April 2, 2015
State Senate Sway Gauge Features Small Group
of Veteran Leaders and Power Chart Newcomers
Texas House Power Rankings 2015
Jane Nelson at Top of Game in Senate
There are two kinds of state legislators when it comes to the assessment of clout at the Texas Capitol this year after the presiding officers on both sides of the rotunda are excluded from the pool of possibilities.
There's State Senator Jane Nelson - and there are all of the other Texas lawmakers who will never come close to wielding the kind of sway inside the brass rails that the Flower Mound Republican does now barring successful races in the future for lieutenant governor or House speaker.
The former sorority president had entered the Senate in 1993 as a political pariah who'd ousted one of the chamber's most influential Democrats by running to the right when Texas was still solid blue overall. Nelson had served two terms on the State Board of Education, which Democrats who controlled the statehouse were starting to view as a breeding ground for wing nuts.
But Nelson has defied expectations in ways that no one could have imagined during her rookie session almost two dozen years ago - and she's climbed during that span of time from the lowest possible point on the pecking order to the pinnacle of power in the east wing of the statehouse. It wouldn't be a stretch to say that the suburban mother of five who began her career as an elementary school teacher may be the most powerful state legislator in Texas history who's not the speaker or Senate president.
Nelson and House counterpart John Otto are crowning the Capitol Inside Texas Legislature Power Rankings for 2015 in their respective chambers as the chairs of the Senate Finance Committee and House Appropriations Committee respectively. The stations that Nelson and Otto hold as their chambers' chief budget writers pretty much guaranteed their rankings at the top of the power chart this year. But the value of the budget chairs' power stock is also a function of factors that are extraneous in some cases and inherently unique in others.
Otto for example had to be a high-ranking lieutenant on Speaker Joe Straus' leadership team as a prerequisite for consideration for the chief House budget position in a pool with a couple of other highly-qualified contenders. Nelson, who'd led the Health & Human Services Committee for the past 12 years, had no competition whatsoever for the budget boss job in a Senate where all of the potential rivals were no longer serving when the regular session convened in January. Otto, who'd amassed clout through policy expertise without much concern for political gamesmanship, had been ranked 16th on the House power chart two years when he was chairing an appropriations panel subcommittee. He might have found it tough to crack the top 10 if the speaker had cast someone else in the budget field general part.
Nelson's closest competitor in power stock value on the other hand is a distant second in different league in an upper chamber that's more inexperienced than it's been at any point since the Reconstruction period in the Civil War's wake. She was going to be the Finance Committee chair regardless of who won the lieutenant governor's race - and she has the kind of assertive determination and institutional savvy that are making it possible for her to maximize the power that the position affords in exponential fashion.
In a chamber where the GOP has been the majority party for the past 18 years, the unusually high turnover rate last year left Nelson as the only current Senate member who was ranked in the top four on the power ladder during the regular session in 2013. GOP State Senators Kevin Eltife of Tyler and Kel Seliger of Amarillo have moved up three slots apiece to second and third respectively in the Senate power rankings for the current regular session that passed the midway point more than a week ago. Eltife and Seliger, however, are testaments to the value that survivability can behold as business establishment Republicans in a chamber that's just as conservative as it is green.
The four lawmakers who round out the top seven in the east wing - Republican State Senators Joan Huffman of Houston, Charles Schwertner of Georgetown, Kelly Hancock of North Richland Hills and Brian Birdwell of Granbury - weren't even rated on the 15-senator power list at this time two years ago. They are the new face of a Senate that's become a tea party haven with Patrick swinging the gavel in a chamber where he'd been one of 31 senators until winning the statewide post at the polls last fall. Patrick - for the record - was ranked seventh on the clout chart two years ago before assuming his new station as one of the state's three most powerful leaders along with Governor Greg Abbott and Straus.
But the fact that Eltife and Seliger are still ranked as high as they are this time around is probably an indication that Patrick acknowledges that some veteran leadership is needed in a chamber where Democrats have been weakened considerably since Republicans dismantled the two-thirds rule at the start of the session in January. The fact that Democratic State Senators Juan "Chuy" Hinojosa of McAllen and John Whitmire of Houston are ranked among the top 10 this spring suggests that Patrick hasn't been quite as much of a partisan extremist as the tea party conservatives who worship him would like to see him become eventually. A wealth of Democratic talent and experience is being wasted nonetheless in a chamber where the minority party's members no longer have the ability to block legislation from votes on the floor when they're united against it.
Eight of the current Senate's 10 most powerful members are Republicans - and GOP members occupy 13 of the 20 slots on the upper chamber clout chart for 2015. State Senator Kirk Watson - a former Austin mayor who lost to Abbott in the attorney general's race in 2002 - ranks in the top 15 as a result of his seat on the Finance Committee and the added sway that he enjoys in his leadership post as the Senate Democratic Caucus chair. While Patrick sought to strip most of Democratic State Senator Judith Zaffirini's power away to the delight of conservatives in his debut as the Senate's top leader, she is ranked in the top 15 nonetheless as a result of a vast institutional knowledge, unrivaled work ethic and the sheer determination and talent that it will take to keep making a significant difference whether Republicans like it or not.
But some Republicans are carrying substantially more weight in the new Texas Senate despite an almost invisible fraction of the experience that Democrats like Whitmire, Hinojosa and Zaffirini have amassed as legislators during the past three decades. While Whitmire and Hinojosa have remained relevant as the Criminal Justice Committee chairman and Finance Committee vice-chair respectively, they've been leapfrogged in the rankings by several Republicans who are in the midst of their sophomore Senate sessions like Schwertner, Hancock and State Senator Larry Taylor of Friendswood.
Schwertner, a surgeon who served one term in the House before advancing to the east wing two years ago, has seen his power stock soar as the new Health & Human Services Committee chairman who's been veering sharply to the right in a possible warm-up for a race for lieutenant governor if Patrick decides to challenge Abbott in 2018. Hancock, who served six years in the House, has gained substantial muscle in his second Senate session as the new GOP Caucus chairman who's doubling as the Administration Committee leader.
Birdwell, a five-year Senate veteran who almost died in the 9-11 attack on the Pentagon when he was stationed there as an officer in the military, has more sway than ever this year in the Senate where he's chairing the Nominations Committee and serving as the staunchly conservative field general on the high-priority issue of border security. Taylor is a former House Republican Caucus chair who landed a plum assignment in his second Senate session as the new Education Committee chairman.
The rankings are based to a significant degree on a combination of committee assignments and other leadership roles such as major bill sponsors. The charts below show how valuable various roles in the upper chamber have been so far in the 2015 regular session. But intangible factors that can be individually unique and impossible to quantify are factored in a more subjective way into the equation as well in the biennial assessment of legislator power at the statehouse in Austin.