Best of the Freshmen Class

May 31, 2013

Ten Texas Legislators Take Myriad of Paths
to Pinnacle of Excellence in Regular Session

There wasn't a lot of love in the room when the lawmakers who would be honored as the two most valuable players in the regular session this year were matching wits with a vengeance in a showdown that had taken on a personal edge in the final stretch of the Texas House and Senate negotiations on a state budget compromise.

But it came as no great surprise when Republican State Senator Tommy Williams of The Woodlands and Democratic State Rep. Sylvester Turner of Houston eventually shook hands and pretended at least to put the bitterness behind when the House and Senate budget teams struck the final deals on the state budget pact in the nick of time to ensure a relatively peaceful ending to the biennial gathering of 2013.

While Williams lived up to the enormous potential he inherited by virtue of his new station as the Senate Finance Committee chairman, Turner arguably emerged as the regular session's true superstar on the wings of an extraordinary performance in which he did more with less than any of the other potential MVP contenders in the House who had a distinct advantage as members of the Legislature's ruling Republican Party.

The Capitol Inside biennial Best of the Legislature list for the regular session includes a quartet of Republicans who are A-team players on House Speaker Joe Straus' leadership team. State Rep. Jim Pitts - the most powerful House member next to the speaker himself as the Appropriations Committee chairman - would have been a shoo-in for the most valuable performer west of the rotunda for the second consecutive regular session if not for the Turner tour de force that peaked at the finish line.

Four state senators - three Republicans and one Democrat - are ranked among the top ten state legislators in terms of the jobs they did under the pink granite dome during the past five months.

But the award for the best ensemble performance during the regular session goes to the Texas House's 55 Democrats who - thanks in large part to Democratic Caucus leader Yvonne Davis of Dallas and Turner - had more impact this time around as a group than they'd had in five previous sessions with Republicans as the lower chamber's majority party.

The key to the Democrats' success in the Capitol's west wing was unity - plain and simple - and by sticking together like Velcro they managed to secure the restoration of most of the public education funds that had been slashed two years ago while providing the swing vote on a landmark water project funding plan that they took hostage for a while as a bargaining chip before cutting it free and voting for it unanimously.

But the largest group of freshmen state lawmakers in 40 years had significant impact on the regular session as well - and they will be the focus of a second installment that's coming soon on outstanding achievements in the 83rd Legislature's biennial gathering of 2013. So stay tuned.

 

TEXAS HOUSE
Most Valuable Player

Sylvester Turner
Texas House
Houston
Democrat

State Rep. Sylvester Turner had earned a reputation during his first two dozen years in the Texas House as a legislator who was in politics for himself first and foremost even though he truly seemed to care about the plight of the poor people he represented back in his Houston district. While Turner had always been the chamber's most eloquent orator and perennial debate champion, he'd been a GOP Speaker Tom Craddick loyalist when other Democrats were at war with the Republicans a few years ago. So Turner faced a monumental challenge when he returned to Austin in January as a born-again Democrat amid the realization that he had to win the trust of the House's other 53 Democrats before they would follow him into a battle against the Goliath Republican majority.

Once the Harvard-trained lawyer accomplished that all but impossible mission, he went on to deliver what very well might have been the greatest performance by a state legislator on either side of the aisle in modern Texas history. While Turner was the only House Democrat at the bargaining table officially on a state finance compromise by virtue of his role as the Appropriations Committee vice-chairman, he seized on the opportunity that presented itself when GOP leaders embraced a plan that would require 100 votes in a chamber with only 95 Republicans. Turner was simply warming up when he knocked the leadership's original water funding vehicle into the ditch with a procedural point of order. But it didn't take long before Turner had hijacked the GOP's budget bus with some Michael Jordan-esque moves that wouldn't have been possible without the undivided support of the other Democrats who'd viewed him more like a Benedict Arnold not that long ago.

Turner played his encore opportunity to perfection when he temporarily withdrew his make-or-break support for the budget compromise at the last minute after the Senate inserted what he perceived as a stick of dynamite into a supplemental spending bill that contained the funding for future water needs and public school money that had been the Democrats' top priority from day one. The budget would pass over Turner's dead body before he'd go along with the Senate amendment that would have drained a utility assistance fund for low-income Texans that Turner had made sermons about on the floor as its self-appointed guardian and defender. Turner's opposition alone in the 11th hour wouldn't have been fatal for a dedicated funds measure that had to pass to keep the entire budget compromise from going down the drain. But the House Democrats were ready and willing to go at that point where Turner would lead them - and that forced Republicans to come up with a compromise that Turner saw as one of his biggest victories in a long and now legendary political career.

