Thompson: Friend of the Underdog — and the Powerful

When a special interest group tried to defeat her insurance bill this session with a flier condemning the “nanny state” and showing an infant suckling a woman’s breast, Houston state Rep. Senfronia Thompson couldn’t contain her outrage. In one of her famously impassioned speeches, Thompson — between threats to bloody noses — blasted what she called the objectification, disrespect and “violence” toward women, including those in the Legislature, slamming her fist so hard against the lectern that her bracelet shattered.

Yet in an unlikely — some would say contradictory — pairing, Thompson, a Democrat known with equal parts reverence and fear in the House as “Ms. T,” is considered the go-to lawmaker for the adult entertainment industry. She leads the Legislature in campaign contributions from strip clubs, according to campaign finance watchdogs, and sought, in the 2009 session, to rewrite a law they opposed that taxes them to fund sexual assault prevention programs and health insurance for the poor.

There’s no doubt Thompson’s tenure is defined by her defense of the underserved. Over her nearly four decades in the Legislature, Thompson, the longest-serving woman, African-American and Democrat in the House, has fought uphill battles to, as she says, “let the little dogs eat,” repeatedly raising the minimum wage, passing Texas’ first alimony law, and, after a years-long battle, winning support for a hate crimes bill to protect gays and lesbians.

But her legislative career is peppered with occasional paradoxes, from the hefty campaign contributions she receives from big business to the industry-friendly bills she has carried for energy giants. Political observers say her stature and position — as chairwoman of the Local and Consent Calendars Committee, Thompson is the gatekeeper for much of the legislation considered in the House — have given her a powerful avenue to play politics, a way to fast-track her own bills or bully her colleagues by holding theirs hostage.  

“People misjudge her as a matronly older black woman in the Texas Legislature, maybe the grandmotherly type,” said former Democratic state Rep. Mark Stiles, who recalled trying to kill one of Thompson’s bills on a technicality years ago, only to have her charge him and knock him down “like a linebacker.” Stiles is 6-foot-4, 250 pounds. “You’re not going to back her down, you’re not going to scare her, you’re not going to threaten her,” he said, “or else she’ll come back at you 10 times worse.”

A legislative legacy

Thompson, 72, was born in 1939 on land her grandparents, African-American sharecroppers, farmed with little success in rural Booth, in southeast Texas. Thompson’s mother conceived her during a liaison with a white farm foreman. But another black farmer who admired her believed the pregnancy was his doing — until her baby was born light-skinned. As the gossip spread, and the farmer’s anger built, Thompson’s mother fled the farm with her baby, moving into Senfronia’s great-grandmother’s boarding house in Houston’s Fourth Ward.

As a young woman, Thompson married an “absolutely perfect” loan shark 52 years her senior. She had no aspirations of staying home with her children — and her husband didn’t hold her back. When segregation prevented her from attending dental school, her husband persuaded her to get a master's degree in education. Thompson worked as a junior high and high school teacher and was passionate about it. But she was drawn to politics; she got involved in campaigns and thought to herself, “I could do just as well as any man in office.”

So she did it, getting elected to the House in 1972 in a massive turnover that followed the Sharpstown stock scandal and a redistricting ruling that created single-member districts for urban counties. Eight black lawmakers entered the Legislature all at once, Thompson recalls, and they “were treated like aliens from outer space.” Her husband died of leukemia two weeks after her first session; she never remarried.

The early years were not easy for Thompson, who quickly learned that the promises she had made to her constituents would sometimes take years to accomplish. She was a single mother with two sons and a daughter, who put herself through law school and went to work in a solo practice, supporting herself by taking virtually any client who showed up on her doorstep. She took over care of her 13-year-old grandson in the mid-1990s after her daughter died suddenly. 

Despite it all, Thompson remained a rising star in the House. She got her bill mandating court-ordered alimony through in 1995, calling it her “16-year miracle.” She worked across the aisle with then-Rep. Arlene Wohlgemuth, R-Burleson, to “get redlining out of the bedroom” by forcing insurers to cover new forms of birth control. And her James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Act, which included protections for gay men and lesbians, made national headlines when it passed in 2001.

