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Party Switching In The Texas Legislature—Texas Progressive Alliance Round-Up

Here is the weekly posting of the Texas Progressive Alliance round-up. The TPA is a confederation of the best political bloggers in Texas.

With the round-up this week, I’ll offer a few thoughts on the prospect of some of our Democratic state legislators in Texas switching parties.

State Rep. Allan Ritter of Nederland has switched to Republican and Rep. Aaron Pena of Edinburg is considering doing the same.

None of this is surprising. Before Mr. Ritter’s defection, Republicans held a 99-51 edge in the House. There is not much to be said for Democratic prospects in the 2011 legislative session.

Politicians are likely go where they can have influence and can get the best deal. In the case of Mr. Ritter, it seemed probable he would lose his seat in 2012 given the political trends in his district.

It’s easy to get mad at these traitors and potential traitors, but is should be noted that the way we run our Texas legislature mutes partisan affiliation. While it would seem the ideological gap between the two parties is such that switching seems unlikely, the fact is party identification in the legislature often takes a backseat to a process that leaves voters guessing just where the person who represents them in Austin really stands.


* Votes for the position of Speaker of the House involve legislators of one party voting for a candidate of the other party.

* Committee chairs and vice-chairs are often persons of the minority party.

* Democrats supported former far-right Republican House Speaker Tom Craddick  for years and they got away with it for long enough to do plenty of damage.

* There is no formal majority leader and minority leader position in the House and Senate.

In this context, there is a measure of coherence in switching parties. Rather than a hard and fast identification to one or the other major party and to the values voters count on that party to represent, state legislators work in a system where loyalty is to individuals and to unseen influences.

I realize that control by murky and unseen forces embodies how politics works around the nation. But must we exacerbate these tendencies by making them institutional?

The whole system is lousy. The Speaker should be selected by the majority caucus, and the majority party should run the chamber as elected to do by voters.

In any case, it is hard to muster full outrage at the party switchers when many on both sides of the aisle in Austin have long embraced a system that rewards partisan double-dealing.

Here is some history of party switching in Texas.

Here is a history of the Texas Leguisture up until 1995 from the excellent Handbook of Texas Online.

Here’s the round-up—-

Off the Kuff takes a look at the HHSC report on the effects of dropping Medicaid. Short answer: It would be bad, but what they really have in mind to do may be even worse.

Bay Area Houston has some interesting comments on the criminal probe of State Representative Joe Driver.

Capitol Annex takes a look at a dangerous proposal by incoming State Rep. Dan Huberty (R-Humble) to allow independent school districts to lessen the amount of cash reserves they are required to keep on hand and explains why this is a terrible idea.

This week on Left of College Station Teddy takes a look at the shortfall in the Texas budget, and also covers the week in headlines. Continue reading

December 12, 2010 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , , , | Leave a comment

Should Political Leaders Declare Themselves Gods To Keep Power?—The Facts From Antiquity

What if recently deposed Texas House Speaker Tom Craddick had announced himself a god? Would this have kept him from losing his post? Is declaring himself a god an option to save the career of politically troubled Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich? (above)

Let’s review the record from antiquity.  

In his History of Government from the Earliest Times–Volume I, Ancient Monarchies and Empires, the late Oxford political scientist S.E. Finer addressed the subject of rulers as gods or as chosen by heaven.

In ancient Egypt, the Pharaoh asserted divinity. Professor Finer wrote that these claims held the most weight in the early years of the Egyptian kingdom. But in time, as Pharaohs lasted for only brief stretches before dying or being usurped, the claim to divininty must have been nearly impossible for anyone to really believe.

In this era of 24 hour cable news and irreverent coverage by political blogs, it would seem, at best, that only some of the public would believe a claim by a leader that he or she was a god. If rulers had a hard time maintaining the fiction back in ancient Egypt, imagine convincing people today.

Professor Finer also wrote that the Egyptians responded to the diminished stature of the Pharaoh’s person by giving the throne divinity more so than the individaul holding the throne.

From Finer—

 “In my view…originally the (pharaohs) person was a sacred person, because, in accordance with certain rules or portents, he was, uniquely, indicated as the rightful possessor of the throne. But later it was the throne that made the king..irrespective of a particular individuals personal history or qualities.”

By this logic, the holder of the office of Speaker of the Texas House or the Governorship of Illinois would be a god by definition. It would not make any difference if  Mr. Craddick or Mr. Blagojevich were gods because their successors would be gods as well.  This, in my view, would limit the value of declaring yourself a god.  No matter what, you’re going to get a god in the position.

In ancient China, the Emperor had the “Mandate of Heaven.”

From Finer—

“…the Chinese emperorship…was irreducibly ritualistic:  ying-yang and the perfect harmony of Earth, Man ans Heaven turned exclusively upon the emperor’s actions….so the emperor, the Son of Heaven, was sacred because he alone could offer to Heaven the supreme sacrifices and maintain the harmony between the terrestrial order and the cosmos.”

Reading this you’d think a politician looking for a firm hold on power would try to establish himself as holding such importance. But the power of the Chinese emperor came with a catch not unlike what we have already seen in Egypt. The presumption was that if you challenged the emperor and prevailed, that you then had the Mandate of Heaven. 

