AUSTIN – In 1983, when John Whitmire first arrived in the Texas Senate, at age 33, he quickly was reminded by his more-seasoned colleagues that new members were to be “seen, not heard.”
“That was made very clear to me,” said Whitmire, now 65, the upper chamber’s longest-serving member. “The senior members were in charge. That was the rule.”
That unwritten rule seems to have gotten the heave-ho this session, however.
The nine freshmen senators, the largest class in years, have sponsored major bills, sat on major committees, even chaired one. They made their views known through their own “Liberty Caucus,” openly challenged the norms and publicly contested senior senators on a variety of hot-button issues.
Nowhere has Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick’s inaugural proclamation “It’s a New Day In Texas” been more true than in the Senate, over which he presides.
“I agree and I think it’s a good change,” said Patrick, himself an outspoken freshmen in 2007, to the chagrin of many senior members. “I don’t look at freshmen as being freshmen. … They have constituents they came here to represent, just like other senators. They should have a voice.”
The power shift has been significant, political observers say.
“A lot of the old norms seem to be breaking down,” said Mark Jones, a Rice University political scientist who has watched the Texas Legislature for years. “I sense that seniority doesn’t carry the clout that it once did. The new rule seems to be that all 31 senators are created equally, and that’s a big change from the past.” He added: “Dan Patrick came in that way in 2007, and it’s now taking hold while he is presiding officer.”
Resumes of the Senate’s freshman class tell much of the story.
Five of the new senators – Republicans Lois Kolkhorst of Brenham, Brandon Creighton of Conroe, Charles Perry of Lubbock and Van Taylor of Plano, and Democrat Jose Menendez of San Antonio – were, in Senate-speak, “House broken,” having served in the lower chamber, where they were familiar with the legislative process. Some had held committee leadership posts.
Kolkhorst arrived with 14 years’ experience in the House. Patrick tapped her to be on key Senate committees of finance, transportation, education agriculture and health and human services, and named her a negotiator on the budget, a plum for a freshman.
“We should pinch ourselves that we got the opportunities we did,” she said. “There’s a freshman on every committee. … We all came in with wind in our sails, and we came in to work. We knew what the constituents that elected us wanted.”
The four other freshmen – Republicans Paul Bettencourt of Houston, Bob Hall of Edgewood, Konni Burton of Fort Worth and Don Huffines of Dallas – were new to the legislative process, but backed by tea-party groups that helped Patrick and other conservative Republicans sweep into office last fall.
“Every one of the Republicans campaigned for change, and we knew that the people who elected us wanted to see change,” Bettencourt said. “They didn’t want us to come up here and sit quietly. They expected us to get to work, to change the culture. And I think we have changed the culture.”
Creighton agreed, noting that freshman senators handled major bills and stepped into leadership roles unlike years past. “It’s a combination of a strong freshman class – some of us had experience in the House – and that members with tenure had the confidence in us to deliver when we were called upon.”
Creighton has authored high-profile bills to seek more transparency on property-tax hikes, change the rules to give future school-finance court decisions a statewide focus and make hunting and fishing a right under the Texas Constitution, among others – an unusual position for a freshman in the Senate.
For the first time in years, a freshman, Perry, was named chair of an important committee, Agriculture, Water and Rural Affairs. Bettencourt, Creighton, Burton, Huffines and Taylor were named vice chairs, and Hall was named vice chair of a subcommittee.
‘Not here to bargain’
Senators who author major bills and are key players on major committees have higher profiles, and make more headlines. They can also hold sway in major debates, a fact highlighted Friday when Huff ines tied up the Senate for hours by offering a controversial amendment to the open-carry gun bill that would prevent police from asking a person whether he has a handgun license solely because he is openly carrying a weapon.
Senior senators, most of them Republicans, hotly challenged the amendment, insisting it would keep police from protecting the public. Huffines, the freshman who weeks earlier had challenged Senate tradition by publicly criticizing a tax-cut proposal supported by the Senate leadership, stood his ground. At one point, he pushed back on a demand from a more senior senator, a fellow Republican, that he pull down his amendment.
“I’m not here to bargain on my amendment and wait around,” he shot back.
Several senior senators, mostly Democrats but a few Republicans, grouse privately that the freshmen have gained too much clout and no longer respect the seniority system that used to be sacrosanct in the Senate’s ruling order.
“There’s definitely been a change this session, and it’s not good. It’s bad,” said Jose Rodriguez, a two-term senator from El Paso, who, like other Democrats, has seen his clout wane significantly under Patrick. “The Senate did away with the two-thirds rule, which diminished the power of members. There’s been no respect for local bills, no respect for local control and been a refusal this session to have Democrats chair most committees. Senior members have diminished status. Seniority doesn’t mean as much.”
Patrick, who has supported the Senate’s rules changes that he sees as long overdue, disagreed. But he acknowledged he has tried to level the playing field so all 31 senators have a voice.
“I reduced the number of committees from 18 to 14, so there were no light committees any more for freshmen,” he said. “This freshman class was one third of the Senate, 40 percent of the Republicans in the Senate. Everybody had to step up. They have.”
Building since Patrick
Some senators suggest the increased clout of freshmen, though it has become indisputable this session, actually began building eight years ago, with the freshman class that included Patrick. Those new senators more quickly became involved in machinations, as have many of the freshmen since – including Joan Huffman, R-Houston, and former Sen. Wendy Davis, D-Fort Worth, among others.
Many of them attribute the change to a shift in politics, from the days of bipartisan compromise to one in which principles drive divisive fights on abortion, gun rights, immigration, school vouchers and other issues. Even so, most senators and lobbyists generally agree the Senate’s freshmen will end the session with a softer political edge than when they started.
If the dynamics of the Senate have changed this session, Whitmire, as the upper chamber’s longest-tenured member, says the legislative closeness between the 31 members is just as strong as in the past, even if the new members may have felt they had to hit the ground running when the legislative session began in January.
“There’s been times when it’s been like trying to drink from a firehose, as they say,” Bettencourt said. “But people keep saying that elections have consequences, and I think one of them has been the change that the freshmen have made in the Senate this session.”
Originally Published: Houston Chronicle, 05/25/2015