Who Wants to Be a Legislator?

A look at our newest crop of State Representatives

Our legislators have once again arrived in Austin. They have once again forsaken their comfortable homes in Palestine and Euless and Voss for barren, overpriced Austin apartments, left their friends and family to hang out with the likes of Representatives Tony Goolsby and Talmadge Heflin, and will devote the next five months to debating the finer points of highway construction, soil conservation, police pensions, hotel taxes and a thousand other uninteresting matters. They do this of their own free will, work long hours, and get paid $7,200 for it, plus expenses. You just can’t help asking the same question every time they show up: What the devil is wrong with these people?

To get elected, they have to beg everyone they know and many people they don’t know for money. Typically they go walking around neighborhoods knocking on doors of total strangers, even though the person who answers could be a deranged old man with a shotgun or a charismatic preacher or a socialist. Then they win, and in order to retire their campaign debt they have to raise more money, this time from every special interest under the sun, from the electrical workers to the quarterhorse association. And finally they have to move to this traffic-choked, overhyped, construction-crazed city, and act as if they are absolutely delighted to be here.

The weird thing is, a lot of them really are delighted. “We’re all kind of born half-crazy,” concedes Rep. Lois Kolkhorst, a Brenham Republican. Simple math tells us that with 150 half-crazy people in one House chamber, you get the equivalent of 75 demented lunatics interacting with one another. If there were a way to put out an all points bulletin to anthropologists, it might be a good idea to summon them to the Capitol. Lacking that option, however, the Observer surveyed the 11 newest members of the House to try to find out a little more about them.

This year’s freshman class is unusually small, suggesting that when it comes to their state Reps, Texas voters are either satisfied or indifferent, unless they live in San Antonio–home to four of the 11 newcomers. Just like high school freshmen, the Capitol’s first-years will each have to find a role to play in a big, scary new world. The Observer offers some suggestions:

Class President: Lois Kolkhorst (R-Brenham). On the first morning of the Capitol orientation session for new legislators last month, while most of the participants were still waiting for the coffee to kick in, one newly elected official could be seen charging from person to person and pumping arm after arm. That was Lois Kolkhorst, a 35-year-old Brenham native who has been afflicted with the political bug since childhood. She served as student body president her senior year of high school, attended Texas Christian University on a golf scholarship, and then lived in Fort Worth before moving with her husband back to Brenham in 1995. Politics “was in the back of my mind,” when she moved back, she says. “I always felt that if I was going to run for office it was going to be in my home town.” She served on the Chamber of Commerce and the Economic Development Foundation while waiting for the right moment to throw her hat in the ring.

One thing she gained by living in Brenham, besides the home court advantage, was the friendship of Tom Bullock, an architect and the older brother of former Lieutenant Governor Bob Bullock. What happened next would make a good early sequence for Lois Kolkhorst, the Movie. “I told Tom Bullock of my passion for politics, and he said, ‘I’m going to get my brother to talk you out of it.’ Tom saw how it had taken a toll on his brother,” she says. So the avuncular elder Bullock set up a meeting between her and the Don of Texas politics, who, far from discouraging her, saw the gleam in her eye. (Here’s where the inspiring theme music begins to play softly in the background.) “Bob told Tom, ‘She’s got it in her blood. You’ve got to let her do it,'” Kolkhorst recalls.

On the practical side, former Bullock lieutenant Tony Profitt advised Kolkhorst on how to prepare for a campaign: “He said ‘Lois, serendipity does not win political races,’ and I was like, ‘Huh?’ He said, ‘You need to start working right now on a business plan…. If you need to raise $150,000 then you need to raise $250 a day.'”

Homecoming Queen: Elizabeth Ames Jones (R-San Antonio). A homemaker and freelance interior designer, Ames ousted former Republican Rep. Bill Siebert after questions were raised about his lobbying on behalf of private clients before the San Antonio City Council (a practice which is not illegal and which other current Representatives engage in, but it still smells bad). Jones resembles a slightly older Cameron Diaz, with just a touch of Cindy Brady thrown in, and she dresses way better than Siebert ever did. She says she’s a person who doesn’t take no for an answer. “I do my best to change things that I personally think are broken, sometimes to a fault. Maybe sometimes you shouldn’t send the meal back to the kitchen–at least, I’ve been harassed for that by my children before.”