The verdict here, informed by history, is that declaring yourself to be god or as heaven-sent is not a viable strategy to keep political power. Though it sure would be fun if someone would try. It does seem possible that Governor Blagojevich has at least considered this idea.  

(Below—Ancient Egypt)

January 9, 2009 Posted by | Books, History, Political History, Politics | , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Republican Majority Should Elect Speaker Of Texas House

Tom Craddick, an autocratic far-right extremist, has been deposed as Speaker of the Texas House of Representatives. He does not have the votes within the House to win election for another term as Speaker.

The Texas House has 76 Republicans and 74 Democrats 

Two candidates, both Republicans, appear to remain as the options for election by the House as Speaker. One candidate is Joe Straus of San Antonio. The other is John Smithee of Amarillo.

( Update—Mr. Smithee has pulled out and the race appears to be over. While it’s a crazy process we have here in Texas, let’s hope that Mr. Straus is really change for the better.)

Mr. Straus appears the more moderate of the two choices. The overwhelming majority of the 74 House Democrats have pledged to support his bid. He also has the support of as many 16 Republicans. Mr. Smithee has the support of the clear majority of Republican members, but few, if any, Democrats. As it stands now, the numbers favor Mr. Straus.  

It’s quite possible the elevation of Mr. Straus would move the House away from the right and towards the center. Mr. Smithee appears to be a Craddick-lite option. 

Yet on Election Day last November, Texans elected a majority of Republicans to the House. That is what was decided at the ballot box. It is the majoroty Republican party that should decide who serves as Speaker.

I believe in political parties. They provide a shorthand for voters to sift through the great number of often complex issues any modern governing body faces. It’s nearly impossible for a person who has to work for a living, or who has a family to raise, to have a clear sense of all the issues up for debate at any given point.

On Election Day, ideally, we look at what party a candidate represents, as well as his or her stands on the issues most important to us and our fellow citizens. 

We know that a Democrat from a rural area may have different views on some questions than a Democrat from an urban area. We know that a Republican from Maine may have conflicting views in contrast to a Republican from Alabama. But we also know that in many cases there is a set of core values that informs members of the same political party regardless of other differences. 

We also know, or trust, that when it comes to organizing a legislative chamber, members of the same party will come together to elect a Speaker and other officers. 

Where party structure breaks down, what’s left is behind-the-scenes deal cutting that is often far less transparent than party ID.  When things go wrong, voters are left to guess where to place the blame as legislators hide under whatever label or excuse suits them at the moment.

It’s bad enough that our Texas legislature meets only once every two years. Or that members are not paid a living wage so only a well-connected few can serve. Or that a one-third minority can hold up action in the State Senate. The least we can ask is that the parties we vote for, and the men and women who represent these parties and the ideas behind the parties, act in a coherent and accountable way once seated in Austin.

Once a legislative session begins, members can easily work across the aisle on various bills and proposals. There’s nothing wrong with that. But a basic coherence must exist in the structure of a legislative chamber for voters to be able to make sense of the records of both political parties and individaul members.

Here’s hoping that between now  and the opening of the legislative session on January 13,  the majority party as elected by the people of Texas gets its’ act together.

This is the position I will hold on that better day, not so far in the future,when Democrats control the Texas House.

January 5, 2009 Posted by | Politics, Texas | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Facebook & Martin Van Buren Demand I Endorse Kevin Murphy For The Texas House

On my Facebook account a few days ago I got an invitation to be a friend from Kevin Murphy.

I don’t know any Kevin Murphy.

I investigated the matter. I established that Mr. Murphy is running as a Democrat for the Texas State House of Representatives from the Pearland area. This is House District 29.

Good enough— While I have no idea who he is running against, Mr. Murphy has my strong support.

For one thing, I’ll endorse and support any Democrat running for office who makes me a friend on Facebook. Doing so helps serve my need for attention.

For another thing, I’m a strong believer in partisanship. I don’t need to know what Republican is running against Mr. Murphy.

I’ve read about the founding of our party system in Richard Hofstadter’s The Idea of a Party System—The Rise of Legitimate Opposition in the United States, 1780-1840.  

I agree with what Martin Van Buren says as quoted in Hofstadter’s book—

“…political parties are inseparable from free governments…the disposition to abuse power, so deeply ingrained in the human heart, can be by no other means be more effectually checked.”

(Please click here for an essay on Mr. Van Buren’s role as a party builder in American history. There is also much more information on Mr. Van Buren to be found at that link.  The above cartoon suggest that Mr. Van Buren could not get anywhere without the help of Andrew Jackson. Such a charge is simply not the case. President Jackson had the good sense to often listen to Mr. Van Buren for advice and Mr. Van Buren was as skilled a politician as they come. )

Not only do parties help check the tendency towards an accumulation of power based on personality, they also provide a shorthand for voters to figure out where candidates stand on the overwhelming number of issues we face in the modern day.  