“Normally I pretty easily classify someone as a show horse or a work horse,” said state Sen. John Whitmire, D-Houston, the longest-serving member of the Senate, who was elected to the House alongside Thompson in 1972. “Senfronia? She’s a two-fer.”

But behind the high-profile successes, Thompson was a reliable friend to consumer and victims’ rights groups, passing “little dog” measures to help low-income people pay their electric bills, stave off cuts to nursing homes, provide support for rape victims and prevent racial profiling.

“To her last breath she will defend those who can’t defend themselves,” Republican Gov. Rick Perry said of Thompson earlier this year, during an April roast in which he recalled tiptoeing around her during his early days in the House. Perry called her the Legislature’s “mama bear.”

From charmer to bully

Thompson sees herself as a different animal: the House lion. “I prowl around to make sure people keep working for good,” she said. “If you’ve been downtrodden all your life, if you’ve known the struggle of the voiceless who can’t afford to hire lobbyists to have their needs addressed, you’re always going to try to do that.” And she doesn’t prowl quietly, making emotional, game-changing speeches one minute and swearing at colleagues the next.

She made her first personal privilege speech — a rare event in the House — only months after she was elected, calling an incident in which a male lawmaker jokingly referred to her as his “beautiful mistress” a “sexist and racist insult” that African-American women “are constantly being subjected to.” (She came full circle this past session with her speech on the offending flier, threatening the men in the chamber, “If you don’t stand up for us today, don’t you walk in this chamber tomorrow.”)

When the Texas House approved putting a constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriages and civil unions onto the 2005 ballot, Thompson said it was fanning the “hell-fire flames of bigotry” and recalled how people of her color used to be hanged from trees for marrying whites.

“She’s an enforcer when necessary and can charm you when necessary. She knows when to bully you and when to hug you. She knows when to get revenge and when to be forgiving,” said state Sen. Rodney Ellis, a fellow Houston Democrat who considers Thompson a mentor. “And she can do it all within the span of 24 hours.”

Some political observers suggest that Thompson’s civil rights history and her reputation for defending the “little dog” have given her political cover to carry the occasional bill that seems out of character without being punished for it by the left. They say business and industry interests — which contributed a combined $370,000 to her campaign fund in the last election cycle, or 86 percent of her total, according to figures compiled by the money-in-politics group Texans for Public Justice — lobby Thompson to carry their bills in the hopes that her support will stem Democratic opposition. 

Thompson says campaign contributions don't affect her decisions, and that she won’t support a bill unless she’s convinced it supports the public good. “My campaign contributions do not come mostly from my constituents,” she acknowledged, “but 99 percent of my fights are for my constituents.”

Tom “Smitty” Smith, Texas director for Public Citizen, a nonprofit public interest group, said that Thompson is generally one of the more consumer-friendly legislators. “But there have been a number of sessions where she carried a bill for some industry or another we were surprised at,” he said. “As [former Democratic Gov.] Ann Richards used to say, ‘You’ve got to dance with them that fund ya.’” 

After lawmakers passed a $5-per-patron fee on strip clubs in 2007 to raise funds for sexual assault prevention and low-income health insurance, Thompson came back in 2009 and filed a bill that would have replaced it with a different — and smaller — tax on cover charges at sexually oriented businesses. Her measure, which failed, was supported by the adult entertainment industry, which contributed at least $22,500 to Thompson’s campaign between 2007 and 2010, more than to any other lawmaker, according to Texans for Public Justice data.

Thompson, who declined to carry the measure again this session, said she did it in 2009 because she thought it was the quickest way to get money to sexual assault programs. She said her bill had a far better chance of standing up in court, where the 2007 fee’s constitutionality is still being challenged (and the money held up in the meantime).

It wasn’t Thompson’s first maneuver endorsed by the strip clubs. During a 2005 effort to bar the sale or consumption of alcohol at sexually oriented businesses, Thompson suggested the measure would lead strip clubs to become brothels. “We’re not trying to promote prostitution, are we?” she asked at the time. (The bill failed.)