Though she hasn’t been professionally active in politics for some time, Jones did work for former Governor Bill Clements’ campaign in 1979 and 1980, alongside future Bush guru Karl Rove. More recently, she’s been a strong supporter of Republican Congressmen Henry Bonilla and Lamar Smith. She says she first started thinking of running for office a year and a half ago. “I thought my standards of practice would be more in keeping with good business practices,” compared to those of her predecessor.

Most Likely To Be Stuffed In A Trash Can: Trey Martinez Fischer (D-San Antonio) and Mike Villareal (D-San Antonio). They’re 30 and 29, they each have masters’ degrees from East Coast universities, and their politics are to the left of all those older white bullies with bad haircuts who roam the Capitol corridors. So if they’re not careful, they could end up chilling in those large grey barrels inside the Capitol Grill dining room. If we’re lucky, though, they’ll write some bills while they’re there.

Fischer went to the same high school as former Attorney General Dan Morales–Holmes High School, where both served as class presidents–and worked in the AG’s office both as an undergraduate and as a law student at U.T. (He also has a Masters in Public Administration from Baruch University in New York.) “General Morales inspired me on a personal level,” he says, “though I’m more progressive than he is on policy views.”

Villareal won the seat vacated by Leticia Van de Putte when she took over Sen. Greg Luna’s old seat (Luna died in 1999.) He founded a San Antonio company that builds voter databases for political campaigns. Before that he attended Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, worked as a researcher for Alan Greenspan, and then worked for a San Francisco consulting firm. To kick off his campaign, “I conducted a listening survey, way before Hillary started hers,” says Villareal. He sent out questionnaires to everyone in his district, asking his future constituents what was needed in their communities. Education and jobs topped the list of responses, he says. “My agenda is an economic development agenda, but I believe that means investing in people, in child care and higher education,” he says.

These two are also the House’s most eligible bachelors (with apologies to Austin Rep. Elliott Naishtat).

The Rich Guy With The Nicest Car: Charlie Geren (R-Fort Worth). When former Rep. Sue Palmer decided not to run for reelection (maybe so she could devote more time to her company, Lucky Lady Oil) she not only designated Geren as her heir apparent, she served as his campaign treasurer and kicked in $5,000 to boot. Palmer wasn’t the only well-connected person to help out. Geren, who owns the two Railhead Smokehouse barbecue restaurants in Fort Worth and Colleyville and also is vice president of a real estate company, has all the right friends. His list of $500 and $1,000 contributors includes the wealthy Bass brothers, Ross Perot, grocery magnate Charles Butt, and Dallas Olympics booster Tom Luce. (W.A. Moncrief III, son of Fort Worth’s irascible oilman Tex Moncrief, was also nice enough to kick in $15.) His younger brother Pete Geren served four terms in Congress, as a Democrat. (Charlie ran two of his campaigns.) Charlie himself was appointed to the Water Development Board by Ann Richards.

Running for office “has been as much fun as anything I’ve ever done in my life,” says Geren. “You get to meet so many interesting people.” The race was probably a little less fun for the man he beat, Nathan Schattman–a smart liberal lawyer and the son of Michael Schattman, a Fort Worth judge who saw his 1995 nomination to the federal bench scuttled by Senators Gramm and Hutchison. Donations of dartboards featuring the faces of prominent Republicans may be sent to the Schattman family care of the Observer.

Meanwhile Geren, who last year had t-shirts made with the slogan “Life Is Too Short To Live In Dallas,” will have to moderate his Fort Worth partisanship in order to work effectively with other House members.

Student Council: Chuck Hopson (D-Jacksonville) and Bill Callegari (R-Katy). Though their party affiliations differ, Hopson and Callegari are both 59, they’ve both sat on their local school boards and participated in other civic activities, and both promise to be solid meat-and-potatoes legislators. Hopson, a pharmacist, ran in the long East Texas shadow of last year’s hotly contested District 3 Senate race (won by Republican Todd Staples, who replaces outgoing Sen. Drew Nixon). His was one of the more expensive House races, costing around $400,000. “Pharmacists are people-oriented,” he says, noting that his first elected position, which he held some 20 years ago, was president of the Texas Society of Hospital Pharmacists. Knocking on some 8,000 doors during the campaign “reaffirmed my faith in America,” says Hopson.

