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Texas Monthly releases list of best and worst Texas legislators

Released by Texas Monthly:

TEXAS MONTHLY RELEASES

BEST AND WORST LEGISLATORS OF

82nd LEGISLATIVE SESSION

 

Bonus Features Included in Magazine's 20th Session Covered

 

Austin, Texas June 16, 2011 —Following yesterday's Twitter announcement of the Best and Worst Legislators of the 82nd Legislature, Texas Monthly today released the full entries for each of its Best and Worst picks. This edition of Best and Worst Legislators is the twentieth that the magazine has published since it was founded in 1973. To mark that historic event, this year's edition includes a number of bonus features. A special gatefold cover pays humorous homage to the magazine's long tradition of covering state politics; a feature called "20 Sessions" offers a brief history of every Legislature the magazine has ever covered; in the "Hall of Fame," ten of the magazine's favorite Best Legislators from the past 20 sessions weigh in on where the state is headed; and in his monthly Behind the Lines column, senior executive editor Paul Burka, who has covered 19 of those 20 sessions and who is nearly synonymous with the Best and Worst Legislators, pinpoints the biggest changes at the Capitol since the list began, in the 1970's.

All of these bonus features are included in the magazine, which will reach subscribers starting this weekend and be available on newsstands next week. Honorable Mentions, Dishonorable Mentions, and Furniture (the magazine's category for inconsequential members) are also available in the magazine. Descriptions of the ten Best and the ten Worst legislators and the special awards (Bull of the Brazos and Rookie of the Year) are available now at texasmonthly.com. Excerpts are below.

THE BEST

Dan Branch (R-Dallas)

"After his childhood friend Joe Straus became Speaker, in 2009, Dan Branch could have had any assignment he wanted. Most members would have wanted a chairmanship of one of the power committees—Appropriations, Ways and Means, or Calendars. Branch chose Higher Education. That's the essence of Branch—he doesn't care about status; he cares about making a difference. He believes that Tier I research universities are the future of the state, and he wants to be in a position where he can help more institutions achieve this status."

Senator Robert Duncan (R-Lubbock)

"Legislatures can't function without members like Robert Duncan. 'He has become the fixer,' one colleague said of the softspoken attorney from Lubbock, who seems to find himself doing more than his share of the Senate's heavy lifting every session."

Charlie Geren (R-Fort Worth)

"His position in the House—chair of the Administration Committee—sounds like the job description of a hapless Cold War apparatchik in the Kremlin bureaucracy, but don't be fooled: Charlie Geren is the glue that holds the Straus team together. Anything that happens in the House must go through his committee—every travel voucher, every request for a parking place, every office expense—with the result that Geren accumulates useful knowledge about members."

Will Hartnett (R-Dallas)

"Hartnett is a quiet, unassuming sort who goes about his business, session after session, with little fanfare, passing bills on such scintillating subjects as notices of lis pendens and power of attorney. Then along comes a situation where the House needs a sharp legal mind who can rise above politics and carry out the law with impartiality and integrity. When that occurs, Hartnett is first on the list of candidates."

Jim Keffer (R-Eastland)

"Quiet and serious, with an almost invisible mustache and scholarly glasses, Keffer could step right into a cinematic role as headmaster at a boys' prep school. He typifies the kinds of members who once dominated the House, canny, practical-minded rural legislators (often from West Texas) who served under the speakerships of Billy Clayton, Pete Laney, and Tom Craddick."

Senator Steve Ogden (R-Bryan)

"All session long, the strongest call for leadership on the budget remained Ogden's opening-day speech upon becoming president pro tempore, when he goaded his colleagues to fix the school finance system and the business margins tax. As Finance chair, he drove the Senate to produce a budget that, while lean, was far more generous than that of the House, whose leaders caved in to the governor and the tea party elements of the Republican caucus."

Mike Villarreal (D-San Antonio)

"It was next to impossible for a Democrat to be effective in a House with a Republican supermajority, but Mike Villarreal, a wonkish Aggie with a Harvard graduate degree in public policy studies, found a way.

Senator John Whitmire (D-Houston)

"When the dean talks, people listen. Republicans know he is not an ideologue; when he gets angry, the anger is real, not calculated. And they know he is somebody with whom they can make deals."

Senator Judith Zaffirini (D-Laredo)

"All session long she waged a two-front war against two of the most powerful men in the Capitol—Rick Perry and Steve Ogden—and somehow managed to remain standing. Ogden named Flower Mound Republican Jane Nelson the chair of his subcommittee on Medicaid, but it was clear from the start that Zaffirini was the key player on the panel—charged with finding billions in cuts to the costly program—because of her encyclopedic knowledge of the health and human services budget and her ability to line up the Democratic votes Ogden desperately wanted."

John Zerwas (R-Richmond)

"He never engages in ideological battles, never panics. He just argues cause and effect, as a man of science is trained to do . . . What separates Zerwas from other members is that he uses his time on the House floor to speak from his medical experience."

