Texas Monthly last week issued the 25th edition of its Best and Worst Legislators, completing a half century of Texas’ biennial exposure to the dangers of democracy.
Not a single San Antonian was ranked among the best this year, but our boys and girls escaped the list of the worst as well. That is business as usual.
Republican Rep. Lyle Larson did get an honorable mention that described him as “one of the few true Mavericks left in the Lege.” The magazine noted he “didn’t get a lot accomplished this session. But he kept up a regular drumbeat of thoughtful protest against the excesses of the GOP, while openly dreaming on Twitter of an independent political party.”
The list is designed to rate legislators not on their ideology but on their legislative skills, their work ethic, their leadership ability, whether they play well with others, and whether they get things done. The authors go into the details of legislative mechanics to show how the best legislators make democracy work and how the worst undermine it.
A review of the complete list of Bests and Worsts going back to 1973 indicates that if it weren’t for a Republican named Joe Straus who repeatedly earned praise for his decade as speaker of the House, San Antonio would have made few ripples in the legislative lagoon.
We didn’t have a single legislator on the Best list until its 17th iteration in 2005. In the years since, only three more Best lists included San Antonians. I’ll tell you about those below, but first things first.
In the early years we were much more accomplished when it came to the Worst list. We were there from the beginning with Sen. Glenn Kothmann, who would become a record setter. In 1973 Texas Monthly described him as “Easily the densest member of the Senate. People still cannot imagine how he got elected, much less reelected.”
Yet the people of San Antonio were oblivious to Texas Monthly’s judgment. They would reelect Kothmann again and again, enabling him to set a record by gracing the Worst list in three consecutive sessions — 1973, 1975, and 1977 — and then again in 1983 and 1985.
In the years he wasn’t on the Worst list, Kothmann would regularly be on a list labeled “Furniture,” which Monthly defined as members “who, by virtue of their ineffectualness or stupidity, are indistinguishable from their desks, chairs, and inkwells.”
The magazine could be cruel. In 1975 it admitted that Kothmann was popular with his constituents, if not with his colleagues, concluding: “If, as the saying goes, people get the government they deserve, the residents of southeast Bexar County may be due for a rain of frogs.”
Here is a thumbnail for each of San Antonio’s other honorees on the Worst list:
In 1975 Rep. G.J. Sutton, representing San Antonio’s heavily Black East Side, “Shocked the Black Caucus by his opportunistic readiness to pursue you-get-yours-I’m-getting-mine logrolling, instead of the team effort they had expected. Has been observed asleep for hours at his desk during House sessions; is periodically awakened by Houston Representative Senfronia Thompson. On the session’s most important issue for minorities — school finance — Sutton slept through large portions of the debate and then voted against the bill that would have most benefited minorities.”
In 1983, Sen. Bob Vale was described this way: “The kind of politician who confirms your most cynical fears about politics. Combines an infinitesimal sense of public responsibility with a spectrum of values that begins with money and ends with money. If money is the mother’s milk of politics, as former California House Speaker Jess Unruh once postulated, then Bob Vale has yet to be weaned.”
In 1995, Rep. Frank Corte was encapsulated thus: “Mercenary. Mendacious. Malicious. Petty. Meet Frank Corte, one of the more dismal products of democracy to reach the Legislature in many a year.”
Corte made the 1997 Worst list as well, and he was joined by Rep. John Shields. “Most legislators who land on the Worst list do so through ineptitude or blunder,” the Monthly said. “John Shields is different: He actively auditioned for the role.” One example: He introduced a bill that would allow legislators to be paid cash money for “fact finding trips” during legislative sessions, “a loophole that disreputable lobbyists could easily exploit to practice legalized bribery.”
“Shields was voted down by a margin of 130-2, one of the worst whippings in memory. Then it got worse: The only member to side with Shields changed his vote.”
In 2011, Texas Monthly described Sen. Jeff Wentworth as a “respected independent thinker of past years” but said his failed campaign to become chancellor of the Texas State University System had turned him into “a more obstinate, irascible, and angry version of his former self.”
