Tuesday, May 03, 2011

Erosion: The Fall of the Texas Democratic Party in the Pete Laney Years

In 2010, the University of Texas Press published "The House Will Come to Order: How the Texas Speaker Became A Power in State and National Politics," a book I co-wrote with Dr. Patrick L. Cox. In this passage, we describe the financial and political decline of the Democratic Party in Texas in the 1990s during the speakership of Pete Laney.

The increasing potency of the Republican Party in Texas inevitably made Democrat Pete Laney a transitional figure for the speakership. Born on March 20, 1943 in Hale Center in Hale County, James E. "Pete" Laney still lives 200 yards from his first childhood home. The Laney family worked as farmers. Hale Center had a population of about 2,000 people when Laney grew up and he graduated from high school in 1961 in a senior class of fewer than 40 students. Laney attended Texas Tech University where he earned a bachelor's degree in agricultural economics. After graduation, Laney became a successful cotton farmer and first won a seat in the Texas House in 1972.

Laney beat an incumbent in the throw-the-bums-out mood that swept the state in the first election following the Sharpstown Scandal of the early 1970s. Laney’s victory came as Price Daniel, Jr.’s campaign for the speakership was already in high operation. Laney recalls that “[t]hirty minutes after I was elected, Price Daniel Jr. and Diane, his wife then, landed at the Plainview airport and I visited with them about an hour.” The lightening visit would be Laney’s introduction to the intense world of speakership politics. Laney’s already knew the man who would next serve as speaker, Billy Clayton, and said that he was probably the first or second member of the Legislature to pledge support for Clayton’s speakership campaign. This put him in a good position to assume an important position in the House by his sophomore term.

Laney served four terms as chair of the House Administration Committee under Clayton. That post proved key to Laney developing a close relationship with a broad roster of House members. This committee assigns members’ offices and parking spaces. When a fellow member of the Clayton “team,” Gib Lewis, landed the speakership in 1983, Laney remained in the leadership, serving as chair of the State Affairs Committee for the next decade. “Laney made a habit of mentoring new members, helping them understand and work the system, even if he disagreed with what they were trying to do,” longtime Capitol press reporter Dave McNeely wrote. “That personal attention helped elect him speaker.”

After almost two decades as a team player for Clayton and Lewis, Laney’s election as speaker finally arrived in 1993. By the end of Laney’s first regular session at the helm, members could tell a difference from the Lewis years. Perhaps because of his tendency to not take up the reigns until the end of a session loomed, or perhaps because a rocky economy made legislative options more difficult, Lewis presided over a House that met in 17 special sessions during his ten years as speaker, with the 71st Legislature, which convened in 1989-1990, meeting a record 6 times. By contrast, no special session needed to be called by governors Ann Richards, George W. Bush or Rick Perry during Laney’s 10 years as speaker.

In the Lewis years, the end of legislative sessions brought a frenzy of bills, usually read into the record and voted on before any pretense of debate or discussion took place. “Those mad scrambles (with members on the final night sometimes setting the clock back to allow more bills to pass before the midnight deadline) had the ambience of the Oklahoma Land Rush and the decorum of tag-team mud wrestling,” McNeely wrote. “They produced a lot of adrenaline and testosterone, some great sine die (end of session) parties and some awful legislation. Laney said when he passed an important bill on the last night of the regular session, with only a handful of people having any idea what was in it, he realized something had to change.”

Laney moved the deadlines for submitting bills earlier in regular sessions in order to give representatives more time to think before they vote. "The main reason [for the rule changes] was to make sure the members had their say-so," Laney said. "The end-of-the-session rules were very important to me because I got an ethics bill passed in the last 30 seconds of the last night of the 1991 session. That's not fair to those people. I could've screwed up real bad." Under Laney’s rules, all major bills had to win at least tentative House approval 18 days before a session concluded. Important Senate bills were required to win tentative House approval six days before the end of the session while conference committee reports had to receive a final up or down vote by the next to last day. Laney set aside the final day for corrections and additions to legislation.

House business proceeded more smoothly not only because of rules changes, but also because Laney’s subdued personality provided quiet repose after Lewis’ larger-than-life presence. After a 21-year period that saw one speaker go to prison, another sent to trial on bribery charges, and a third spending almost a decade facing questions about ethics, the Laney years proceeded scandal-free.

