chair six of the 15. Tapping Democratic Sen. John Whitmire for Criminal Justice and moderate Republican Sen. Bill Ratliff for State Affairs were particularly enlightened moves. (On the other hand, it is worth noting that Dewhurst picked Sen. Teel Bivins, a conservative loyalist, to head the all-important Finance Committee, excluding experienced Democrat and former chair Rodney Ellis.) The Lite Guv has also received applause for his staff picks. The wags around the capitol clucked approvingly over his choice of Bruce Gibson as his chief of staff. Gibson, a former Democratic legislator, served under Lite Guv Bob Bullock. Experience like Gibson’s doesn’t come cheap. As evidence that Dewhurst knows its value, he is reported to be augmenting the state salaries of his staff with his own money.

Much has been made of Dewhurst’s alleged ambition to replace U.S. Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison should she decide to run for governor at some point. This could perhaps explain the Lite Guv’s show of reaching out across the political spectrum. As a multi-millionaire who financed his own campaign, presumably he is less beholden to special interests than others. Nonetheless, Dewhurst has in the past signed onto the right wing’s ambitious social agenda, from vouchers to curtailing reproductive freedoms. Initial good reviews could sour quickly if the old Dewhurst reappears. For the moment, calculated or not, any independence and moderation will be welcome in the face of the torrent of bad legislation that has already started to pour forth from the House.

Are His Shoulders Broad Enough?

Sen. Juan “Chuy” Hinojosa (D-McAllen)

Freshman Sen. Juan “Chuy” Hinojosa stands out from his colleagues and bears watching this session for many reasons. His linebacker frame and broad shoulders make him appear physically larger than most of his peers. His face reveals the indigenous heritage of a man who began life as a small boy picking cotton in the fields of South Texas. But most importantly, Chuy’s passions for social justice and fairness are traits all too rare in the Texas Legislature. This session will be brutal for the traditionally disenfranchised of the Lone Star State: the poor, the working class, and minorities. The environmental health of the state will likely be mortgaged for the temporary gain of a handful of its citizens.

After 15 years as a state representative, Chuy brings experience to the Senate. As he says, “I’m going to be a freshman, but not a rookie.” At the same time, the bad luck of the draw dictates that Hinojosa must run for reelection again in only two years, perhaps making it unwise to be on the side of too many losing battles. How he balances these two imperatives remains to be seen. Appointed to the Criminal Justice and Natural Resources Committees, Hinojosa can do some real good. And although he did not receive a place on the Finance Committee, he vows to make his voice heard on the budget. “We cannot allow them to cut $10 billion from the budget out of money for education, health and human services, and nursing homes for the elderly. We cannot allow it to happen,” he insists. “We will try to pass a budget that’s fair for the poor and working families of Texas.”

Too Right for Her District?

Rep. Martha Wong (R-Houston)

In the freshman Republican class of the 78th Texas Legislature, a moderate is someone who opposes abortion except when the pregnancy endangers the mother’s life or is the result of rape or incest. Under this definition, Martha Wong is a moderate. Wong is also the second Asian American ever to serve in the Texas Legislature. The Asian community is naturally Republican, she believes, and clearly the leadership would like her to work at making it so. Wong unseated longtime Democratic Rep. Debra Danburg for the right to represent a Houston district that is wealthy and well-educated. It’s not a district that necessarily favors ideologues. Local concerns will dominate her priorities this session: developing biotech companies in Houston and fostering retention ponds to stop the flooding that’s plagued the city. She also wants to lower the cap on annual appraisal value increases from 10 percent to 5 percent to limit property taxes.

Wong insists she plans to plot an independent course. “I want to reach across the aisle,” she says. But the pressure to vote with the right-wing of her party will be strong. A telling note early in the session was her participation in a press conference of the Conservative Coalition to unveil a list of budget-cutting proposals that included removing state oversight of nursing homes and lifting the tuition cap on public universities. Wong insists she has not committed to joining the group, but there she stood, front and center, when they presented their proposals.

What Would Jesus Do?

Rep. Debbie Riddle (R-Houston)

Debbie Riddle is one of a number of Christian conservatives swept into office for the first time this year. To make sure that she never forgets her faith, Riddle keeps a salt shaker on her desk. She told the Houston Chronicle: “The Bible says we are called to be salt and light. If salt loses its saltiness, it’s worthless.” What happens when faith and ideology meet the raw realities of the legislature promises to be many a freshman’s personal Calvary this session. Riddle was so eager to begin work that when the House called roll on opening day, she was the only one to stand up instead of simply intoning “present.” (Riddle says that although a case of laryngitis made it a necessity, she probably would have stood anyway.) She was also one of the first freshmen to file bills, beginning the session with a proposal to make insurance companies tell customers how they use credit scoring and another that would force physical fitness instructors to post their qualifications in gyms. Although content to follow the Republican leadership’s playbook this session on big issues like tort reform and “tightening the belt,” Riddle does have her own priorities. She is terrified that, with the state demographer indicating that Texas will have a Latino majority in 2040, the new population won’t speak English. “We have to teach them our linguistic background,” she frets. Although her legislation has yet to be crafted, Riddle promises it will target bilingual education.

A Leininger Foot Soldier?

