Fledglings

They're newly elected. They're still chirpy. Which freshman lawmakers will take wing?

The 80th Texas Legislature may well turn out to be the session of the freshman. In the Senate, it didn’t take more than a day for newcomer Dan Patrick, a Houston Republican and conservative radio firebrand, to make his presence known by taking the first of what will likely be many losing stands. Yet Patrick’s antics obscured the arrival of several other Senate freshmen notable for their considerable experience in politics and the legislative process. Not least among them is Austin’s own Kirk Watson.

In the House, the 2006 elections narrowed the Republican advantage by five seats making it 81 to 69, ushering in a crop of new Democrats and Republicans who are by and large non-ideological centrists. Their presence should have a moderating influence on the chamber as a whole. Democrats will be looking to build on their electoral gains by forcing Republicans into tough votes. Meanwhile, Republicans will likely be looking to trip up the new representatives who hold seats in swing districts the GOP lost, trying to blunt the Democratic momentum.— Editors

Who’s Listening?

Sen. Dan Patrick (R-Houston)

Dan Patrick

The Texas Senate is a genteel place, a chamber that favors compromise over confrontation and cordiality over partisanship. Senators usually keep the nastiest fights behind closed doors. So the addition of Dan Patrick, the opinionated conservative talk-radio host from Houston, is like adding a rabid pit bull to the Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show. It might not be pretty, but you can’t avert your eyes.

Patrick, 50, fancies himself a modern-day Jeff Smith, the Jimmy Stewart character from the 1939 Frank Capra film, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. He is the man who stands on conviction in an unprincipled town. Patrick won election—to replace the retired Jon Lindsay—promising to secure the border, lower property taxes, and end the Senate’s two-third’s rule (the tradition that 21 of the 31 senators must support a bill to bring it up for debate). Freshman senators are traditionally “seen and not heard,” as they say in the Capitol. Much like Mr. Smith, though, Patrick vowed he wouldn’t stay silent.

On his first day, he didn’t disappoint. Not three hours after taking the oath of office, the brash new senator tried to change the upper chamber’s rules. He gave an impassioned speech on the Senate floor against renewal of the two-thirds rule. Democrats and moderate Republicans have used the rule in recent sessions to block some of the most controversial elements of the right-wing agenda. Grassroots conservatives in the GOP want to replace the rule with a simple majority vote. In his floor speech, he invoked Texas political icons Bob Bullock and Allan Shivers, and Ronald Reagan, John F. Kennedy, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and James Monroe. No other senator agreed with Patrick and the Senate approved the rules by a 30-1 vote.

“Irrespective of what the vote was—I campaigned on that issue, and more importantly, I believe in the issue of majority rule,” Patrick said two days after the vote. “I was not about to sit there silently and let the rules be voted in when I objected to them.”

The subtext in the Senate this session is the 2010 race for governor. One possible contender for the spot is Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst, who presides over the upper chamber. Another name frequently mentioned is Dan Patrick. Asked about the governorship, Patrick says, “My job is to be the best senator I can be.” Then he added, in a possible warning to Dewhurst, “I am more than happy to be ready to support a true conservative [in 2010]. The question is, will one emerge?”

Patrick has considerable support from right-wing grassroots activists in the GOP. He communicates to them through his talk show—now heard in Houston and Dallas—which he plans to continue broadcasting Monday through Thursday from the basement of a building across the street from the Capitol. Dewhurst gave a clue on how he’ll deal with Patrick and his minions this session when he assigned committees. The lieutenant governor took the old proverb, “Idle hands are the devil’s workshop,” to heart.

He gave Patrick two of the most important and work-intensive committees in the Senate: Education (including the Subcommittee on Higher Education), and Health and Human Services. Patrick also is vice chair of International Relations and Trade, and sits on Intergovernmental Relations and the Subcommittee on Flooding and Evacuations. With those assignments, Patrick will likely be forced to choose soon between Senate responsibilities such as attending hearings and his radio program.

The upstart senator is not finished courting controversy. He has filed an abortion-trigger ban that would outlaw abortion in Texas if the U.S. Supreme Court reverses Roe v. Wade. Another bill would impose a fee on money transfers to foreign countries—a plan Patrick hopes will limit the funds illegal immigrants send back to Mexico.

