Legislators to Watch
Sen. Tommy Williams (R-The Woodlands)
Until now, Tommy Williams’ most memorable moment in Texas politics came during the 2006 governor’s race. Gov. Rick Perry had decided not to meet with the press following the race’s one debate. The other three candidates had answered reporters’ questions after the debate, but when Perry’s turn came, the governor was nowhere to be found—apparently he had already slipped out a back door. And in his place at the podium stood his ally Tommy Williams, who tried dutifully to proclaim Perry the winner while reporters shouted incessantly, “Where’s the governor?” It was an awkward moment, and you had to pity Williams, playing the good soldier. But that loyalty has paid off.
When the Legislature reconvenes this month, Williams will take over as the new chairman of the Senate Finance Committee—one of the most powerful positions in the state. Williams replaces the retired Steve Ogden, respected in the Capitol for his sharp mind, honesty with colleagues and independent thinking.
Williams will bring a different style to the committee. He remains close to the governor. He filed legislation in 2011 to ban so-called sanctuary cities, a key issue for Perry. And in November, Williams stood shoulder to shoulder with the governor when they announced support for a bill that would drug test those seeking welfare and unemployment benefits. This session, Williams will have a large say in which budget cuts from 2011, if any, the Lege will undo. On most matters, whatever the governor wants, he’ll likely have Williams leading the way.
Rep. Abel Herrero (D-Robstown)
Corpus Christi attorney Abel Herrero served six years in the Texas House before being ousted in the great tea party backlash of 2010. The Democrat regrouped in 2012 and won his Coastal Bend seat back from tea party Republican Connie Scott.
Unlike some members of the Texas House, Herrero took his tenure in the Legislature seriously. He approached legislation like he would a legal case, scrutinizing the details and asking questions. When a scandal broke in 2007 over Bermuda-based Accenture Corp.’s handling of Texas’ newly privatized call center system, Herrero headed a subcommittee that investigated the multi-million-dollar mess.
In public hearings, Herrero grilled witnesses and held government officials accountable, uncovering even more fiscal mismanagement than had previously been made public. The final report was a scathing indictment of how the Health and Human Services Commission had botched and then canceled Accenture’s $899 million contract. Despite political pressure to soft-pedal his conclusions, Herrero ultimately laid the blame on the governor’s office. It was a performance that signaled a rising star in the Legislature. Now that he’s regained his seat, Herrero might pick up where he left off. Texas needs more legislators who sweat the details.
—Melissa del Bosque
Sen. Wendy Davis (D-Fort Worth)
Republicans were dead-set in 2012 on ousting force-to-be-reckoned-with Wendy Davis and winning back a traditionally red seat. Beating Davis would have let them bring any legislation to the Senate floor with just one Democratic vote. Besides the strategic importance of her seat, Davis was also personally irksome to Republicans. She defended reproductive rights, opposed the hike on wholesale energy prices, and staged the filibuster at the end of the last regular session that forced Gov. Perry to call a special session to pass the bill gutting public school funding.
Republicans thought their candidate, pediatrician and state Rep. Mark Shelton, could recapture the GOP-leaning district with the $2.3 million he raised, but Davis raised $3.5 million in the most expensive and closely watched race of the election. Davis won with just 51.11 percent.
Davis, a one-time teenage single mom who graduated from Harvard Law School, is a survivor. In the new session, her first priority is to restore the school funding her filibuster couldn’t protect. But Davis-watchers aren’t focused on the next five months; they’re thinking about 2016. Bill Miller, an Austin-based political consultant, told the Fort Worth Star-Telegram that Davis should aim for the governorship. “She’s got momentum,” Miller said. “She’s got acclaim. It would be a mistake not to go for something great.”
Sen. Donna Campbell (R-New Braunfels)
Donna Campbell is that rare thing in the Texas Senate: a political neophyte who hasn’t learned, yet, how to hide her raw grassroots outrage beneath a veneer of senatorial gravitas. Campbell, a tea party candidate who quite unexpectedly ousted incumbent Jeff Wentworth in a July runoff, has never held public office.
It’s hard to know what to make of Campbell. She’s had few public events. In December, she stood alongside Gov. Perry at a crisis pregnancy center in Houston to support legislation that would ban abortions after 20 weeks. “It’s time to acknowledge 21st century medicine and technology with 21st century legislation,” Campbell said. Such gestures would suggest that she will join other hard-liners in an increasingly right-
At times, she comes across as something less than senatorial. At a Texas Tribune event in San Antonio, Campbell was asked—given her hard-line opposition to Obamacare—for her solution to the health- care crisis. She told a story about a young man who came into her emergency room who she claims was on Medicaid due to a stutter. She imitated the man’s stutter and then said, her nose wrinkling, “Well, let me tell you something. You don’t have to utter a word to dig a ditch.” She quickly added: “Not to sound cruel…”
Rep. J.D. Sheffield (R-Gatesville)
J.D. Sheffield’s road to Austin was a strange one. Sheffield, a doctor, ousted long-time incumbent Sid Miller, who authored last session’s pre-abortion sonogram law, by running a campaign focused on making health care cheaper and taking better care of public schools.
