Letters From Texas 10 Best Texas Legislators List

Editor’s note: This cross-partisan ten best legislators list started as a conversation between Republican consultant Ted Delisi and me – we wondered what would happen, in choosing legislative standouts, if a Republican judged the Democrats, and a Democrat judged the Republicans. Plus, why the hell should Texas Monthly have all the fun?

We hope you think the result is interesting, both in choices and approach. Ted Delisi’s picks are in red and Harold Cook’s are in blue. We didn’t lobby each other on the choices. We hope it’s thought-provoking and promotes discussion and comments. To my fellow Democrats – it takes some cojones for a Republican to contribute content to a Democratic blog. Please be polite to the company, we want him to come back from time to time. Of course, feel free to ridicule me all you want, same as usual. -HC

Ted Delisi’s Overview
Former Speaker of the Texas House (as well as the U.S. House) Sam Rayburn used to say that he was “a Democrat without suffix, without prefix and without apology.”

As a Republican, that’s how I like the members on the opposite side of the aisle: unrepentant and unapologetic. That doesn’t mean I respect any and all tactics to achieve your goals. In the legislative arena, effectiveness means getting your bill into law, period. This requires a potent mix of persuasiveness, passion, and persistence. All of the lawmakers on my “Top 5” share a mix of those characteristics.

I have not amassed at group of lawmakers who voted most often or who are more ideologically inclined to agree with my fellow Republicans. Standing up for what you believe and winning, that’s where you earn respect.

In some ways, my task is more difficult than my counterpart’s because Democrats are, obviously, in the minority in both chambers. They hold only a handful of key committee chairmanships and, at times, they believe their role (rightfully so) is to forcefully argue against policies that they disagree with. That being said, few will disagree that the Democrats have had their best policy session since Pete Laney was Speaker and those on this list saw opportunity in the to build consensus and pass legislation even if they weren’t in control.

Feel free to argue with my choices: you have 9 minutes and 45 seconds….

Harold Cook’s Overview
A Democrat picking the five best Republicans is a tough assignment, with several directions from which to choose. I could have picked Republicans who make Democrats look good (Betty Brown, Leo Berman, et al). I also could have picked Republicans who sometimes vote with the Democrats.

Reluctantly, I ultimately played it pretty straight and picked Republicans who I believe are constructive, well-respected, and do more good than harm, if only by accident. This, for one simple reason: writing up Republicans for voting with Democrats, or because they make Democrats look extra good, might encourage ‘em to stop doing it. If Democrats lose votes, legislation gets worse. And if Republicans ever stop acting goofy, the legislature will be even more boring than it already is.

Counting down to the best-of-the-best, here are our picks:

5. Representative Garnet Coleman. Garnet Coleman is the unapologetic voice for health care for the Democrats. He believes completely in the cause. But he’s still an accessible lawmaker who has grown into a real leader while he’s been in office. Despite strong opposition, by sheer force of will his expansion of children’s health insurance to 300% of poverty was still alive and kicking until the bitter end. When the Texas Legislature created the state’s CHIP program, then-Governor Bush fought for the benefit to be extended to those at 150% of poverty; today, the Legislature is debating extending benefits to those at 300% of poverty. That is quite a way to come in just one decade. I may not agree with it, but I respect that much of that march is a result of Representative Coleman’s hard work and singularity of focus.

5. Representative Todd Smith. I would have readily included Smith in past sessions, but almost didn’t this time. True, he’s perceived around the building as an earnest open-minded legislator, a reasonably thoughtful policy-maker, and a pretty hard worker. But I almost discounted him this session for so completely mishandling the voter I.D. issue. He worked with Democrats for weeks trying to forge a compromise, then under pressure abruptly abandoned the effort and pushed the unamended Senate version out of his committee and toward the House floor. The process upset folks in both parties. But in the end, his delays made the bill highly vulnerable to the parliamentary maneuvers which ultimately killed it. When the Senate Democrats killed voter I.D. last session, I called them heroes. How could I not repay Todd Smith for doing the same?