Avoiding her doghouse 

Thompson also maintains a close relationship with the energy lobby. This session, she carried a “streamlining” bill designed to make it easier for electric utilities to raise their rates to account for infrastructure improvements without a full-blown hearing. Despite opposition from consumer groups and concern from some communities, the bill — considered a top legislative priority for Texas’ utility companies — passed.

In the 2009 session, in the aftermath of a devastating hurricane season, Thompson was the House sponsor of a measure allowing utility companies to recover weather-related costs without going through the routine rate change proceeding. The day after Perry signed the bill, Houston-based CenterPoint Energy filed an application with the Public Utility Commission seeking to recover nearly $678 million in costs associated with Hurricane Ike.

In both cases, Thompson and other supporters argued the existing rate-case hearing system was unwieldy and that speeding it up actually curbed costs for consumers. The bills passed overwhelmingly.

Lawmakers, lobbyists and special interest groups say that few will risk opposing Thompson’s bills for fear of ending up in her doghouse. Some interviewed for this story refused to speak on the record, worrying Thompson would use the parliamentary rules she’s so well versed in to kill their bills. (The chamber often falls silent when she walks to the microphone.) Others spoke of curbing opposition to Thompson’s legislation in the hopes that she would give theirs an easy ride through the influential committee she chairs.

“There isn’t anybody else in the Legislature who, when they walk, the waters part, and people step aside,” said Bill Miller, an Austin-based political consultant and longtime friend of Thompson’s, who called her “an icon who came of age in the House.”

Former House Speaker Tom Craddick said that years ago, when he and Thompson were both committee chairs, the pair got into a stand-off in which neither would let the other’s bill out of committee. Then-Speaker Pete Laney helped them broker a ceasefire, and both lawmakers agreed to move the bills out of committee. “So I let hers out,” Craddick said, laughing, “but she still didn’t let mine out.” (Eventually, both bills passed.)

In two more recent cases, Thompson got her allies in the Senate to carry bills they weren’t particularly passionate about — for Whitmire, it was Thompson’s bill this session targeting puppy mills; for Republican Sen. John Carona of Dallas, it was her 2009 bill to alter the state’s strip club fee — simply because she asked. “How could I say no?” Whitmire asked. “When I’d go ask senators for support, I’d hear them mumble, ‘I don’t want Senfronia after me.’”

Doesn't offend easily

Thompson recoils from the idea that anyone walks on eggshells around her, and said she routinely supports her colleagues’ bills in spite of them voting against hers. “I don’t strong-arm anybody,” she said.  “I’ve never threatened anybody with their legislation.”

This session, the accusations weren’t as easy to shrug off. The Local and Consent Calendars Committee Thompson chairs placed her puppy mill bill on the House calendar reserved for noncontroversial items, despite vocal opposition to it. When freshman Tea Party Rep. David Simpson, R-Longview, knocked it off that calendar, he was the one scolded for breaking unspoken rules of decorum — not Thompson, for sending it through her committee. Texas Monthly magazine gave Thompson a “dishonorable mention” on its biennial “best and worst” lawmakers list, “for misusing her power” to “garner support for and silence opposition to her own bills.”

That suggestion bothers Thompson, who says she closely abides by the rules. She said the members of the committee — the majority of them Republicans — frequently choose not to set her bills on the calendar.

Democratic Houston Rep. Harold Dutton said that anyone who suggests Thompson has acted with anything but the highest principles doesn’t know her. Sometimes she’s willing to explore an option that makes people on her side mad, because she believes in it, Dutton said. “For people who don’t get that, it looks like 2 percent of the time she’s helping the big dogs,” he said. “Talking to her, listening to her, watching her, I know that’s not the case.”

Thompson said she doesn’t offend too easily; four decades in the Texas House will do that to a person. And she shows no sign of slowing down, or of tiring of her position — particularly as she watches sweeping state budget cuts and a newly anointed Republican supermajority gut the programs she spent decades fighting to build.

“What else would I do?” she said with a sly smile. “I don’t watch soap operas.”

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