That noise you hear in the Senate and the House isn't just partisan barking — it's the early signal that, in two years, those lawmakers will be drawing political maps and spilling political blood.
The Senate tangled early over Voter ID legislation, opting to circumvent its own two-thirds rule to allow a vote on the issue. That stymied the Democrats who wanted to kill the legislation, and set a precedent for the fight over redistricting two years from now.
The House capped a six-year-long battle over Republican Speaker Tom Craddick, deposing him and installing Republican Joe Straus in his place. Some of the Democrats who made that possible immediately wheeled on the new speaker after he made his committee assignments, circulating anonymous memos attacking his Republican bias and suggesting that the only way Democrats can achieve free political will is to flip two or more House seats and elect a speaker from their side of the Lege.
That's a redistricting play.
The Democrats have allies at the top of the Justice Department for the first time since the Voting Rights Act became law (Nixon, Reagan, Bush, the other Bush, and now Obama; redistricting is done in Census years every decade, and those were the presidents in place in '71, '81, '91, '01, and in the future, '11). That and the possibility of winning a Democratic majority in the Texas House in 2010 are their best hopes for the coming redistricting fight.
Good maps hold. Both the state Senate and the Texas congressional delegation remained steadily in the Republican column since their political districts were set in favor of the GOP at the beginning of the decade (congressional maps were done in 2003, famously, with then-U.S. House Majority Leader Tom DeLay's help; our point here is that they have continued to do what they were designed to do).
The Texas House drew what was at the time a more aggressive map — a gambit that initially put 88 Republicans in the 150-member House after the 2002 election. That was more than enough to unseat Democratic Speaker Pete Laney of Hale Center and install Craddick of Midland. But to get that many seats, the mappers diluted some districts too much. Some of the districts that started out with relatively small Republican majorities became competitive as time passed, and six years after the elections that put 88 Republicans in the House, those same districts put only 76 Republicans in the House. The argument we hear from some quarters is that a smaller number of defensible GOP districts might have allowed that party to hold the House as comfortably as it's held onto the congressional delegation and to the Senate.
Instead, the table for the next round is set with the Senate safely in hand and the House up for grabs. The stakes are high: A party that controls both houses of the Legislature can draw the next set of political maps to try to ensure ten more years of dominance. That's what the Democrats tried, with some success, to do in 1990. They held the Texas House and the congressional delegation through the decade, but lost their majority in the Texas Senate.
The GOP used that shift to stop the Democrats in 2001. With control of the Legislature split between the two parties, redistricting locked up. The tiebreaker in that situation is the Legislative Redistricting Board, which had four Republicans and one Democrat on it at the time. Guess which party got to draw the maps?
The U.S. Department of Justice, which has to approve redistricting maps in the states, like Texas, that are covered by the federal Voting Rights Act, sided with the GOP. An important thing happened there: DOJ staffers who analyzed the maps said they were discriminatory. But they were overruled by Bush Administration appointees who approved the maps preferred by the GOP and disliked by the agency's experts.
The Democrats have studied the blueprints. The Justice Department, which approves the maps, and the Census Bureau, which cranks the numbers that form the basis for the maps, are both in Democratic hands. It's not supposed to matter, but this is politics and not civics we're discussing. It probably matters, especially at DOJ.
The Texas Senate will have a Republican majority in 2011, when the maps will be drawn. There just aren't enough districts on the ballot that Democrats can win without major scandals or sunspots in the 2010 election. To have any say over the maps, the Democrats have to win control of the House.
That would get them a spot at the bargaining table, and the ability to throw the maps to the LRB if they don't like them.
And there's a third play. The LRB includes five people: lieutenant governor, speaker, attorney general, comptroller, and land commissioner. Today, all five are Republicans. The party that wins control of the House will pick the speaker, presumably from its own side.
So don't be surprised if you see more money than usual in those mid-ballot statewide races next year: Redistricting in Texas changed the partisan makeup of the state Legislature in 2001, and of the entire U.S. Congress in 2003.
Through that lens, it makes political sense to chase a couple of Texas House seats and two or three statewide offices in 2010. And to start working the angles now, with parliamentary precedents in the Senate and partisan dust-ups in the House.
Redistricting was originally in the basket with Voter ID in the Senate — they initially talked about working both issues around the two-thirds rule. Redistricting got set aside, making a deal on Voter ID easier now, and setting a precedent that could be applied in two years when redistricting is the main issue.
The House thing is curious. The Democrats who overthrew Craddick didn't get control of the House — they're in the minority, right? — but did get better positions than they had when he was in charge. Still, to gain a majority and all that comes with it, they have to chip away at Straus and the GOP. That's why those anonymous memos — saying Straus' assignments were unfair — are floating around. They need something to rail against in 2010.