“Wentworth had nothing to occupy his attention this session, aside from a strange obsession with allowing college students to carry concealed handguns on campus,” the authors wrote.
“Unable to get the bill to the floor, Wentworth tacked it onto Judith Zaffirini’s major higher education reform bill, forcing her to temporarily pull it down rather than see his amendment become law.”
Now for the Best list. As mentioned above, the first San Antonian to make it was Rep. Mike Villarreal in 2005, a full 32 years after the list’s inception. Like Larson this session, Villarreal was cited for being a maverick.
“Shunned by partisan Democrats and distrusted by partisan Republicans, he nonetheless found a way to be a major force in tax issues” the authors wrote. They described how he thwarted efforts by Gov. Rick Perry to restrict cities’ ability to raise revenue with a “clever parliamentary ploy.” Republicans would succeed years later.
Villarreal made the Best list again in 2011, not for bills he passed but for information he exposed. Early in the session he planted “a nasty time bomb with a delayed fuse” by passing an amendment to House rules requiring the Legislative Budget Board to report on the economic impact of the House budget. The report made “front-page news: an estimated 335,000 jobs lost due to the cuts in the House bill, a projected decline in the gross state product of $19 billion, and a drop in personal income of $17.2 billion. Kablooey.”
The sessions of 2013 and 2015 were a high water mark for San Antonio, with three members touted each year. Rep. Trey Martinez Fischer and Straus were on both. They were, in fact, something of an Alamo City team. The two had been at loggerheads before, with Martinez Fischer defying House tradition at one point by turning the front microphone around so that he could directly excoriate Speaker Straus. But things changed in 2013.
“Martinez Fischer emerged as one of the Democrats’ key ambassadors to Straus’ office, a soldier prepared to do battle but ready to make peace. He realized that he could accomplish more by working from the inside than the outside. For his part, Straus recognized that the tea party had, by its extremism, empowered the Democrats to ride to his rescue. And he often let Martinez Fischer lead the charge.” A highlight was that although Martinez Fischer wasn’t on the Appropriations Committee, Straus appointed him to the all-important conference committee that at the end negotiated differences with the Senate bill, where he reportedly played an important part.
In Straus’ entry, he was summed up this way: “It is one of the great ironies of Texas politics that at a moment when the House chamber is a roiling cauldron of tea partiers, ultraconservatives, and clueless freshmen determined to undo the sins of the Obama administration from their offices in the Capitol Extension, the body has as its leader one of the more genteel and thoughtful Speakers in recent memory.”
The 2013 session was tough on Sen. Leticia Van de Putte. She began it in a wheelchair with a broken foot and spent the last month mourning the death of an infant grandchild. Yet she managed to pass a number of bills to help military families and to cut down on the number of high stakes tests while raising graduation standards for schoolchildren, all with “her customary dignity and tenacity.”
San Antonio last made the Best list in 2015 when Martinez Fischer was joined by Rep. Ruth Jones McClendon. Martinez Fischer was again praised as a “fearless brawler armed with serious parliamentary skills,” and it was noted that this time those skills were both feared and appreciated by Republicans.
Everybody knew it was McClendon’s final session. She was battling brain cancer and would resign her position months later and die in 2017. “Surgery late last year to remove water from the brain had left her so weak that she used an electric scooter to get around and found it difficult to speak this session, yet her record of achievement is undeniable.”
In addition to honoring her enthusiastically, her colleagues on both sides of the aisle joined her in passing two bills she had been working on for years. One established a commission to study the exoneration of falsely convicted prisoners; the other authorized needle exchanges in seven urban counties.
So there you have it. In a half century during 25 legislative sessions, San Antonio placed only five legislators on the Texas Monthly Best list and six on the Worst list. One bright spot: The last San Antonian on the Worst list was a decade ago. Four of the five on the Best list first appeared during the last decade.
Things are looking up.