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Generation Next

Speaker Joe Straus, R-San Antonio, may be 50, but he's only been in the House for three sessions. He's part of a youth movement in the power corridors of the Legislature — one that's less about age than lack of seniority.

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When state Rep. Joe Straus, R-San Antonio, was elected to lead the Texas House in January 2009, he shook the political ladder, illustrating a key difference between the way things are done in Austin and the way they're done in Washington, D.C.: Seniority is important here, but it's not the be-all-end-all it is in the nation's capital. Straus immediately moved out of positions of authority veteran lawmakers who were against him — mostly from his own party — and replaced many of them with people of his own legislative generation. Not his own age, mind you. His own legislative age.

Straus is 50 years old, but he's only been in the House for three sessions. The speaker is part of a youth movement of sorts. He has promoted younger and less tenured committee chairs. Resignations, the primary elections in March and the runoffs in April took out 15 members of the House — 13 of them with 11 or more years of experience, and six of those with 17 years or more. Some of the new members might have some years on them, but they'll be new to the Legislature. And some of them are young enough that they could stay a while.

As it stands, the Texas Legislature has 21 Democrats under the age of 40 and five Republicans younger than 40. The average age of Democrats in the Legislature is 50. The average age of Republicans is 57. The average male is younger than the average female by two years. The average Hispanic is 45, the average Anglo is 56 and the average African American is 59.

The oldest members, by age: state Reps. Delwin Jones, R-Lubbock, 86; Leo Berman, R-Tyler, 74; and Al Edwards, D-Houston, 73. Jeff Wentworth, R-San Antonio, is the oldest state senator, at 69. The youngest members: Joe Moody, D-El Paso, 29; and Ana Hernandez, D-Houston, Marisa Marquez, D-El Paso, Patrick Rose, D-Dripping Springs, and Eddie Lucio III, D-Brownsville, who are all 31. At 38, Dennis Bonnen, R-Angleton, is the youngest Republican — for now. Lance Gooden, who defeated state Rep. Betty Brown, R-Athens, in the Republican primary and doesn't have a Democratic opponent in November, will be 28 when he's sworn in next January. The youngest Republican senator, Glenn Hegar, R-Katy, is 39.

Warren Chisum, a Pampa Republican originally elected to the Legislature as a Democrat, is fifth on the age list, at 71, and seventh on the House seniority chart (he'll be fifth next session, as Edwards and Jones both lost their primaries), with 21 years in the post. He takes the turnover — fast or slow — in stride and says it hasn't really affected him. His actions have. "I've always been the kind of 'rebel cause' guy," he says. "I take positions that aren't unpopular with the public, but they are in the Legislature, because a lot of people don't want to vote on social issues and that stuff."

Seniority's not a big deal to a Democrat two years behind Chisum on that particular ladder, either. "It takes a certain personality to thrive as a member of the House," says Pete Gallego, D-Alpine. "Some people still look at the list … figure out the seniority and figure out how many square feet [of office space] they can get."

Some see it as a cultural difference, with younger or newer members coming up in a different kind of politics than their predecessors. "I look at it in terms of people who have served in two different styles of government," Gallego says. "People don't have the opportunity to be larger than life anymore — they're afraid of seeing it on the Internet."

It's not all the outsized stuff, he says. "In the old way of doing business, it was fine to disagree and then go to dinner," Gallego says. "Now it's personal and more partisan, and a disagreement on one issue leads to a disagreement on another issue. … As the polarization in D.C. spreads, the people willing to come to the middle find less and less acceptance."

Chisum is one of a couple of Republicans — Phil King of Weatherford is another — whose name comes up in discussions of who might be a challenger to Straus next year. And people in that spot pay close attention to discontent in the incumbent's camp. Straus won election to the job by joining nearly a dozen Republicans with a solid Democratic bloc, which sticks in the craw of Republicans who say they'd prefer a speaker less dependent on support from Democrats. His support is holding for the time being. And it's been barely more than a year since he became speaker — not long enough, he's hoping, for a lot of discontent to build up. Not a lot of time to get comfortable, either. "[Jim] Dunnam plus 15 [Republicans] is a winning ticket," Chisum says, referring to the Democratic leader and that coalition that elected Straus. But he adds, "The November elections could create serious issues for them."

Chisum's dealing with reality. If the numbers don't change in the fall, a coup is probably not possible. It takes years — or a big election — to get 76 members together to unseat a speaker.

House Speaker Pete Laney, D-Hale Center, had a different turnover problem: There wasn't enough of it. Tenured members stayed on, keeping their leadership positions, for a long enough time to create a group of frustrated younger and less senior members who wanted a turn in management.

Tom Craddick, R-Midland, came into the speaker's office in 2003, after helping Republicans win their first modern majority in the Texas House. He had two generational advantages: a relatively large class of freshmen (35 of them, or more than 20 percent of the House), packed with Republicans he had helped elect; and Laney's logjam, which produced enough Democrats to give him the buffer he needed to keep from being a straight party-line choice. That group of "Craddick D's" also helped him hang onto the job as the Republican majority was whittled down over the years from 16 votes to two.

New speaker, fresh start: People who'd been out of power came into it, people who'd been in power fell out, and the clocks reset. Go back to that Laney thing, though. Democrats had something of a bottleneck when their elders were slow to move on. And once they did, Craddick was in office. He didn't owe his job, with some notable exceptions, to the Democrats. So for some, the bottleneck remained in place. It was hard to move up.

"The difference for Speaker Laney was that the people who had the chairmanships were content, and they wanted to stay," Gallego says.

Seniority — used in the Texas Legislature to determine the pecking order on important stuff like office and parking place selection, but mostly not on who gets to serve in leadership positions — is a completely different matter. It doesn't get you into the position, but once you're in, you're in.

"Your power comes from your knowledge of the subject matter," says state Rep. Garnet Coleman, D-Houston. "Ultimately, that's the thing with seniority: It's being around long enough to actually learn something."

More than half of the members of the House were elected in 2002 or later. They haven't been there for 10 years yet. One of those, for instance, is Straus. On the Senate side, only 12 new senators have taken office since 2002, and of those, five served in the House before moving up. Their leader, Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst, took office in 2003, when most of the current senators were already in the Senate.

Seniority's no automatic advantage. Half of the 10 most senior House members don't chair committees. One is Craddick, who lost his speakership to Straus; the others are members of Craddick's leadership team. Victors and spoils and all that.

"I doubt he was thinking about it in those terms, but [Straus] got to start with a clean slate," says state Rep. Mark Strama, D-Austin, who got a chairmanship from the new speaker, as did some other members of his legislative class, which was elected in 2004. "It created some fluidity that was healthy for the system."

"Straus broke the seniority. ... The balance of power in the House is in people without a lot of seniority," Strama says.

He sees more change coming. Lawmakers will tackle redistricting in 2011, and the 2012 elections, based on new political maps, could bring in a relatively large class of freshman. Another way to say it: A relatively large number of veterans could be done after the next session. "If you were doing this story in two years, you'd have more to work with," he says.

"I'm big on youth activism. … I think the system benefits from what members in their 20s and 30s bring to the discussion," Strama says.

Chisum, in a separate conversation, took another tack: "It bothers me sometimes that we get them too young. I'd like it better if they'd been working for a few years and meeting a payroll."

 

The Tribune's Matt Stiles also contributed to this story.

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