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Why would a powerful Democrat in the Texas House want to become a relatively powerless Democrat in the Texas Senate?
The question applies right now to Trey Martinez Fischer of San Antonio, who is giving up his House seat for a Senate run. And it could become a question for Senfronia Thompson of Houston, who’s regularly mentioned as a possible replacement for Sen. Rodney Ellis, who hopes to win an open seat on the Harris County Commissioners Court.
Moving from the House to Senate is a normal move for an ambitious politician. The pay is the same, but senators have more staff, more power, longer terms and the intoxicating glow of being called “senator” instead of “mister” or “mizz.”
But these two are not normal House members. Each, by traveling a different path, is as powerful a force in the Texas Legislature as almost any senator. A move to the “upper chamber” could be seen as a step down for either of them.
Thompson is waiting to see what happens to Ellis’ bid for commissioner. If he wins, his seat will open. She’s been mentioned as a candidate, as have others like state Reps. Garnet Coleman and Borris Miles, her fellow Houston Democrats. She says she’s heard the rumors but is not ready to make a decision about it.
“I'm not jumping out of my skin,” Thompson said recently.
Only 13 of the Senate’s 31 members are, in the parlance of the state Capitol, “House-trained.”
It sometimes shows. Senators often come to a place in the process where they don’t seem to have the first clue what’s happening on the western end of the building. They need help navigating the continuous food-fight that is known as the Texas House of Representatives.
That’s especially important now.
Until last year, the Senate operated under what was known as the two-thirds rule, a legislative requirement that at least two-thirds of the Senate had to agree to start a debate on a particular piece of legislation. Put another way, that meant that one-third — 11 senators — could block debate on most issues.
Partisans, and lieutenant governors, really hated that rule. When Republican senators dumped it a year ago, they cut the power of Democratic senators but also vastly increased Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick’s power over the Senate agenda.
And, as it turns out, the power of the Texas House. What used to get stuck in the Senate often flies right through, leaving the House to decide what goes and what doesn’t.
(This is a sidebar, but one reason state Rep. Byron Cook, R-Corsicana, has a tough primary re-election fight is because of the number of hot-button Senate bills that came to their ends in his House State Affairs Committee.)
The voting minority in the Senate — on partisan issues, that would be the Democrats — lost a lot of their clout when that rule changed.
That was a long windup to this: Why would a powerful member of the Democratic minority in the Texas House want to move to the Texas Senate?
Democrats are outnumbered in both places, but it’s a lot easier to walk over them in the Senate. And a powerful and tenured House member would start at the bottom of the heap in the upper chamber. A win by Martinez Fischer or, if it comes to it, by Thompson, would take an outsized political figure and put him or her at the back of the herd.
The average senator has more clout than the average House member, just because of the numbers. Officeholders have a shorthand for it: “one of 31 instead of one of 150.”
But Thompson and Martinez Fischer aren’t average House members. He started as a troublemaker — one of the noisy people at the House’s back mic — and has turned a mastery of House rules and negotiation into a reputation as a dealmaker. He remains a partisan, but he’s a force in the House.
Thompson did it another way. She is the dean of the House Democrats, second in seniority in that body only to Midland Republican Tom Craddick. She’s the chairman of the Local and Consent Calendars Committee — the one that has life-or-death control over the sorts of meat-and-potatoes issues that fill town halls back home and get people re-elected or thrown out of office.
And she is a smart and experienced player in the legislative process. She commands respect from people on both sides. That “one of 150” thing doesn’t really apply to her; Thompson is more like seven or eight of 150 all by herself.
Trade that for the caboose car in the Senate? Really?