January 1, 2007
Texas legislators have their to-do list. No doubt about that. But legislative sessions are one part policy and one part politics. The policy affects us where we live, but you can’t get to the substance without going through the drama.
And, boy, the 2007 Legislature will begin Jan. 9 with a pitched political fever:
In the Texas House: Speaker Tom Craddick must slay two opponents this week or the Midland Republican’s four-year run as a tough-guy leader ends. If it does, the place changes, big time. Here’s why:
If either Brian McCall or Jim Pitts succeed in knocking off their GOP colleague as speaker, anti-Craddick conservatives, moderate Republicans and most Democrats will have a new voice under a different speaker.
The shift will affect how the surplus gets used, whether legislators step up to water and other environmental demands, and how collegially the House operates.
Even if Mr. Craddick wins another shot, the challenge to his leadership will change the House. That’s not me talking, either. Lobbyist Bill Miller, a top Craddick ally, told me last week that Mr. Craddick will hear the wakeup call, much as President Bill Clinton did on a national scale after his Democrats were trounced in the 1994 midterm elections.
We’ll see. Collegiality, or the lack thereof, has been a big problem during Mr. Craddick’s reign as speaker. You hear moaning all the time, including from top Republicans, that he wants things his way or nobody’s way.
Beyond the speaker’s race, the GOP’s narrowing majority will shape the House. Four years ago, when Republicans took control, they had 88 seats to the Democrats’ 62.
Today, the GOP has 80 and the Dems 69 (with one race still undecided).
The thinner majority will force Republicans to work more with Democrats — if they want to get much done. Compromise also is in order to stop the GOP decline. Showing they can govern better than the recent partisan brawls (see school finance sessions) can help Republicans’ cause with voters.
In the Texas Senate: Two big factors here. First, there’s Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst’s burning desire to run for governor in 2010. The upside to the Houston Republican’s greater ambitions is that he may play to the center, knowing Republicans can’t lose more voters in big urban areas like Dallas. His moderate instincts could prevail and get him to fight to use the surplus in a humane way, such as ensuring that enough eligible kids receive health coverage.
There’s a potential downside, too, if Mr. Dewhurst allows personal ambition to hinder the session. You already hear grumbling that senators, including Republicans, are frustrated that he’s out front on even their own initiatives. If he plays the glory-hog too overtly, he’ll lose his own party.
Second, the Senate has two major additions: Democrat Kirk Watson and Republican Dan Patrick.
Mr. Watson, Austin’s former mayor, gives Democrats a new quarterback on the floor. Ever since conservative Democrat John Montford left about a decade ago, Senate Democrats have lacked a clear leader. The articulate Mr. Watson could be the guy who rallies a tired-looking caucus.
Mr. Patrick is a whole ‘nother cat. The radio talk show host could become the Republicans’ deal-killer. The staunch conservative appears to basically hate government and wants to pitch a fit over cultural issues like abortion. And when the Houston-area freshman pitches one, he can turn to the radio stations he owns in Houston and Dallas to scream bloody murder.
Mr. Dewhurst and GOP senators will need to — how shall we say? — make their presence known. Otherwise, they could lose control of their chamber.
That’s your lineup. Oh, yeah, there’s Gov. Rick Perry going into his second full term. Does he focus on Texas’ long-term needs or positioning himself for a vice presidential bid? The answer will determine what policies he backs.
Welcome to 2007. All the issues must dance around these political calculations if they are going to get heard. The fun’s about to start.