Perhaps a made-up word — “mavericky” — may be the most appropriate way to describe state Sen. Jeff Wentworth, R-San Antonio. After six terms in the Senate, the 70-year-old has earned a reputation as someone whose stubborn adherence to principle leads him to buck his own party and lock horns with leadership, sometimes to the detriment of his legislative priorities. “I don’t cow easily by anybody,” he says. “I don’t care whether I’m re-elected or not. I’m gonna do in the brief time I have in public office what I think is right, and if that goes against my colleagues or my political party, I’m not their representative. I represent the people.”
Of course, going one’s own way can wear a man down, and Wentworth wasn’t expected to come back next session after seeking two high-profile higher education jobs this summer. After both fizzled, he says he’s “gunned up and ready to go” for his seventh term in the Senate, even if he'll return with clout resembling that of a freshman. He’s without a few of the aides who knew him best and stripped of the Jurisprudence Committee he used to chair. He says he’s hopeful he can just get a seat on the redistricting committee that he also once chaired.
“For me not to even be a member of the Senate Redistricting Committee seems to be an oversight of some kind,” he says.
Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst says part of the reason he reassigned Wentworth’s committees was because he wasn’t expecting the senator to return. “Senator Wentworth was talking about moving on and doing something different, and that was in the back of my mind,” Dewhurst says.
That prospect of moving on may have also been on the minds of Wentworth’s 2009 staff members, at least a half dozen of whom have departed in the last year. All of his former aides on the Jurisprudence Committee are gone, replaced after the lieutenant governor removed Wentworth as chair in July. His chief of staff, Joe Morris, and his general counsel, Katie Henry, both moved on, too. Wentworth said he simply warned his top aides that he was up for the job of chancellor of the Texas State University System in the spring but did not instruct them to leave. They left on their own for various reasons, he insists.
“They were absolutely invaluable to me, an integral part of the team,” Wentworth says of his senior staff. “That said, the cemetery is full of people who were so-called indispensable when they were alive.”
If he sounds blunt, he doesn’t apologize for it. A former county commissioner and a three-term veteran of the Texas House, Wentworth is known for his Texas-style independence and candor. He takes pride in calling out his Republican colleagues for their unwillingness to support his proposals to make government more representative and refuses to cooperate in the common Senate practice of suspending the rules to fast-track bills to passage. This summer, he very publicly fumed in a five-page letter after he wasn’t selected to lead the Texas State System. (The chancellor's job went to another lawmaker, state Rep. Brian McCall, R-Plano.)
Today, he still stands by the sprawling letter (and the accompanying side-by-side comparison of his curriculum vitae with McCall’s) that he sent to Ron Blatchley, the chairman of the Texas State Board of Regents, and copied to others, including the media.
“Frankly, Ron, I’m more than a little disappointed and puzzled; I’m personally offended that my significant and sustained support of and advocacy for higher education and the system for many years apparently count for so little ...” Wentworth wrote to Blatchley. “If I ever write my autobiography, this experience in my life deserves a chapter entitled ‘No Good Deed Goes Unpunished’. … Y’all threw overboard a loyal, tried and true, longtime member of the crew in favor of (please pardon my unvarnished candor) a Johnny-come-lately opportunist.”
"I have no animosity toward Brian McCall," he says now. "My criticism was of the Board of Regents and what I continue to believe is their flawed selection process."
A month later, more of the unvarnished Wentworth was on display when he was all but offered a senior-level post by the Texas A&M University System Chancellor Mike McKinney. He says he opted to stay in the Senate because of the timing: Had he resigned, he says, his district’s Republican county chairs, instead of voters, would have chosen his successor. “That didn’t seem to me the respectful way to leave the Senate,” Wentworth says.
Nonetheless, Wentworth sent McKinney a list of salary requirements and title requests, to which McKinney has not replied. “The ball, if there is a ball, is in McKinney’s court,” Wentworth says. “I have no assurance he will ever throw it back on my side of the net.” McKinney wasn’t available for comment Wednesday, but Texas A&M University System spokesman Jason Cook said, "We do not have an opening for that position, nor do we see one in the future."
Of course, Wentworth could always leave the Senate and return to practicing law, but he sounds almost allergic to the idea. “I don’t know many people who enjoy practicing law, and I’m among them,” he says. He has told his colleagues he will finish out the session, if not his full term, which ends in 2012. “He has said he would stay through, and I expect him to,” says state Sen. Judith Zaffirini, D-Laredo, a longtime friend. “Besides that, I talked to his wife. And she told me he was staying through.”
So come January, one of the upper chamber’s most unpredictable members will be back in his seat in the green-carpeted chamber, which could be a rare bit of good news for Democrats in a Senate in which Republicans don't quite have the two-thirds majority they'll enjoy in the House. Because Wentworth often puts his own political views ahead of his party's — he received the lowest rating of any GOP lawmaker from taxpayer watchdog group Texans for Fiscal Responsibility last session, for example, and he consistently gets high scores from NARAL Pro-Choice Texas — he could potentially help the Democratic minority in stopping some legislation from reaching a floor vote.
At the same time, he regularly pushes for a Republican-friendly measure to allow concealed handguns to be carried on college campuses, and he is co-sponsoring a voter ID bill with state Sen. Troy Fraser, R-Horseshoe Bay.
He will for the 10th time attempt to win passage his pet bill, which calls for creating a bipartisan committee to redraw congressional and legislative lines. And he will once again advocate for legislation eliminating straight-ticket voting. "Both political parties oppose that," he says, "and I think that's very self-serving on their part."
“I gave him a statue of Don Quixote with a plaque that said, Jeff Wentworth, R-La Mancha,” Zaffirini says. “He is a person of high integrity, and he doesn't give up.” As evidence of their friendship, Zaffirini has given over one of her former staff members to Wentworth, who is now filling his 2011 roster with fresh faces. For his part, the lieutenant governor says he’s open to reconsidering Wentworth’s committee assignments, which will determine the role the senior senator will play next session.
“If he stays, we’re gonna have a lot of challenging things for him to do,” Dewhurst says. “Traditionally, I sit down and we make some changes in the first week in January … so everything’s on the table.”
But with Wentworth, as always, nothing is guaranteed. "I'm a Republican," he says, "but that's second to being a Texan."