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FEATURE Everything’s Coming Up Rodney Always hard to pin down, Rodney Ellis is finally on top BY KAREN OLSSON s the effort to pass a hate crimes law entered its Afinal round last month, Rodney Ellis was caroming around the Senate chamber like a billiard ball with good taste in suits. Though he is a reasonably big man, always nattily dressed down to the pocket handkerchief, and stiff-legged due to gout, the Democratic senator from Houston has a way of darting nimbly about the room. On the last day of debate over his hate crimes bill, he was all over the place: now leaning over to talk to one senator, now huddling with another, now back at his desk talking on the phone, now at the Lieutenant Governor’s podium. He hardly seemed to be paying attention to the floor debate. After the bill he has been pushing for ever since he joined the Senate a decade ago finally passed, Ellis’ forehead was covered in sweat.Though its passage had been expected, Ellis had been working up to the last minute to get the votes he needed to advance the bill, as he later explained to reporters at a press conference. \(According to the Byzantine rules of the Senate, in order to move a bill to “third reading” and final vote on the same day it has been debated, two-thirds of the Senate joked. It was a good example of how Ellis operates: He keeps his eye on what he needs to win, and exercises his considerable powers of charm and persuasion to get what he needs. Generally speaking, trying to follow what happens in the Texas Senate is like watching a basketball game where all you can see are the baskets. You know the identity of the play ers and the baskets made or missed, but the overall strategy, the plays, and the individ ual drives are hidden from view. Between the whispered floor meetings and the back room deal-making, it’s all pretty opaque. Still, over time the box scores printed in the daily papers give an idea of who the playmakers areor at least, who the flashier ones are. Chief among them this session has been Ellis. In his role as chair of the Senate Finance Committee, and as the driving force behind a package of criminal justice reform bills, Ellis has had a hand in most of this Legislature’s major accomplishments. He passed a hate crimes bill. He was instrumental in passing a law changing how lawyers are appointed to indigent defendants, a law impeding the execution of the mentally retarded, and a law providing better access to DNA testing for convicts with innocence claims. As Finance chair, Ellis managed in spite of the tight budget to fund four priority Jana Birchum items: a major Medicaid expansion, state employee pay raises, teacher health insurance, and financial aid for college students. Swish, swish, swish. In late May, as the session wound down, he had the look of a player who all of a sudden can’t miss, grinning and gadding about the Senate floor, yet still focused on the day’s objectives, the last few easy shots, an anti-fraud sweepstakes bill or a bill granting modest amounts of research money to universities. The session itself has been a relatively quiet one. Governor George W. Bush’s 1999 tax cut drained the state’s coffers of money for new initiatives, and the specter of a redistricting fight further reduced legislators’ ambitions. On the other hand, members of the Senate this session enjoyed a kind of freedom to maneuver they haven’t had in years. Until his retirement in 1998, former Lieutenant Governor Bob Bullock kept a tight rein on the process, and during the 1999 session the making of law was kept subordinate to the making of a president.This session, in the absence of strong directives from either Governor Rick Perry or Lieutenant Governor Bill Ratliff, the power has swung back to the senators, and in a legislative body where the ability to forge relationships and negotiate deals matters far more than ideology, Ellis, who is persuasive, pragmatic, and often very funny, has wound up wielding a good share of that power himself. He has amassed that power in a conservative state, by methods that some on the left have criticized as too conciliatory. 618101 THE TEXAS OBSERVER 7