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Chente Quintanilla

Some are elected to do things, others are elected to not do things

Meet the opposite ends of the spectrum in the Legislature.

Not Ted Cruz

Not Jonathan Stickland

They were the freshest of the freshmen — the two youngest members of the largest freshman class of the Texas House in 40 years. And even before they took office, Mary González, an El Paso Democrat who will turn 30 in October, and Jonathan Stickland, a tea party Republican from the Fort Worth suburbs who will be 30 in September, each had made a defining declaration.

Stickland announced his ambition to compile the most conservative voting record of any member of the Texas House. “It’s time to do battle,” he said.

And González, uncomfortable with the imprecision of being described as the first openly gay woman to be elected to the Texas Legislature, announced to the Dallas Voice that she was actually “pansexual.” She explained that gender isn’t binary but a spectrum, and she has said that while her partner may be a lesbian, “I’m not.”

“Authenticity is important to me,” she said in a recent interview.

It was a breathtaking bit of sharing, especially for a representative who was from a socially conservative district and who was about to enter an institution that is dominated by an older generation of men and has had only one openly gay member — Austin’s Glen Maxey, who left the House a decade ago.

Though the 83rd Legislature ended its regular session just two weeks ago, it isn’t too soon to conclude that its two youngest members, in very different ways, had successful freshman seasons. Their experience offers a window into the sometimes surprising workings of the Legislature, and how novice members find their way amid the hurly-burly of the biennial mayhem, and why it is that a member of the board of the Texas organization for “queer people of color” might find herself more welcome than the darling of the Northeast Tarrant Tea Party.

[…]

Some of this might be the Seinfelds of informed opinion purposely placing the stocky Stickland in the role of Newman (“Hello, Stickland”) as an inviting target. But insults in Austin are music to the ears Stickland cares about back home. Think U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz.

“Has Ted Cruz ever passed a bill? I don’t think he has, but he’s one of the most influential and powerful senators, and he’s done it as a freshman,” said Stickland, who, in fact, passed a bill with state Sen. Wendy Davis, D-Fort Worth, to allow excused school absences for the children of active-duty military personnel. “Ted Cruz has become a sensation because of what he’s fought against and not what he’s fought for. People love him for it.”

Yes, I’m sure it’s now the fondest wish of Jonathan Sticklands everywhere to grow up to be Ted Cruz. No question, from reading the story or just generally following the news from the Capitol this year, Stickland had a lot of success with his mission to obstruct anything he didn’t like. If that’s what he wants out of being a legislator, and that’s what the people who elected him want out of him, then mission accomplished. I’m sure there will be some political opposition to his tactics back home, not to mention opportunities for payback among his colleagues if the people of Stickland’s district ever ask him to get a bill passed for them, but he’ll just turn that into fuel for his persecution complex, like every other straight white boy from the suburbs who’s convinced that he’s the real victim here.

On a much more pleasant and productive note, there’s fellow freshman Rep. Mary González, who was paired with Stickland in this article not just for their youth but also for their position on the political spectrum, with Stickland measuring as the most “conservative” member while González was the most liberal.

González’s success, which might have seemed even more unlikely, was her ability to surmount her exotic introduction, emerging from the session as the Mexican American Legislative Caucus freshman of the year, and, it seems from relationships she’s forged across party lines, something like the Miss Congeniality of the class of 2013. In her unique 140-day gestation in the Capitol hothouse, she seemed to find a way to become one of the boys without becoming one of the boys.

“It’s been a lot of hard work to go to 149 members to get them to go beyond their projections, beyond their stereotypes, beyond the stigma and beyond the boxes,” González said. “Hey, I’m getting a Ph.D. Hey, I grew up on a farm. Hey, I am so much more than the one thing, the only thing that people want to write about.”

Or, as state Rep. Poncho Nevarez, D-Eagle Pass, a fellow freshman who sits next to her in the House and represents an adjoining border district, put it, “Mary’s the only woman on this floor who can palpate a cow.”

“In heels,” adds González.

