FEATURE Meet the New School The Biggest Freshman Class in Years Meets the Biggest Budget Deficit BY JAKE BERNSTEIN PHOTOS BY JANA BIRCHUM T he 78th Texas Legislature boasts one of the largest fresh man classes in recent memory. These rookies come at a time when experience is at a premiumthe state faces a budget shortfall of at least $9.9 billion. Many of the new legislators are Christian conservatives, part of a move ment that has waited years for a chance to lead. They promise to usher in a new age of ideology at the Lege. How that will square with the undeniable _fiscal crisis and demographic changes occurring in the state remains to be seen.. Meanwhile, Democrats will have to adjust to life as a true minority party. For the Ds the painful task of building for the future is about to begin. Perhaps the foundation of that future will be created among this year’s freshman class, where some legislators are already primed to begin principled opposition to the more extreme Republican positions. And as always, the Legislature’s ability to fiinction depends on moderates; through them, consensus forms and bills actually get passed. They too are represented in this year’s freshman class. As part of our legislative coverage, we offer this preview of a representative group of freshman legislators to watch. There are so many new faces in this year’s class-36 in the House and seven in the Senatethat we know many who bear scrutiny are not included here. We look forward to bringing them to the attention of our readers as the session proceeds. Not Just A Pretty Face? Lieutenant Governor David Dewhurst If the current hype is to be believed, Lieutenant Governor David Dewhurst is on the way to becoming the pleasant surprise of the 78th Legislature. Only the second Republican since Reconstruction to be elected to what has been the state’s most powerful office, Dewhurst boasts zero legislative experience. The only elected position he has held in the past was land commissioner, and his record in four years at that post was singularly unremarkable. His most notable accomplishment was the gutting of the agency’s lower-level staff. Dewhurst’s stint on the redistricting board earned him the open enmity of both Republicans and Democrats. His reputation as a lightweight convinced nearly every major lobby and business group to shun him in favor of his Democratic opponent for Lite Guy, John Sharp. But that’s the past before Dewhurst won his election. In recent weeks, pundits, reporters, lobbyists, and legislators from both sides of the aisle have tripped over themselves to praise the Lite Guy’s performance so far. Some of the fawning tributes are no doubt motivated by a self-interested need to kiss some serious butt. Dewhurst also benefits from the Bush phenomenon of diminished expectations. During the election, Dewhurst was lowballed so severely \(and perhaps major achievement. All that being said, it is undeniable that the Lite Guv has comported himself remarkably well, especially in contrast to his fellow Republicans, Gov. Rick Perry and House Speaker Tom Craddick. Dewhurst deserves kudos for the relatively evenhanded way he has divvied up Senate committees, appointing Democrats to chair six of the 15. Tapping Democratic Sen. John Whitmire for Criminal Justice and moderate Republican Sen. Bill Ratliff for State Affairs were particularly enlightened moves. \(On the other hand, it is worth noting that Dewhurst picked Sen. Teel Bivins, a conservative loyalist, to head the all-important Finance Committee, excluding Lite Guv has also received applause for his staff picks. The wags around the capitol clucked approvingly over his choice of Bruce Gibson as his chief of staff. Gibson, a former Democratic legislator, served under Lite Guv Bob Bullock. Experience like Gibson’s doesn’t come cheap. As evidence that Dewhurst knows its value, he is reported to be augmenting the state salaries of his staff with his own money. Much has been made of Dewhurst’s alleged ambition to replace U.S. Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison should she decide to run for governor at some point.This could perhaps explain the Lite Guy’s show of reaching out across the political spectrum.As a multi-millionaire who financed his own campaign, presumably he is less beholden to special interests than others. Nonetheless, Dewhurst has in the past signed onto the right wing’s ambitious social agenda, from vouchers to curtailing reproductive freedoms. Initial good reviews could sour quickly if the old Dewhurst reappears. For the moment, calculated or not, any independence and moderation will be welcome in the face of the torrent of bad legislation that has already started to pour forth from the House. 4 THE TEXAS OBSERVER 1/31/03
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