Freshmen Will Make Up a Quarter of the New House

Members of the freshmen class of 2011 at their new member orientation in December 2010.
Members of the freshmen class of 2011 at their new member orientation in December 2010.

The biggest caucus in the Texas House is the Republicans', now with 101 members. Next? The Democrats', at 49. And then there’s the freshman class — one of the biggest in years — with 38 members. All but six are Republicans, and many of them replaced Democrats.

They face some challenges. It’s a redistricting year, a particularly hazardous time to be low in the pecking order. Some of them won elections in Democratic districts when voters were looking for anyone with a pulse and a red jersey, and they now must balance local politics against state Republican and Tea Party positions. And, with their tenured colleagues, next week they’ll start to work on shrinking a budget in a rapidly growing state.

The new Democrats have the advantage have the advantage of being in the minority — they can vote no on budget cuts and other ugly issues and let the Republicans take the heat.

Redistricting offers the Republicans a chance to institutionalize their November wins, but it will be difficult to draw a safe seat for each of the 101 Republicans elected last month. Lawmakers from rural parts of the state, which lost population, could find themselves on defense. And when a veteran Republican is pitted against a freshman (a group that includes Marva Beck of Centerville, Erwin Cain of Como, Lance Gooden of Terrell, Jim Landtroop of Plainview, Walter “Four” Price of Amarillo and James White of Hillister), bet on the vet. It’s not easy being green.

Some of the new Republicans reclaimed political districts where Democrats were in office but where Republicans tended to win in statewide elections. But not all of them: Beck, John V. Garza of San Antonio, Connie Scott and Raul Torres of Corpus Christi and Paul Workman of Austin all won in areas where statewide Democrats outdid Republicans in the 2006 and 2008 elections. Those are (mostly) swing seats, but so are a number of marginally Republican seats that were, until November, held by Democrats.

Districts that change easily with the political winds can be unforgiving to steadfast partisans. Members like these will be praying to the lords of redistricting this spring, hoping for revised and safer districts — meaning more partisan districts — for their 2012 elections.

That nasty budget shortfall will test an axiom laid out bluntly by H.L. Mencken: “Democracy is the theory that the common people know what they want, and deserve to get it good and hard.” Among other things, the Republican freshmen believe Texas voters asked for smaller government and no new taxes. Without the means to keep doing what the state has been doing up to now, the lawmakers — freshmen and veterans — have to decide which cuts will agitate the smallest number of voters. Cut something dear and the voters might give it right back, good and hard.

Not many of the newbies can be called straight Tea Party candidates, though a few of the new Republicans got to Austin by knocking off establishment Republicans. That group includes Charles Perry and John Frullo of Lubbock, David Simpson of Longview and Van Taylor of Plano. Will they vote like the people they replaced? Perry and Simpson ran against incumbents, accusing them of losing touch with voters.

The difference could matter on some things. Both incumbents defeated by Perry and Simpson were in the small group of Republicans that revolted against the House leadership two years ago and got Joe Straus elected speaker, and both of their replacements have pledged allegiance to one of the Republicans now challenging Straus, Ken Paxton of McKinney. But will the new guys vote differently on big issues like redistricting and the budget? As freshmen, will they really have any say in those matters?

The prime directive for freshmen, freely expressed by politicians of every stripe every two years, is that they should be seen and not heard. That’s easier when there are fewer of them; in the last three sessions, the freshmen numbered 16, 23 and 20, respectively. This time, they represent one in four votes in the House.

Redistricting, with its disruptive effect on political careers, typically produces a large class. The 2002 election put 36 freshmen in the House. Like this year’s group, they entered office during a budget mess, and they spent part of their first summer in office working on congressional redistricting. Six of them were one-termers, but 18 are still around, returning for another term.

Being a freshman in the Texas House works exactly like it does for a high schooler. But there’s an advantage to being a freshman in a big class like this one — as tenderfeet, they’re not bound by deals and pacts made in previous sessions. They possess a most valuable legislative attribute: a large number of uncommitted votes.

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