How the cow got into those heels…never mind. I was channeling Groucho Marx there for a minute. Carrying on:

Rep. Mary Gonzalez

Earlier in the session, state Rep. Byron Cook, R-Corsicana, who chairs the State Affairs Committee, serves on Calendars and sits diagonally behind her on the House floor, told her, “ ‘You’re basically the same age as my daughter, so you’re going to be my adopted daughter on the floor,’ and that’s kind of what we did. She’s a wonderful young lady to work with.”

Of Cook, said González, “I’m so surprised how close I have gotten to him.”

Asked to compare her approach to Stickland’s, Cook said, “I think you catch more bees with honey.”

And, unlike Stickland, González focused mostly on more targeted legislation for her district.

“We were able to get wastewater service to three colonias, sewerage to over 1,000 families in my district,” González said of the impoverished neighborhoods. “That’s amazing. No one is ever going to write about that, but I know what it means.”

“Mary is pretty much positive, not only a sunny disposition but a very positive person,” said state Rep. Richard Peña Raymond, a veteran Democrat from Laredo. “You get the sense with Jonathan that he’s just not very content with anything.”

[…]

When she showed up as a member of the Agriculture and Livestock Committee, Chairman Tracy King, D-Batesville, said he assumed she had gotten stuck with the assignment, but he was delighted to find out that she grew up in 4H, the daughter of a Texas A&M agricultural extension agent in El Paso, and that the committee had been her first choice.

“We developed a kinship sitting next to one another on the ag committee,” said state Rep. Kyle Kacal, R-College Station. “I like to judge people for myself, and we’ve formed an incredible relationship.”

[…]

For González, the real drama during the session was internal.

She recalled staying up all night when she was a UT student to testify against capping automatic admissions to state universities under the top 10 percent law.

“I wouldn’t be here without it,” she said of the law guaranteeing state university admission to those in the top 10 percent of their high school class. Then last month, a bill by Higher Education Chairman Dan Branch to extend the limits that she opposed was headed to the House floor, and she realized the bind she was in.

“When I was in my previous life, I could more actively fight it, but I’m a member, and you know Chairman Branch has done a lot for El Paso and a lot for my district, as far as bringing the medical school to El Paso,” González said.

“It’s this tension,” she said, “between sticking up for what you think is important and against what you think is oppression, and the reality that you still have to work with these people tomorrow and they can stop your bills, which are also trying to end oppression.”

In the end, she said, “I asked a few questions on the back mic; I talked to him,” but it was clear the bill was going to pass. She was still one of only seven votes against it, but she wasn’t as vociferous in her opposition as the old Mary might have been. “You’ve got to pick your battles.”

I was in Austin for a training class last month, and had the pleasure of meeting Rep. González at the ten year reunion of the Killer Ds. My impression of her, even before meeting her, was as positive as everyone else quoted in the story. She’s already got at least one opponent for next March, and the story notes that her predecessor, former Rep. Chente Quintanilla, is also thinking about getting in. Rep. González will have the support of her caucus mates, who have committed to her over their former colleague, and she’ll have mine as well. The world is full of Jonathan Sticklands, but it’s the Mary Gonzálezes that truly leave a mark. Stuff does need to get done, and we need the people who are there to get it done working for us.

More on the microbrew compromise

Brewed And Never Battered gives its report from the House Licensing and Administrative Procedures Committee hearing yesterday.

Briefly on HB 602: No one expressed opposition, not even the Wholesale Beer Distributors of Texas, who have opposed the bill in the past. There is some forthcoming compromise on that bill that apparently everyone is happy with and it looks like you’ll be able to take beer home after a brewery tour later this year.

HB 660 had a tremendous number of supporters, and the roll of names read into the record as supporters of the bill was long and impressive. Among those in support but not wishing to testify were a number of beer distributors and the Texas Restaurant Association.

As you may have read, we’ve gained the support of the other tiers through thoughtful discussion with interested stakeholders. Beer distributors were concerned about self-distribution for a business type that already sells directly to the consumer, and we understand their points. Self-distribution has been removed from the bill. We also lowered the annual limit for aggregate production to 15,000 barrels per brewpub. A number we are very comfortable with. I’m pleased that we were able to come up with a bill that all three tiers really like.

