May 25, 2007
AUSTIN – Dispatched to the Senate from parts of Texas that are 150 miles apart geographically but worlds apart politically, a pair of freshman lawmakers set out to leave their marks on some of the biggest issues facing the Lone Star State this year.And they have. Both Republican Dan Patrick, a radio talk show host from the conservative northwest side of Houston, and Democrat Kirk Watson, one-time mayor of the liberal bastion of Austin, have had enough impact in the legislative session now winding down that they’re seen as possible future candidates for statewide office.But their styles couldn’t have been more different. Mr. Patrick entered the Senate determined to shake things up. Mr. Watson took the more traditional route, reaching out and deferring to colleagues. And their roles open a window into how the body operates.”They have enormously promising futures,” said well-known Austin lobbyist and political consultant Bill Miller. “Of course, they will be going at it from different directions. But both have a lot of ambition and talent, and they are liked by their party faithful – and that gives them a huge advantage.”Mr. Patrick time and again took on the status quo, only to see his fellow senators rebuff him. He was singled out by colleagues for grandstanding on a handful of issues dear to his radio audience, such as cutting property taxes and trimming the state budget. Then, there was his boycott of a North Texas Muslim cleric who delivered the opening prayer in the Senate a few days before Easter.But he has been persistent in pushing his conservative principles and got several bills passed along the way.”If you have good ideas and work hard, you can gather support here,” Mr. Patrick said.Mr. Watson, an Austin lawyer, has gone out of his way to get along with the GOP majority in the 31-member Senate while passing several bills and putting his ideas into some of the major legislation of the session.And while Mr. Patrick has clearly drawn more public attention, senators and lobbyists have taken note of Mr. Watson’s performance.”Even though we have ideological differences, everybody on this floor has a lot in common,” Mr. Watson said of his fellow senators. “And it has been more fun than I thought it would be.”Summing up the differences in the two freshmen – out of five in the Senate this session – a GOP consultant and lobbyist said the Democrat performed like a “workhorse” while the Republican was a “show horse.”
Mr. Patrick, 57, is a longtime, conservative radio host who stormed into office last year by crushing three well-financed Republican opponents in the GOP primary – including two sitting House members – and then winning 70 percent of the vote in the general election.Senators from both parties expected to dislike him when he took office because of his outspoken style and his rants on the radio against the do-nothing Legislature. Many – though not all – now say he has been a better fit in the Senate than anticipated.”There were a lot of things written about me before I got here, of how there would be a battle between myself and the other senators,” Mr. Patrick said in a recent interview. “It turned out to be false. I passed a good number of bills, some of them big issues that won bipartisan support.”Among his more notable bills is one that would require women seeking an abortion to first obtain a sonogram and another that would allow private schools to participate in UIL sports. Both made it through the Senate but fell short in the House. Mr. Patrick also noted that he won unanimous passage of a resolution that provides for display of the motto “In God We Trust” in the Senate chamber.But he had run-ins with other senators, notably his Democratic colleagues from Houston.One was Sen. Rodney Ellis, who upbraided Mr. Patrick on the Senate floor after the Republican accused of him of manipulating a bill to expand mental health care coverage in health insurance plans.”You’re not on the radio here,” Mr. Ellis shouted. “Don’t walk on this floor as though you’re holier than thou and act like I’m being disingenuous. That just ticks me off.”Another time, the longest-tenured senator, Democrat John Whitmire of Houston, got into a heated dispute with Mr. Patrick, accusing the freshman of playing to the press and his radio audience rather than trying to work seriously on the state budget.Mr. Patrick recoiled at what he called a lecture, and the squabble carried on for minutes. It was rare for the Senate, which prides itself on public displays of unity. Both incidents demonstrate what has been the biggest hurdle for Mr. Patrick in winning over his colleagues: their fear that he would merge his Senate activities with his radio broadcasts. Some even questioned whether he would record closed meetings and play them over the air.In the early days of the session, Mr. Patrick would leave the Capitol late each afternoon and walk across the street to an office building to do his talk show from a windowless room in the basement.As the session progressed, however, he found he had less time to go on the air as Senate business picked up. In the last month, he has done his show, which airs in Houston and Dallas, only a few times.”Being a senator is a full-time job right now,” he said.