4. Senator Leticia Van de Putte. I’m breaking my rule on this choice because what earns Leticia Van de Putte a place on this list wasn’t a piece of legislation she passed; rather it was how she organized the opposition to a piece of legislation. As leader of the Senate Democrats, she was the leader of the strategic political debate on Voter ID. She marshaled her colleagues and made an impassioned argument against the rule changes and, ultimately, against passage of Voter ID. This was a model of how to do it right, even if her arguments didn’t carry the day. Is Senator Van de Putte the anti-Dunnam? I believe she is. She demonstrates how to oppose legislation without losing yourself in the battle. Of course, she’s an accomplished, well-liked lawmaker in her own right, but the behind-the-scenes battle shows that she is a real leader.

4. Senator Bob Deuell. I don’t like his votes, and I don’t like most of his legislation. But when Mario Gallegos was very ill last session during a hyper-partisan time in the Senate, Deuell, a doctor, stepped in and made sure Gallegos got a hospital bed just off the Senate floor so he could both rest and vote. So we already knew Deuell was a decent guy. But an event last week put Deuell over the top and on this list. In a sudden attack of political Tourette Syndrome, Deuell publicly went off on his fellow Republicans for them killing his needle exchange bill, one of the few policy ideas of his I actually like. Deuell said:

I think it’s time, especially for you Republicans, that if we’re to remain a viable party, we need to start…dealing with reality and not dealing with black helicopters and other myths that are out there by the right wing extremists.

Deuell has grown over the years, both in policy maturity and in stature among his peers(fortunately), but without abandoning his conservative roots (unfortunately). He’s a decent human being, and earned his place here.

3. Representative Scott Hochberg. Given the decades-long, expensive and politically volatile nature of school finance, you can argue that any steps taken to prevent future school finance litigation is the most important lawmaking of any session. Scott Hochberg is the formula go-to guy on the Public Education and Appropriations Committees, a numbers guru who has the trust of members from both property rich and property poor school districts. He understands the formulas, and more importantly, he understands the formulas drive the policy. Public Education Committee members can sometimes fall into protecting the status quo, but, quietly, Rep. Hochberg has been helpful to education reformers in limited cases. On Appropriations, he was tapped to lead the Article 3 subcommittee, pumping an additional $1.9 billion into the formulas. Knowledge is power; Hochberg has it.

3. Representative Warren Chisum. Molly Ivins used to tell me and anybody else who would listen that she loved her some Warren Chisum. I never saw the attraction, frankly, until this session. He’s anti-gay rights, anti-women’s rights, and generally anti-having fun. But in January when he became the (chairman) baby thrown out with the (Craddick) bathwater, he took it in stride. Many legislators would have sat in a corner all session and sulked. In fact, many did. Not Chisum. He made himself useful, took his licks in good humor, and spent most of the session being a fair and honest broker behind the scenes in touchy deals large and small. Turns out Molly was right about the guy.

2. Senator Juan “Chuy” Hinojosa. A 24-year veteran of the Texas Legislature, Juan “Chuy” Hinojosa is a understated yet powerhouse force in the Legislature. As a member of the House, he made a name for himself on criminal justice issues. Last session, as a member of the Senate, he made his mark reforming the troubled Texas Youth Commission. Known as a hard-worker with bipartisan respect, he has been rewarded by the Lieutenant Governor with high profile positions on the Sunset Commission and Vice Chair of the Senate Finance Committee. He delivers for his district, securing funding for infrastructure improvements along Highway 281 and the port of Corpus Christi and funding for the engineering school at Texas A&M-Corpus Christi. More importantly, he delivers for the state, most notably by passing the change in taxation of smokeless tobacco to fund both a rural physician loan repayment program and a popular small business margins tax cut. He’s an impact player who’s often overlooked by members of both parties.

2. Representative Jim Pitts. Pitts was the Appropriations Committee Chairman. Then he broke with Craddick and wasn’t the Appropriations Chairman. One new speaker later, Pitts is the Appropriations Chairman again. Pitts shined under Craddick, which was difficult because Craddick seldom let anybody shine. Pitts shined under Straus, which is difficult because nobody ever gets any signals from the coaching staff on the sidelines with Straus. But it doesn’t seem to matter who’s in charge the principal’s office, Pitts just keeps shining. Remember back in January when everybody said it would be a tough budget year? Fugetaboutit. A very contentious and divided House passed the final budget 142-2. Granted, the Senate passed it unanimously, but make no mistake – the lack of budget acrimony isn’t all due to Obama’s magic money. A little of this bipartisan and bicameral kumbaya is because Pitts is a well-respected leader. And, oh yeah – he also led the House conferees who got rid of Ogden’s crappy stem cell rider. Nice touch, Mr. Chairman.

