This is one in a series of occasional stories about ethics and transparency in the part-time Texas Legislature. It was produced in partnership with Texas Monthly.
When Sen. John Carona showed up for the 78th session of the Texas Legislature in 2003, he knew he was in trouble.
In fact, he was in the doghouse.
“There was no doubt in my mind how I landed there, and it was through my own effort, my own initiative,” the Dallas Republican recalled in March in an interview behind the Senate chamber.
The reason for his troubles: In the 2002 elections, Carona had crossed party lines and endorsed his friend, former Democratic Comptroller John Sharp, in the race for lieutenant governor. It was a particularly risky move since the Texas lieutenant governor acts as the presiding officer of the state Senate — determining the flow of legislation and the committee assignments for every senator. Whoever won would essentially become Carona’s political and legislative boss.
As it turns out, Carona made a monstrously bad bet. Sharp, part of the old conservative Democratic establishment that used to rule Texas, became a symbol of its decline when he lost to Republican businessman (and then-Land Commissioner) David Dewhurst that November.
Instead of ignoring the situation or allowing any bitterness to linger, Carona decided to acknowledge his faux pas. During the opening days of the 2003 session, as legislators were returning to their leather-bound seats, Carona delivered a gift to Dewhurst’s office.
“It’s true,” Carona said. Laughing, he pointed to his knee: “The doghouse was about this tall.” It was a red one, like something out of a Snoopy cartoon, and it had Carona’s name above the door.
The message was clear. Carona knew where his apostasy had landed him.
“It broke the ice,” Carona remembered. “One of the things about serving in public office, especially in the legislative body, is you serve with a lot of folks who are a bit egotistical, including myself at times, so every once in a while, you just have to take a deep breath and remind yourself that it isn’t about you. It’s about the people and better public policy.”
The episode speaks volumes about the way Carona rolls: He’s a maverick who doesn’t mind bucking his own party, but he’s also exceedingly pragmatic. He has supported an increase in the gas tax to build badly needed highways, backed gays who want to adopt children and fought attempts to weaken rules that let the minority party play a meaningful role in the state Senate.
And while he has faced criticism for blurring the line between his role as a state senator and his job as CEO of the largest homeowner association management company in America, Carona’s willingness to confront the far extremes of his party and to reach across the aisle to Democrats have in many ways made him a breath of political fresh air in a system that seems to favor doctrinaire partisanship.
“In the land of 31 super egos, he is perhaps the most get-down-to-business guy in there,” said Harvey Kronberg, editor of the insider newsletter the Quorum Report. “John Carona says what he believes and faces the consequences.”
Carona’s practical view of politics can be traced to his sometimes difficult upbringing in East Dallas, where he learned the value of hard work at an early age. In 1968, when the world was watching the U.S. struggle in Vietnam and riots and assassinations were shaking the nation’s confidence at home, little John Joseph Carona — armed with nothing but a lawnmower — was already starting his first business.
He was 12 years old.
“Anything I wanted, whether it was clothing or whatever it might be, I had to earn myself,” Carona said. “I could go out on Saturday and I would leave the house at 7 a.m. and I would work till 7 p.m., until I literally couldn't walk anymore.”
He’s come a long way from those humble roots. Carona got into property management after college and in 1979 founded a company that today is known as Associa, which manages homeowners associations in 31 U.S. states and several locations in Mexico and Canada. Now he lives in a $7 million mansion in the exclusive Preston Hollow neighborhood of Dallas, but he says he’s never forgotten where he came from.
“I've not ever had anybody give me anything; it's always been earned,” he said. “I think it's a good thing, but it can also make you a little bit, you know, tough and hard to deal with.”
Carona is known for having a hot temper, engaging in sometimes heated shouting matches with colleagues and launching into some choice Italian phrases on the Senate floor when things weren’t going his way.
During the 2011 legislative session, Carona turned his ire on TV newsman Brett Shipp of Dallas’ WFAA-TV. During an interview outside the Senate chamber, Shipp had asked Carona about a controversy involving his HOA management company.
“End of interview,” Carona snapped.
The reporter followed the senator into the chamber, but Carona was having none of it. He instructed the sergeant-at-arms — the in-house security force — to remove Shipp, part of which WFAA-TV caught on tape.
Whether his high-strung personality and sometimes entertaining outbursts feed his own interests or make him an effective lawmaker is open to interpretation.
“He seems to have an interesting feel for when to cause a ruckus and when to make a deal; that’s a sign of somebody who has an understanding of how the institution works,” said Jim Henson, a political science professor at the University of Texas at Austin. However, “it’s hard to draw a conclusion on whether it’s all just in his self interest,” Henson added.
Over the years Carona has received both praise and condemnation for his unorthodox approach. In 2001 Texas Monthly put him on the magazine’s list of worst legislators for a temper tantrum on the Senate floor and for becoming a “tool of the ‘industry representatives'” during debates on financial regulation bills that it said would negatively impact consumers.