We did have one person oppose our bill, however. Keith Strama, representing the Wholesale Beer Distributors of Texas, stood up and presented a semi-coherent rambling about how we should allow these kind of changes to the code because… well, just because. Seriously. Strama did present some other barely comprehensible argument, which was called onto the rug in short order by Committee Vice-chair Chente Quintanilla of El Paso. Video of the entire hearing, which you can find here, proves quite entertaining. Strama should have just stuck to “Uh… just because” – turns out that was a better argument than the one he was trying to make.

[…]

What’s Next.

With the WBDT exposed, the ball is back in our court. We have one or two weeks at the most to earn the votes of the committee, after that it will be too late to advance this session. Right now I think we have 4 votes. We need 5. Time to turn up the pressure and continue to urge members of the committee that this the right thing to do. Continue those calls and emails (I’ll post a sample follow up letter tomorrow).

The link to find committee members is here – you can search for the Licensing & Administrative Procedures committee, or just take my word for it that it contains the following members:

Chair: Rep. Mike Hamilton
Vice Chair: Rep. Chente Quintanilla
Members: Rep. Joe Driver, Rep. Charlie Geren, Rep. Roland Gutierrez, Rep. Patricia Harless, Rep. John Kuempel, Rep. Jose Menendez, Rep. Senfronia Thompson

It would be especially helpful for you to express your support for HBs 660 and 602 if one of these folks is your Representative. There clearly is a lot of support for this bill, but until the committee votes it out, that doesn’t mean anything. Lee Nichols has more.

An early look at redistricting

The House Redistricting Committee is holding some hearings around the state in advance of the 2011 Census reports, and if there’s one thing we know already, it’s that West Texas will be losing influence next year.

The state population increased from 20.8 million in 2000 to an estimated 24.8 million in 2009, or 18.8 percent, but the Hispanic population grew at a faster rate, Jordan said. If the trend continues, as early as the next decade Hispanics will be the largest ethnic group in the state.

Though in more than a half-dozen counties in the Panhandle/South Plains region Latinos are now the majority, their population growth won’t compensate for the fact that the region stands to lose at least a Texas House seat and a congressional district when the Texas Legislature redraws the districts next year, some lawmakers said after the two-hour hearing ended.

“The Dallas area is going to gain some districts, but we are going to lose some,” state Rep. Delwin Jones, R-Lubbock, chairman of the Redistricting Committee, told reporters after the hearing. “Right now this is guesswork, or maybe I should say an estimate, because we won’t know for sure until December when we get the official figures.

“However, it doesn’t look good for us in West Texas,” Jones added. “We are going to lose representation.”

Other lawmakers reached the same conclusion.

“One way or another the Panhandle is going to be in trouble,” said Rep. Chente Quintanilla, D-Tornillo, in El Paso County.

[…]

At a hearing in February, members of the Redistricting Committee were told that the new congressional districts would represent 811,221 people compared to about 750,000 now, and Texas House districts would represent about 167,652 compared to about 140,000 now. This means the Panhandle/South Plains region would have to have at least one million people to keep all of its six House districts. Current estimates put the region’s population at about 800,000.

Three senior members of the Lege from West Texas won’t be back next year – Jones, who was defeated in the Republican primary; Carl Isett, and David Swinford, each of whom retired. It’s going to be a rough year for that part of the state next year. In addition to that, you have to wonder what will become of Rep. Michael Conaway’s district, which was created in 2003 at the insistence of then-Speaker Craddick, who wanted a Congressional seat for Midland. Objectively speaking, there was no real reason for that, and the Census data will make it even harder to justify. Without someone of influence pushing to protect it, who knows what will happen.

As the story notes, West Texas’ loss will likely be the Metroplex’s gain.

Rep. Roberto Alonzo, D-Dallas, said lawmakers next session will have a chance to create winnable districts for Hispanics in North Texas — not just in the Texas House, but state Senate and U.S. House.

“I would hope that everybody sees the light, that Texas has diversified,” Alonzo said.

