Inside the mind of the state's most powerful fundamentalist
Nervous tremors were evident when the announcement came that state Rep. Warren Chisum would take the helm of the House Appropriations Committee this session. The Republican from Pampa—author of the state’s gay marriage ban and an adept at using House rules to kill bills he doesn’t like—now held the state’s checkbook in his hands.
The 68-year-old is one of the founders of the Texas Conservative Coalition and has spent years pushing socially conservative legislation. His ascent to the most powerful chairmanship in the House meant that every lawmaker who wanted a dime for their districts, or funds for a favored program, would have to win the blessing of the guy who wants Bibles in schools, abortions outlawed, and state-backed marriage counseling for couples wanting to take the plunge.
“He really is a one-man wrecking ball trying to tear down the wall separating church and state,” says Dan Quinn, communications director at the Texas Freedom Network. “It’s always a concern when someone like that is elevated to the second-highest position in the Legislature.”
Chisum was handed the appropriations chairmanship after 20 years in the Legislature in the wake of an unsuccessful bid by former Chairman Jim Pitts, a Waxahachie Republican, to oust Tom Craddick from the speaker’s post. Liberals saw little to applaud in Chisum’s ascent. He was behind efforts to keep gay couples from adopting or fostering children. In 1993, when the Senate voted to remove the anti-sodomy law from the penal code, Chisum proposed an amendment in the House to put it back in. Told that an anti-homosexual sodomy law would be unconstitutional, he made the amendment anti-sodomy for all, homosexuals and heterosexuals alike, so as not to discriminate. (The U.S. Supreme Court struck down Texas’ sodomy statute in 2003.) When then-Rep. Debra Danberg, a Houston Democrat, asked if his legislation included married people, Chisum responded, “More especially if they’re married. I can’t believe they would want to do that if they were married.”
Chisum—who attends Hyde Park Baptist Church when he’s in Austin—says religion “governs just about everything I do”—including his activities at the Lege—”because it’s not inconsistent with a moral society.” Chisum defines a moral society as “people that are compliant with the law and believe that the law is important, and they respect the authorities … not necessarily church-going or something like that, even though that’s important, but still have a high respect for law and order and a society that governs itself.”
Despite his strongly held beliefs, the diminutive Panhandler has cultivated friends on the opposite end of the ideological spectrum. Former Democratic Rep. Glen Maxey of Austin—the first openly gay member of the Legislature—says that despite their “strong issue fights,” Chisum was always willing to work with him on noncontroversial legislation.
“As much as he did anti-gay things, whether having to do with blocking the hate-crimes bill, or dealing with anti-gay marriage, foster care, or adoption, he never made it personal. I sort of admired him for that,” Maxey says. “There were many others in the Legislature who made it very vicious and demeaning, but Warren never did that.”
Bee Moorhead, executive director of Texas Impact, an interfaith advocacy group, calls Chisum an “iconoclast” in the sense that he’s hard to categorize. While he’s steadfast on social conservative issues, he supports renewable energy and didn’t get in the way of improving the Children’s Health Insurance Program in the House budget this session, she says. “When someone is so predictable on every single issue, you kind of wonder if they’re thinking about any of them,” she says. “He really does see himself as a public servant. He is entrusted to do the work, to take care of the people in Texas. I don’t think he’s a cynic about it at all. … There are a lot of legislators that’s not true of.”
Still, people wondered, what horrors from the far-right wish list would Chisum use his seat of power to extract?
In the end, it seems, not many. He has not used the chairmanship to ramrod through his own bills, although they appear to have made it further along in the process than in past sessions. Chisum authored the abortion-trigger ban (which died in committee with a whopping fiscal note), some bills that encourage strong marriages (which were watered down by amendments on the House floor), and a bill that would require high schools to offer elective Bible classes (to which the Public Education Committee added teacher training, a textbook other than the Bible, the course will be elective for schools rather than required, and an established curriculum so as to ensure the book would be taught as literature rather than religion).