Rep. Dan Flynn (R-Van)

Although Dan Flynn is one of several conservative Republicans helped into office by San Antonio multi-millionaire James Leininger, he doesn’t consider himself part of a movement. “It’s only a movement if you mean that the voters wanted a more conservative attitude and more responsive government,” he said. It calls to mind the old adage: Be careful what you wish for, because it might come true. This was Flynn’s second try for the statehouse. Tied to the Leininger-backed election consultancy Winning Strategies, Flynn’s elections were marred by vicious attacks against his Republican primary opponents. In his winning primary, according to Texas Monthly, Flynn, a former county judge, received $5,000 from Leininger, and groups affiliated with the hospital bed magnate donated another $27,000—about 60 percent of the money the candidate raised. Expect Flynn and many Republican freshmen like him to be loyal soldiers for the leadership. One of his main priorities, he says, is “meaningful lawsuit reform.” He also wants to begin the process of “restructuring” school financing, code for eliminating the Robin Hood system just as it begins to bear fruit. It will depend on freshmen like Flynn to determine the longevity of the conservative revolution swept into power this session.

Principled Ambition?

Rep. Patrick Rose (D-Dripping Springs)

The last election brought few success stories for Democrats. One of them was Patrick Rose. The 25-year-old law student from Dripping Springs unseated ethically-challenged Rick Green in a largely Republican district. In case that wasn’t hard enough, a Green Party candidate also ran. Rose’s surprise victory makes him the youngest legislator this session, yet he is already demonstrating a natural feel for the game of politics. Democratic consultants marvel at his ability to fundraise. Others note his evident ambition. Rose’s agenda includes good public interest reforms, some of which grew out of his election campaign. He plans to spearhead ethics reform that will prevent legislators from working as lobbyists while still in office, as his opponent Green did. He also wants public disclosure of the personal information of the officers of companies whose charters are revoked. But don’t expect impassioned speeches from this young legislator on behalf of principled, but doomed causes. In one of the most important early votes of the session—whether to help Democrats by keeping seniority appointments to the all-important House Appropriations Committee—Rose voted with the Republican leadership. “It’s common sense,” he says. “I’m not going to be partisan. We don’t have the votes.”

As Much Moxie as Maxey?

Rep. Eddie Rodriguez (D-Austin)

Eddie Rodriguez is in the unenviable place of having to fill a big Democratic void: the loss of Glen Maxey. Rodriguez worked for six years as a staffer for Maxey, and then won his seat when the Austin Democrat stepped down. Maxey was known as a master of the rules and a fearless liberal. Less than a week into the session, Rodriguez has shown that he won’t shy from the challenge of such a legacy. He had an early chance to prove his mettle when Democratic leaders tapped him to present an amendment to reverse the Republican leadership’s move to scrap seniority on the House Appropriations Committee. The motion lost 105 to 39.

Rodriguez, who fought his election battle in the primary, says he initially thought he’d play it safe this session, but that changed when the Republican tide transformed the House. “I don’t see a reason anymore not to speak your mind and bring the debate up,” he says. “This is not necessarily a bad place for the Democratic Party to be. We will find a core group of 30 to 45 people. We won’t know who they are until we get to certain issues.”

In the interest of laying the ground for the future, Rodriguez says he’ll likely file an income tax bill. “We need to start the conversation,” he says. “The system as it stands now is not equitable.” Rodriguez points out that with an income tax, most property taxes will go down, even for the rich. And don’t be fooled by the Republican rhetoric against raising taxes, he warns. Plans to increase fees are taxes by another name. Maxey should be proud.

CHIP on His Shoulders?

Rep. Aaron Peña (D-Edinburg)

Aaron Peña says ruefully that he had a lot of great ideas to improve his community and state, but when he arrived in Austin, he ran into a wall of reality. To promote the interests of his constituents in the Valley, he is now looking toward the long-term, laying the groundwork for sessions to come. “Education is our ticket out of poverty,” he says. “I will advocate pay increases for teachers even though I know it won’t pass. I will focus on social problems like drug addiction and mental health issues. I will try to stop the bleeding for programs that matter and are so successful in my community like CHIP . We are just starting to educate them on how to enroll in it, and now we have to tell them there is no money.”

Peña’s commitment to social programs has already received media coverage. Before the session, he went on a 125-mile, six-day walk from his district to Austin to raise awareness of the need for better mental health and substance abuse programs in Texas. The issue is a personal one for Peña, who lost a teenage son to drug addiction. After his son’s death, the Edinburg legislator, who is filling Juan Hinojosa’s former seat, vowed not to let his child’s death be in vain. He is willing to make the symbolic votes, as he did in the Democrats’ losing batt
e to preserve former Speaker Laney’s equitable H
use rules. “The vote on seniority meant a lot to me,” he relates. “If I’m here in 10 or 15 years, I can say I survived our time in the wilderness, and stood up for what I believed. We are creating the mythology for the younger generation. In order to do that, we have to go through a bloody battle.”

How About Paul Wellstone for Inspiration?

Rep. Joaquin Castro (D-San Antonio)

Joaquin Castro is one half of an incipient San Antonio political dynasty. His twin brother Julian Castro is a councilman in the Alamo City. Their mother, Rosie Castro, was one of the founders of La Raza Unida. Having graduated from Stanford with honors and earned a Harvard law degree, Joaquin Castro could easily be making a fortune as a corporate lawyer; instead he finds himself in a small, still-bare office, trying to learn the Capitol computer system. At the outset Castro says he wants to concentrate on modest issues that will help his district and young people. One idea he enthusiastically promotes is a program to track how many high school kids go to college and where they end up. The state needs the snap shot before it can set goals to increase university enrollment, he says. That doesn’t mean he’s going to shy away from the bigger issues, where the minority community he represents is likely to be hammered. “Every vote I’ve taken so far has been on the losing side,” he laughs. “But you have to stand for what you really believe.”

Castro takes inspiration from an unlikely source: Speaker Tom Craddick. “When he joined the legislature in the minority party, he held firm to his convictions,” notes Castro. “Now he’s Speaker of the House.”

Let’s hope, unlike Craddick’s experience, it doesn’t take 30 years.

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