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In the early 90s — the heyday of consumer rights legislation and regulation in Texas — Robert Cullick, then a reporter at the Houston Chronicle, gave Tom “Smitty” Smith of Public Citizen Texas an unofficial title: Everybody’s Third Paragraph.
Smith, 66, announced his retirement Tuesday from his official post after 31 years, ending a long run of organizing and lobbying on behalf of consumers and citizens on a range of issues like utilities, insurance and political ethics. He was often the voice of the opposition in legislative fights and in the media, which earned him that reporter's epithet.
He’s from that part of the Austin lobby that doesn’t wear fancy suits, doesn’t drive the latest luxury cars and doesn’t spend its time fawning over and feeding elected officials. Smitty has a beard, an omnipresent straw hat and, often, a colorful sheaf of flyers making his points on whatever cause he’s pushing at the time.
Smitty has been a leading voice for government intervention and regulation of big industries and interests in the capital of a state with conservative, business-friendly politicians from both parties who pride themselves on light regulation, low taxes and a Wild West approach to money in politics.
For the most part, Smith seems to have disagreed strongly, vociferously, but agreeably. He doesn’t wear his wins or his losses on his sleeve.
“The thing that I learned time after time, story after story, is that people standing up does make a difference,” Smith says. “It does change policy.
“Citizen activism does matter, and it’s the only known antidote to organized political corruption and political money,” he says.
His causes over the years have included food security, decommissioning costs of the nuclear reactors owned by various Texas utilities, insurance regulations, ethics and campaign finance laws. He’s lobbied on environmental issues and product safety.
He counts the ethics reforms of 1991 as one of his big wins. As unregulated as Texas political ethics and campaign finance might seem today, things were a lot looser before reformers used a flurry of scandals and attendant media coverage to force changes. Smith is proud of a medical bill of rights that gave consumers some leverage with their doctors and their health insurers.
Public Citizen was a key player in the creation of the State Office of Administrative Hearings, which took administrative courts out of several regulatory agencies and put them in a central office, farther from the reach of regulated industries and elected officials. Smith now points to the Texas Railroad Commission, which still has its own administrative hearings, as an example of a too-close relationship between regulators, the companies they regulate and the judges supposed to referee their differences.
He was an early and noisy advocate for renewable energy, urging regulators and lawmakers to promote wind and solar generation — and transmission lines to carry their power — as an alternative to coal plants and other generating sources. That looks easier from a 2016 vantage point than it did in 1989, when an appointed utilities regulator derided alternative energy in an open meeting by saying that he hadn’t smoked enough dope to move the state in that direction.
That regulator is gone now, and Texas leads the nation in wind energy. Chalk one up for the environmental advocates.
Smitty is leaving with unfulfilled wishes. He’d like to have made more progress on Texas emissions and climate change, on campaign finance reforms and conflict-of-interest laws.
The ethics reforms of 1991 included creation of the Texas Ethics Commission and a number of significant regulations on the behavior of the Texans contending for and holding state office. There is always more, of course. Smith had a list of 13 reforms that year, and eight made it into law. Some of the remaining items remain undone 25 years later.
“All the time I’ve been working here, Texas politics has been largely controlled by organized businesses pooling their money together and making significant contributions to key legislators,” Smith says. “Legislators are more concerned about injuring their donors than they are about injuring their constituents.”
He illustrates that with stories, like one about a legislator asking, during a House debate, if his colleagues knew the difference between a campaign contribution and a bribe. “You have to report the campaign contribution.” And another, when a member — former state Rep. Eddie Cavazos, D-Corpus Christi, who went on to become a lobbyist — was making a plea for cutting the influence of big donors. Cavazos recalls telling a story about getting simultaneous calls from a big donor and from someone who wasn’t a political friend. He says he told his colleagues, “You know which one you’re going to answer first.”
“I’m sorry to see Smitty go,” Cavazos said Tuesday. “He provided a large voice in the Legislature that was needed — a balancing voice. He’s a good guy.”
More columns from Ross Ramsey:
- Before you blame voters for Texas' remarkably low election turnout, look at state law. If elections were run by a business, and if high voter turnout was a goal, wouldn't they be trying to make it easier to vote instead of harder?
- Outside of the presidential race, the 2016 election in Texas is pretty quiet — so quiet that a lot of political people are spending their time talking about 2018 — and even 2020 as well.
- A new poll suggests the leading Republican candidate is tied with the leading Democratic candidate in the presidential race in Texas. What if a Republican won the presidency while losing the state of Texas? Heck, what if a Republican lost the presidency while losing the state of Texas? Discuss.