If you want a serious discussion about bipartisanship, you could do worse than to start with former Cox White House reporter Ken Herman: "I think many Washington politicians would rather try bisexuality than bipartisanship — not that there's anything wrong with that."
So began "Bipartisanship in an Era of Polarization" during the Barbara Jordan National Forum on Public Policy. Extracurricular activities aside, partisanship in politics isn't going away anytime soon, according to the panel of former legislators and political reporters assembled in Austin at the forum sponsored by the University of Texas LBJ School's Center for Politics and Governance.
While lamenting legislators who vote based on the next election rather than the good of the state, panel members said true political harmony has never been a reality, and that political hegemony isn't the ideal, either.
Texas Monthly's Patricia Kilday Hart arrived at the Dallas Times-Herald's Austin bureau in the middle Republican Gov. Bill Clements' first term. Clements, she said, replaced awful Democratic appointees with fresh blood from his own party.
Hart said, "It was like half of the state's talent wasn't being used... so having competition among the parties is a good thing. It's not a wonderful thing when there's just one party in control."
Former U.S. Rep. Mickey Edwards, R-Oklahoma, agreed that having parties with conflicting viewpoints is better than having no conflict at all.
"Having people in the legislative branch who disagree with each other is not a bad thing. The Soviet Union didn't have that problem. We're a democracy," he said. "What's been missing is civility."
Former House Speaker Pete Laney said members used to approach him, saying they wished they could side with him on controversial issues, but that voters in their districts wouldn't allow it.
"I always found it the most disturbing thing that I ran into was the fact that people were so afraid to lose this $600-a-month job," Laney said. "'Course, if you look at the retirement, it ain't bad."
Hart said the legislators were probably more afraid of offending big campaign donors than constituents. She called money a "pernicious influence" in politics.
Concurring somewhat, Laney cited the Senate Republicans' recent steamrolling of the Democrats to circumvent that body's two-thirds rule in order to consider voter photo identification legislation.
"The voter ID issue has created a real good forum for raising a lot of money over an issue that is very inconsequential in Texas," Laney said.
Panel members cited multiple causes for party polarization, including negative campaigning, the primary process and the general populace.
Laney singled out campaign managers, saying they create an atmosphere antithetical to independent-minded politicians.
"You're making a lot of money off the people of Texas from political campaigns, and you're not doing it in a positive way," said Laney, addressing any political consultants in earshot. "You're doing it in a negative way."
Former Lt. Gov. Bill Ratliff said he had the luxury of being Republican in a Democratic district, thus being encouraged to cross party lines without fear of retribution in the next primary, normally decided by a relative handful of dedicated party-liners.
"It is the extremists on each side that control the primaries. More so in my party, but frankly I think both," Ratliff said.
Increasing voter participation might not be a panacea for partisanship, warned Sean Theriault, associate professor of government at UT.
"What's interesting with respect to the American public is we know that the more engaged they get in the process, the more polarized they become," he said.
States with a single congressional seat have followed the trend toward greater partisanship, along with bigger states, Theriault said, belying the idea that redistricting battles are the major cause of inter-party rancor.
The co-evolution of traditional media and the Internet might cause problems, too, panelists said, especially as users display "confirmation bias" by only paying attention to and believing information they already think to be true.
"I'm not sure it's the best place for the marketplace of ideas," Herman said.
Don't look to the next generation of voters to usher in a golden era of bipartisanship either, said Edwards, a lecturer at Princeton University.
"I have not found young people to be more idealistic than older people," he said. "I haven't found them to be smarter. I haven't found them to be less polarized."
Sharon Keller, presiding judge of the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals, will have to publicly fight for her job after complaints that she denied the final appeals of a condemned man because it was after her court's five o'clock closing time.
The State Commission on Judicial Conduct reviewed complaints about Keller's actions back in September 2007, when she denied appeals from Michael Wayne Richard because they came in after her court's closing time. With no appeal pending, the state executed him that evening.
The commission did its own inquiry and now wants to hold a public proceeding where Keller will defend her actions. That works more or less like a court case with her lawyers and SCJC lawyers arguing before a Texas Supreme Court appointee. That appointee will make a recommendation to the Commission, which can let her go, slap her with sanctions of various strengths, or recommend — back to the Supreme Court — that she be removed from office.
Keller's office said she's not commenting on the commission's action. She's hired attorney Chip Babcock to represent her; he said, right out of the gate, that she didn't do anything wrong: "As to the charges, Judge Keller denies them, emphatically."
Babcock said the court clerk's office has always closed at 5 p.m. and that Keller simply relayed that information to Richard's lawyers. There's a procedure for late filings in place — according to Babcock, it's a procedure that Richard's lawyers had used before — that the condemned man's lawyers didn't follow in his case.
