After 20 years, Scott Hochberg is bailing out of the Texas Legislature. He says it’s time. He’ll be 59 when he leaves office a little over a year from now. He won’t have to campaign in a newly drawn legislative district, and he’ll get back his nights and weekends.
He’ll leave a hole in the House. Hochberg, a Houston Democrat who started as a House staff member and won his first election in 1992, is an acknowledged wizard at school finance and has a deep well of experience in education issues.
He plays it down, saying: “Holes in the Legislature are kind of like holes on the beach. They fill up pretty quickly.”
What Hochberg is good at is a couple of the most important issues the Legislature will be tackling when it convenes in January 2013. The state’s school finance system is under siege, with school districts joining lawsuits challenging the distribution of education money and budget writers struggling to keep conflicting promises: to fully finance public schools on the one hand and to hold the line on taxes and spending on the other. On the policy front, the perpetual wrestling match over testing and management and education curriculums continues.
Hochberg managed to be in the middle of things without becoming a high-profile partisan like his colleagues Garnet Coleman, Jim Dunnam and Pete Gallego. He said the changes at the Capitol had more to do with politics than with policy. Education experts have been forming and departing the Legislature for decades. Another one — Sen. Florence Shapiro, R-Plano, who heads the Senate Education Committee — is leaving after this term, too. People like them have always arrived to fill the holes.
But the nature of the place has changed. It has always had partisans, Hochberg said, but they weren’t encouraged.
“What I used to hear an awful lot is, ‘I can’t vote for that because my district will kill me,’” he said. “Certain subject areas were certainly off the table, but there was also this feeling of if we could all get together on something, then we’re all better off politically.”
“Perhaps now there’s more concern, particularly on the Republican side, with what goes on in the primary,” he said. “If that’s where the cover is being sought, I think Republicans are less likely to seek cover from opposing Democrats and more likely to seek cover from some of the socalled kingmakers on their side.”
He remembers a dentist who used to voice his opinions the old-fashioned way — on paper, mailed with stamps. “Literally, the letters were sometimes in crayon or Magic Marker,” he said, “and they started out, generally, with ‘What are you idiots doing down there?’”
With modern technology, that one dentist could look like an army, sending thousands of emails. “He was the only guy who ever saw them,” Hochberg said. “He didn’t have the ability to send them to 20,000 people with the click of a button.”
“I’m really not sure, from a psychological standpoint, that we’ve figured out how to deal with that, and to give it its appropriate weight,” he said. “What it means is that the loud voices can be far louder.”
The Republicans came after Hochberg in 2003, redrawing his district so that — they thought — he’d get beat by a Republican. He responded by campaigning heavily in apartment complexes filled with adult nonvoters, identifying issues important to them and working to turn out the people he identified as political supporters. He got a higher percentage of the vote in the 2004 election than he got two years earlier and remained safe, until now.
His Republican colleagues in the Legislature came after him again this year, drawing a map that put him and Rep. Hubert Vo, also a Houston Democrat, in the same legislative district. The maps currently in place — drawn by a panel of federal judges in San Antonio — have him on safer ground, at least in the partisan sense. But it’s not his old district.
“I’ve got about half a new district,” Hochberg said of the new political maps. “That’s a lot of people to get out and get to know. It takes a while to learn the street corners, the liquor licenses.”
“I started over once, 10 years ago,” he said of his decision to leave. “I kind of know what that’s like.”