And like his hero Jeff Smith, he also seems eager to filibuster. On the session’s first day, Patrick’s son and daughter gave him a black hat that resembles the one Jimmy Stewart wore in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. Says Patrick, “If my hat shows up on my desk, people will know it might be time for a filibuster.”—DM

Elementary, Dear Watson

Kirk Watson (D-Austin)

Kirk Watson

If a wellspring of urgency or impatience bubbles deep within, his manner does not reveal it.

Great expectations follow Kirk Watson simply because he is Kirk Watson, widely perceived as part of the Democratic Party’s government-in-waiting, one of those who will vie for statewide office if and when the political winds shift.

For now, he’s Austin’s first new state senator in more than two decades, settling into a junior member’s office down a long, underground hallway beyond the Senate mail room. “I couldn’t be happier than to be where I am,” he says. “I’ve been excited every day.”

Watson coasted into office with no serious opposition, as if the city’s political waters parted to deliver him his due after 22-year Senate veteran Gonzalo Barrientos decided to relinquish his stranglehold on District 14.

Watson, the 48-year-old attorney and popular former mayor, had the good fortune to lead Austin during the height of the tech boom. He was part of the Democratic dream ticket in 2002, running for attorney general in the party’s doomed effort to reclaim something, anything, from the Republicans.

He’s affable, reasonably attractive, and has a loquacious presence refined by courtroom arguments and countless banquet speeches. But he’s not inclined to talk of higher office now. A cancer survivor—he beat testicular cancer more than 10 years ago—Watson insists he’s looking no further than the Senate floor.

“One of the gifts of cancer is that I just don’t get focused on what happens long term,” he says. “I try to live my life with a short-term focus but a long-term vision.”

Indeed, his cancer fight informs much of what Watson says he hopes to accomplish in his new post. “The only reason I’m here is early, effective health care,” he says. “Otherwise I’d be dead. One of the things I should be doing is making sure others don’t lose their opportunities just because they don’t have access to health care. That’s a key for me.”

Though he has no bills in the hopper yet, Watson says they’re coming, on health care, education, and transportation. A freshman can’t be too presumptuous, but “I think it’s appropriate, freshman or not, to ask ‘Are we thinking big enough in Texas?'”

Big’s good, but politics is local, and Austin has its own tricky issues—development fights, protecting the Edwards Aquifer, and of late, a growing restiveness over new toll roads that seem to be encircling the city. Watson knows the turf and its traps. “I’ve been representing this area in one way or another for a decade,” he says. “I have found this to be a very thoughtful community.”

And he’s got his eye on the toll roads. “The policy has been a ‘Don’t ask, just tell’ policy, and we’ve gotta fix that,” he says.—DP

Brainy Moderate

Ellen Cohen (D-Houston)

Ellen Cohen

One gets the feeling from talking to Democrat Rep. Ellen Cohen that she will be tough for Republicans to dislodge. Cohen beat two-term incumbent Martha Wong in a race that is held up as an object lesson for what happens to those who follow party leadership instead of constituents. Wong voted against increasing teacher salaries, against curbs on air pollution, and from her perch on the State Affairs Committee, for a constitutional ban on gay marriage. Wong took those votes while representing District 134, the most highly educated district in the state (66.6 percent of adults 25 years or older have at least a bachelor’s degree, compared with 23.2 percent statewide). The district also has a sizable gay and lesbian population. While leaning Republican, the 134th is more fact-based than ideological. So is its new representative.

“The district is verbal and smart,” Cohen says. “I have to be able to make logical arguments for the positions I take.”

Campaign consultants describe the 66-year-old Cohen as a dream candidate. Not only is she highly intelligent and energetic (Cohen estimates that she knocked on 2,300 doors in a campaign that visited 12,000 to 14,000 homes), she is also self-disciplined. Remarkably, Cohen’s campaign didn’t have a finance director. Instead, Cohen sat down every day by herself to make phone solicitations, which netted more than half a million dollars. As the CEO of the Houston Area Women’s Center, she manages a staff of 125. She will try to juggle that job with her new responsibilities as a state rep.

The question is, how will an accomplished leader like Cohen do in a body where she is just one among 150? She will, after all, be a mere freshman in the minority party in an institution where everybody is constantly jockeying for partisan advantage.

“Being one of 150 is just fine,” she says. With her husband deceased and her children all grown, Cohen points out, she’s ripe for the challenge. She describes even the bruising battle for speaker on her first outing as a legislator as a satisfying, full day of work and a learning experience. In her advocacy on issues like domestic violence and her service on the boards of organizations, she says she learned that “just because people don’t agree doesn’t make them evil.” She is eager to work and relentlessly upbeat.

