May 30, 2017
Updated June 9, 2017
Top Leaders Reap Highest Honors in Historic Twist
to 2017 Session with Half-Dozen First-Time All Stars
The domineering leader who ran the show and the never-ruffled rival who rewrote the ending are the runaway choices as the most valuable players in their respective chambers on the biennial Capitol Inside appraisal of Texas lawmakers who emerged as the biggest stars in their own unique ways during the 85th regular session.
The elevation of Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick and House Speaker Joe Straus to the top of the list is highly significant in light of the fact that presiding officers have only been first-team all-stars on two separate occasions since the honor roll's inception during our rookie season 14 years ago.
But David Dewhurst and Straus were rewarded for outstanding performances as the lieutenant governor and speaker respectively at the end of debut sessions that typically provide legislative leaders with their most serious tests. So the Straus and Patrick selections this time around are historic in the sense that neither were novelty acts with the opportunity to turn the chambers they led in new directions. But the House and Senate bosses have nothing in common in terms of ideology, goals and governing styles - and they had an unorthodox way of bringing out the best in each other when they were trying to do otherwise. The harder Patrick charged in a relentless and unyielding pursuit of a conservative hardliner agenda, the more Straus stepped up his game as the last line of defense for the business establishment at a Capitol that's still in the midst of a seismic shift to the right. .
Our picks for the most notable performances at the Capitol in 2017 are summarized here - and the reasoning behind the first-team selections will be elaborated in individual installments over the course of the coming week.
The lion's share of the lawmakers on the first and second teams and the freshmen standout list are Republicans who have 64 percent of the seats in the Legislature and 99 percent of the decision-making power at least when they're not at war with themselves. But even though Democrats only account for six of
the 30 spots on the all-star teams for 2017 - they outnumber the bona fide tea party lawmakers and the Senate Republicans as well when Patrick isn't added into the equation. The truly hardcore conservatives in the House figured out how to operate effectively as a bill-killing team after alienating the Straus leadership team and doing little in the way of seeking redemption. While the Senate Republicans were very conservative as a whole, they found it difficult to make a significant difference from an individual perspective in a chamber where they'd delegated most of their power away to Patrick. The first and second teams contain only a handful of GOP senators who are Patrick allies as a result compared to 17 House Republicans who are Straus team players and capable of achieving more individually as a result of the chambers' contrasting personalities and leadership methods.
The Democrats had less clout this year at the statehouse than they'd ever imagined - and all of the minority party members who landed on the all-star lists made their marks in very different ways during a session where they were fighting in handcuffs. State Senator Judith Zaffirini - a Laredo Democrat who'd been one of the most effective lawmakers in Texas as a majority party member in the 1990s - has been just as good if not better in the era of GOP rule. Republican State Senator Jane Nelson of Flower Mound and Zaffirini had both been first-team picks in four of the last six regular sessions before their selections again this time around. GOP State Rep. John Zerwas of Richmond is the only other top-tier selection in 2017 with a previous appearance on the A-list.
Nelson and Zerwas were in prime positions to shine as the chief budget-writers in the Senate and House respectively at a time when money was tight and the chambers they represented were worlds apart on potential revenue schemes. GOP State Senator Joan Huffman of Houston has emerged as a first-time first-team all-star as a legislator who'd been cast in a starring role that she performed like an Oscar winner as the Senate State Affairs Committee chair. Huffman, Nelson and Zaffirini could have been co-MVPs if Patrick hadn't stolen all of the thunder.
The first-term selections who are being honored as such for the first time include GOP State Reps. Dan Flynn of Van, Walter "Four" Price of Amarillo and Matt Schaefer of Tyler. Price and Flynn made the list by making the most of leadership team opportunities while Schaefer earned a berth as one of the Straus lieutenants' leading adversaries.
Democratic State Rep. Helen Giddings of Dallas is an all-star in 2017 for the first time as well as a result of a performance that was a one-of-a-kind original.