That does not mean that the lobby’s influence on the House diminished. In fact, Laney along with five of the most powerful Democratic committee chairs, Hugo Berlanga, Mark Stiles, Rob Junell, Clyde Alexander and David Counts were each able to raise more than $200,000 from July 1, 1995 to the end of 1996, according to a report by the citizen’s lobby Texans for Public Justice. About 37 percent of contributions came in $1,000 increments or more. Businesses and political action committee contributions accounted for 62 percent of all itemized political donations received by House candidates. These numbers indicate that a narrow group of business special interests dominated campaign fundraising in Texas House races and strongly shaped who entered the House leadership.

Texans for Lawsuit Reform, a corporate PAC that aimed to limit jury awards paid to consumers cheated, injured or killed by business products and services, chipped in more than $600,000 in House races during 1995-1996 to stand as the state’s leading PAC. TLR also donated $700,000 to George W. Bush’s 1994 gubernatorial campaign. Businesses got a return on their investment. Already one of the toughest states for consumer plaintiffs to win a verdict, Texas furthered tightened tort restrictions under Laney and once again under his successor Tom Craddick.

For the politicians, the TLR cash flow proved decisive in campaigns. Out of 66 campaigns examined by Texans for Public Justice in the 1995-1996 period, only seven were won by candidates with less money than their opponents, with only two of those upsets against an incumbent. As Patrick Kelly noted in his study of campaign finance in Texas, “Most citizens are relegated to spectator status while wealthy economic interests duke it out to persuade the Legislature into favorable action or to prevent it from taking action contrary to their well-being.

In spite of his success in raising PAC money, Laney’s ethics record remained squeaky clean. Add the lack of scandal to the continuation of Clayton and Lewis’ policy of including Republicans in the House leadership team and Laney’s tenure may have been one of the most harmonious of the century. He not only appointed Republicans to chair committees, but also supporters of Jim Rudd, his opponent in the 1993 speaker’s race. "After it's over, everyone's in the same room for 140 days," Laney explained.

In his first term as speaker, Laney frequently mediated between Lt. Gov. Bob Bullock and Gov. Ann Richards, both Democrats. In a short time, relations between Richards and Bullock completely soured, but Laney said he was able to maintain his friendship with both.

"[M]y involvement with Bullock was probably different than a lot of people, because first of all, he and I were friends, but he knew that I was not afraid him and I think he respected me for that. Bullock was not a person who tried to intimidate, but whether he did it purposely or not, he intimidated a lot of people.

"He and I got along because we disagreed, but we disagreed . . . then we resolved the problem . . . When I became speaker, he . . . already had succeeded in becoming estranged with Ann Richards . . . The breakfast meetings were few, with her presences . . . few, and short . . . I was more of the mediator in that, because Ann was good personal friend and it was just that . . . Bullock had decided that they had a problem and they didn't get it fixed."

Laney generated good will in the lower chamber by ensuring that the House authors of bills got final credit for the passage of legislation. John Moritz, a veteran Fort Worth Star-Telegram political reporter calls this an important part of “inside baseball” outsiders might be oblivious to, but which richly enhanced Laney’s reputation with lawmakers. Laney said he never asked his members to take a vote that would be politically dangerous in the member’s district. “In fact, on more than one occasion, I have suggested to members that they vote against what I was trying to get done in the legislative process because of their district,” Laney said.

Even if he had not been a conservative Democrat who was willing to mediate between Republicans and Democrats, Laney would have had to act in an even-handed, bipartisan way to get anything accomplished. The state GOP finally arrived as a fully competitive force. In 1992, the Republican caucus in the state House had grown to 59 members, while the GOP held 13 of 31 Senate seats. State Treasurer Kay Bailey Hutchison joined fellow Republican Phil Gramm, winning Texas’ other United States Senate seat in 1993.

In 1994, Republican George W. Bush beat Ann Richards in her quest for another term as governor. The son of a former vice President and president, Bush had dabbled for years in the oil business in Midland. Just before his entry into politics, his father’s business connections led to Bush, in return for a relatively minor investment, being named figurehead of the consortium of businessmen who bought the American League Texas Rangers baseball team in Arlington. Bush and company convinced the city to underwrite building a new, expensive, state-of-the art stadium and used this platform to project the image of a successful, decisive businessman.

Richards, meanwhile, suffered from a backlash against Democrats during the first two years of Bill Clinton’s presidency in which he failed to pass a promised national health care program, broke a campaign pledge to cut taxes for the middle class and, with almost exclusive Republican help in the Congress, passed an unpopular free trade agreement with Mexico and Canada. In spite of Richards’ close cooperation with Texas businesses, Bush successfully tagged her as a “liberal.” Democrats and Republicans remained racially polarized in Texas, with 90 percent of African Americans and 75 percent of Mexican Americans supporting Richards, but a majority of Anglos, including those in lower income brackets, supporting Bush. The GOP nominee carried 54 percent of the vote.