Sheffield told the Observer over the summer that nothing separates him from Miller more than their views on education. Last session, Miller made a quixotic one-man play for private school vouchers, a move that alienated many folks in his rural district, which has few private schools. “I am pro-public education,” Sheffield told us last summer, “and [Miller] is for the privatization of education. . . . People not directly involved in education, they don’t understand a voucher system at all, and how it can be harmful for these small towns and rural schools.”
He takes a similar approach to health care. He’s worried about small-town hospitals he sees struggling to stay open, and working people he’s treated who can’t afford their co-pays. He says lawmakers are hurting Medicare, Medicaid and health insurance without really understanding them. “The thing about health care in Austin is that so many people seem to know so little about it,” he said.
Rep. David Simpson (R-Longview)
State Rep. David Simpson, the weird and wild id of the Texas tea party, was already on our list of lawmakers to watch even before he announced that he was seeking God’s guidance on whether to run for speaker of the House. His run for speaker boosts the odds that the soft-spoken Republican could top his bravura performance from last session, his first.
The general rule at the Legislature is that freshmen legislators are seen, not heard. But Simpson apparently wasn’t listening. He was the sole Republican to vote “no” on the initial House budget, arguing that the Legislature should eliminate corporate welfare before cutting nursing homes and schools. He called the governor and lieutenant governor’s bluff on states’ rights by pushing a bill that would have banned “groping” by TSA agents at airports. He challenged many of the House’s unspoken rules about seniority and decorum by derailing an uncontroversial bill banning “puppy mills” in Texas sponsored by a powerful Democratic chairwoman.
Simpson is unlikely to mellow as a sophomore. The most obvious sign: his bid to replace Joe Straus as speaker. Regardless of the outcome of the speaker’s race, the TSA shouldn’t rest easy. Simpson has filed legislation to make it a crime for a public servant to intentionally “touch the anus, breast, buttocks, or sexual organ” of a traveler. If nothing else, Simpson has a knack for vividly explaining his views on extremely limited government. “We should protect life, liberty and property,” he recently told the tea party group We Texans, and if we don’t, “they’ll be reaching down our pants and up our skirts to [air quotes] ‘protect our lives.’”
Rep. Jason Villalba (R-Dallas)
The legislative session has barely begun, but incoming freshman Jason Villalba has already been called the future of the Republican Party by U.S. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison and by The Dallas Morning News.
Villalba represents a largely affluent and Anglo district in North Dallas that ranges from Lake Highlands to Preston Hollow. A Hispanic Republican in the Legislature remains a rarity—but these days, a moderate Republican might be even more unusual. During his campaign, Villalba promised to move beyond partisan bickering and work with Democrats in the statehouse to increase education funding. He also said he’s opposed to a sales tax expansion and won’t support a business tax repeal, which will put him at odds with some conservatives in the House.
Villalba’s presence in the Texas House is already viewed as a major win for a Republican Party desperate to recruit Latinos. If he’s true to his word and willing to work with Democrats, it might be a win for everybody.
—Melissa del Bosque
Sen. Dan Patrick (R-Houston)
If Dan Patrick isn’t on your radar by now, it’s time to buy a new radar. The Republican from Houston craves attention, and he’s been getting plenty heading into his fourth session in the Senate. He was once a grandstanding insurgent, but now Patrick’s time has arrived. He will chair the Senate Education Committee and be the leader of the Senate’s growing number of ultra-conservative members.
So with the talk radio jock primed for a little more action, how will he spend his political capital? You can start with private school vouchers, letting parents spend public money on their kids’ private school tuition. Patrick has already announced he’ll dedicate next session to what he calls “the civil rights issue of our time.” Advocates for poor and minority students, Democrats and rural Republicans all oppose vouchers—it’s on Patrick to sell enough of them on a particular scheme that’ll change their minds. One idea he’s floated: private school “grants” for students
with autism or learning disabilities.
Will the new authority smooth his edges? Or will Patrick continue railing against the rules and courtesies that prevent the most extreme legislation from passing in the Senate? Better yet, will he even have to?
Rep. Jimmie Don Aycock (R-Killeen)
The unexpected departure of House Public Education Chair Rob Eissler—dispatched in the Republican primary by tea party-backed swimming pool installer Steve Toth—has left a gaping hole in House leadership. Jimmie Don Aycock is a good bet to fill in. Aycock was already a contender to replace retiring Scott Hochberg as the House’s school-funding guru, but should he land the House Education Committee chairmanship, Aycock will have to do more than find the answers to school problems—he’ll have to get them passed.
Aycock, a Vietnam veteran and a rancher in Killeen, is a folksy, soothing voice in the shouting match around testing and school accountability. Weeks before the session began, he told the Observer he sees broad enthusiasm for testing reform. But he’s not talking about doing away with the high-stakes tests altogether. “Testing and remediation,” he says, “is crowding out other things. It’s crowding out vocational, tech things. I think it’s crowding out fine arts. It’s making it difficult in the scheduling.” He wants to see multiple measures of whether students are succeeding and schools are doing their jobs. He’s not certain what those should be yet—but in a few months, it could well be his job to decide.