1. Representative Craig Eiland. Thanks to Hurricane Ike, Craig Eiland came to Austin in January with one of the biggest challenges in the Legislature: how to secure the hundreds of millions in funding needed to rebuild the University of Texas Medical Branch and his hometown of Galveston. True, Representative Eiland’s job was made easier by his assignment to the Appropriations Committee and his elevation to Speaker Pro Tem, but those assignments say a lot about Eiland’s reputation and the respect his peers have for him. Representative Eiland rose to the challenge, effectively building the coalition of state, federal and private interests to bring home the bacon needed to rebuild Galveston. Unfortunately for Eiland, that is not what he will be remembered for this session. If the Democrats regain the majority, he’ll be a leading candidate for Speaker; for the five days of the Democrat chub of the local calendar, he got some practice with the gavel. How much of an architect of the chub-a-thon he was we may never know, but his even-handed demeanor in the face of both Republican and Democrat expressions of frustration did not go unnoticed.

1. Senator John Carona. Let’s return to those child-like dreamy halcyon days of innocence, before life got dreary and complicated. And by that, of course, I mean January 14th. That’s when John Carona stood on the floor of the Texas Senate to explain why he would be the lone Republican opposing changing the Senate rules to ensure the voter I.D. bill’s Senate passage, despite his support for the actual voter I.D. legislation. Carona said the rule change would send a terrible signal:

…it seems so contrary to the very message that voters gave just a short time ago: stop the partisan gamesmanship, deal with the issues of substance and importance.

More prophetic words could not have been spoken, because just as Carona feared, the Senate rule change set the tone for the entire session, and ultimately was the root cause of the House melt-down over voter I.D., dooming many of those other “issues of substance and importance.” Carona has long been a hard-working Senator who takes on tough assignments (re: TxDOT), sometimes torturing and squeezing solutions into legislation nobody’s crazy about (re: TxDOT), but which everybody in the Senate tries to support anyway (re: TxDOT). As the session opened in January, Carona’s vote against the Senate rule change proved him to be a very wise man. And as the session closed 5 months later, it was because of his frustration, when it became apparent that his version of the TxDOT bill wouldn’t prevail, that he publicly shared more of his wisdom: “there is no agenda for this legislative session. It’s like a Seinfeld episode.”



25 Responses to Letters From Texas 10 Best Texas Legislators List

  1. flawedplan June 1, 2009 at 5:33 pm #

    This was great, a real pleasure to read these substantive sketches.

  2. Anonymous June 1, 2009 at 5:52 pm #

    Well done. Can’t argue with your picks.

  3. hoohah! June 1, 2009 at 5:55 pm #

    Ditto on Carona…no single member has come as far as has he.

  4. Anonymous June 1, 2009 at 5:58 pm #


  5. Anonymous June 1, 2009 at 6:09 pm #

    I would take issue with Chisum and Chuy — but agree with most of the rest. There was so much fumbling down the session, it seems like a hard job to name much of anyone.

  6. Anonymous June 1, 2009 at 6:27 pm #

    “Bien dicho!”

    Oh sorry, Betty Brown, I meant “Well Said!”

    (Chuy and Chisum were my only bipartisan question marks – but all in all, an excellent list, and very well said.

  7. Anonymous June 1, 2009 at 6:30 pm #

    Interesting, the Ted went with liberal democrats who stood up for the liberal agenda. In other words, Democrats who sought to advance the Democratic/liberal agenda most effectively.

    Harold, however, for the most part picked moderate to liberal Republicns pushing a moderate to liberal agenda. Of course, the might be because their aren’t any effective conservatice memebrs. But i think it is more likley that Harold just can’t see from his perspective effectiveness in conservative members.

  8. Anonymous June 1, 2009 at 6:39 pm #

    Interesting idea – poorly done

  9. FUBAR June 1, 2009 at 6:41 pm #

    Anonymous at 1:30 – I’m surprised to hear that anybody believes there are liberal Republicans in the Texas legislature. I would not mistake pragmatism for liberalism by any means, which is what I consider Smith ant Pitts to be, pragmatists. There is no question that Deuell and Chisum are very conservative. As for Carona, I mulled that over a bit myself, so I went to the horse’s mouth: I asked Dan Patrick what he thought. Without hesitation, Senator Patrick said he believes Carona to be a true conservative. Thus I would also put Carona in the “conservative pragmatist” column as well.