In congressional elections in 1994, Republicans moved from holding just eight seats in the 27-member Texas delegation in the United States House of Representatives to 12 out of 30 (Texas had gained three seats in the most recent federal census.) Bush took full advantage of the Republican high tide. Collaborating with moderate-conservative Democrats such as Laney and Bullock, Gov. Bush successfully lobbied for bills allowing Texans to carry concealed handguns. Welfare payments in the state were slashed. A property tax roll back approved by the Legislature allowed Bush to claim credit for the biggest tax cut in state history, amounting to $11 billion. In fact, the change forced local school, city and county governments facing rising costs to boost property valuations in order to make up for the revenue shortfall.

The legislative process went more smoothly when Bush arrived as governor, Laney said, largely because Bob Bullock got along better with the new Republican chief executive. “I think that Governor Bush decided that he wanted to let us help make him a good governor,” Laney said. “So he took the concepts that Bullock and I had been working on for several months during the interim and laid down his goals, which was fine, and passed most of it because we already had most of it in the oven already, which was good political sense for him. It made our job a whole lot easier when the governor was touting the programs that we were trying to take care of.”

Bush proclaimed education as his chief concern. Again, with the support of Laney, Bullock and the Democrats, the Legislature passed bills requiring required schools to give yearly standardized tests to students and wrote provisions into state law that would allow parents whose children attend a low-performing schools to transfer to other schools in the district.

The school reforms revealed the tight political bonds between business lobbyists and the leadership of both the Democratic and Republican Parties by the 1990s. The school reforms also demonstrated that even as the state Republican Party drifted further right and the Democrats further left, the leadership of both parties continued to embrace a similar brand of business-oriented conservatism.

A former chair of the Dallas County Democratic Party, Sandy Kress, spearheaded the campaign for the standardized testing reforms. Appointed in 1990 to a commission that proposed accountability standards for the Dallas Independent School District, Kress advocated establishing regular achievement tests at DISD campuses as a means of rating the effectiveness of each school. African Americans and Mexican Americans worried that Kress’ proposals would result in slashed budgets for historically neglected minority-majority schools. Kress argued that the testing requirements, which mandated that schools report scores by black and Latino students separately, would focus the school district’s attention on those groups.

In spite of Kress’ ostensible Democratic allegiances, in 1992 George W. Bush (at that time still owner of the Texas Rangers baseball team in nearby Arlington) supported Kress’ election to the Dallas School Board, where he served as president. During Kress’ tenure, he undermined a program that opened “learning centers” established in black majority sections areas of Dallas to reduce the burden of busing for African American students. He also helped killed a $15 million bond proposal to open a magnet school in a black neighborhood. After the release of a taped conversation in which Kress is allegedly heard discussing Dallas school politics with board member and ally Dan Peavy, with the latter using racial slurs to refer to black board members, Kress stepped down.

Kress moved to Austin, serving as a paid consultant for the Governor’s Business Council. Friendly with Bullock, Laney and newly elected Gov. Bush, Kress traveled the state to support Bush’s education agenda, including requiring schools to regularly administer standardized tests. At the same time, Kress belonged to the board of the Texas Business and Education Coalition, and lobbied for the affiliated Texans for Education group. By 1998, Kress joined the Akin Gump firm that lobbied on behalf of McGraw-Hill, a publishing firm with long ties to the Bush family. Kress persuaded the Legislature to implement a reading program that gave McGraw-Hill the largest chunk of the state’s school textbook purchases, a lucrative deal for the emerging educational services giant.

The Texas education became a model for the country. According to the National Board on Educational Testing and Public Policy at Boston College, standardized achievement test sales nationwide zoomed from $7 million in 1955 (adjusted for inflation) to $263 million in 1997. Today, the big four, including McGraw-Hill, rake in from between $400 million to $700 million a year. As a result of the Bush-Bullock-Laney education initiative, by 2005 the state spent an estimated $2 billion to more than $5 billion a year on standardized testing. With profits of annual profits of $4.2 billion, McGraw-Hill captured 40 percent share of the test-design market.

What have the education reforms of the 1990s meant for Texas students? Since 1986 at least 40 percent of Texas high school students never graduate. Kress and his supporters promised that the tests would increase attention on and funnel more resources to black and Latino students and improve performance in those communities. Instead, since the mid-80s, black dropout rates climbed from 34 to 44 percent and the Latino dropout rate crept up from 44 to 49 percent.

