Mixing It Up

The New Freshmen Class Adds Spice to the 79th Legislature


Dave Mann

Mixing It Up

The New Freshmen Class Adds Some Spice to The 79th Legislature

BY DAVE MANN AND JAKE BERNSTEIN s the 79th Texas Legislature convenes amid pomp and ceremony, the remnants of the Lege’s last session hang around the proceedings like an obnoxious dinner guest that won’t leave. Over at the Travis County courthouse two grand juries are parsing evidence of an apparent conspiracy in 2002 to use illegal corporate money to handpick a legislature. The victorious slate of candidates formed the core of one of the largest freshman classes in memory in 2003—36 in the House and seven in the Senate. Not surprisingly, the Republican House freshmen behaved like lemmings, mostly voting as a bloc, placing marching orders and ideology above all. Many likely saw it as simple self-preservation. The party leaders and campaign moneymen who had installed them could easily run them off in the next primary. Consequently, a flurry of legislation ensued benefiting the special interests that had paid the campaign tab. Ensconced in safe districts as long as they behaved, many of the Republican freshmen paid little heed to the substance behind major votes. (Perhaps as sophomores, they will be more vocal.) The freshmen of the 79th Legislature signal an adjustment by both parties to their new roles. The GOP, settled in its majority, adds only a handful of new faces. Some may show an independent streak and bear watching; others will simply fill a seat. The Democrats, meanwhile, have purified their ranks. In the House, at least, they are a more potent opposition party. Democrats who signed on to the radical Republican agenda last session did not fare well: Wilson, Gutierrez, Lewis, Capelo—all longtime Democrats booted from office in the primary. Among this session’s 17 House freshmen, 12 are Democrats. The incoming Democrats are sharp and seemingly independent-minded. A few are already being discussed as future candidates for statewide office. An Independent Voice? Sen. Kel Seliger (R-Amarillo) Kel Seliger believes he joined the Texas Senate at the perfect time. The former mayor of Amarillo won a special election last winter to replace Teel Bivins, who departed to serve as U.S. ambassador to Sweden. That was just four months after the Senate had nearly melted down over Congressional redistricting. As he begins his first regular session, Seliger considers it incredibly good fortune that he wasn’t around to strip Democrats of their Capitol parking spaces, as his Republican colleagues did, or engage in any of the other examples of partisan feuding that surrounded the 11 Democratic senators’ sojourn to Albuquerque in 2003. “I come in with none of the redistricting baggage,” Seliger said recently. He’s observed “some lingering resentment about some of the things that were said and done. I’m a loyal Republican, but I wasn’t part of that.” With his lack of partisan history, at least in the Senate, Seliger could become a moderating figure in a body that lost a powerful independent voice last year with the retirement of former Lt. Gov. Bill Ratliff. On many issues, Seliger holds some fairly standard conservative positions. He preaches low taxes and small government to spur job creation and economic growth. “I am irretrievably a fiscal conservative,” he says. “The dollar amount of whatever we do looms over every issue to me. It should. It’s other people’s money we spend.” Some of his policy stands, however, put him directly at odds with his more hard-line colleagues. Seliger, for instance, favors full restoration of last session’s deep cuts to the Children’s Health Insurance Program. He contends that access to adequate health care, especially in rural areas of West Texas, is one of the most important issues facing the state. “The ultimate constitutional idea, and I think what we’ve always worked for in this country, very slowly at times, was to have a society based on equality,” he says. “I would hate to see in the 21st century, America divided into classes based upon their ability to pay for health care. We want to be very careful we don’t go there.” Seliger has also taken an interest in criminal justice issues. Texas prisons, for example, are near capacity while the state is short 2,000 prison guards. “We’re going to have to be very thoughtful and, I think, creative to address that problem.” But, he says, that creativity doesn’t include privatizing prisons, an issue likely to resurface this session. “If we’re looking to keep costs down, can we afford the costs of [privatizing]?” he says. While Seliger favors the creation of a school voucher pilot program, he says the use of vouchers should be a decision left to local officials. That fits with Seliger’s political philosophy: In most cases, local government control is better. “That’s what you get when you’re a mayor,” he says. “I think it’s wrong to sit in some far-off capital and determine what’s best for people in Orange and Alpine.” Seliger’s mantra of local control could place him in conflict with the wishes of the state’s Republican leadership on a range of issues. If he embraces his independent side, his vote will be an interesting one to watch this session. A New Rose Blooms Rep. Mark Strama (D-Austin) When Governor Ann Richards walked through the door of north Austin’s Cool River Cafe on election night, Mark Strama’s victory over Rep. Jack Stick (R-Austin) was not yet assured. Still, when the Texas Democratic icon congratulated the soon-to-be newly minted state