A pair of Republicans - State Senator Dawn Buckingham of Lakeway and State Rep. Lynn Stucky of Sanger - are sharing the award for the most outstanding performances by freshmen class members in 2017. The rookie co-MVPs earned pieces of the title in ways that were similar in some respects and unique in others. GOP State Rep. Dade Phelan of Beaumont nailed down the most outstanding sophomore
distinction in his second session as an Appropriations Committee member who overcame substantial conservative resistance as the successful sponsor of a school bus seat belt bill that's designed to protect the state's most precious resources.
The list of second-team all-stars during the 2017 regular session features some legislators who performed at the kind of high level that would have all but assured them of top-tier status in years past.
GOP State Rep. Dennis Bonnen - the most valuable House player two years ago - played a critical role in the lower chamber's amazingly creative maneuvering on hot-button issues in the stretch of the session. GOP State Rep. Greg Bonnen - the speaker pro tem's brother and colleague in a neighboring coastal district - had his best session yet thanks in large part to his role as the sponsor of the year's biggest tort reform measure that he teamed up with Republican State Senator Kelly Hancock to pass.
Republican State Rep. Trent Ashby came to the rescue on higher education funding and retired teachers health care while GOP State Rep. Cindy
Burkett shepherded major abortion regulation and foster care bills to success. One of Ashby's fellow budget conferees - GOP State Rep. Larry Gonzales - found tme to pass bills that will keep the state transportation and energy regulation agenciies in business in his role as the Sunset Advisory Commission chairman. Veteran Republican State Rep. Phil King had a stellar session as the House sponsor of major legislation pertaining to voter identification, gun license fees, police protection and delegate selection for a constitutional convention of the states that Governor Greg Abbott had declared as an emergency. GOP State Rep. James Frank of Wichita Falls had a breakout session as the author of a child protective services plan that carried an Abbott emergency tag and a bill that proved to be a hit with conservative activists by allowing private adoption agencies to reject applications based on religious grounds.
GOP State Rep. Charlie Geren - a veteran lawmaker who's one of Straus' original supporters and most powerful lieutenants - continued to thrive as the House leader on a sanctuary cities ban and ethics legislation that were official emergencies along with a sermon protection plan that had been a Patrick priority. Republican State Rep. Byron Cook - one of the speaker's two highest-ranking allies along with Geren - had impact that bill-passing stats don't measure as the Straus team filter on controversial issues in his role as the State Affairs Committee chairman. GOP State Rep. Chris Paddie stepped up his game to a new level as the author of a major ride-hailing bill and the quarterback on a dazzling House bathroom bill play. Republican State Senator Donna Campbell emerged as one of the Senate's most respected and productive members while raising the stature of the Veteran Affairs & Border Security Committee that she leads considerably. State Rep. Tan Parker did a remarkable job of train wreck prevention as the GOP Caucus chairman in a chamber that had more potential for meltdowns than ever with Republicans there running in fear from Patrick.
In a chamber where Democrats lost their only major weapon with the two-third rule's elimination two years ago, State Senator José Menéndez had success on offense as the sponsor of a cyberbullying bill aimed at preventing teen suicide. The former House member had impact on defense as well with a session-ending filibuster that killed an annexation measure that his hometown of San Antonio opposed.
State Rep. Senfronia Thompson, the House's longest-serving Democrat who's a second-team all-star in 2017 - has been on every best legislators list that we've compiled in the past dozen years as a lawmaker who's good in more ways than we have time to elaborate now. The only Texan who's been a state lawmaker longer than Thompson - former Republican House Speaker Tom Craddick - is a lock for the lifetime achievement award in light of the perserance that he demostrated as the House sponsor of a statewide texting-while-driving prohibition that passed after crashing in the Senate during the last two regular sessions.
There are other legislators who aren't on the list but probably deserve to be - and that's as unfortunate as it is inevitable at a Capitol with 182 elected leaders making and killing laws when the lieutenant governor is included in the count. We will be making the individual cases for this year's first-team all stars throughout the coming week in no particular order. Some folks may see the fact that we're leading off with the Texas House speaker to be more than coincidence. And they'd be right about that.