Texas Observer: You took office the same week as Governor Ann Richards. Now, you’re serving under some of the nation’s toughest tea party leadership. What’s that been like?
Elliott Naishtat: When I first came in, it was much more bipartisan and much more congenial, and over that period of over 25 years, we’ve seen the House of Representatives and the Senate become very partisanly politicized. Now, of course, the Republicans, and to a large degree the tea party Republicans, are in absolute control, and we have a governor and a lieutenant governor who are ultraconservative and completely partisan in how they run the show.
What I’ve noticed over the years is that the role of government in the eyes of the leadership and certainly the Republicans, not just in Texas but across the nation, has gone through a transformation. Today the Republican leadership, at the national level and the state level, does not believe that it’s the role of government to do what FDR did with the New Deal, or what Lyndon B. Johnson did with the War on Poverty and the Great Society. [For the Republican leadership] the role of government [should] follow the philosophy of Grover Norquist, and he doesn’t like government very much. He says, “Government, I like government, I’d like to be able to roll it into a ball so I can drown it in the bathroom.” So he basically wants to starve the beast.
And he’s been very successful at doing that in states across the country, especially those controlled by Republicans. So what’s the role of government? To build walls at the border, to deal with water issues, to deal with transportation issues, to deal with prisons and criminal justice, but not necessarily to deal with health and human services and housing and social justice and human rights, even education. They’d like to see all of that privatized, outsourced to their friends who have for-profit corporations. And there’s an inherent conflict in that.
TO: What do you hope will be your legacy as a lawmaker?
EN: I think my legacy will be that a liberal legislator can have a positive effect on health and human services, and all issues that relate to the needs of low- and moderate-income people, children, senior citizens, minorities, women, victims of domestic violence, people with disabilities. If he or she is truly committed [and] willing to be as noncontroversial as possible while educating members to the importance of this type of legislation, willing to accept that change is often slow and incremental in the Texas Legislature. I think my legacy will be something related to, “Isn’t he the guy from New York City who passed 330 bills during his tenure?”
TO: So how did a guy from New York City end up serving 26 years in the Texas Legislature?
EN: I signed up to be just a VISTA volunteer … and they said, “Because you’re from a big city in New York, we’ll send you to a VISTA project in a big city.” And they promised me an assignment in San Francisco. I said yes. They lied, and they sent me to Eagle Pass with a mandate from the federal government and Johnson’s War on Poverty to eliminate the paradox of poverty in the midst of plenty in this nation. We organized low- income people to confront the power structure, to get water in Seco Mines, where they used the outhouses, to get streets paved. I loved being a VISTA volunteer, worked hard, developed my community-organizing skills, but we didn’t eliminate poverty. What I tell people is that what I’ve tried to do as a member of the House is address the same problems but on a different battle eld, a different battlefront.
TO: Of the 330 bills you passed, are there some that stand out for you?
EN: The biggest one was the Nursing Home Regulatory Reform Act that got statewide and national publicity. There had been deaths, there had been serious incidents of abuse and neglect and exploitation of seniors. It gave the state the teeth it needed, the tools it needed in the law to go after the bad actors, and there was a lot of opposition from the nursing home industry because we created a 21-prong bill of rights for residents of nursing homes, doubled and tripled the penalties and fines for abusing and neglecting residents of nursing homes. I always look at that as one that’s still there. It gets amended, it gets improved.
Another really big one was Medicaid simplification. Newspapers were reporting that there were over 500,000 kids eligible for but not enrolled in Medicaid. Why? Because it was so hard to enroll. That was when I was chairman of the human services committee and Pete Laney was the speaker, and he tasked the human services committee to look at what the problem is and come up with recommendations. The problem resulted in the Medicaid Simplification Act, which opened the door for tens of thousands of kids to get on Medicaid.
TO: What traits and experience do you think a representative needs to be effective?
EN: If I wanted to narrow it down to two words? Be persistent and be polite. Always. I have bent over backwards to be an outstanding listener. To not antagonize anybody, ever. You have to be willing and able to reach across the aisle. To work with the Republican leadership. And sometimes that takes toning down, not ever being in-your-face. Minimizing the damage can be so important. Look at the two gun bills, which almost all the Democrats opposed. Open carry, we were able to minimize the damage, if you can accept that terminology, because on the open carry bill we got that amendment which authorizes law enforcement to ask for your concealed carry permit. The original bill said law enforcement is prohibited from doing that. And with campus carry, we got the amendment that allows presidents of campuses to declare gun-free zones.
TO: How can you be persistent and polite with a guy like Jonathan Stickland?
EN: Drugs. That’s the only way. This thing’s off, right? [laughs] Because I have taken my job so seriously and I decided I wanted to be able to define my effectiveness in terms of passing bills that will help all these populations. And to do that, I had to be nice and polite to everybody. If what I’m trying to do is pass good bills that help people who need help every now and then, then it does no good to tell Jonathan Stickland, “Go screw yourself.”
TO: What can Texas liberals and progressives do to move the needle in terms of elections?
There’s a book that’s been out for about 12 to 13 years called What’s the Matter with Kansas? where people vote against their own interests, and if you read it, you understand why. We need to focus on a way to get people to not vote against their own interests. I think what’s important is that the Republicans always have their message. The Democrats are often all over the place. We seriously have to work on developing a message that’s short and to the point. So people will understand that if the Democrats don’t get elected, we’re going to be hurt. The other part is getting out the vote. How do you do that? I think Battleground Texas did an outstanding job in registering people to vote, especially in South Texas. But we lost. You look at someone, like Wendy [Davis] and Leticia [Van de Putte] in South Texas, where people didn’t turn out to vote, and that means we need more education.
TO: How are you feeling about your decision to leave?
EN: On December 3, I received the President’s Lifetime Achievement Award from the Corporation for National and Community Service, which oversees VISTA and AmeriCorps. A few of my friends said, “Elliott, this is a good time for you to go. You should go out for health reasons, you’ve been doing this for 26 years.” A lot of people in the Lege said, “You should have served one more term.” I really went back and forth. First I announced I was running. And then I had all these panic attacks, and close friends and family said, “Don’t serve another term. Walk away right now with your head high. There are good people who want to replace you. And you are getting old and fat.”
[Featured image of Elliott Naishtat by Jen Reel]