representative the moment had a camera-ready feel to it. Strama is a star. He must be the only candidate for the Texas House in its history who had fundraisers outside his district—in New York, Washington, D.C., Los Angeles, Dallas, San Antonio, and Houston. At the New York affair, Moby played acoustic guitar for the entertainment. In addition to his legendary Rolodex, Strama also likely has the most legislative experience of the 2005 freshman class, having worked for Houston Sen. Rodney Ellis from 1991 to 1993. Even with all these assets, the 37-year-old progressive Democrat knows how difficult the session promises to be. Despite his victory, election night did not turn out the way Strama thought it would. In order for him to win in a swing district, he assumed it would have to be a big year for Democrats. “I thought I’d be coming in with a wind behind me,” he says. In his ideal scenario, Democrats would pick up five to six seats, forcing a restoration of the Lege’s bipartisanship and shifting power to the Senate. Instead, Democrats only eked out one additional seat. Now, Strama ranks 146th out of a body of 150, is part of a beleaguered minority, and represents a district where he is vulnerable to challenge. That doesn’t mean he is conceding the field. In an interview the week before the session began, on an afternoon spent filing court papers in an election challenge by Stick that fizzled shortly before the opening gavel, Strama notes that he has always worked well with Republicans. When the successful Internet entrepreneur started his company, his first client was the Republican National Committee. “I have no delusions that I will be playing a central role as a player in a conference committee,” he says, “but I want to be an advocate and a resource.” As a resource, he offers well-prepared staffers, his own ability to communicate with the Senate, and his experience working with Ellis on school finance, the thorniest issue facing the Lege. Strama is already girding for the tough votes he knows lie ahead. In particular, he worries about the choice legislators will likely face over whether to raise the sales tax to help fund education and lower property taxes. “It will be a dilemma,” he says. Most of his constituents would accept a sales tax increase for a decrease in property taxes, he believes. Important factors in his decision will be whether the process was fair and inclusive and whether a real effort had been made first to distribute the burden fairly in the tax code. As an advocate, Strama says his personal priorities are to reform campaign laws, an issue he made central to his own election campaign. He also hopes to take on the topic of corporate welfare. “Any time we give out incentives we skew the market,” he says. “We are undermining [business] efficiency with corporate welfare.” One factor that has helped assuage Strama’s apprehension about what lies ahead is his fellow freshmen. “They are smart, savvy, young, professional; they look like the state of Texas in a broader sense than just ethnicity,” he says. “There is a foundation there to build the party.” As to Strama’s future ambitions, he demurs. Still fresh from a bruising campaign, he wonders about the personal sacrifice and the concessions required to advance in state politics. “You can’t get elected to higher office raising money from friends,” he says. Compassionate Pragmatism Rep. Veronica Gonzales (D-McAllen) Veronica Gonzales didn’t have to wait long to make her first tough decision as an elected official. Just days after the McAllen attorney captured the House District 41 seat on November 2, the House leadership came calling to ask her pledge of support in the House speaker’s race for incumbent Republican Tom Craddick. After mulling it over, Gonzales joined 118 other House members, including 32 Democrats, on a pledge list that Craddick released in November. It was a show of strength for an embattled speaker fending off rumors that he may be indicted before the legislative session’s end. If Gonzales’ pledge stirred any fears among Democrats that she would follow the political path of her predecessor, Roberto Gutierrez (one of Craddick’s staunchest Democratic lieutenants last session), they need not worry. Gonzales bested Gutierrez in the Democratic primary last spring partly because of a perception that the incumbent had become too close to the House leadership, at the expense of his district. “When you’re going into office, you don’t have to upset the leadership unnecessarily,” Gonzales said, explaining her pledge to Craddick. Talk to Gonzales for a few minutes, and it quickly becomes clear she won’t hesitate to upset the leadership, if need be, to speak out forcefully on the issues she cares about. Among the areas Gonzales wants to focus on are creating transportation infrastructure in the Rio Grande Valley and expanding access to education and health care. To Gonzales, education and health care issues are deeply personal. Her mother died when she was a teenager. She spent some of her formative years in a single-parent home in San Marcos without much money. Gonzales understands, she says, why many children don’t make it. “I could have very easily not gone to college,” she says. “I was definitely one of the kids who should have failed.” What prodded her forward, she explains, was family support, and “my mother’s voice in my head telling me to go to college.” Gonzales says education has propelled her to where she is and she believes that access to a quality education, and especially the chance to attend