Callegari, an engineering consultant, sold his business a few years back and found retirement to be boring. “You can only fish and golf so much,” he says. “I felt like I wanted to do something productive, and it was either starting another business or this.” When six-term Rep. John Culberson decided to run for Congress, Callegari talked to him and other legislators about filing for his seat–which he finally did in December of 1999, right before the deadline. This session, he says, he will attend to water issues, Interstate 10 issues, and positivity. “A lot of people are afraid to do this (run for and hold elective office) because they’re concerned about the negativism,” says Callegari. “We will be doing things in a positive way.”

Class Sweetheart: Myra Crownover (R-Lewisville). Crownover takes over the seat held last session by her husband, Ronny Crownover, a Denton veterinarian who was diagnosed with leukemia shortly after being elected in 1998. Because of his illness, “I became much more active than I would have been,” says Myra Crownover, who assisted Ronny through the legislative term. “I sort of fell in love with the process. I’ve always had a fascination with efficiency and effective time use. Making government do well the things it should do well caught my interest.” After her husband died, “I had people coming up to my door and encouraging me to run,” Crownover says.

The decision to campaign, she says, wasn’t a hard one. “Compared to everything I’d been dealing with, it was easy,” she says. A former elementary school teacher, Crownover will take a student’s approach to the legislative process. “I look forward to getting a focus,” she says. “You choose your area, and after intensive study and hard work you become the person that other people look to on that subject.”

Crossing Guard: José Menendez (D-San Antonio). A San Antonio City Councilman from 1997 to 1999, Menendez sent out 15,000 pieces of literature with his cell phone number on them during his House race. “People, when they call and I answer, say ‘Oh my gosh, it’s you!'” Menendez says his hero is Henry B. Gonzalez, “a person who never lost sight of who he represented,” and what he recalls most fondly from his City Council days is the implementation of the Pedestrian Mobility Access Plan. “We put sidewalks in places where people had never had them before. It was so rewarding,” he says. Menendez not only hopes to represent his district to the best of his ability, he hopes to go back home as often as possible, to see his wife and 10-month-old son. “I plan to commute as much as I can,” he says, “though I’ve heard other members don’t exactly see that as a positive.”

That Kinda Weird Guy Who Hangs Out With Those Weird Girls: Sid Miller (R-Stephenville). Miller says his interest in running for the Legislature dates back to the ungodly autumn of 1999, when the courts first chased prayer off the football field. Miller, who was a member of the Stephenville school board at the time, says, “I realized how fragile our freedoms were when a judge in Louisiana could tell us not to pray at football games.” As Scooby Doo might say, ruh-roh. Miller’s race against one-term incumbent David Lengefeld was, like Hopson’s, a targeted race, meaning that he received massive infusions of cash from the Republican Party of Texas, as well as the Associated Republicans of Texas and the Free Enterprise PAC (cf this issue’s back page). When asked whom he had relied upon for advice and support, the first two names Miller mentioned were Arlene Wohlgemuth (whose legislative agenda is always heavy on Christian conservative causes like restricting abortions and divorces) and Suzanna Gratia Hupp, the representative from the National Rifle Association. Governor Rick Perry, Attorney General John Cornyn, Railroad Commissioner Michael Williams, and Secretary of State Tony Garza also made their way north to promote Miller’s campaign.

First In Her Class: Ann Kitchen (D-Austin). Kitchen, a soft-spoken UT Law graduate and health care consultant, takes the place of longtime Austin Representative Sherri Greenberg, who did not run again. Kitchen’s resume includes stints in the Attorney General’s consumer protection division (back when Attorney General Jim Mattox made sure the division had teeth) and the Health and Human Services Commission. She says her decision to run for office was an outgrowth of “the positive experience I had working on two major health care bills.” A prominent member of Austin’s Save Our Springs Coalition and a light-rail advocate, Kitchen ran a well-orchestrated campaign with the help of her husband, Democratic consultant Mark Yznaga, Austin Mayor Kirk Watson, and other prominent local pols. Her contributor reports read like a who’s who of local progressive and Democratic causes. This one could skip a grade.

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Published at 12:00 am CST