In the Texas House of Representatives, the absence of a party line vote for House Speaker makes that office a focus of backroom intrigue and sneaky double dealing. Democracy calls for the Speaker’s office to be awarded based only on what party wins control of the chamber on Election Day. 

There are, of course, limits to partisanship at the ballot box. A party that is certain it has your vote may be motivated to serve interests other than those of voters.

Voters have the option to not vote at all for a specific position on the ballot if they find the Democrat intolerable. Or they can vote for a Green or other minor party candidate. I personally never vote for any Republican because I feel to elect one Republican assists all Republicans. 

Also, voters should recall that with time the parties can switch ideological places. It’s possible that today’s Democrat would have voted for the more progressive Theodore Roosevelt, a Republican, over the more conservative Democrat Alton Parker in 1904. In the end it is ideas that motivate the partisan.

This is especially so now that we don’t have party machines handing our free turkeys at Thanksgiving or able to give your brother-in-law a job with the sanitation department.

The bottom line?

Vote for Murphy!

June 20, 2008 Posted by | Books, Campaign 2008, History, Houston, Political History, Politics, Texas | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments

Borris Miles & Al Edwards—Democrats Way Of Telling Texas Urban Voters To Drop Dead

I’d be remiss not to comment on the terrible choice faced here in Houston by the loyal Democrats in strongly-Democratic Texas State House District 146.

Here is some helpful information about Democratic incumbent Borris Miles from the Houston Chronicle of January 12—

“The Harris County District Attorney’s Office is investigating a complaint that state Rep. Borris Miles, D-Houston, made threats and brandished a gun at a holiday party last month.

According to witnesses, Miles entered a St. Regis Hotel ballroom uninvited, confronting guests, displaying a pistol and forcibly kissing another man’s wife.

David Harris, who threw the party for his property management company, said he believes Miles, an insurance agent, was angry at him for investing in a rival business….

Rumors about the incident have swirled for weeks in both Houston and Austin. Harris agreed to speak publicly about it last month only after being contacted by the Houston Chronicle. 

Miles is being challenged in the March 4 Democratic primary for District 146 by former Rep. Al Edwards, whom Miles unseated in 2006….

Miles also gained some notoriety last spring when he personally removed two pieces of art on display at the Capitol that he said were objectionable. The art in an exhibit placed by the Texas Moratorium Network included a depiction of a black man hanging from a rope and an illustration of a man tied to an electric chair with the inscription “Doing God’s Work.”

According to witnesses to the December incident, Miles walked into the ballroom carrying a wine bottle and a glass…..

Rido said Miles also kissed his wife, Krysynthia, before leaving….”

Mr. Miles was elected, in essence, in the 2006 Democratic Primary when he defeated long-term incumbent Al Edwards

Mr. Edwards is also a disturbing figure.

Mr. Edwards, running again as the above article noted, is somewhere between no better and worse than Mr. Miles.

 In the Texas House, Mr. Edwards was an ally of the deeply conservative and autocratic House Speaker Tom Craddick. This fact  in no way represented the interests of Mr. Edwards’ majority-minority and very Democratic  district.

This is the best our Democratic Party can do for loyal supporters who need effective representation in Austin?

All this makes me ask again why city residents vote Democratic over and over while getting so little in return? Our cities just get worse and worse and worse. It’s the same way Republicans use rural voters. 

I’m not going to pretend I have a solution. It’s not voting Republican. I’ll just say that when you are used time and time again, it becomes at some point up to you to work for change.

If that change involves abstaining from certain races on the ballot, voting for Greens if the option is there, or demanding more effective leadership from take-us-for-granted Democrats, I simply refuse to believe I have to accept this stuff forever.  

In this specific case, Texas House 146 voters have two lousy candidates. They deserve better. While all people should vote in all elections, this is a race I’d leave blank on my ballot on Primary Day if I lived in 146.

Which brings us to the absurd way we select a House Speaker in Texas. Instead of by party line vote, as is done in places where democracy exists, Texas House Speaker votes cross party lines.

In this way, the politics of personality, secret deal-cutting, and everyone for themselves, replaces the voters of Texas. Instead of a majority party and a minority party reflecting the will of Texas voters, what you get is a closed-door scramble that reflects who-knows-what.

A concern is that Mr. Miles is a reliable vote for a Democratic Speaker, while Mr. Edwards might support Mr. Craddick in a closely divided House.    

My feeling is that the party that wins a majority should elect a Speaker. That’s the democratic thing to do. And that’s the kind of change and reform folks should be demanding.

Failing that, maybe urban representatives in Texas should talk with rural representatives in Texas and barter the Speakers’s chair for whoever will give the best terms. Maybe raw political power is the only way to get the attention of people and interests that at heart don’t seem to really care if voters who can be taken for granted live or die.

Update—Here is a column by Rick Casey at the Houston Chroniclesaying that Mr. Craddick is at the heart of why Democrats have been silent on this issue and also suggesting that Mr. Miles may have talents to offer in the legislature. Also, Mr. Miles has been in the hospital this week with pneumonia. He is reported to be on the upswing. Good luck to Mr. Miles in his recovery. 

January 18, 2008 Posted by | Campaign 2008, Houston, Politics, Texas | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment