Thursday, June 16, 2005

Revenge of the Rural Republicans

More on the voucher battle here in Texas. This time in the TEXAS OBSERVER. -Angela


Rep. Carter Casteel (R-New Braunfels) stands before her colleagues to offer an amendment that could endanger her political career. “So, I’ve made a decision,” she tells them. “It may send me home.”

The Texas Legislature is usually not a place for acts of political bravery, especially of late. Three years ago, a corporate-backed GOP campaign stacked the House with legislators selected, whenever possible, to be radical ideologues pliant to special interests. Republican representatives were defined by their fear of crossing a vengeful leadership ready to marshal lobby money against them if they didn’t cooperate. In 2003, Speaker Tom Craddick (R-Midland) used his new majority to ram through a list of action items coveted by major campaign contributors. But on the evening of May 23, in the 79th Legislature, there in the House chamber, Republican moderates like Casteel did the unthinkable, they followed their conscience and their constituents instead of their speaker.

Casteel hoped to amend Senate Bill 422, an innocuous-sounding bill to reauthorize the Texas Education Agency. But tucked inside the reauthorization legislation was one of Craddick’s only priorities for the session: a pilot school voucher plan. Under the proposal, the state would siphon off $600 million in public education money to be given to select students in eight inner-city school districts as “vouchers” for private school attendance. There is no groundswell of demand for vouchers in these areas or anywhere else in Texas—even the state Republican Party has qualms—but that didn’t matter. Delivering a successful vote on vouchers in the House was Craddick’s last unpaid debt from the 2002 campaign.

Casteel, who worked as a public school teacher for 17 years, explains why she is offering an amendment that would strip the voucher plan from the bill. The 63-year-old Casteel often presents herself as a proud grandparent. It’s a standard politician’s trope that in her case is boosted by a shock of white hair and a folksy West Texas accent. Yet tonight Casteel is all fire and scalding wit, musing about her role on the floor of the Texas House and whether it’s “to represent someone who visited with me with a lot of influence and power and money” or to “represent the people in my district who called me and wrote to me.” She notes that voucher proponents are circulating an opinion piece that calls for abolishing public schools in favor of private schools. “Today’s public schools have forfeited their right to exist,” wrote David Gelernter, a computer science professor from Yale, in an article that ran in the Austin American-Statesman. “Let’s get rid of them.”

“Baloney! Baloney!” Casteel cries in response. “We have a Texas Constitution that says it’s up to us to educate public children—all children and not take money away from the public school system.”

Rep. Bob Griggs (R-North Richland Hills) approaches the back microphone for a friendly question. Griggs is a former principal and school superintendent. In many parts of rural Texas, where schools and prisons are the only economic engines, the school superintendent is one of the most powerful people in the county. As one rural House member, who wishes to remain anonymous, will say after the debate: “I could fuck a goat and my constituents might forgive me, but I could never mess with the public schools in my district.”

Griggs cups his hand to his ear. “I’m hearing a noise that resembles that suction sound,” he says. “If I could run a very successful [private] school on a minimum amount of money, it might force me out of retirement, make me a very wealthy man.” Griggs leads Casteel through all the ways private schools receiving public voucher money wouldn’t be accountable. They don’t have to be accredited. They don’t have to comply with class size limits. They don’t have to take state exams. They don’t need certified teachers. (“We’ve made [public schools] so accountable that they can’t go to the bathroom without checking five boxes,” Casteel would later say. “We’re going to give this huge money drain to private schools with no accountability, it doesn’t make sense to me.”)

Griggs muses some more about his future private school and how he’d rent a warehouse with a big play area. He’d raid the local McDonald’s for his workforce. “I might put 40, 50, 60 students with this hired babysitter—I mean this aide—that I’m going to hire at minimum wage,” he says. And don’t worry about the parents. “They are going to be very happy at my academy because we are going to win the state championship every year. I am going to spend my money hiring a great coach.”

Griggs has little to lose in taunting Craddick and his pro-voucher leadership. The 56-year-old Republican already actively bucked the speaker on a critical school finance vote earlier in the session, and his hostility to vouchers is well known. But other House Republicans, less sure, need only look to the gallery for reminders of how this institution really works. Sitting next to each other are John Colyandro and Brooke Rollins. Colyandro is the research director of the Texas Conservative Coalition Research Institute. He’s also under criminal indictment for his role as executive director of Texans for a Republican Majority, the Tom DeLay-founded PAC that helped coordinate the 2002 GOP campaign. Rollins heads the idea factory for the state’s Republican leadership, the Texas Public Policy Foundation (TPPF). (Earlier in the day, outside the chamber coordinating the pro-voucher lobby campaign was Bill Ceverha—the former treasurer of TRMPAC—who lobbied this session without registering as required by law. Ceverha was recently hit with a $197,000 civil judgment for his role in 2002, which he plans to appeal.) And somewhere in the Capitol complex—in the speaker’s private quarters or sitting with the governor, perhaps—is the grand puppeteer of this pro-voucher push.