During an interview in her still largely unfurnished basement office in the Capitol, Cohen insists she didn’t run against anything as much as for maintaining and improving what’s already there. “We need to keep our institutions strong,” she says.

She wants more investment in research and development for the medical center in her district. This includes embracing stem-cell research. She also calls for higher pay for teachers, smaller classroom sizes, and lower college tuition.

In the past two legislative sessions, the fringe became mainstream in the Texas House. And as radical Republicans muscled through their agenda, Democrats reacted, often stridently. Wong was carried away by this tide. How Cohen, who represents a new generation of Democratic moderates, resists its pull will be interesting to watch.—JB

School Smarts

Diane Patrick (R-Arlington)

Diane Patrick

Rarely does a freshman lawmaker enter the Legislature already associated with a signature issue as Rep. Diane Patrick is linked with public education. The Arlington Republican is a former elementary school teacher, and until recently was a professor at the University of Texas-Arlington in the College of Education (she left her position to join the Lege). Patrick, 60, has served on the Arlington School Board for 11 years, including a term as president, and also did a four-year stint on the state Board of Education (1992-1996). Patrick made a name for herself in state politics last spring. She engineered perhaps the biggest upset of the 2006 election cycle—the Republican primary defeat of Kent Grusendorf, the 19-year House veteran and powerful chairman of the House Public Education Committee. Grusendorf had long pushed for a public school voucher program in Texas, and for further reliance on high-stakes testing and teacher incentive pay. Public education advocates and Parent Teacher Association members flocked to Patrick’s banner (see “Wrath of the Soccer Moms,” March 24, 2006). They had come to view Grusendorf as a symbol of the House leadership’s perceived hostility toward public schools.

Patrick’s ouster of Grusendorf was another setback for House Speaker Tom Craddick, a Midland Republican. Many Democrats crossed over to vote for Patrick in the Republican primary as a way to oppose Craddick and the House leadership. Yet in her first major decision in the Lege, Patrick supported Craddick against Republican Rep. Jim Pitts (R-Waxahachie) for the speakership. Patrick defended her vote by contending that she was honoring a pledge to Craddick made on November 8. “I intended to keep my word unless some previous unknown information came to light … some major scandal I didn’t know about,” she said.

A strong signal on whether Craddick will reciprocate with support for Patrick will be revealed when the speaker names committees. Will Craddick make use of Patrick’s expertise by placing her on the education committee even though it might displease stalwart campaign contributors like San Antonio voucher proponent James Leininger? After all, Patrick has pledged to work toward improving public education, not to dismantle it. She is a reliable vote against any voucher program that takes money from public schools.

Patrick has an ambitious legislative wish list. She wants to reduce property taxes for elderly homeowners and to shore up the finances of the troubled Teachers’ Retirement System. She also hopes to improve transportation in Arlington—particularly in advance of the new Dallas Cowboys stadium under construction. Another hot topic in her area is the proposal to build 18 new coal-fired power plants that could pollute North Texas air. Patrick said she wants to “make sure that [plants] are using the highest [air quality] standards.” Yet it’s her knowledge of the complexities of public education that helped put Patrick in the House and could make her an interesting legislator to watch this session.— DM

Walking the Line

Valinda Bolton (D-Austin)

Valinda Bolton

As Valinda Bolton strode onto the House floor for the first time, surrounded by family members and clad in the red power suit she wore when she kicked off her election bid, she had no doubts about whom she was going to vote for in the speaker’s race: Jim Pitts. Then the hours of wrangling and parliamentary maneuvering began. “We had several votes,” Bolton said. “I tried to vote in a way that would support Pitts and make the process more confidential and less risky.”
Suddenly Pitts withdrew from the contest, leaving Bolton and other House members with one choi
e: a vote for or against Craddick.

Bolton, the new Democratic representative of District 47, which encompasses southwest Travis County and the southern tip of Austin, was conflicted. Her index finger nervously moved back and forth across the red and green buttons. “I had a strong, strong feeling that we needed different leadership,” she said. “But I also felt it was important to cast a vote for the healing and solidarity of the House and the ability to work across the aisle.” Taking a deep breath, she pushed the button for Craddick.

