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Paul Burka: The TT Interview

The senior executive editor of Texas Monthly on the biennial list of the Best and Worst Legislators, now coming together for the 20th time, on how he decides who's in and who's out, and on how this crop of lawmakers is shaping up.

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Today is the first day of the second half of the 82nd regular session of the Texas Legislature, with 70 days behind us and 70 more ahead (we're not counting special sessions, because we want to go on summer vacation like you do). We're marking the occasion with an interview with Paul Burka, the senior executive editor of Texas Monthly and the long-time ringleader of that publication's list of the Best and Worst Legislators. The magazine's first best and worst list appeared in 1973. Burka wasn't on board for that one, but he was there for the 1975 list and for each one after that. This year's effort will mark the 20th session for the list, now (along with Burka) an institution in itself. We talked about the early days, the criteria, whether his presence in the Capitol changes the way people act and how he thinks this crop of lawmakers is shaping up.

Audio: Paul Burka

TT: How did this start?

Burka: The first story was done in 1973, and of course, no one was prepared for it. I think the idea came from an old Harper's story, which was, like, "Top 10 Dumb in Congress." But [William] Broyles had the smarts and the instinct for what the people of Texas would tolerate to know that if we did a worst, we would have to do a best with it. I think that was the key decision was that, we're not here just to make fun of these people, that there's a difference between what's good and what's bad and here's the difference and here's the criteria.

TT: How do you pick? What are you looking for?

Burka: Our criteria are not what they say at the press table — it's the inside-the-rail criteria. How do members judge each other? What do they look for? They look for integrity, they look for people who are hard-working and people who try to work things out and get together and move the ball forward.

TT: And the worst?

Burka: On the other side, it's sort of lead, follow or get out of the way. And it's the people who are in the way that tend to be the people who wind up on the 10 worst list. They are obstructing solutions.

There has to be evidence. In other words, one thing this story is not: The best list is not, who are good guys, people that you think, gee, these are nice human beings. There are a lot of nice human beings, but it's not about that. The 10 best, 10 worst story has to be the story of the session.

TT: What about the quality of legislation?

Burka: This is fundamentally about process, and very seldom is it about a good bill or a bad bill.

TT: Conventional wisdom is that your very presence now causes people to act up.

Burka: I was in the Legislative Library the other day, and [former House Speaker Gib Lewis] walked in with a guest. I reminded him of the time he said, "If you would just leave, I could pass this bill in 30 minutes." He sent me a note, from the podium. I sent him a note back: "I'll give you an hour. Bet you can't do it." And he couldn't.

TT: How is this session shaping up?

Burka: The politics are bad because you basically have a three-party state. You have the Democrats, you have the moderate Republicans, and you have the zealous Republicans, the tear-it-all-down Republicans. The majority party is divided, and so that's just a formula for stalemate.

TT: What's the purpose of this? Why do you do it?

Burka: Why are we doing it? To tell our readers how politics really works. In other words, if the story has any value at all, it is how politics really works. It's not about who's a bad guy and who's a good guy. Most of our readers think that politics is about liberals and conservatives and Republicans and Democrats, but there's a very large component of politics that's about personality and people who know how to say the right thing at the right time, or say the wrong thing at the wrong time. It's a talent. Some of these people are really great at it. Personality is a huge component of politics.

TT: When can you see things really start to take shape, about the session itself and about who will be on which list?

Burka: The session is basically April 1 to the end. It's the sprint. Of course, the sprint takes place in mud. The session pivots on the appropriations bill coming to the floor.

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