Senators have also been wary of Mr. Patrick because he came to Austin challenging an institution before he had joined it. When lawmakers convened, the Republican tried to derail a rule that requires a bill to have two-thirds of senators behind it before it can be debated.It’s a tradition that senators say helps protect the minority and build consensus. But to Mr. Patrick, it’s an impediment to the conservative agenda that he says Republicans were elected to pass. The Senate rejected Mr. Patrick, keeping the rule on a 30-1 vote.Other slights have been more personal. Sen. John Carona, R-Dallas, became infuriated with Mr. Patrick when he temporarily knocked some Mr. Carona’s bills off the Senate’s agenda without warning, and the two had to be separated in the Senate lounge. After eventually getting the bills passed, Mr. Carona responded with humor by leaving a hobby horse head wrapped in a blanket – a la The Godfather – on Mr. Patrick’s desk.Mr. Patrick laughed with other senators over the gesture.”Dan Patrick started off the session in a really lousy fashion, having listened to no one,” Mr. Carona said. “But as the session progressed, he has taken to heart some of the advice many of us have given him, and he is now studying the issues more carefully and giving greater consideration to his thoughts before he opens his mouth.”Mr. Patrick said that he’s still concerned, though, about the failure to address crucial issues such as illegal immigration and soaring property appraisals.”Texans are frustrated because we show up every two years and don’t solve the problems people want solved,” he said. Does that mean he’s getting ready to run for statewide office?”I don’t worry about the next election,” he said. “Too many politicians focus on the next election. It alters their thinking and voting patterns.”
Mr. Watson, 49, easily won his Senate seat in November, and instead of trying to change the institution, he has been a quick student of its ways. He learned the political ropes as mayor of Austin from 1997 to 2001 and then ran a solid but ultimately losing campaign for attorney general of Texas in 2002.”I’m having a blast,” he said in a recent interview. “It is also important, and it feels important, as it should, having a voice on the big issues facing the state.”As with Mr. Patrick, some Republicans were convinced that the new senator from Austin intended to use his post as a steppingstone. “Republicans like him but are suspicious about his political ambition and where he’s going,” said the lobbyist and GOP consultant.Mr. Watson can often be seen presiding over the Senate as one of a small group of senators that Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst regularly calls on to take care of business while he is otherwise occupied.”I like to bang that gavel. I guess it is the old mayor in me coming out,” Mr. Watson said. “Putting a freshman Democrat in that role is indicative of the openness of the Senate.”The Baylor law school graduate also distinguished himself as vice chairman of one of the busiest Senate committees of the 2007 session, the transportation and homeland security committee.The chairman of that committee, Mr. Carona, had only compliments for Mr. Watson’s work.”He is a thoughtful, reasonable guy. I find that his pragmatic approach is similar to mine and is exactly what we need here in this body,” Mr. Carona said.On legislation, Mr. Watson had fairly modest goals as a first-term senator, and was ultimately more successful than Mr. PatrickPerhaps Mr. Watson’s proudest accomplishment was a measure you would expect from the senator who represents Texas’ stronghold of environmental activism.The bill, which passed the Senate with strong bipartisan support but died on the House floor because of a legislative deadline, cited the growing problem of global warming and directed that a statewide strategy for reducing carbon dioxide emissions be crafted. The goal was to provide cost savings to households and businesses through reduced energy usage.”A lot of greenhouse gas legislation stalled because folks don’t see eye to eye on the problem,” he said. “My bill says no matter how we feel about this stuff, we all like saving money.”It’s the type of pragmatism that illustrates why many lawmakers and lobbyists believe Mr. Watson will do well as a senator.
Mr. Watson and Mr. Patrick, so different in beliefs and style, have had plenty of interaction – mostly good-natured – because they sit next to each other in the Senate. But a moment that summed up their positions in their initial legislative session came this week, as the Senate churned through bills one night with a deadline looming.Mr. Patrick rose from his desk to ask Mr. Watson, who was presiding, what time it was.Mr. Watson told him it was 11 p.m. and then gave instructions to Sen. Robert Nichols, another freshman who sits behind Mr. Patrick.”Senator Nichols, every now and then tap him on the head and tell him what time it is,” Mr. Watson said. Then, he made his colleagues laugh by raising the gavel and adding: “And if you need a mallet to tap him, let me know.”