Turner on a Tightrope
A few questions with Speaker Pro Tempore Sylvester Turner (D-Houston)
BY MONICA GUTIERREZ
ep. Sylvester Turner (D-Houston) performs one of the trickiest political balancing acts in Texas politics. He is Speaker Pro Tempore, ostensibly the second most powerful position in the Texas House. Rep. Tom Craddick (R-Midland)—the first Republican speaker in 130 years—appointed Turner to his leadership spot in 2003, at the beginning of the 78th Legislative session. But Turner is not a Republican. He is an African-American Democrat who represents a district where 19.6 percent of the population is living in poverty (as compared to 15.5 percent for Texas as a whole), according to the 2000 U.S. Census. None of Craddick’s leadership team fully embraces Turner’s concerns for more funding for public education and healthcare, consumer rights, human services, and juvenile justice. In fact, the direction of the House since Turner received the position of Speaker Pro Tem has taken a hard right that runs counter to the interests of his inner city Houston district. Turner’s balancing act of maintaining loyalty to Craddick and to his constituents has landed him in trouble in the past. A few of his fellow Democrats have privately questioned whether Republicans are using Turner as a façade, so that they may appear more inclusive. The representative was also strongly criticized for not joining the majority of the Democratic caucus in their flight to Ardmore, Oklahoma, to avoid a congressional redistricting vote in 2003. The 51-year-old Houston native argues that his position ultimately is a boon to all involved. Thanks to his spot in the leadership and his seniority—17 years in the Texas Legislature—Turner sits on the most powerful committees in the House including Regulated Industries (where he is Chairman of Budget and Oversight), Calendars (through which all important legislation must pass), and Appropriations (where he chairs the Subcommittee on Criminal Justice). Turner was one of only two Democrats appointed to the conference committee on the budget, where much of the work on the only piece of legislation the Legislature must complete each session is actually conducted. He also serves as a liaison for his fellow Democrats in the House to gain support for their legislation with the leadership.
Yet this session, it was clear that Turner was frequently frustrated by his lack of influence with Craddick. (At one point, during a heated debate, Craddick left the speaker’s podium to sit next to Turner on the floor and pretend to fan him in an attempt to cool him down.) Turner often found himself voting against the speaker and the leadership’s priorities. In keeping with his reputation as one of the consciences of the House, he spoke often and with great passion against what he deemed bad legislation. His eloquent and heartfelt speeches delivered in a bold, preacher-like tone usually captivated the often-raucous chamber. Turner voted nay on several of the big bills this session, such as House Bill 2 (public education reform), House Bill 3 (property taxes), and House Bill 2330 (top 10 percent), which was in direct opposition to one of the Speaker’s rare votes from the chair. During the crazed final week of the session, the Observer was able to speak with the House’s second in command about his unique position, his feelings on the outcome of the session and the budget, and the future of Texas politics. What follows are excerpts from that conversation. The Texas Observer: In your opinion, what have been a few of the highlights and low points of the session? Rep. Sylvester Turner: The highlights can’t be judged by what you’ve accomplished, but by what you prevented from passing. [For example], they tried to pass a [school] voucher bill, we stopped that. They tried to change the top 10 percent rules, and we stopped that. Now those laws will remain intact… HB 2, the education bill, and HB 3, which didn’t provide any funding for education, probably won’t pass. [We stopped those], and I didn’t vote for either of those. We did pass House Bill 412, the electronic [credit] scoring bill, that will protect poor and minority Texans. We restored the mental, dental, and eye care benefits of CHIP. We restored Health and Human Services and Medicaid. We helped criminal justice. Disappointments … we’ve done an excellent job in telling the underprivileged folks that we’re not interested in their plight. I’m not pleased with the insensitivity the House has had towards the poor.