Bolton’s dilemma mirrored that of several other freshmen Democrats this session. Her district, formerly held by Republican Terry Keel, is evenly split between Republicans and Democrats. If she wants her political career to last longer than one session, she’ll have to be responsive to both sides. How freshmen Democrats in tough districts like Bolton play the game in Austin and communicate with their constituents back home will determine in part how they fare in 2008.

Bolton has red hair, a warm smile, and an innocent demeanor that belies an inner toughness that enabled her to survive a bruising primary and equally bruising general election. She was one of 11 candidates—five Republicans, four Democrats, and two Libertarians—who vied for the position Keel vacated. Though Bolton was a newcomer to politics, she nevertheless managed to beat back a challenge in the Democratic primary from Jason Earle, the son of Travis County District Attorney Ronnie Earle, and went on to defeat Republican Bill Welch in the general election.

The Republicans lined up solidly behind Welch, who raised almost $700,000, compared with the $225,000 amassed by Bolton. Welch received nearly $435,000 in contributions from the Texans for Lawsuit Reform PAC and another $65,000 from Houston homebuilder Bob Perry. TLR will no doubt be watching Bolton’s votes closely.

Bolton, 47, has spent most of her career working for nonprofits, includ-ing as training director for the National Center on Domestic and Sexual Violence. Bolton’s district is considered the gateway to the Hill Country and is facing numerous problems, including how to cope with expanding population and development at a time when wells are running dry and water resources are shrinking. At the Lege, she hopes to focus her attention on issues she campaigned for—more pay for teachers, better healthcare for children and the mentally disabled, affordable housing, and a more open and accountable government. She also hopes to help draft legislation that would give county governments more tools to manage growth and development.

As a state legislator from a swing district, Bolton knows there will be more tough votes ahead. She’s ready. “I live in a district that’s evenly split and has mainstream values,” she said. “They want the House to get focused and work on issues that will benefit all the families of Texas.”— EW

High Flyer

Juan Garcia (D-Corpus Christi)

Juan Garcia

The toughest challenge for Juan Garcia may be living up to the hype that surrounds his incipient political career. Many, including us (see, “The Contender,” September 22, 2006), have commented on the 40-year-old Garcia’s dream resume: Harvard law degree, Gulf War veteran, Navy pilot, White House service, a Hispanic surname with the looks and accent of an Anglo, and above all, powerful and well-connected friends. Surprisingly, so far Garcia has not disappointed.

He knocked off well-funded incumbent Gene Seaman in a majority Republican district. And his constituents didn’t even have to wait a week for him to start fulfilling campaign promises. “When a first time candidate beats a 10-year incumbent, it means people want change. They don’t want me to wait in line,” Garcia says.

Garcia voted with a majority of Democrats for a secret ballot to decide who should be speaker of the House. Those who voted for the measure were widely seen as supporters of the insurgency against the incumbent Speaker Craddick. After Craddick’s challenger Jim Pitts dropped out, the vote to approve Craddick became largely symbolic. No one would have faulted Garcia for voting for Craddick; he was the only candidate. Nonetheless, Garcia was one of only 27 members to vote against the speaker from the floor. “I felt [a sense of] real intimidation [on the floor],” Garcia said afterward. “I can’t go along with that.”

Three days later, the House took up its rules. Garcia broke with the tradition that freshmen should be seen but not heard by offering a key amendment. Having campaigned on more openness in government, Garcia’s amendment called for all votes on the second reading of bills to be recorded. Second reading is often when support for a bill really matters. Garcia says he didn’t believe such a measure would make it out of committee with the current leadership, so an amendment to the rules was his best shot. It was a rough floor fight, and Garcia’s amendment eventually died at the hands of Craddick lieutenant and Houston Democrat Harold Dutton. Still, Garcia may have won over some of his peers with his humility and good humor. At one point, a Republican accused him of trying to sneak something past the membership. Garcia replied: “I don’t know the process well enough to hide the bill.”

“It was a lot more dramatics than I envisioned,” Garcia said a few days later.

Despite the defeat, Garcia says his constituents are ecstatic over the effort. Now comes the tough part. If the new representative in a swing district didn’t already have a target on his back, the Republican leadership will surely come gunning for him after his activities during the session’s first week. “Given my first 72 hours, I’m anticipating a seat on the cupcake committee,” he says.

Time will tell how far Garcia gets as a politician, but if his beginning is any indication, he will go far, and it will be fun to watch.—JB

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