college, is what kids desperately need. Gonzales, 40, later earned her law degree from the University of Texas and went to work for a law firm in the Valley. Not long after, her father was diagnosed with inclusion body myositis. It’s a chronic muscle ailment that has since confined him to a wheelchair. Gonzales and her entire family have pitched in to help care for her father. Before he became ill, Gonzales’ father had worked in the insurance industry and secured what he thought was a foolproof disability policy. After his diagnosis, however, the insurance company refused his claim, arguing that his ailment was a pre-existing condition. Having witnessed her father’s experience, Gonzales feels especially passionate about access to health care and health insurance for low-income families, not to mention heavier regulation of the insurance industry. “I’m not against insurance companies making a profit,” she says. “But to make a profit at the expense of the people you’re serving isn’t acceptable in any business. Changes need to be made so consumers are treated fairly. It’s a two-way street.” Gonzales plans to devote herself full-time to the legislature this session. She isn’t married. She has no children. Her law firm will place minimal demands on her time in the coming year. That freedom, along with a possible choice committee assignment (thanks in part to her joining Craddick’s pledge list), could make Gonzales one the session’s more influential freshmen. Vouching to the Voters Rep. Marc Veasey (D-Fort Worth) Marc Veasey has lived almost his entire life in and around Fort Worth’s House District 95. In a matter of minutes, he can treat you to a detailed discourse on his seat’s political history over the past 25 years. First, there was Reby Cary, a well-liked politician whose popularity withered in 1982 and 1983 because he backed Republican Gov. Bill Clements. Then came Garfield Thompson, another popular figure, who ended his 10-year stint in the House in 1995, and was replaced by Glenn Lewis. Lewis himself lasted 10 years, until his closeness to Republican House Speaker Tom Craddick last session, and his strong pro-school voucher stance, caused voters to sour on him. Veasey took advantage. Calling himself a “real Democrat,” and promising to oppose vouchers, Veasey bounced Lewis in last spring’s party primary. “As you can see, the people in my district expect you to be a good Democrat,” Veasey says, concluding his timeline. He intends to do just that. His legislative agenda includes trying to foster more economic development in his district, which includes some of Fort Worth’s poorer sections. He also wants to work on health care issues and restoring cuts to the Children’s Health Insurance Program, transportation, and education, which includes, of course, fighting voucher programs, which he fears would hurt public schools. Veasey got his start in politics in 1998, volunteering on Democrat U.S. Rep. Martin Frost’s campaign. During the past six years, he worked for Frost’s campaigns and district office in various capacities. “That was a great experience for me,” Veasey says. “He was a great mentor. I learned that the person working the hardest, at the end of the day, is the person who’s going to win. No matter what you do, you should learn everything there is to learn about it.” Veasey’s political pedigree and success in his first campaign have fueled speculation within the party that he could be a future statewide candidate. Veasey, who was married in December,
said he wouldn’t rule anything out, but he would have to discuss it
ith his wife. Right now he’s focused on simply representing his constituents. Recognizing the history of his district and the dangers of losing touch with voters, Veasey plans to invest significant time and energy in constituent outreach. “You can never forget where you come from,” he says. “You can never forget the people you serve. When you do, you’re going to lose.” Veasey has formed advisory committees of constituents whom he’ll meet with regularly. He held four well-attended town hall meetings in different parts of his district in early December. Veasey spent most of the meetings, he recounted, listening to constituents talk about problems they faced and what issues they want to see addressed. Many mentioned concerns about health care and the cuts to the Children’s Health Insurance Program. They also want adequate funding for public schools. And, in case Veasey hadn’t gotten the message, no vouchers. “At one meeting, a women who’s a conservative Republican stood up and wanted to make sure I wouldn’t support a voucher program,” Veasey recalls. “I was like, ‘I promise.’” Learning the Game Rep. Rafael Anchia (D-Dallas) Jai Lai might not have been bad training for first-time state representative Rafael Anchia. The game involves catching and throwing a rock-hard ball that flies through the air and bounces off the wall at speeds upwards of 90 miles per hour. Relatives on both sides of his family played the sport, as did Anchia himself while growing up in Miami. The ability to think on your feet and anticipate where the ball will go are skills Anchia will need at the Lege. They are not the only ones he brings to his new job. Anchia boasts three years on the school board of the Dallas Independent School District, the second-largest in the state. DISD faces issues of poverty and multiculturalism—eight out of ten kids are of low economic status and a third have low English proficiency—that exist throughout the state and must be addressed before Texas can