By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
In a just world, Pete Laney would be U.S. secretary of agriculture. At least undersecretary of agriculture. Or ambassador to one of those insignificant Old Europe countries that can’t get it up for the occasional war of pre-emptive intervention. (Lichtenstein, Andorra and France come to mind.) No one in Texas would have ever thought the cotton farmer from Hale Center would end up a fugitive from Tom Ridge’s Department of Homeland Security justice. Funny how things turn out.
Remember Pete Laney?
The guy who presented President-elect George W. Bush to an anxious nation after the Supreme Court declared him president. The Texas House speaker with an accent so dense that the BBC’s Fiona Anderson considered hiring a translator to help her through a statehouse press conference. Flanked by portraits of Stephen F. Austin and Sam Houston, Laney looked into a bank of television cameras and offered that Texans were worried about what kind of leader Bush would be after he was elected governor in 1994. But Bush was all right. “When he became governor, he reached out to members of the Legislature of both parties. We didn’t always agree on issues, but we found we could have policy differences without having gridlock. We could have debate without bitterness, and we could reach agreements on problems without sacrificing our principles. Above all, we learned that Governor Bush is a leader you can trust and respect.”
Bush asked Laney to introduce him because the Democratic speaker of the House is so doubled over with decency he can’t hide it. Laney would call and blister any representative who insulted workaday Texans who traveled to “their Capitol” to testify at committee hearings. Nelda Laney would even serve cookies, milk and coffee to citizen witnesses waiting to testify.
Laney had been fair to Bush. Too fair. He helped get his legislative agenda passed. When he opposed the governor, he did so quietly — as he did when he worked to block Bush’s failed attempt to muscle 250,000 children of working poor off the rolls of the Children’s Health Insurance Program in 1999. He discreetly supported Bush’s presidential campaign. He avoided endorsing Al Gore. When the campaign started in earnest, he told Democratic reps it “probably wouldn’t be a good idea” to join a Democratic Party “truth squad” that showed up after Bush campaign events.
Then the Republicans won the House in 2002, eliminating the last redoubt of Democratic power. And Pete Laney quietly returned to a desk near the back of the chamber. Here’s where President Bush might have stepped in to provide a graceful exit to a man who served 31 years in the House and 10 years as speaker. (The two previous speakers had been indicted, the speaker before them shot to death by his wife.) I asked Laney if Bush ever offered him a federal appointment. “I
didn’t stick around long enough for him to ask,” he said.
In a word: No.
Yet Laney had allowed Bush to sell himself to the American public as a fair, bipartisan governor. After Laney introduced him to the nation, Bush said, “The spirit of cooperation I have seen in this hall is what is needed in Washington.” In Texas, that spirit lasted only until the Republicans took complete control. In fact, it only existed while Bush was governor because he so desperately needed the cooperation of Laney and the Democratic House. Writer and political commentator Jim Hightower, once a Texas ag commissioner, was the first of the 22 statewide Democrats unseated when Karl Rove kicked off his scorched-earth electoral plan in 1990. The last Democrat elected to statewide office left in 2002. Hightower would later complain that Texas government is run by bankers, bullies and bastards. (But the last banker, a genteel Houston Republican named Ashley Smith, retired from the Texas House soon after Rove made Hightower a radio commentator.)
Just as Jacques Chirac is Old Europe, Pete Laney is Old Texas. Bush, his lifetime political strategist Rove, and U.S. House Majority Leader Tom DeLay represent the New Texas, whose politics and policy are metastasizing across the country. Late in the legislative session that ended in early June, DeLay — a Texas House alumnus from the Houston suburb of Sugar Land — showed up with the redistricting plan that in a bizarre scenario made Pete Laney a national-security threat. We hadn’t seen such inspired cartography in Texas since 1848, when the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo moved 55 percent of the Republic of Mexico into the United States. Under the DeLay plan, my father-in-law could leave his home in Houston and drive 200 miles to Mexico without ever leaving his new congressional district. Austin writer Lawrence Wright tells me I can walk seven blocks east of the pink granite Capitol building and cross four congressional districts (one of them my father-in-law’s).
This is far easier than winning elections. Under the existing plan — drawn up by three federal judges because the Legislature failed to do it in 2001, after the Census — Democrats hold 17 of 32 seats in the state’s congressional delegation. DeLay’s plan would quickly get Republicans up to 20 seats. Tom Craddick, the Republican speaker who replaced Laney, predicted DeLay’s plan would pass “because we have the votes.” A Republican legislator said it was the right thing to do “because we’ve waited 100 years for this moment.” Approved by the Texas Legislature, DeLay’s plan would lock Republicans into power in Washington and solidify support for DeLay and Rove’s extreme-right policy agenda. And carve the state into districts that make little sense.