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June 18th, 2013:

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.

Monday House action

The main action on Monday in the House was the House Redistricting Committee hearing. Where there’s a redistricting hearing, there’s Greg with a liveblogging session. Pay close attention to the stuff Greg writes about the questions that the Dems, in particular Rep. Trey Martinez-Fischer (TMF) are asking, because they’re all about the future court fights. A big part of this has to do with who is advising the committee on legal matters, and why the Attorney General is not being made to testify before the committee.

Rep. Trey Martinez-Fischer

TMF turns his attention to [David] Archer [of the Texas Legislative Council], asking if there are legal issues seen in [Rep. Yvonne] Davis’ map. Archer notes that the plan is within the committee’s “discretion.” This is pretty much what TMF wants to hear. [Rep.] Senfronia [Thompson] has some questions for Archer, affirming his redistricting bona fides, which leads TMF to follow up with questions to affirm his legal bona fides re: redistricting. He then turns his back & forth with a point that it is the Att. General that ultimately defines those legal points on behalf of the state. He’s trying to back Archer up to a point where Archer can’t offer the answer TMF is fishing for. Archer says he’s “not trying to pass the buck …”, but he seems to realize the corner TMF is trying to paint him into. TMF notes that there is a limit to the advice that Lege Council can give, which builds from Archer’s own statements. He’s building the new court case for MALC pretty well. There are points in this line of questioning that are pure genius to observe. Archer is doing his best to just not break down and say: “Yeah, you need to talk to the Att. General’s office about that.”

TMF is done with Archer for now. Davis follows up by asking Archer about Sec. 2. This is going to be her strongest case for her plan being “legally required.” Ultimately, that definition comes down to the mood of the chair, the barometric pressure, and a number of other issues having nothing to do with law. But it’s a good marker for her to put down on this plan. Davis is exasperated with his analysis, saying he’s not being helpful to the committee by not giving any solid yesses and nos. The nut of this is that Archer’s position with the Lege Council isn’t an advocacy position, it’s a non-partisan role. With that, Davis picks up on TMF’s bigger argument – that this isn’t helping the committee determine what is legally required. It’s coming across as picking on Archer a little (something that TMF avoids in his questioning). But this is aimed at the court, not [David] Archer.

[…]

TMF picks up his opening from [Rep. Jason] Villalba’s questioning, asking again whether Archer is the best person to testify. Let me repeat: Villalba not only extracted testimony from Archer that wasn’t helpful to his side, but he also allows TMF to work in a further point about the inadequacy of Lege Council to be the ones offering legal advice to the committee. He also asks whether Archer would advise that there should be more minority-opportunity districts. Archer begins by answering that he “sees opportunities” but concludes with a “no.” TMF is also asking more questions that sidestep whether or not he thinks Lege Council is the appropriate resource for the committee. This is some more impressive TMF-ery. If the state wants to make the case that Lege Council is perfectly valid and fine, then expect comments like “sees opportunities” to come back around in the courts. This is the grand pitfall of the Lege Council not being in a position to advocate for anything – Archer is obviously trying to be neutral to all sides, but the flipside of that approach is that they aren’t going to say that the interim map is a solid slam dunk that doesn’t need tweaking. It gives TMF the ability to take Archer’s comments to court and get some kind of win (major or minor) regardless of whether the Att. General’s unwillingness to testify is ruled significant. Seriously, this is better than Perry Mason reruns. Along the same lines as above, TMF asks Archer to clarify his comment about “minimizing risk” and “insulation of risk” by taking more legislative action on the map. This won’t be the last time we hear those terms.

[Rep. Richard] Raymond follows that up with some clarity on whether a plan passed by the Lege would have to get preclearance from the DOJ (Yes, it will). Raymond then replays some history by noting that the AG’s office took the preclearance route of the DC Circuit court rather than DOJ last time. Archer notes that the AG has the same discretion of where to take preclearance this time around. Bottom line: I think we can expect this to go back through the DC court.

Texas Redistricting has a more concise wrapup. Both note that HB3, the bill for the House, passed 9-5 when motioned to a vote, but that’s not a majority of the committee and thus technically can’t be brought to the full floor. Instead, HB1 – the bill that does all of three of the affected bodies – was brought up and passed along part lines, despite objections that it brings up the same measure, since HB2 (the Senate bill) had already been approved. It’s getting wild around here, so be on high alert for shenanigans and points of order. I suspect that in the end the House will be as pro forma as the Senate was, and will do whatever it needs to do to get the maps approved.

There were other items of business in the House as well. The possibilities for the Public Integrity Unit warranted their own post. On the matter of the recent items added to the session call, these are the words of a House Speaker who has to deal with wingnut abortion legislation but isn’t exactly thrilled about it.

The House State Affairs Committee is expected to have a hearing on abortion bills Thursday, with consideration by the full chamber possible this weekend.

[…]

“I haven’t seen a bill come from the Senate yet, but I would assume that there would be support in the House, yes,” House Speaker Joe Straus, R-San Antonio, said Monday.

Asked about Perry adding the abortion issue to the agenda, Straus said, “It’s the governor’s prerogative to add issues to a special session. He controls the agenda during a special session. It’s certainly a right he exercises freely.”

The Senate is expected to approve the bill that was voted out of committee on Friday today. The session ends on the 25th, and while Perry can call more sessions till the cows come home, if this or any other bill hasn’t passed by then, it would have to start over from scratch in a new session.

Finally, a panel of House members will join Perry and Abbott in calling on President Obama to reconsider the denial of federal emergency aid to West. I don’t have any issue with that, though you’d thin that the Congressional delegation, including our two Senators, would be the ones to take the lead on this.

Perry still leads Abbott in UT/TT poll

I remain unconvinced that Greg Abbott is a sure thing to be the GOP nominee for Governor next year.

