Political Intelligence

The House That Pete Built



Much has been made of the coming Republican majority in the Texas House of Representatives, which has become an Alamo of sorts for Texas Democrats, who in the last four years have lost the Senate and every elected statewide office. The newly redistricted House, where Dems currently hold a 78 to 72 advantage, is expected to have at least 80 R’s after next year’s elections, and possibly as many as 90. Much of the battle has already been lost without a shot being fired. In the two weeks following judicial approval of the Legislative Redistricting Board’s (LRB) highly partisan redistricting plan, several members of House Speaker Pete Laney’s leadership team have opted to retire, including Rob Junell (D-San Angelo), Paul Sadler (D-Henderson), Fred Bosse (D-Houston), Patricia Gray (D-Galveston), Tom Ramsay (D-Mount Vernon), and Clyde Alexander (D-Athens), all current committee chairs. The LRB’s three-member Republican wrecking crew of Land Commissioner David Dewhurst, Comptroller Carole Rylander, and Attorney General John Cornyn completely redrew Laney’s rural Panhandle district, forcing him to campaign largely in counties he has never represented. He will likely survive that attack, and may even hold onto the speakership if the Republicans don’t get a big enough majority to oust him. Laney has enough loyalty among rural Republicans that he may yet eke out another term as speaker.

If he doesn’t, next session is likely to be a watershed year in Texas politics, not so much because the mix of D’s and R’s will be reversed, but because of the way a new Republican speaker is likely to do business. Under Laney, Democrats and Republicans have shared power in the House. “It’s absolutely false to suggest that the Democrats run the House under a Democratic majority system,” said one long-time Democratic lobbyist. There is no party whip enforcing the party line, for example, as there is in Washington, and last session, Laney appointed thirteen Republicans as committees chairs. In fact, the Democratic Caucus rarely meets as such. More typical of the way the House has traditionally done business is the rural caucus, which has a mixed membership of D’s and R’s. That’s one reason Laney may be able to hold on to the Speakership even with a Republican majority–his past willingness to work across party lines. Laney has steered the House down the moderate-conservative path, where it has more or less been for decades.

If the Republicans take over, most likely with announced speaker candidate Tom Craddick (R-Midland) as their leader, the nature of politics in the House is likely to change. There have been murmurs that Craddick would appoint a significant number of Democratic chairmen, but not many insiders are buying it. More true to form would be the kind of treatment maverick House Republican Tommy Merritt of Longview has received from his own party for his failure to toe the line on hate crimes (he voted for the bill) and redistricting (he proposed a plan that protected incumbents at the expense of his own party) last session. Republican party leaders have attended fundraisers for Merritt’s primary opponent, whom they reportedly recruited to run against him. “You’re about to see an example of what these people do to those who don’t agree with them. This is how they will run the House of Representatives,” the lobbyist said.

“The fundamental difference with a Republican speaker,” he said, “is that you will in fact have one-party government, and the Democrats will have no choice but to become an opposition party,” serving mainly to prevent things from happening, rather than participating in decision-making. The result will be the Washington style of politics that then-governor Bush campaigned against. “As soon as [Bush] leaves, here comes Craddick and Cornyn and the rich guys to bring in what Bush went to Washington to fight.”

The outlook is different in the Senate, where the Republicans’ slim 16-15 advantage is expected to widen slightly, but not enough for the party to gain the all important two-thirds majority needed under Senate rules to move legislation. The real question is how the membership will react to the outcome of the lieutenant governor’s race, which pits Republican David Dewhurst against Democrat John Sharp. If Sharp wins, next session could be the first session in modern history in which the lieutenant governor, who presides over the Senate, is not of the same party as the Senate majority. It’s unclear how well the Senate, which is known for its smooth (at least on the surface) operation, would function under that arrangement. Presumably, the Senate could even vote to strip their presiding officer of the powers, including making committee assignments and scheduling votes, that make the lieutenant governor arguably the most powerful person in state government.

That’s unlikely to happen in any case, but an interesting bet here is whether it would be more likely to happen to Lt. Gov. Sharp, or to Lt. Gov. Dewhurst. A joke going around the capitol has Sharp wishing that the electorate for this race was confined to the Texas Senate, where Dewhurst has made some enemies among the Republican majority for his role in the redistricting process. Dewhurst, together with Rylander and Cornyn, ran roughshod over the two legislators on the LRB, Pete Laney and Senator Bill Ratliff (R-Mt. Pleasant), who had sought to protect incumbents, traditionally a number one priority for both parties at redistricting time. But Dewhurst and company had a different agenda, deciding instead to use the process to satisfy the party’s big money men (and thus their own fundraising prospects) rather than the interests of their party’s own senators. Among those who had their districts redrawn to their extreme disliking were veteran Republican armtwister Chris Harris (R-Arlington), along with Sens. Jane Nelson (R-Flower Mound) and Robert Duncan (R-Lubbock). The Republican senators have been unusually vocal in their displeasure. (See the nice recap in the December Texas Monthly by Patricia Kilday Hart.) If he wins, Dewhurst will have to expend considerable energy just mending fences within his own party.

There are other reasons why some Republican senators might be more comfortable with the Democrat in the race. Sharp is a conservative, and as a former state senator and state comptroller, he is a known quantity. Dewhurst, on the other hand, is something of an outsider. With no real constituency or political experience, he used his connections to the Bush family and his considerable personal wealth to buy a statewide office. Lacking a base, he has chosen to connect himself with the party’s various right-wing interest groups for support. As the leader of the Senate, he would have to demonstrate his independence from the radicals, and his willingness to apportion authority equitably rather than try to lead that body as though it were his own. Otherwise, it could be a stormy session in both houses.


Wendy Gramm, wife of Senator Phil, has emerged as a minor player in the saga of Enron’s collapse–or perhaps not so minor. Gramm, a member of the company’s Board of Directors, was among more than 20 executives and directors named in a lawsuit filed by a New York bank. The bank has asked a judge to freeze the defendants’ assets, charging that they sold off their own stock while leaving others holding the bag.

Wendy Gramm has long been a zealous supporter of the kind of deregulation that Enron promoted and profited from. In the previous Bush administration, as chair of the Commodity Futures Trading Com-mission–which is charged with protecting markets from fraud and manipulation–she helped lay rail for the runaway train that was Enron, whose very fuel appears to have been fraud and manipulation. After she stepped down in 1992, Enron offered her a directorship. The company has also donated thousands of dollars to her husband, who in turn managed to get Enron exempted from commodity-trading legislation passed last December.

It’s not the first time Wendy Gramm’s board activities have raised an eyebrow or two. She also sits on the board of directors of Nebraska-based meatpacking giant IBP, which in 1996 encouraged its managers to vote for then-Presidential candidate Phil Gramm in the Iowa straw poll. She also sits on the boards of State Farm Insurance, Invesco Funds, and the International Republican Institute. Recently she has been shoring up her Texas ties: Last year she became chairman of the board of the Texas Public Policy Foundation, the conservative advocacy group funded by right-wing millionaire James Leininger and served as co-chair of the comptroller’s “e-Texas” commission; and last summer Governor Perry appointed her to the Texas A&M Board of Regents.