"If you frame the issue that, 'Some judge has refused to consider a last minute appeal in a death penalty case,' you know, that's one thing," Babcock said. "But if the issue is, 'Does the clerk's office stay open beyond five o'clock?' No, it never has, and Judge Keller wasn't the duty judge that night, and the general counsel was there, interacting with these defense lawyers, and presumably knew the rules.
"This thing didn't have to happen, but it certainly wasn't Judge Keller's fault," he said.
That document ends with a list of charges centered on the notions that Keller didn't follow her court's "Execution-day Procedures," and that she denied Richard his right to open courts and to be heard according to law. The commission accuses her of violating her duties as presiding judge, casting public discredit on the courts and the judiciary, and that her decision not to accept Richard's appeal "constitutes incompetence in the performance of duties of office."
Not Yes, But Not No, Either
Sen. Leticia Van de Putte won't decide whether to run for governor or some other state office until the legislative session is over. But she says people are encouraging her to run.
The San Antonio Democrat has always turned away inquiries in the past, mainly because she had up to six kids at home. The two youngest are in college now, and she says the inquiries — not unusual in a senator's own legislative district — are now coming from people outside her district.
"It's the first time I'm not saying, 'No'," she says. "But I'm not saying, 'Yes'. I don't want any of that speculation to be a distraction from what I'm doing during this legislative session."
She says she'll wait until June to decide, one, whether she's a viable candidate and can raise the money to run for governor or any other statewide office, and two, whether she and her family think it's a good idea. "I'm very pragmatic — I wouldn't run for anything I didn't think I could win," she says.
Van de Putte won a four-year-term in the 2008 elections and won't be on the ballot for reelection until 2012. Running for another office in 2010 wouldn't force her out of the state Senate.
She's been in the state Senate for ten years and served four terms in the House before that.
Nobody's filed for that race, but others are looking. Kinky Friedman, who ran as a humorist and finished fourth in 2006, is thinking about running as a Democrat. And former lawmaker, ambassador and Texas Rangers baseball exec Tom Schieffer is testing the waters, too, also as a Democrat. The other side is a powder keg, with U.S. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison exploring a challenge in the GOP primary against incumbent Gov. Rick Perry.
Having a COW
Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst sent the controversial Voter ID to the Committee of the Whole — that's the entire Senate, acting as a committee that will refer the bill to... the full Senate.
The legislation would require voters to show photo IDs before voting, the better to guard against a level of voter fraud nobody in Texas has yet been able to document. Republicans (in Texas and elsewhere) have been pushing the legislation. Democrats, who contend it suppresses more votes on their side than the GOP side, are vociferously against it.
The COW hasn't set a hearing date, but some senators think it could get together as early as next week. It can't go to the floor that quickly, though: It's not an "emergency issue" and can't be considered by the full Senate before mid-March without a supermajority vote. And the sponsors don't have a supermajority supporting the bill.
Bailouts and Other Forms of Gambling
Long story short: Gov. Rick Perry wrote to President Barack Obama saying the state will accept federal stimulus funds. All that's left now is the arguing over what will and won't be spent and how. The list making the legislative rounds totals $16.9 billion in federal funds for Texas, including $5.8 billion for health and human services, with all but about $400 million going to Medicaid; $6.2 billion for education, including $3.9 billion for general public school spending; $2.8 billion for transportation, most for road and bridge construction; $1 billion for workforce spending, on everything from day care subsidies to youth programs; $161 million on criminal justice; and $957 million on housing and infrastructure (weatherization, clean water, etc.).
The Tigua Indians used to operate a small casino in El Paso until the state shut it down and are backing legislation that would allow tribes to run bingo and poker games. They want to reopen the Speaking Rock Casino. Rep. Norma Chavez, D-El Paso, has a bill that would allow the games on "federally recognized tribal lands." That definition would apparently take in both the Tiguas and the Alabama Coushatta tribe in East Texas. That's one of several efforts to expand gaming in Texas beyond the current mix of bingo, pari-mutuel wagering on dog and horse racing, and the state-run lottery.
The names of the House's sub-budgeteers — the folks who run the relatively powerful subcommittees on Appropriations — are out and storms of the natural and economic sort get special attention. The list from Jim Pitts, R-Waxahachie, goes like this: John Otto, R-Dayton, at General Government; John Zerwas, R-Richmond, Health & Human Services; Scott Hochberg, D-Houston, Education; Debbie Riddle, R-Tomball, Criminal Justice; Helen Giddings, D-Dallas, Business and Economic Development; Craig Eiland, D-Galveston, Hurricane; Myra Crownover, R-Denton, Stimulus. The last three panels are new; subcommittees on Regulatory and Special Issues are gone. Each of the subcommittees has five members.
