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During last year’s presidential campaign, Ellis took advantage of the national media spotlight to criti cize deficiencies of the Texas crimi nal justice system, but he was careful not to go after George W. Bush him self \(If he had become the vocal Bush critic many Democrats would have liked him to be, he almost surely would not have been appointed Finance chair, one of the most powerful positions in the Legislature, by a Republican islators who are good at passing bills, Ellis is willing to compromise and to trade votes. “I ask for what I want, and I take as much as I can get,” he is fond of saying. As Ellis himself acknowledges, “There’s a thin line that you have to walk between passing garbage and making incremental changes.” It would be a mistake, though, to view his political style as simply an instance of the age-old balancing act between a defined set of principles and what’s actually possible. Though newspapers have branded him a “liberal Democrat,” Ellis doesn’t actually claim to be one. “I think my political and policy initiatives defy a label, and I would challenge anyone who could put me in a box,” he says. He is a corporate lawyer and an investment banker by trade, and his votes are not easily predicted. p eople who have worked with Ellis marvel at his ability to see the political terrain, to anticipate obstacles to a piece of legislation and to figure out which levers to pull. Much more than other state legislators, he is aware of the media as one of the available levers, and he also knows how to work with different constituencies. The history of the Fair Defense Act, the indigent defense bill that passed this session, provides a good illustration of Ellis’ skills, as well as the perils of compromise. In 1999, Ellis and others advanced a more modest indigent defense bill, more or less under the radar. \(One advocate recalls being advised by Ellis to say as little as possible during a committee however, judges raised a stink about what they saw as an infringement of their power to appoint attorneys, and Bush vetoed the legislation. That was not the end of the push for indigent defense reform, but merely the curtain before the next act. During the interim between the 1999 session and this one, the flaws in Texas’ system for representing poor defendants drew attention from the state and national media. Ellis abandoned the quiet approach, telling Tice New York Times \(in perhaps his strongest campaign criticism compassion on the Governor’s part” when it comes to criminal justice issues. “I certainly used his veto as a step on the bully pulpit to make it an issue for this session,” Ellis now says. By the time the 77th Legislature convened in January, the issue of indigent defense was widely seen as a pressing one, and Ellis introduced a much stronger bill than he had previously. That bill called for judges to make appointments by rotating through a list of qualified attorneys, and it required the state to establish a commission, made up of citizens from a range of backgrounds, that would monitor local indigent defense systems. The bill would have also established a state office to help appointed lawyers in complex capital and firstdegree felony trials. Judges and victims’ rights advocates again opposed the bill, and negotiations were often difficult. Ellis’ office fought to keep the commission, but by the end of the process it had devolved into a “task force” made up mostly of elected officials. A fallback provision added to the bill would allow judges to opt out of the rotating-selection system, and the appointed-lawyer assistance program was eliminated. “There were a lot of compromises we made along the way that kept me up a bit at night,” Ellis said during floor debate in the Senate in April. “It’s not the end of reform. More work needs to be done,” says Bill Beardall, an indigent defense advocate who worked closely with Ellis’ office. “But this bill makes a start.” According to Beardall, Ellis played a crucial role throughout the process, not only as reform’s “most visible and most eloquent spokesperson,” but also as a leader on the ground. “On many occasions he would drop into a meeting even for a In late May, as the session wound down, he had the look of a player who all of a sudden can’t miss, grin ning 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. 8 THE TEXAS OBSERVER 6/8/01