  10. whiskeydent June 1, 2009 at 6:45 pm #

    Anon 1:30, who’s a moderate/lib? Deuell and Chisum sure aren’t. Are you a moderate for merely opposing Craddick?

    Regardless, Fub and Delisi took their jobs way too damned seriously — especially when you consider how seriously effed up the Lege is.

  11. Anonymous June 1, 2009 at 7:28 pm #

    If effective liberalism is the criteria, Villarreal should have made the list. He gets the job done (grant funding increase, rolled Branch on automatic admissions) without being a lightning rod of controversy like Burnam, Dunnam, Garnet, etc. or showmanship i.e. Turner, Raymond. He just mild mannerly gets the job done.

  12. Anonymous June 1, 2009 at 7:37 pm #

    Why isn’t Senator Zaffirini on the list? You are in trouble now. She will never forget that you failed to mention her and put other Senate Democrats ahead of her. Seriously. I would lose sleep on this. Isn’t she the reason all in the Capitol get to work each day?

  13. Bresnen June 1, 2009 at 7:40 pm #

    I like the picks, especially Garnet, who occupied a governance role very well after serving in the insurgency. I wish y’all had picked “best freshmen,” because there are some damned good ones and because I think Marisa Marquez really stood out.

  14. Anonymous June 1, 2009 at 7:45 pm #

    Very good job on the picks. Appreciated the explanation of the reasoning/rationale.

  15. Lamont June 1, 2009 at 7:48 pm #

    Great Job

  16. Anonymous June 1, 2009 at 7:55 pm #

    I’m a political independent, and have to say that Delisi did a much better job of being objective and stepping out of his own agenda. I don’t agree with a lot of liberal or conservative politicians, but there are many republican leaders whom Cook could have picked for their skills, leadership, and grace — even if he doesn’t like their politics. Using several of five choices to make wise cracks at republicans he doesn’t agree with is taking the easy way out.

  17. FUBAR June 1, 2009 at 8:05 pm #

    Anonymous 2:55, thank you for the comment. I absolutely agree that Delisi did a much better job of being objective and stepping out of his own agenda. I would respectfully submit that being objective and stepping out of one’s agenda wasn’t the goal, or in the groundrules. We were each free to approach this in any way we decided.

    I would anticipate a (completely fair) reply that he picked a better way to approach it. That may well be true, and that’s an opinion which readers will make for themselves.

    But my choice to “make wise cracks at Republicans”…um…you’ve never visited this blog before I take it? 🙂

  18. Anonymous June 1, 2009 at 8:50 pm #

    You don’t know Chuy like I know Chuy if you have any doubt that he is a legislative leader. He does not have arms long enough to constantly pat himself on the back, but he does use his legislative knowledge to get the most for his district while pushing major state agendas. He is not flashy, but he knows how to negotiate to get the most out of the Republic majority. Usually the Best Lists really miss the mark…not this time!

  19. whiskeydent June 1, 2009 at 9:47 pm #

    Wither Delwin?

  20. cactusflinthead June 2, 2009 at 12:43 am #

    Anon2:55, if you can’t stand the heat get out of the kitchen or the other adage, if the shoe fits wear it.

  21. JHG June 2, 2009 at 1:40 pm #

    Superb job gentlemen!

  22. FUBAR June 2, 2009 at 1:43 pm #

    “Gentlemen?” Delisi, do you have any idea what he’s talking about? I don’t.

    (thanks, JHG)

  23. Dee Simpson June 2, 2009 at 5:58 pm #

    . I hate to be groveling here but, good job you two> Maybe you all might want to team up on Greatest Hits of the Session. I nominate Betty Brown
    on behalf of all my Asian buddies who had to consider changing their names to Jones to vote in Texas.
    Dee Simpson

  24. Anonymous June 2, 2009 at 10:02 pm #

    Interesting read…

    Betty Brown and Dr. Bob are two fine people that I am grateful to call friends. They have substance and dignified character. Sorry that others have no clue who these humans are…

  25. Anonymous June 3, 2009 at 3:33 pm #

    Great job, guys. I could nitpick, but then it would just be my own opinion. I know what that is. I came here to read yours.

    I think it would also be cool if ya’ll could pick the 10 best/worst moments of the session. You know, Betty Brown’s comment on name changes, etc. That would be an interesting read.

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