Since the standardized testing requirements, fewer Texas students take the SAT and ACT college admission exams. The average SAT score for Latino students has dropped 17 percent since 1996 and the average score for black students dropped from 852 in 1996 to 843 in 2003, according to figures from the Texas Education Agency.

Kress’ answers to these disappointing statistics are to call for even more standardized tests, which would financially benefit the test design companies he lobbies for in state legislatures and the U.S. Congress. Nevertheless, virtually every major teachers’association has opposed the trend towards greater emphasis on standardized tests and research has increasingly cast doubt on their educational value.

“Faced with increasing pressure from politicians, school district personnel, administrators, and the public, some teachers have begun to employ test preparation practices that are clearly not in the best interest of children,” argues education expert Louis Volante of Concordia University. “These activities may include relentless drilling on test content, eliminating important curricular content not covered by the test, and providing interminably long practice session that incorporates actual items from these high-stakes standardized tests.”

Volante argues that the obsession with testing leaves students less informed, noting that, “Teaching to the test also has a ‘dumbing’ effect on teaching and learning as worksheets, drills, practice tests and similar rote practices consume greater amounts of classroom time . . . Insofar as standardized tests assess only part of the curriculum, time spent on test taking often overemphasizes basic-skill subjects and neglects high-order thinking skills . . .”

Nevertheless, the Texas educational experiment of the 1990s, backed by Republicans like Bush and Democrats like Laney and Bullock, spawned state reforms across the nation and inspired President Bush’s “No Child Left Behind” program passed by the Congress in 2002. As for Sandy Kress, Laney’s successor as speaker Tom Craddick and Lt. Governor David Dewhurst in 2007 appointed him to a new “Select Committee on Public School Accountability” that will study ways to improve the state’s standardized test system.

Laney remained so friendly to Republicans that the night when the United States Supreme Court declared George W. Bush the winner of the hotly-contested 2000 presidential election, the president-elect made a national address from the Texas House chamber and picked Laney to introduce him. For the country, Laney became the face of bi-partisanship, Texas-style. During his tenure, Laney appointed Republicans as the chairs and vice-chairs of committees and flew across the state to attended fundraisers for both Democrats and Republicans he liked. “Some Democrats have felt Laney's bipartisanship actually wounded their party: He has refused to help the campaigns of Democrats running against incumbent Republicans who have been part of his team,” reporter Dave McNeely noted.

Unfortunately for him, state politics caught up with Washington, D.C., in terms of partisanship. The Legislature’s failure to approve a redistricting plan in 2001 sealed Laney’s fate as speaker. The 2001 redistricting legislation “was a bill that most of the members had drawn themselves for their districts, even the Republicans, but it was not necessarily what the new [Republican] leadership wanted, so it became very confrontational to say the least,” Laney stated. “. . . The Republican Senate blocked the redistricting program that we passed and that was the catalyst that changed the numbers drastically in the Legislature, in the House,” Laney noted. When the Legislature fails to draw new district lines after the decennial census, the task falls to the Legislative Redistricting Board, which Republicans that year dominated for the first time ever. The new district lines aimed at undermining several Laney lieutenants, who faced uphill election challenges or decided to retire rather than end their legislative careers on a losing note.

“. . . [T]he vote of the Legislative Redistricting Board was a three to two vote,” Laney remembered. “. . . I was the only Democrat on the redistricting committee and with one Republican and one Democrat voting no and three [Republican] statewide office holders [Comptroller Carole Keeton Rylander, General Land Commissioner David Dewhurst and Attorney General John Cornyn] voting yes. [Lt.] Governor Ratliff and I both voted against both the House and Senate plans . . . the other three members were doing everything for pure political purposes and did severe damage to rural Texas and severe damage to even some of the Republicans. I mean, they sacrificed some Republican members’ districts to do damage to Democratic members.”

The chief force behind Republican efforts to wrest control of the House from Laney and the Democrats, Rep. Tom Craddick of Midland, had served in the Texas House since 1969 and had been a member of the “Dirty Thirty” that bedeviled and eventually overthrew Gus Mutscher. Craddick devoted his career to creating a Republican majority in the Texas House and the 2000 elections placed him on the cusp of success.