Only 25 percent of Texas voters — Republicans and Democrats — are ready to give Perry another term, saying they would vote for him if he seeks re-election in 2014. Nearly two in five — 38 percent — said they would vote against him, and 31 percent said they would wait and see who is running against him.

But Perry is far ahead of his likeliest challenger with Republican voters in the poll. In a fantasy match against Abbott, who has been preparing for a gubernatorial bid while he and everyone else waits for Perry to announce his own plan, the governor got 45 percent to Abbott’s 19 percent in the poll. Another 11 percent said they would choose someone else, and 25 percent said they haven’t given it enough thought to form an opinion. Those numbers haven’t changed much since the February UT/TT Poll, which found Perry with 49 percent to Abbott’s 17 percent.

Most Republicans in the poll think Texas is on the right track, and that group overwhelmingly chose Perry over Abbott. The attorney general did better with those who think the state is going in the wrong direction, but still favored Perry over Abbott. That last group, however, was as likely to choose “someone else” as they were to choose the governor.

Henson said Perry’s pre-2014 standing is much different from his pre-2010 standing and his position going into the presidential bid two years ago. Then, there were few ready or willing to challenge his pre-eminence in the Texas GOP.

“As we go into the 2014 cycle, you have both the track record of the presidential run, which is clearly negative, and you’ve got Ted Cruz very much on the stage and as a viable figurehead for the party, and you’ve got Greg Abbott waiting in the wings,” Henson said.

I say if Perry runs it’s still his to lose. By the same token, he’d be easier for a Democrat to beat than Abbott would be, if there are any Dems out there to run. No guarantees in this world, of course, and who knows what might happen if Abbott decides to dump ten million bucks or so trashing Perry. For sure, the potential is great for many Republican operatives and consultants and vendors to get very, very rich. But beyond that, who knows. Downballot, David Dewhurst leads his competitors for Lite Guv, but everyone trails “Don’t Know”, which got 61%, by a huge margin. So expect a lot of money to be spent in that race, too. Texpatriate has more.

Turner seeks a way to get around Public Integrity Unit de-funding

Rep. Sylvester Turner takes aim at one of Perry’s vetoes.

State Rep. Sylvester Turner

State Rep. Sylvester Turner

Rep. Sylvester Turner, D-Houston, said he would propose a House Concurrent Resolution advocating restoration of funding for the Public Integrity Unit of the Travis County district attorney’s office, which was vetoed by Gov. Rick Perry last week.

[…]

This morning on the floor of the Texas House, Turner raised what options lawmakers have in responding to the veto. Afterwards he told reporters he would seek the resolution for restoring the funding.

“Over the last 10 years, there have been attempts to eliminate, weaken, move the public integrity unit from Travis County to the AG’s (attorney general’s) office and over the last 10 years the Legislature has said no,” Turner noted. “We are entitled to know where the funding will come from or what the plan is. Is it the intent of the state to say no to the Public Integrity Unit, to significantly weaken it?”

Turner questioned Perry’s use of his veto power to influence who holds a particular office.

“I am just not comfortable with vetoing funding because some people here have problems with one person,” he said

A concurrent resolution is basically just a “sense of the chamber” vote, so even if such a thing passed (which I doubt) it wouldn’t compel anyone to do anything. This is about sending a message. The politics of this situation are increasingly complex, but there’s a good case to be made that whatever you think of Rosemary Lehmberg and her sins, it’s not up to Rick Perry to force the issue. There’s a process in place that is already in motion, and Perry’s involvement is a conflict of interest.

More on this in the Statesman:

From the back microphone of the Texas House, Turner asked Speaker Joe Straus if any options exist to fund the unit.

Straus said after Monday’s meeting of the House that his office would do some research for Turner.

“With the questions from Mr. Turner and others, it’s certainly something that we should explore with the governor and with the Public Integrity Unit personnel. I’m assuming that the governor’s office has considered this,” Straus said in an interview. “We just have to assess where we are, and what the implications are as we go forward.”

[…]

Also Monday, state Rep. Steve Toth, R-The Woodlands, asked from the House floor if funding could be revived if Lehmberg resigns.

House leaders didn’t have an immediate response.

But Dale Craymer, president of Texas Taxpayers and Research Association, had a thought. The former top budget official for Govs. Ann Richards and George W. Bush said it is possible to restore funding through budget execution action, which involves the governor and the Legislative Budget Board agreeing on moving money from other parts of the budget.

I can’t claim to be optimistic about anything happening to counter Perry’s veto, but clearly we are in uncharted territory. Rep. Turner in particular got a lot done in the budget deal, so I would not discount his efforts.

On a related note, Travis County Commissioners Court is exploring its options as well.

Travis County commissioners will discuss the legislation and the governor’s actions on their agenda around 11 a.m. Tuesday.

“We likely will not take action tomorrow, rather just discuss this issue,” County Judge Sam Biscoe told KVUE. “There are a lot of unanswered questions. I have sent a list of questions to the county attorney to understand our authority and limitations on this matter. I also want to know whether the governor’s decision can be reversed by himself or the Legislature before September 1, 2013.”

Biscoe says the commissioners will address the item and then go into executive session. They will likely take action on June 25.

“From my understanding, the revenue from that unit goes to residents of Texas as well as the state and federal government. I personally don’t see the benefit of fully funding the unit if the money goes to outside agencies. We will explore the issue,” said Biscoe.

The main thing I’d be concerned about is that if Commissioners Court picks up the slack, what incentive does the Lege have to fund the PIU in a future session, post-Lehmberg? This is the same dilemma school districts that had room to raise their tax rates faced after the massive cuts to public education in 2011. A one-time fix can quickly be seen as the new normal.