That’s not to say that he doesn’t have specific ideas about the role of government. The family, Chisum says, is the center of the “high moral network” that a government should encourage. In an interview with the Texas Public Policy Foundation, Chisum said, “In some of our health and human services, we spend a lot of money on trying to address the problem of families being broke up. I would like to spend less money there and more money on keeping families together.” Chisum’s budget this session puts some federal Temporary Assistance for Needy Families money—intended to help families get off of welfare—toward programs that provide marriage counseling.
The chairman must also balance local concerns. Last session, the Lege shifted $25 million previously used for family planning clinics like Planned Parenthood to crisis pregnancy centers and federally qualified health clinics. Regions that had few or none of these clinics simply lost the family planning money, which helps low-income women get access to Pap smears and birth control. Chisum stands at an ideological crossroads—though he opposes the privately funded Planned Parenthood clinics that provide abortions, his region lost family planning dollars.
“Well, we lost a lot of Planned Parenthood clinics that serve poor women, and that was kind of sad,” he tells the Observer. “It drove them into the local hospitals and those kind of areas, and some of the volunteers that do women’s health care, and the issue is that we lost a lot of state funding for that. … I don’t know exactly how many dollars, but it really did affect the medically underserved areas, which left some women without any place to go.” Chisum says he hopes to “re-create the health safety net for those who don’t have health care and can’t travel to get it.”
To date, Chisum has also presided over a relatively evenhanded budget process. Maybe it was because Republican House Speaker Tom Craddick, his own power waning, reined Chisum in. Maybe it was rookie timidity. Or maybe it was because, at heart, the rancher and oilman values the rules enough that he doesn’t believe in playing the despot game.
Chisum’s relatively hands-off approach on the budget has minimized a conflict that seemed all but inevitable at the outset of the session. How does a small-town, West Texas social conservative respond to the needs of an increasingly urban, multiethnic, and impoverished state? The Observer decided to take a trip into the mind of Warren Chisum. We sat down with the appropriations chairman for a frank discussion of his ideology. Here are some excerpts.
The Texas Observer: What is your view on how government should work?
Warren Chisum: Thomas Jefferson said our laws are created for a moral society and are inadequate to govern any other kind of society. If you read that in Jefferson, you’d say, “Okay, he is right.” As long as you have a moral foundation in your state, then our laws are sufficient to govern that, because there’s only an anomaly that the laws have to deal with.
But if everyone is immoral, and don’t have any moral values, then we need a completely different kind of system to govern people, because you have to govern with a stronger hand and be more intrusive. So that’s what makes our government different from other governments, and sometimes people don’t realize that, because with the high moral standards we’re able to govern people—because only about 3 or 4 percent of the people really ever need our enforcement.
TO: Is it government’s role to encourage that kind of morality?
WC: The government should understand what their role is, and their role is to support and uphold a moral society. We have many, many laws that keep you from having profanity. You have to have some kind of moral dress code; you show respect for authority; those kind of things, those are moral values. And family, have a high respect for family. We should do whatever it takes to guard family.
TO: So if a society has a high respect for the law, there isn’t as much of a need for government to intrude on citizens’ lives?
WC: If you raise your family and your family abides by the law and the government makes sure that no one interferes with your doing that, then we have done our job.
TO: What are moral values?
WC: Conducting your life in a manner where you’re not self-destructive, you know, moderation of alcohol and tobacco and don’t take illicit drugs and those kind of things. Those are all moral values. Not to desecrate your body or get into glue-sniffing and stuff that gets you out on cloud nine, but maintain a civil attitude. And also I would say the act of volunteering and helping your neighbor. That’s a moral issue. Just being a good citizen, so to speak. Not necessarily joining all the clubs, but if your neighbor needs something, you provide it for them.
TO: Do you think that other factors besides moral values affect a person’s respect for authority?