For decades, Craddick acted as an “unpaid consultant to party hopefuls,” according to one Texas Monthly profile. “We recruited the candidates, helped them with their mailers, helped them with their media, and helped them to lay out their campaigns,” Craddick told the magazine. “We even monitored their efforts. We had a sheet I devised where they had to report how many phone calls they made, how many signs they put out, how many doors they knocked on every week.” Setting up political action committees supported by big-ticket donors, Craddick created a cadre of Republican legislators who owed their success directly to him.

Laney named Craddick as chair of the Ways and Means Committee, but the Midland representative’s partisan electioneering and his open desire to replace Laney finally exasperated the speaker, who stripped him of the post in 1999. "When you have individuals who are trying to make this a partisan place, divide the aisle and want to unseat you, it's hard to put much trust in their judgment," Laney explained.

By 2000 Republicans held all 29 statewide offices and achieved majority status in the State Senate. In 2002, the Texas Association of Business and the Texans for a Republican Majority Political Action Committee (TRMPAC), created by U.S. House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, distributed about $2.5 million backing Republican candidates in targeted state House races in order to complete the GOP takeover of the Legislature. Republicans captured 88 of 150 House seats and the membership elected Tom Craddick by a 149-1 margin as Texas House Speaker, the first Republican to hold the post since William Henry Sinclair, who served from 1871-1873.

Craddick began his speaker campaign long before the Republicans had secured a House majority more than a year before the general election. Beginning in October 2001 he and his wife Nadine gathered pledge cards. Unlike previous candidates, he solicited pledges of support from all primary candidates for the state House, Democrats and Republicans. In Collin County, he sought the support of 11 different candidates. The strategy aimed at locking up the support of whoever won House races. “Everybody else thought they could wait until after the primaries were over and then come by and see members and say, ‘Now that you are the nominee, how about voting for me?’” Craddick later told a reporter. “But most of the candidates said, ‘I already committed to Craddick.’ It was over.” Immediately after the election, on November 7, Craddick surprised the political world by announcing he had already cinched the speakership.

A non-partisan speaker could not last forever in so partisan an age. Laney in effect declared that party loyalties should play no role on how members voted on key issues. After he lost his position as speaker, Laney remained in the Legislature and reflected on his tenure. “My style was not a power style. I didn't think it was the job of the speaker to exert his or her will on the membership. I thought that the speaker was there to make the job of each member easier and let them represent their district,” he stated. By contrast, Tom Craddick would see his ability to advance the Republican agenda as key to his effectiveness. The political cultures of Austin and Washington, D.C. moved ever closer.

Michael Phillips has authored the following:

White Metropolis: Race, Ethnicity and Religion in Dallas, Texas, 1841-2001 (Austin:  University of Texas Press, 2006)

(with Patrick L. Cox) The House Will Come to Order: How the Texas Speaker Became a Power in State and National Politics. (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2010)

“Why Is Big Tex Still a White Cowboy? Race, Gender, and the ‘Other Texans’” in Walter Buenger and Arnoldo de León, eds., Beyond Texas Through Time: Breaking Away From Past Interpretations (College Station: Texas A&M Press, 2011)

“The Current is Stronger’: Images of Racial Oppression and Resistance in North Texas Black Art During the 1920s and 1930s ”  in Bruce A. Glasrud and Cary D. Wintz, eds., The Harlem Renaissance in the West: The New Negroes’ Western Experience (New York: Routledge, Taylor and Francis Group, 2011)

“Dallas, 1989-2011,” in Richardson Dilworth, ed. Cities in American Political History (Washington, D.C.: CQ Press, 2011)

(With John Anthony Moretta, Keith J. Volonto, Austin Allen, Doug Cantrell and Norwood Andrews), Keith J. Volonto and Michael Phillips. eds., The American Challenge: A New History of the United States, Volume I.   (Wheaton, Il.: Abigail Press, 2012).

(With John Anthony Moretta and Keith J. Volanto), Keith J. Volonto and Michael Phillips, eds., The American Challenge: A New History of the United States, Volume II. (Wheaton, Il.: Abigail Press, 2012).

(With John Anthony Moretta and Carl J. Luna), Imperial Presidents: The Rise of Executive Power from Roosevelt to Obama  (Wheaton, Il.: Abigail Press, 2013). 

“Texan by Color: The Racialization of the Lone Star State,” in David Cullen and Kyle Wilkison, eds., The Radical Origins of the Texas Right (College Station: University of Texas Press, 2013).

He is currently collaborating, with longtime journalist Betsy Friauf, on a history of African American culture, politics and black intellectuals in the Lone Star State called God Carved in Night: Black Intellectuals in Texas and the World They Made.

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