He recalled it took a voting rights lawsuit for him to have a chance to win 17 years ago in House District 104, redrawn by the courts to enhance Mexican-American voters’ chances of electing one of their own.

“In Texas, we’ve had to go through litigation to make it happen,” Alonzo said. “I would hope we don’t have to go to that point.”

I wouldn’t count on that, but you never know. The more I think about it, the more I believe that the new Congressional district slated for the D/FW area will have to be a Democratic seat. The Congressional map up there is anything but representative right now. Of the 25 legislative members who represent Dallas and Tarrant counties, 13 are Democrats, yet only one member of Congress (Eddie Bernice Johnson) out of the nine whose districts include either Dallas or Tarrant is a Democrat. Among other things, the electoral trends are not sustainable for the Republican incumbents – Kenny Marchant and Pete Sessions need some help, with Sam Johnson and Michael Burgess not far behind them. Drawing a new seat to soak up some Democratic voters would benefit them.

Anyway. I believe a compromise at the Congressional level, one that aims to mostly protect incumbents, is still a viable possibility. The main reason for that not to happen is for someone with an interest in the outcome to push for a more partisan plan. As yet, I have not seen an indication of that, but it’s still early days. Legislative redistricting worries me more, especially if Rick Perry gets re-elected. We’ll see how it goes.

Bills about cellphones and driving

Lots of action in the cellphones and driving front for the Lege this session.

In 2007, a proposed law [to restrict cellphone usage while driving] never got beyond a legislative committee. Four months later, a Houston motorist talking on a phone struck and killed Harris County Deputy Constable Jason Norling as he wrote a traffic ticket on the shoulder of the Westpark Tollway.

Once again, victims’ families will push forward. It’s a tough sell in Texas, where lobbyists representing phone companies are influential and drivers value their independence.

With one limited exception — a 2005 law prohibiting newly licensed teenaged drivers from using a cell phone during their first six months behind the wheel — previous efforts have gone nowhere.

“The communications companies have really come out strongly against my bills in the past,” said Rep. Jose Menendez, D-San Antonio, among at least nine legislators trying again.

Menendez talks on a phone while driving, but his phone is hands-free.

Lawmakers have filed several bills, mainly to prohibit text-messaging while driving, restrict phone use in a school zone or require all drivers to use hands-free devices.

No state has an outright ban on cell phone use behind the wheel. But about 30 other states — as well as several cities — impose restrictions, including bans on text-messaging or requiring hands-free devices.

Rep. Menendez’s bill is HB220, which would require the use of a hands-free device to use a phone while driving. SB582, by Sen. Jeff Wentworth (R, San Antonio), appears to be identical. No state may have enacted a total ban on cellphone use, but at least one group is pushing for a national law to do so. Grits notes that the Department of Public Safety is pushing for such a law in Texas, and is also lobbying for fines related to such offenses to be added to the list of those for which the driver responsibility fee is imposed, which will surely help to swell even further the number of scofflaws.

Spokespersons for AT&T and Verizon denied their companies have lobbied against cell phone restrictions, but they’re not promoting them either. Spokesman Kerry Hibbs said AT&T supports legislation to ban text-messaging while driving and has never opposed city ordinances, including some in Texas, requiring hands-free phones in school zones.

Hmmm, that’s not quite how I remember it. Hibbs initially stated that AT&T opposed the West U ban on using cellphones in school zones, and would also oppose a statewide ban. He later clarified to say that they had “begun working with legislators on a statewide law that would provide consistent, enforceable rules concerning cell phone usage for drivers” and that they would be “more than willing to work with local governments such as West University Place on ordinances that allow hands-free calling in school zones”.

Rep. Chente Quintanilla, D-Tornillo, is sponsoring legislation to crack down on several forms of “inattentive” driving, including reading, applying makeup, shaving, eating and drinking coffee behind the wheel. The bill wouldn’t forbid those practices, but it would allow fines to be doubled for traffic offenses to which they contributed.

Rep. Quintanilla’s bills are HB356 and HB738. This CTC forum thread is tracking more bills that have been filed that would restrict the use of wireless devices in vehicles. Keep an eye on that for more info. Thanks to Jon for the tip.