November 25, 2008
With incoming freshman Wendy Davis of Fort Worth expanding their roster by one, Democrats in the state Senate are feeling energized and assertive as they head toward the 81st Legislative session in January.
With Davis, they now have 12 members — one more than the 11 votes needed to block legislation in the 31-member Senate — and hope to expand to what they would consider a lucky 13 if Chris Bell wins a runoff for a Houston-area seat.
“It’s certainly an attention-getter,” said Sen. Rodney Ellis, D-Houston. One or two additional seats, he said, “may not appear like that much to someone who is a political novice, but someone who is a student of the art of politics would realize it gives us considerably more leverage.”
Sen. Leticia Van de Putte, D-San Antonio, who has led Senate Democrats since 2003, said that senators from both parties traditionally put the interests of their districts above partisanship, with Democrats and Republicans often coalescing along rural-urban lines or forming blocs based on particular issues.
Nevertheless, she said, “there are a few core what I’d call non-negotiables for Senate Democrats.” She said they will be “absolutely united” against any attempt to revive a voter identification bill, a measure Democrats blocked last year in a confrontation with Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst, the Senate’s Republican presiding officer.
Other non-negotiables, she said, would include legislation that Democrats perceive as attempts to weaken the state’s public education system or diminish voting rights. Moreover, she said, Democrats are likely to “congeal” around other issues such as insurance, healthcare and consumer protection.
“We are definitely partisan when we absolutely have to be and [when] we need to be,” she said.
‘Line in the sand’
Ellis said he envisions a scenario in which Democrats would “draw a line in the sand” against insurance legislation that does not include two key provisions: the requirement of prior approval by the insurance commissioner before companies can increase rates, and a ban on companies’ denying coverage to consumers because of a poor credit rating.
Sen. Kirk Watson, D-Austin, who grew up in Saginaw, said that Democrats, with their strengthened bargaining position, might refuse to support certain items in the budget unless they have assurances that state children’s health programs will be fully funded to their satisfaction.
The new Senate configuration also dilutes conservative Republican control of the chamber, Watson said, and creates “a greater opportunity” for bipartisan cooperation. “It swings power back toward the center — not all the way there, but it moves it in that direction,” he said.
The Senate requires a two-thirds vote to bring up legislation, meaning 11 senators can stop a bill from coming to the floor. Davis’ added vote makes it easier for Democrats to forge a bill-stopping bloc.
Davis, regarded as a political hero among Democrats after her defeat of incumbent Republican Kim Brimer in Tarrant County’s Senate District 10, said she hopes to quickly move forward on the themes from her campaign, including repairing the state’s “failed” public school-finance system, which has strained school systems in North Texas and elsewhere.
‘New kid on the block’
In a telephone interview, Davis said she met with Dewhurst during a recent trip to Austin and assured him that she would adhere to the Senate’s tradition of bipartisanship, pointing out that she was part of a nonpartisan body as a Fort Worth councilwoman. Davis served on the Regional Transportation Council in North Texas and has asked for assignments to the Senate transportation and education committees.
Van de Putte said Davis’ background in local government gives her a rich knowledge of taxes and transportation issues that will figure heavily in the legislative session that begins Jan. 13.
“She’s got an incredible skill set,” Van de Putte said.
Davis and the winner of the Dec. 16 runoff in District 17 — either Bell or Republican Joan Huffman — will be the two rookies in the clubby Senate, and Davis has no illusions about the fact that she has a lot to learn.
“Obviously, I’m the new kid on the block and I’ll be joining one other new kid,” she said.