“If he had carried any more dirty water for lobbyists, he would have needed a permit from the Texas Natural Resource Conservation Commission,” the magazine said.
Eight years later, Carona landed on Texas Monthly’s “best” list. The magazine cited his dogged pursuit of more money for transportation projects. He was also praised for opposing the move to ditch a hallowed rule — requiring a supermajority of senators to agree before a bill can reach the Senate floor — so the GOP could push through a controversial bill requiring voters to produce a photo ID before being allowed to vote. Carona supported the voter ID bill, but not at the cost of ending a Senate tradition.
“Changing the rules to win? Not his style,” the magazine wrote.
Now chairman of the powerful Senate Committee on Business and Commerce, Carona is known for bringing conflicting interests to the table, demanding a compromise and setting a 5 p.m. deadline. In this session alone, he built legislative consensus within the beer industry and the gambling industry, for example.
The beer bill, allowing craft beer makers and brewpub owners to produce and sell more of their product in the Texas marketplace, is on its way to the desk of Gov. Rick Perry.
Gambling was — like most sessions — unlikely to get much traction this year. But Carona, who believes legalizing it would bring thousands of jobs and increased tax revenue to Texas, championed a deal between casino owners and racetrack industry leaders to allow the expansion of gambling in the state, contingent upon voter approval. Such efforts have fallen apart in past sessions due to divisions among various interest groups.
Carona has developed close ties to Democrats and Republicans alike, seeming to choose power players over party lines. He has even thrown fundraisers for Sen. Judith Zaffirini, D-Laredo, and Sen. Royce West, D-Dallas, unusually warm bipartisan outreach that has won him both kudos and derision.
“That will drive the partisans in both parties nuts, but Austin could use more of this kind of respect,” The Dallas Morning News wrote in a 2010 editorial after the Zaffirini fundraiser. The paper lauded Carona for treating the Democratic senators as “colleagues, not enemies.”
Part of the motivation for his bipartisan outreach may have been more practical though: Carona was seen as a top contender for the post of lieutenant governor in the event that Dewhurst got elected to the U.S. Senate in 2012. In that scenario, there would have been an internal election inside the Senate and Carona would have needed the votes of both Democrats and Republicans to win. (Dewhurst lost to Tea Party firebrand Ted Cruz, so there ultimately was no vacancy to fill.)
For conservative critics, Carona’s close ties with Democrats are but one of the many ways the Dallas Republican has found himself out of step with his party’s increasingly conservative base.
Katrina Pierson, a Dallas Tea Party leader, said Carona does not always play for the conservative team. On the issue of expanding gambling, for example, she said he appeared to be “very sincere” about wanting to hear both sides but eventually “picked up the mantle and supported it, then berated citizens in the process.”
“That was potentially manipulative,” she said. “Many in the conservative movement question his motives because his actions do not reflect conservative motives.”
While he considers himself a proud conservative Republican, Carona sometimes leads lonely policy crusades that have left the party’s base irritated.
He was one of the few conservative voices calling for hikes on the state motor tax to pay for the crumbling highways crisscrossing the state in 2009. When lawmakers failed to heed his suggestions, he filibustered the transportation sunset bill authorizing the agency to continue its operations. In a press release, he called the exclusion of a local-option vote on North Texas transit “a negotiation made in bad faith” and said the “self-professed tax watchdogs” who opposed him were either ignorant or callously opposed to a common-sense solution.
As the clock struck midnight on the sunset bill, its author, Rep. Joe Pickett, D-El Paso, left it to die in the House. Carona’s threat proved lethal.
Carona threw away the social conservative team jersey altogether when last year he became, as far as gay activists can determine, the first Republican in state elective office to publicly speak favorably about gay rights. In an interview with the Dallas Voice, a left-leaning newspaper, he said he supported protecting LGBT workers under employment discrimination laws and allowing same-sex parents to both appear on their adoptive child’s birth certificate.
With two adoptive children of his own, Carona also called banning gays from adopting a “wrong-headed argument,” and said that “kids need a loving home, regardless of sexual orientation.”
Where does this all leave Carona’s political future?
In a recent interview, he dismissed talk of running for higher office anytime soon — which would be problematic anyway given his independent streak. But he said he will run for re-election next year, which will mark nearly a quarter century in the Legislature.
Carona is the odds-on favorite to win in the general election, but he could be challenged in a primary race. Dallas Tea Party leader Ken Emanuelson said that despite his maverick ways, Carona remains accessible and open to the views of movement conservatives.
“He’s definitely done some things to irritate the grass roots,” Emanuelson said. “It would take the right candidate, and piles and piles of money, a huge undertaking [to defeat him]. It’s much better used in state representative and local races to build up a farm team.”
Carona seems unperturbed by the ideological pressure, and he insists his breed of Republicanism serves government best.
“Government has never worked at its best when it’s about absolutes,” Carona said. “It requires compromise, it requires consensus building, it requires a focus on finding solutions rather than merely using politics as yet another way to channel one’s ideology.”