A Tea Party freshman grapples with the bitter realities of governing.
Connie Scott doesn’t know why anyone would be interested in her story. “I’m a nobody,” says the freshman representative. She speaks with a soft Texas twang, while her hands flutter uncertainly. Three months into her first term, the Corpus Christi Republican is still reconciling her quiet disposition with her new public role. She can get lost navigating the subterranean Capitol hallways. She hired one of her staff members at a social event because he remembered her name. Wholesome and grandmotherly, the loudest thing about Scott is her Texas-sized hairdo.
“I don’t know why you want to write about me,” she says sheepishly—hardly what you’d expect from a member of one of the most fiery movements in recent political history.
The Tea Party movement took Texas by storm. When the dust settled last November, after all the anti-tax rallies and small-government protests, 31 freshmen Republicans had brought a GOP supermajority to the state House. Since then, the movement has loomed large, and the House has taken a sharp turn to the right. Despite facing a $23 billion budget shortfall, the House has steadfastly refused to consider new taxes. The normally all-powerful House Appropriations chair Jim Pitts, in charge of writing the budget, told reporters he barely had the votes to use one-third of the state’s $9.4 billion Rainy Day Fund to fill the gap—even as progressives argued for spending the entire fund.
Many attributed the difficulty to the newly elected Tea Party representatives. “Behold the mighty freshman Republicans of the Texas House of Representatives,” wrote Ross Ramsey, managing editor of the Texas Tribune, in a New York Times column. He was hardly the only one to say Tea Party freshmen wield inordinate influence this year.
That’s not the story Connie Scott tells. If people only knew, she says, “how little control we really have.” Scott’s story illustrates the tensions between political rhetoric and policy-making. As she’s learned more about the legislative process, she says she’s felt less empowered. She’s not happy with the budget cuts she’s made. But she still sticks to the ideology that got her elected.
Scott fought hard to win this office. It was her second time running against Abel Herrero, a well-liked and respected Democratic incumbent. Like so many Tea Party candidates, Scott ran on an anti-tax platform and promises to shrink government. There were already expectations that the state would face a budget crisis, though the numbers weren’t in. But Scott promised, despite her fiscal conservatism, she would not cut education funding.
Thanks to that platform—and a national wave of GOP fervor—she ultimately won by a six-point margin in November. It wasn’t until the first day of the legislative session that Scott, along with other lawmakers, discovered just how bad the budget shortfall was. And when it came time to choose between her promises to fully fund education and to shrink government, Scott chose to vote for a budget that cuts $8 billion from public schools.
Scott gets defensive about the decision. “We all say a lot of things and we all try to do what we say,” she admits. “But once you realize what is actual fact instead of what is just getting passed down to you, there are decisions that have to be changed.” She argues that she had to trust the senior legislators. “For me to stand and say I know better than they [the budget writers] do, when they have sat and listened to the testimony and witnesses—it would have been very disingenuous of me to put them down for the decisions they had to make,” Scott says.
Scott was very much still learning. She was surprised to learn the Senate will have to pass its budget bill, and then she will vote again on a compromise between the two versions. She’s not even sure if her vote matters. “I don’t even know why we have to take a vote on it,” she says. “Someone else is going to decide it.” Of course, many credited Tea Party members like Scott for forcing the House leadership into such a bare-bones budget.
Scott has one thing in common with the many Texans who depend on social services: She knows what it’s like to need help in hard times. At age 16, when her mother couldn’t take any more of her father’s alcoholism, Scott found herself without any parents—and responsible for two younger sisters. “In the process of leaving him and all the turmoil she was going through, [my mother] forgot she had kids,” Scott says. The sisters would have been homeless if it hadn’t been for a supportive community. Scott moved into an Uncle’s trailer home and worked part time with an oil company while she finished school. Again, later in life, Scott relied on government housing after a divorce left her alone caring for her two young daughters. “Everyone needs help sometimes,” she admits, reflecting on those times.
“As someone who’s grown up on both sides of the fence,” Scott says, “I understand the give-and-take circumstances put you in. And you have to live in those circumstances.”
Rather than pushing for more funding for social services, though, Scott’s experience has made her more hardline on fiscal matters. “Spending what you don’t have doesn’t get you out of a situation like that,” she says of her own family’s rough times. Thirty years later, retired and living on 150 acres of land in South Texas, Scott says it was a “belt-tightening” mentality that got her out of poverty. Even as she laments the budget cuts, Scott says she believes that same mentality is necessary in dealing the the budget shortfall. “We’re in a recession,” Scott says, “Whether you are the wealthiest of the wealthiest or the poorest of the poor, we all have to do with less.”
Of course, Scott also hopes the impact of the cuts might not be as bad as many fear. “Funding education is still a priority,” she argues, pointing to bills that could decrease some education costs by removing classroom regulations. “I don’t think you can say we’ve really taken away from education,” she says of a House budget that cuts education funding by 18 percent.
Still, she’s praying it’ll get better. A devout Baptist, Scott awaits daily text message from her preacher, whom she keeps on speed-dial. In addition to God, Scott is putting her faith in the Senate to create a better version. “The budget we passed last week is not the same budget we are going to see come May,” she promises.
But don’t expect this Tea Partier to be leading the fight for that better budget. “I am a lot better at staying quiet and learning and watching,” she says, “than opening my mouth and sticking my foot in it.”