“When John Whitmire was sworn in as a state representative, Nixon was president, gasoline was 43 cents to the gallon, and I was a sixth grade teacher who never ever imagined serving in this body,” said state Sen. Jane Nelson (R-Flower Mound) during a Senate tribute Monday morning to Sen. John Whitmire (D-Houston) and his 40 years in the Legislature.
Nothing was off limits in this nearly two-hour long discussion of Senate Resolution 9, as senators joked about Whitmire’s age, loyalty, service and… pranks. Yes, pranks. Sen. Troy Fraser (R-Horseshoe Bay) regaled the room with stories of the “Fraser-Whitmire Onion War” (2001-2013), in which the two senators hide bags of fajita toppings in each others’ desks.
John “The Dean” Whitmire was only 22 years old when he first became a legislator, and 40 years later his old age is the butt of many jokes. Sen. Juan Hinojosa (D-McAllen) joked about first meeting Whitmire, “We both had hair at that time.” Sen. Kel Seliger (R-Amarillo) echoed this bittersweet sentiment, “About the same time that John Whitmire was elected to the legislature, Aristotle said this: ‘Dignity does not exist in possessing honor, but in deserving it.’”
Sen. Kevin Eltife (R-Tyler) explained that Whitmire’s commitment to his constituents, as the third longest serving legislator in the history of Texas, is contagious. By teaching his fellow legislators to ‘put a face on it,’ “he [wants] to place us squarely in his constituents’ shoes. He [wants] us to understand the impact of the decisions we are about to make.”
Though they often disagree, Nelson heralded Whitmire for his compassion: “He is a champion for those who don’t have a lot of champions in their lives. For troubled youth and victims of crime, and even members of the chain gangs.” She continued, “Nobody in this state knows more about criminal justice than Senator Whitmire.” (Whitmire is chair of the Senate Criminal Justice Committee.)
Sen. Dan Patrick (R-Houston) told of cooperating with Whitmire to open the first prison seminary in Texas, which opened its doors only a year after they first discussed it in 2010. “Before I could finish [describing] the plan, he said ‘Anything that will help the men and women behind bars and help protect our employees behind bars, and anything that will make our prisons better …. I’m all in.’” The two of them, shortly afterwards, went to Louisiana together to visit a seminary; they spent two nights in the prison. “We were short a toothbrush… Can you imagine John and I in the same cabin in prison?”
“Your legacy will be that you’re tough on crime,” Patrick said, but “we also know that there are human beings behind bars, who have made a mistake and who at some point in life need a second chance.”
Joan Huffman (R-Houston) turned to face freshman tea partier Sen. Donna Campbell (R-New Braunfels) and, with the caveat that they will likely have many disagreements, said “I guarantee that when you leave this session, you will have respect for him and you will love him.”
After this lengthy, meandering tribute concluded, Whitmire rose to thank the Senate for putting forth the resolution. “The way you can really honor me is to commit ourselves to the very best session we can have,” he said. “Leave the politics and partisanship in the hall.”