WC: I don’t think environmental, unless you’re talking about the atmosphere you’re raised in, but generally it’s respect for the law and education and virtually just trying to create a better society in which to live so that you don’t have high-crime areas where people are scared to go back and forth or scared to leave their house, those are issues that are important to me. So that you feel relatively safe in the place where you live.
TO: What factors contribute to creating a high-crime area?
WC: Disrespect for the law. That’s generally it. There’s virtually nothing else. You know, they don’t respect the law, so they don’t—they try to avoid them and break the law.
TO: Do you think poverty is an element there?
WC: Not necessarily. You’ll find areas where they’re extremely poor but still very compliant and don’t disrespect the law. I think it’s an attitude. It’s a taught attitude sometimes, you know, by the environment that you’re in.
TO: You said that our society is founded on morals. Are there other societies that aren’t?
WC: If you’re in a totalitarian society where there’s king rule and those kind of things, they make people comply with the law by suppression, and our society is built on something that complies with the law by volunteer. Submission to the law, not forced into submission to the law. If you look at a lot of the European societies, and certainly Russia, and the Oriental societies, where they virtually have a king or a prime minister or something that’s not elected by the people and doesn’t have to serve the people, serve his need.
TO: Do you think those societies are not founded upon the same morals?
WC: Absolutely. They’re not based at all on moral character. They’re based on just serving the prime minister or king or whoever’s over them.
TO: Do you think homosexuality is a biological issue or a choice?
WC: No. It’s a choice issue. There’s no evidence of it being biological. They can say whatever it is, but basically, it’s a conscious choice that some people make, and I’m okay with that, just don’t – I mean, I wish they wouldn’t, but I’m for everybody making their choices, but I don’t think I ought to give you some special privilege because you made that choice.
TO: What kind of special privileges?
WC: Job security, those kinds of things, that just stand out because of the sexual choice that they’ve made.
TO: Do you personally consider that choice to be a sin?
WC: Absolutely. It’s not me that does it, but that’s what the Bible says, and that’s what I believe in. So it’s not that I say it is, it’s just that the book says it is.
TO: How do you interpret the Bible?
WC: It’s absolute and literal. The Bible in my opinion is not filled with errors or misstatements. It’s a document that you can govern your life by, and not be very surprised by what goes on.
TO: What do you mean?
WC: I mean, that homosexuality is a fact of life, and even mentioned in the biblical days, even though it was an abomination to Christ, as was stated, but it’s still something that’s going to be with us. It’s like people who are poor. The Bible says the poor will always be with us, and it says we are to help and support them. So it doesn’t pain me in order to allocate money to the poor that need our help. So that’s an issue that’s biblical, but it’s real-life too. And you find many attitudes, of how you can confront people and interact with people even though they disagree with you, and not be disagreeable.
TO: How do you deal with language in the Bible that doesn’t fit our society, things like mentions of slavery?
WC: Yeah, you know you talk about slavery, and certainly there was slavery in the Bible, but you know it was for the slave to serve the master and for the master to be kind to the slave. It’s no different than in employment today. The slavery of the Bible could be an employee-employer relationship that you have today.
TO: But an employer-employee relationship can be terminated?
WC: Absolutely. And that’s the only difference. But sometimes when it’s terminated, I mean, back in those days, even if you had a bad slave, you had to keep him, and nowadays, if you have a bad employee, you can discharge him and get another employee. I’m not in favor of slavery. I’m in favor of people having their own choice to move around, but we all work for somebody. And so if you’re talking about the labor that a slave does as the labor that a person that has a job [does, it] is virtually the same issue. And it’s the way society works that—and I guess the question is, when you come to work for me, are you my slave? No, because you’ve got a free will to go and do something else if you don’t like what we’re doing. But am I your master when you’re there? Absolutely. Because if you don’t do what I say, then I’ll send you somewhere else.
Megan Headley is a Texas Observer legislative intern.