By the time the curtain fell on the regular session, nothing of major significance had passed without Turner's personal approval. Very few Texas lawmakers hav ever had that kind of impact when they were members of the majority party. The prospects for a member of the minority party wielding that level of clout had simply been unfathomable until Turner decided to find out what being a team player would be like en route to becoming the House's most valuable player in 2013 in a competition that wasn't even close.

 

TEXAS SENATE
Most Valuable Player

Tommy Williams
Texas Senate
The Woodlands
Republican

The giant shoes that State Senator Tommy Williams had to fill as the rookie chairman of the Senate Finance Committee might have seemed awfully tight by the time he finished the victory lap or two that he'd earned with the finest performance by far of a 16-year career as a Texas legislator. You could search the world over and fail to find an elected leader whose public relations stock soared more in five months than Williams' did in a chamber where he'd been regarded at times on both sides of the aisle as a pompous and arrogant bully.

The Republican from The Woodlands emerged from the regular session as a major hero as a lawmaker who played hardball to the maximum when needed as the Senate's chief budget writer and negotiator before forging final deals with the House on an intricate budget package that he always seemed to know he would make eventually. Williams, who was elected to the Senate initially in 2002 after a six-year House stint, took the session at the outset down a very different path that Governor Rick Perry had demanded when he advocated a less defiant attitude on Medicaid and called instead for a solution that would be customized for Texas' unique needs. Anticipating serious resistance from tea party conservatives in the House, Williams devised an innovative approach on water and education funding that would have bypassed the need for legislators to bust a constitutional spending cap that Republicans on the right consider holy by giving voters the power to make the call themselves in a constitutional amendment election.

While Williams could sympathize with the challenges that GOP leaders faced in a House where consensus is much harder to achieve, he made it clear as the budget bargaining reached a boiling point that he'd be amenable to a middle ground but wouldn't be capitulating regardless of the potential for dire consequences. Williams has always been the kind of legislator who wears emotions on his sleeves at times - and his temper might have affected his focus briefly with the way he treated the House Democrats' lead negotiator when the bargaining tension hit the boiling hit.

But fleeting flashbacks in the heat of the moment to the tough guy of the past couldn't put a dent in the remarkable level of respect that Williams had generated in no time from some his sharpest detractors at the Capitol. Williams won the admiration of senators on both sides of the partisan divide by establishing early on that the budget process under his guidance would be open and inclusive and as fair - if not more so - than it had been in the east wing up to now. Williams quickly converted a number of Democratic colleagues who'd never really cared for the guy into big fans and friends - and the folks who thought they knew him seemed to be pleasantly surprised when they discovered that the new budget boss was a guy with a sense of humor and compassion and desire to put the state's overall good ahead of party politics and himself. Williams says now that he's exploring a race for comptroller - but that could be a step down or sideways compared to the gig now and how he made the most of it.

 

TEXAS LEGISLATURE 2013
Best of the Regular Session

Sylvester Turner
Texas House MVP
Houston

Democrat

Tommy Williams
Texas Senate MVP
The Woodlands

Republican

Jimmie Don Aycock
Texas House
Killeen

Republican

Drew Darby
Texas House
San Angelo

Republican

Yvonne Davis
Texas House
Dallas

Democrat

Kevin Eltife
Texas Senate
Tyler

Republican

Juan "Chuy" Hinojosa
Texas Senate
McAllen

Democrat

Jane Nelson
Texas Senate
Flower Mound

Republican

Jim Pitts
Texas House
Waxahachie

Republican

Allan Ritter
Texas House
Nederland

Republican

TEXAS LEGISLATURE 2013
Honorable Mention

Dan Branch - House
Dallas Republican

John Carona - Senate
Dallas Republican

Bob Deuell - Senate
Greenville Republican

Robert Duncan - Senate
Lubbock Republican

Craig Eiland - House
Galveston Democrat

Charlie Geren - House
Fort Worth Republican

Glenn Hegar - Senate
Katy Republican

Harvey Hilderbran - House
Kerrville Republican

Todd Hunter - House
Corpus Christi Republican

Rene Oliveira - House
Brownsville Democrat

John Otto - House
Dayton Republican

Dan Patrick - Senate
Houston Republican

Richard Raymond - House
Laredo Democrat

Kel Seliger - Senate
Amarillo Republican

Wayne Smith - House
Baytown Republican

Senfronia Thompson - House
Houston Democrat

Leticia Van de Putte - Senate
San Antonio Democrat

John Whitmire - Senate
Houston Democrat

Judith Zaffirini - Senate
Laredo Democrat

John Zerwas - House
Richmond Republican

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