progress. Anchia says during his tenure, DISD embraced a number of successful improvement measures that boosted teacher morale and turned the district into a truly bilingual school system. “Having come from that environment will help me to assess school reforms—are they based in reality or are they being offered for political reasons,” he says. Anchia was set to run for a third term on the DISD school board when long-time District 103 representative Steve Wolens called to say that he had just announced his retirement. He wanted Anchia to run for the seat. Anchia’s wife was about to have their first child, and the influential corporate firm where he practices law, Patton Boggs, LLP, wanted to make him a partner. Nonetheless, he filed for the seat. After winning the election, Anchia sat down for three hours with Wolens to go over policy. He couldn’t have a better mentor. During the 23 years he served, Wolens developed a reputation as a policy wonk and a fierce debater. Anchia hopes to identify other members on both sides to serve as resources during his first session. In addition to school finance, various constituencies in his district have requested help on specific problems. In particular, Anchia plans to work closely with the Dallas police department and the city to push legislation that will allow law enforcement to crack down on rampant crime in the district, particularly vehicle break-ins and illegal massage parlors that operate as prostitution rings. District 103 also has a large gay and lesbian population that is worried about the assault on their community that the 79th Legislature will bring. Although he is but a freshman from the minority party, he has pledged to do whatever he can. Anchia has a simple and inclusive answer to the Republican proposal of a constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage. “I don’t believe in amending the state constitution to curtail rights,” he says. Although some are already talking about Anchia as a future state leader, he is just hoping to successfully juggle his legislative duties, a 10-month-old daughter, and his legal practice. “I will be very satisfied if I can get this right and get reelected,” he says. Following His Father’s Footsteps Rep. Roy Blake Jr. (R-Nacogdoches) For Roy Blake Jr., the Texas Legislature is becoming a family tradition. His father, Roy Blake, Sr., represented Nacogdoches in the Senate from 1979 to 1989, and in the House for three sessions before that. “What I got out of my father’s service is a certain amount of confidence and knowledge, and the sense of responsibility of public service,” Blake says. Unlike his father, who entered the House during the period of reform following the Sharpstown scandal of 1971-72, the junior Blake, 48, joins a chamber that last session was firmly in the hold of special interests that backed the Republican leadership. Whether that continues this session could depend on how independently Blake and fellow Republicans decide to vote. At first, Blake says, he’ll mostly try to listen and learn how the process works. “Being a freshman, I’ll certainly look to the House leadership,” he says. “I have certain skills and experiences, and I’ll leave it up to the leadership to decide how I can be helpful to the process.” While that doesn’t sound like a lawmaker ready to buck the speaker on an important vote, Blake impressed Democratic colleagues during freshman orientation sessions in December with his affable nature, interest in policy, and expressions of bipartisanship. Blake indicated he would like to work with Democrats on issues they have in common. The topics he’s most eager to address include education and access to health care in rural areas. Hailing from East Texas, Blake wants to protect the area’s timber industry and its agriculture. He also hopes to focus on job creation. Economic development was one of his top priorities during his stint as mayor of Nacogdoches. Unlike the dozens of GOP House freshman two years ago, Blake and his four fellow Republican first-termers didn’t rely heavily on leadership-affiliated corporate and PAC money to win election. That could make the House a much less predictable body this time around. Watch Vo Go Rep. Hubert Vo (D-Houston) If Rep. Hubert Vo is intimidated by the responsibility of being the first Vietnamese Texas legislator or the scrutiny that comes with having his election victory challenged, he shows no sign of it. Vo carries himself with the assurance of someone who knows that all is possible if one simply works hard enough. His can-do attitude propelled him from a poor teen-age immigrant to the well-educated successful businessman, and now public official, he is today. (See, “Just Say Vo,” October 22, 2004). Few gave Vo much of a chance at unseating Republican Talmadge Heflin. After all, Heflin was a 20-year incumbent and the chairman of House Appropriations. Yet Vo started campaigning early and never let up. His tenacity, coupled with an unprecedented registration drive in his multi-ethnic district (more than 32 percent are foreign-born and 44 percent speak a language other than English at home), propelled him to a 33-vote upset. Now Vo is eager to get to work. He hopes to introduce three bills or amendments this session to improve education, increase access to health care for working families, and to help promote small businesses. When asked if Heflin’s election challenge before the House (still unresolved as the Observer went to press) is proving a distraction, Vo replied, “I’m certain this will be behind me soon.”