THE WORST

Leo Berman (R-Tyler)

"This is Berman's distinguishing characteristic: Once an idea is in his head, it's embedded. There's no reasoning with him, on birtherism or anything else."

Dennis Bonnen (R-Angleton)

"The eighty-second legislature was a mad, mad, mad, mad world for Dennis Bonnen, and no one was madder than Bonnen himself . . . This was not the Dennis Bonnen members had known in past sessions, the man so intrigued by politics that he'd begun his public service as a House sergeant at arms. This year he drifted petulantly through the chamber; his biggest contribution was presiding from the lectern in Joe Straus's stead."

Wayne Christian (R-Center)

"When he wasn't pursuing the culture wars, Christian was doing his best to fracture the Republican delegation. There were his emails to the constituents of other members of the TCC, blasting fellow lawmakers for supposed lapses in conservative judgment. And his 'Legislative Updates,' posted each week on YouTube, in which he accused leading House Republicans of being phony fiscal hawks."

David Dewhurst (R-Houston)

"As Senate finance chair, Steve Ogden worked for months to build consensus among his fellow Republican senators to use the Rainy Day Fund to at least partially address the enormous shortfall in the 2012-13 budget, despite growing pressure from Governor Perry's office not to tap the fund. David Dewhurst signed off on the move in a private meeting and Ogden finally got his budget out of committee and on to the floor. Then Dewhurst pulled the rug out. 'I was surprised,' he told reporters five days after the committee voted to use the fund. In the days after Dewhurst's flip-flop, the Senate descended into chaos . . . The episode was classic Dewhurst: not sure where he should be on any given issue, not good at getting there."

Senator Troy Fraser (R-Horseshoe Bay)

"Troy Fraser's opponents complain that the hulking Hill Country Republican likes to throw his weight around, but having him on your side of an issue can be dangerous too."

Senator Jane Nelson (R-Flower Mound)

"Cutting billions from Medicaid was one of two thankless tasks doled out by Senate Finance chair Steve Ogden; the other—cutting $4 billion from public education—was given to Plano Republican Florence Shapiro. The two committees were a study in contrast, with Shapiro's running relatively smoothly and Nelson's veering all over the highway. Republicans Bob Deuell and Kevin Eltife found themselves reaching across the aisle to join social services stalwarts Judith Zaffirini and John Whitmire in putting the brakes on shortsighted cuts, as Nelson, who has emerged as a kind of party whip for the Senate's right wing, rolled her eyes and grew more and more frustrated."

Larry Phillips (R-Sherman)

"Larry Phillips desperately wants to be a respected player in the big game, but even after five sessions, he has yet to figure out that respect can't be manipulated; it has to be earned. His first impulse in any situation is to try to demonstrate that he's a big shot, which is a sure sign that he isn't."

Burt Solomons (R-Carrollton)

"Burt Solomons is the House's leading expert on the rules. He chairs the Redistricting Committee. He shepherded the controversial sanctuary cities bill to passage. He's one of the 'cardinals' who constitute the Straus leadership team. So what is he doing on the Worst list? The answer is that Solomons's propensity to be a bully raged out of control this session, like a grass fire in August that no one could put out."

Senator Jeff Wentworth (R-San Antonio)

"Jeff Wentworth never wanted to come back this session, and many of his colleagues wish he hadn't. Wentworth wanted instead to be named chancellor of the Texas State University System, but he lost out last summer to then state representative Brian McCall. His decidedly unstatesman-like letter of protest to the Texas State board of regents—he was 'personally offended' that a 'Johnnycome-lately opportunist' was chosen over him—offered a hint of the type of legislator we would see this session: not the respected independent thinker of past years but a more obstinate, irascible, and angry version of his former self."

Bill Zedler (R-Arlington)

"When the House was meeting, Zedler spent much of his time at his desk talking on his Bluetooth or heckling whichever Democrat was at the front mike, smiling his odd little mortician's smile. You'd think that someone who launched his political career in a group called Decency for Arlington would try a little harder to spread some of that decency in Austin."

SPECIAL AWARDS

Bull of the Brazos

Trey Martinez Fischer (D-San Antonio): "Well-timed [Points of Order] were the Democrats' only credible weapon this session, and TMF fired them off ceaselessly, brutally, and without mercy. Unfortunately, he didn't know when to stand down. His antics eventually imploded the House. During a bitter weekend in May, setback after setback finally drove Republicans to flex their majority might and employ a rarely used procedure to shut off all debate on a contentious tort reform bill. After this, the Dems were effectively powerless. Enraged, TMF used a closing speech to turn the front mike around—and unheard of impropriety—and scold Straus directly."

Rookie of the Year

Dan Huberty (R-Houston): "The former president of the Humble ISD, Dan Huberty is self-assured, diligent, and willing and able to tackle tough issues."

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