After 27 years with the Austin American-Statesman, reporter Laylan Copelin took the paper's buyout offer and will start March 2 in a writer/researcher job with Texas Comptroller Susan Combs. That paper, which is for sale, offered buyouts to folks with the right combination of age and years on the job. Others you might know are on the buyout list, including editorial writer and former politics and government reporter and Capitol Bureau Chief Bruce Hight, Pulitzer-prize winning cartoonist Ben Sargent, and David Lowery, who's also on the editorial board. A dozen newsroom folks, in all, found their way to the egress.
Janet Elliott falls to the latest round of layoffs at the Houston Chronicle. She's been in the Chronk's Austin bureau for eight years and worked at Texas Lawyer before that.
Political People and Their Moves
House Democrats reelected Jim Dunnam of Waco to lead their caucus this term. The titles are a little confusing: Dunnam will be the House Democratic Leader; Jessica Farrar of Houston will chair the House Democratic Caucus, Marc Veasey of Fort Worth is chair pro tempore, and Terri Hodge of Dallas was reelected treasurer.
Rep. Larry Taylor, R-Friendswood, will chair the Texas House Republican Caucus this session; his fellow GOPers unanimously elected him. Others on that roster include Geanie Morrison of Victoria, vice chair, Linda Harper-Brown of Irving, treasurer, and Tan Parker of Flower Mound, secretary.
Getting all those professional begets and begats in order...Speaker Joe Straus' staffers we haven't listed include David Kinsey, who did time at the Health and Human Services Commission and the Sunset Commission, will help advise the speaker on budget issues; David Durdin, who's been at the Texas Department of Insurance for almost 25 years, will cover insurance; Meredyth Fowler, a former legislative staffer who most recently worked for a San Antonio law firm, will cover general government; Jennifer Deegan, who'd been at the House Committee on Human Services, will cover those issues; Kevin Robnett, an attorney and a former assistant to the chairman of UT's Board of Regents, will be deputy general counsel.
Kay Bailey Hutchison announced endorsements for her gubernatorial bid from 11 women who were presidents of either the Texas Federation of Republican Women or the National Federation of Republican Women: Anne Bergman, Lou Brown, Barbara Campbell, Catherine Smyth Colgan, Taffy Goldsmith, Judy Hughes, Beverly Kaufman, Jan Kennady, Gail Suttle, Dianne Thompson, and Borah Van Dormolen.
Thomas Ruocco is the new chief of criminal law enforcement for the Texas Department of Public Safety. He comes to that agency from the FBI; he retired from that agency last summer, at age 50.
Betty Sue Flowers, director of the Lyndon Baines Johnson Library and Museum at the University of Texas-Austin for the last seven years, is resigning in May.
Deaths: Eleanor Tinsley, a former chairwoman of the Houston school board, where she helped integrate public schools, and member of the Houston City Council, where she championed parks, gay rights, and a smoking ban, among other things, after a bout with cancer. She was 82.
Quotes of the Week
Nye County, Nevada, Manager Rick Osborne, telling the Los Angeles Times what he expects in terms of local help from the federal stimulus package: "I've been in state government for 36 years, and I've learned over time not to be too optimistic. I don't want to be disappointed. I drink enough scotch as is."
Gov. Rick Perry, talking to NFIB/Texas about the federal stimulus, quoted by the Austin American-Statesman: "We need the freedom to pick and choose. We need the freedom to say, 'no thanks' if theyre trying to stick a bill on the people of the State of Texas just to expand government."
Don Blankenship, a West Virginia coal mining exec whose $3 million in contributions have landed a state Supreme Court justice's refusal to recuse himself from the company's lawsuits in front of the U.S. Supreme Court, in The New York Times: "I've been around West Virginia long enough to know that politicians don't stay bought, particularly ones that are going to be in office for 12 years. So I would never go out and spend money to try to gain favor with a politician. Eliminating a bad politician makes sense. Electing somebody hoping he's going to be in your favor doesn't make any sense at all."
Justice of the Peace Jim Hansen of Lubbock, who's not a lawyer, quoted in the Lubbock Avalanche-Journal on legislation that would require JPs to be attorneys: "They're going to take some good justices of the peace and replace them with a bunch of lawyers just for the fun of it. That's what they're doing."
John Ringer of Texas City, interviewed by the Galveston Daily News during Mardi Gras because he was wearing a clown suit as a statement on hurricane relief: "I'm a FEMA clown. I should be passing out cards to everyone that say 'denied.'"
Texas Weekly: Volume 26, Issue 7, 23 February 2009. Ross Ramsey, Editor. Copyright 2009 by Printing Production Systems, Inc. All Rights Reserved. Reproduction in whole or in part without written permission from the publisher is prohibited. One-year online subscription: $250. For information about your subscription, call (512) 302-5703 or email firstname.lastname@example.org. For news, email email@example.com, or call (512) 288-6598.