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Dewhurst's Tenure as Lieutenant Governor is Both Praised and Panned

After nine years as lieutenant governor of Texas, David Dewhurst can point to major conservative victories, but critics say he has lacked a backbone at times.

Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst in his office at Falcon Seaboard in Houston Wednesday, April 25, 2012.

If Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst wins his bid to replace Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison, he will leave a job he has had for nearly 10 years — longer than all but two other lieutenant governors in Texas history.

The position, held by such legends as Bob Bullock and Bill Hobby, is often described as the most powerful seat in Texas government. Dewhurst’s tenure has drawn a mixed appraisal: he has presided over the passage of dozens of major bills, but critics said that, when push came to shove, his political aspirations weakened his resolve.

“He has a humble persona and a softer persona, but that belies a very capable and skilled presiding officer,” said Terry Keel, the executive director of the Texas Facilities Commission and a former Republican state representative and House parliamentarian. He said Dewhurst’s critics incorrectly interpret his gentlemanly demeanor as that of a pushover.

But others argue that Dewhurst too often ducked the bare-knuckled negotiations expected of the president of the Texas Senate.

“Dewhurst caves,” said former state Sen. Eliot Shapleigh, D-El Paso. “When extremists threaten, Dewhurst caves over and over.”

In his Republican primary campaign for Senate, a race in which polls say he is the front-runner, Dewhurst is taking credit for a long list of measures passed since 2003. Dewhurst is pointing to how Texas has weathered the recession better than most states as proof of his effective leadership, much as Gov. Rick Perry did in his recent presidential bid.

In a body where moderates have often held the most power, Dewhurst has taken hits from both sides of the aisle. Democrats have accused him of kowtowing to the right wing, and some more conservative members of his party dismiss him as a timid moderate. Dewhurst declined to be interviewed for this article.

Mark Jones, a political science professor at Rice University, studied the votes of the 2011 regular and special sessions and determined that Dewhurst was well-aligned with two-thirds of Republicans in the Senate but more moderate than the body’s most conservative members. That spot on the chamber’s political spectrum has allowed Dewhurst to more easily clear the crucial Senate hurdle of drawing the support of at least two-thirds of the chamber to bring up most bills, according to Jones.

“It’s not working with factions; it’s not working with parties,” Jones said. “It’s working with 31 individuals.”

When Dewhurst took over the Senate in 2003, he was the outsider with everything to prove. Most lieutenant governors had entered the job with some time served in the Legislature.

A millionaire businessman, rancher and former C.I.A. employee, Dewhurst had made his debut in public office four years earlier, tapping his personal wealth to win a race for land commissioner. He then spent millions on his victorious bid for lieutenant governor, winning 52 percent of the vote against John Sharp, a Democrat.

In contrast with Dewhurst’s legislative inexperience and reputation as a stiff micromanager, the Texas House had just elected a new speaker, Tom Craddick, a forceful, battle-tested Midland Republican who has served in the House since 1969.

Amid low expectations, Dewhurst surprised many that first session, helping to steer a major tort-reform package and cutting the budget while earning the respect of his colleagues as a burgeoning team player.

In the ensuing eight years, Dewhurst would lead the Senate to take on both highly partisan measures like redistricting and voter ID along with sweeping enterprises like overhauling public school finance. He would also play a lead role in requiring the testing of high school athletes for steroids and beefing up sentences for certain violent child predators.

Dewhurst has never drawn the larger-than-life plaudits of Bullock, who was lieutenant governor through most of the 1990s and was widely viewed as a major player on every important bill, or of Hobby, who presided in the position for 18 years before that.

“Previous lieutenant governors pretty much drove the agenda,” said state Sen. Leticia Van de Putte, D-San Antonio. “And Dewhurst, I think because he didn’t have that legislative backdrop and experience, he was more of a caretaker of the Senate.”

Bruce Gibson, a former House member who later served as an aide to Bullock and as Dewhurst’s chief of staff, said the two men had more in common than some may realize.

“They’re both hands-on, had full knowledge of their budget priorities,” Gibson said. “They just had very different budget priorities.” He added that “both were consummate negotiators.”

Yet Dewhurst frequently frustrated senators from both parties for not appearing to hold firm in negotiations with the House or with Perry.

In the 2011 session, the House wanted to cut more from the state budget than the Senate. Several senators were annoyed and puzzled when Dewhurst appeared to suggest he was willing to tap the state’s Rainy Day Fund and then, days later, insisted the opposite. Many felt that the House ultimately got the upper hand and that more cuts were granted than necessary.

Supporters of Dewhurst argue that such critiques ignore the measures he has effectively steered through the Senate during periods when drawing enough support was in doubt.

“You just can’t preside over there,” Keel said. “You’ve got to be able to twist arms of your own party. I saw it. He was every bit as effective as Craddick was in that regard.”

In recent years, state Sen. Dan Patrick, a Houston Republican and conservative radio host, has emerged as a powerful challenger to the Senate’s status quo and an occasional thorn in Dewhurst’s side.

Despite some public clashes, Patrick, who is mulling a run for lieutenant governor in 2014, said he regards Dewhurst as an ally, noting that Dewhurst has appointed him to several powerful committees.

“He counted on my conservative vote,” Patrick said. “He knew I’d hold the line.”

Patrick was less charitable last May when he accused Dewhurst of conspiring to kill a controversial effort to apply criminal penalties to federal airport security agents who conduct intrusive pat-downs.

“Someone who will not stand up to the federal government, you have to ask yourself, is that the kind of person we need in the U.S. Senate?” Patrick said at the time.

Patrick said he and Dewhurst resolved their differences over the bill and together asked Perry to add the measure to the agenda of a special session. A version of the bill eventually made it out of the Senate but died in the House.

“You can have a disagreement for a moment and then you move on,” Patrick said.

Patrick said he is not endorsing in the Senate race but predicted that Dewhurst would win the primary and avoid a runoff.

While others had trouble pinpointing Dewhurst’s legacy, Patrick said the 2003 tort-reform package and last year’s measure requiring women to receive sonograms before undergoing an abortion are landmarks of Dewhurst’s tenure.

“To me that’s an incredible legacy,” he said.

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