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Committee Moves Signal Dewhurst's Political Tack

Michael Stravato, Texas Tribune

Dull as it sounds, appointing the committees in the state Senate is a big deal. The lieutenant governor is dishing out power, giving more to this senator than to that one, letting the senators know how they rank for the next several months. The idea is to get things done while strengthening friendships and loyalties, to do it without making too many enemies and to be sure the enemies who remain are too weak to fight back.

That’s the inside game. Outside, the public is watching, particularly that narrow slice of the public that votes in primary elections. Now that Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst has decided to run for re-election in 2014, what he does with his committee assignments for the 2013 legislative session is the first step in his next campaign.

He and Republican voters are at a delicate point in their relationship. A month ago, those voters rejected Dewhurst’s bid for the U.S. Senate, nominating upstart Ted Cruz instead of the guy they had supported through four statewide elections. Running again will put Dewhurst in front of those voters again in just 19 months. His recent loss has exposed some weaknesses to potential opponents. The pent-up demand in the Republican ranks — where everyone has been waiting for years for the Kay Bailey Hutchisons and the Rick Perrys to kindly get out of the way — is strong. Three statewide officials have openly expressed interest in Dewhurst’s job.

It’s on.

At least five senators, all Republicans, are leaving ahead of the next session. Four are committee chairs, prompting anxious speculation about who is getting what. Dewhurst this week named Sen. Tommy Williams, R-The Woodlands, to chair the budget-writing Finance Committee. Dewhurst said he’ll soon complete his reorganization of the Senate, getting an early start on something that usually doesn’t take place until the session starts.

Dewhurst told the Texas Republican delegates in Tampa, Fla., that he would push for school vouchers next session. Education is one of the open committee chair slots; who gets the post will say a lot about what Dewhurst wants to do next session.

Does he name a voucher advocate like Dan Patrick, R-Houston? Or does he name someone likeKelSeliger, R-Amarillo, who is open to the idea but not an evangelist for it?

The assignments have consequences other than legislation. Former Lt. Gov. Bill Ratliff, R-Mt. Pleasant, was making a statement in 2001 when he appointed Rodney Ellis, D-Houston, to chair the Senate Finance Committee. It was bipartisan. Ellis was the first black man to hold the job. Ratliff’s rivals got a lesson. But when it came time to file for elections, Ratliff found that he had set off insurmountable opposition inside his own party. He dropped his bid.

Dewhurst is now walking that same line, not for the first time, but for the first time since the voters snubbed him.

There is speculation — probably wrong, but let’s wait and see — that Dewhurst will bust all of the Democrats and give all the chairmanships in the Senate to Republicans.

In 1991, the Senate convened with a new lieutenant governor — Democrat Bob Bullock — and 22 Democrats among the 31 senators. The Democrats then, like the Republicans now, were in position to do anything they wanted.

Only one returning Republican — O.H. “Ike” Harris of Dallas — was a committee chairman. Bullock took it away from him, putting Democrats in charge of every committee when that session started. Within no time at all, he was very, very sorry he had done it. Harris, with the help of Republican colleagues who were empathetically miffed, was gumming up the works, using every trick in the book to turn the Senate into a legislative still life. Long story short: They made peace, and now it’s part of the lore handed down from lieutenant governor to lieutenant governor, from senator to senator.

If he runs, Dewhurst has to run a Republican gauntlet that rejected him this year. That’s where the speculation dand the history are instructive; everyone seems to be assuming that he’ll run to the right, and that his committee assignments will be the first step.

Ross Ramsey is managing editor of The Texas Tribune and continues as editor of Texas Weekly, the premier newsletter on government and politics in the Lone Star State, a role he's had since September 1998. Texas Weekly was a print-only journal when he took the reins in 1998; he switched it to a subscription-based, internet-only journal by the end of 2004 without a significant loss in subscribers. As Texas Weekly's primary writer for 11 years, he turned out roughly 2 million words in more than 500 editions, added an online library of resources and documents and items of interest to insiders, and a daily news clipping service that links to stories from papers across Texas. Before joining Texas Weekly in September 1998, Ramsey was associate deputy comptroller for policy with the Texas Comptroller of Public Accounts, also working as the agency's director of communications. Prior to that 28-month stint in government, Ramsey spent 17 years in journalism, reporting for the Houston Chronicle from its Austin bureau and for the Dallas Times Herald, first on the business desk in Dallas and later as the paper's Austin bureau chief. Prior to that, as a Dallas-based freelance business writer, he wrote for regional and national magazines and newspapers. Ramsey got his start in journalism in broadcasting, working for almost seven years covering news for radio stations in Denton and Dallas.
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