TO: As a member of the budget conference committee, what were some of the major issues you fought for, and how do you feel about the outcome of the budget this session? ST: I’m pleased with some of the things we were able to accomplish. We restored more money to the Children’s Health Insurance Program. The mental health services, for example, all of that is restored. We restored money to the optional Medicaid Program, which is a plus. So I’m real pleased with that. We restored additional money to the criminal justice portion. We took a different approach on how we handle the criminal justice program—we’re not building any prisons. We provided more money for probation. We put additional monies into diversionary programs like probation, substance abuse, and residential treatment facilities—all the tools that the district judges said that they needed to have some confidence with before placing people on probation rather than sending them directly to Texas Department of Criminal Justice. So we did that, and I’m pleased with that. With regard to Higher Ed, we provided additional funding there. We restored many of the five-percent reductions that were made in Higher Ed, and that’s a plus. And I think on balance, Higher Ed is pleased with what we did. The disappointment still deals with public education. There is no teacher pay raise at this time, and we did not restore their healthcare stipend—for teachers, janitors, bus drivers, and cafeteria workers. I’m disappointed with that. We didn’t fully restore the CHIP program all the way; another $50 million certainly would have done that. But we still have those eligibility limits like the six months’ wait, the 90-day asset test. So that cuts down on the number of kids that can be enrolled in the program, and I’m disappointed that the changes were not made in that regard. On balance, I’m pleased with the budget and will cast a vote for it [which he did]. TO: In the past you have been criticized for siding with the leadership too often. On some of the big bills this session you voted against the leadership. How do you handle your leadership position to be an effective member? ST: This is the sort of situation that I’ve been able to express my views on policy matters that were a concern to my district and the people that I represent. When I’ve been able to agree with the Speaker I have, and I’ve supported him when I thought those positions were consistent with the interests of my district. When I’ve thought that they weren’t consistent with the interests of my district, I’ve taken that contrary position—and I’ve been free to do that. Not only have I voted against certain interests, for example, that the Speaker may have wanted, when I thought that they weren’t consistent with my constituents, but I’ve spoken against him as well. So it has been a delicate balance, but I’ve been able to be true to myself and to the people who sent me here. At the same time, [I’ve tried] to help the decorum of the floor and provide some stability to the process and to provide some additional insight that I thought would be helpful in governing, as a part of the leadership team. So it has been a delicate balance and I’ve done my best to try to walk that balance and to maintain that balance. But as we approach the end of the session I can comfortably say that I have continued to represent the interests of my district. I’ve been supportive of the leadership team where I could and different where I could not. TO: How do you feel about the leadership’s ideology in relation to the demographic changes underway in Texas? ST: Some people are having a hard time recognizing that the face of Texas is changing. Our Hispanic, African-American, and Asian populations are growing, and I accept that as an asset and not a liability. [Since] the face of Texas is changing, the face of the leadership of Texas will change as well as a result of the change in demographics. The policies will have to be reflective of that change in demographics and their corresponding interests. And you’re seeing it happen right here on the floor of the Texas House. You’re seeing it take place in the Texas Senate. Those are realities that we are not going to reverse. It will continue to take place, and you will continue to see shifts in leadership positions and policies that will be reflective of those changes in demographics. We need to welcome and invite those faces at the table of power. [In politics] it has to be diverse. We need to have varying faces to make policy. Texas is changing whether we want to accept that or not. TO: As an African-American Democrat in this majority Anglo, Republican House, do you feel like you have an equal place at the table? ST: I attended a predominately white high school and excelled there. I attended a predominately white university and excelled there. I attended a predominately white law school and excelled there. And now I attend a predominately white House, and I intend to excel here too. I wouldn’t necessarily say that I have an equal place. I think I have greater access than maybe many. Certainly, I’m sure there are others that have greater access than I. I’m not naive. I’m a political pragmatist. I’m Speaker Pro Tem, but I’m a Democrat. So I’m not going to say that my access is as great as any other member because I know it’s not. But at least, by virtue of position, I am sitting on Regulated Industries and Appropriations and Calendars. And by virtue of those positions I have some input on most bills that come on the floor of the Texas House and I’m able to make some adjustments that I think need to be made in committee. So I’m able to stop some things that are bad or at the very minimum, slow them down. And that’s by virtue of the position that I have. The positions speak for themselves, and whether or not that gives me a direct and equal access, for example to the Speaker, no, it doesn’t. But at least it puts me at the center of what things are happening as they move through the process, and that’s important to me. Monica Gutierrez is an Observer legislative intern.