Multi-millionaire doctor Jim Leininger has made the creation of voucher programs in Texas—and indeed around the nation—one of his life’s passions. He gave $142,500 to TRMPAC in 2002. He’s a patron and board member of TPPF. In the 2002 election cycle he gave a total of $1.35 million, almost entirely to GOP candidates. In 2004, he gave $1.31 million. The hospital equipment magnate has also founded and funded his own voucher program in San Antonio and bankrolled a minority “grassroots” pro-voucher advocacy group (see “One Man Groundswell,” April 29, 2005). Leininger drops huge sums on House races and has a knack for maximizing his dollars while he does it. He even owns a mail house that sends out campaign flyers so he can get some of his political contributions back.

The doctor has spent some of the previous week and much of this Monday meeting with wavering Republicans in the suite of offices kept by the speaker behind the House chamber. Gov. Rick Perry and Craddick also met with members. Leininger gave Texans for Rick Perry $62,968 in 2004. The governor is going to need a lot more of that money if U.S. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison challenges him.

A sampling of those Republicans whom Leininger talked with say the good doctor was polite and focused on policy. They say he extolled the power of the market. Competing for voucher money would force public schools to improve. He also talked about the dire needs of inner-city public schools.

Following Carter Casteel on the House floor, Rep. Rob Eissler (R-The Woodlands) presents a slightly less polished, although perhaps more revealing, version of the leadership’s position. “This bill allows for demographically challenged people to get a voucher, to get a scholarship out of a low-performing public school,” he says. “It allows market forces to shape their education.”
The sudden Republican concern for the welfare of their constituents leaves representatives from minority districts more than a little skeptical. Former principal and current Houston Democratic Rep. Alma Alan points out that the voucher would be about $7,000 and a good private school can cost upward of $26,000. Rep. Sylvester Turner (D-Houston) asks repeatedly in his sonorous voice why this “pilot project” is limited to minority districts. “I am getting a little concerned with people who are willing to impose it on others but are not willing to impose it upon themselves.”

Finally, debate is cut off. It’s time to vote on the motion to table Casteel’s amendment. Tiny green and red lights light up on the large voting boards at the front of the chamber. Craddick looks up and realizes what’s happening. “Show the chair voting aye,” he says. By tradition, the speaker rarely votes. When Craddick says those words, it is more than a vote. This issue is important to the leadership, to Craddick personally. For Republicans in the House, it’s akin to a direct order from their commander. To disobey is to risk retaliation: Your bills may no longer reach the floor; funding for a new road in your district may vanish from the state budget; or worst of all, you may find yourself with a well-funded opponent in the 2006 primary.
Craddick gavels the vote to a close. It’s a tie. The motion to table fails. The amendment is still alive.

The vote not to table Casteel’s amendment is the second tie of the evening. Passage of both the voucher bill and the amendments lined up to destroy it is uncertain. The members watch the podium and wonder what the speaker will do. He could pull down the bill temporarily, pressure a few Republicans to vote his way and bring it back when the leadership is more assured of victory. In two sessions running the House, Craddick has yet to lose on any major legislation that he heavily supported.

He opts to continue.

Legislators, Republican and Democrat, will later wonder why. Is it because he wants Leininger to see exactly who needs to be eliminated in the next primary? Is it to show his patron that he, Craddick, personally, will not falter? Or is it just inconceivable to the terse Midlander that he could lose?

Casteel returns to the microphone and moves passage of her amendment to kill vouchers. Craddick casts another vote. This time the leadership wins. The amendment is defeated by a count of 72-70, and vouchers are still in the bill. Opponents go scrambling around the House floor to find out which votes they lost. Craddick and the leadership are looking for a few more votes too and continue to barrage Republicans, including a quiet freshman from Nacogdoches.

Roy Blake has bright blue eyes and a gentle demeanor. Like many rural reps, he’s never liked vouchers, never thought government should divert money from public schools. As a GOP backbencher in this, his first session, Blake naturally is just learning how the Capitol works. He’s best known for having been mayor of Nacogdoches when the space shuttle exploded over East Texas in 2002. On this night, however, he’s in the crosshairs. Blake is asked into the back hall for a meeting in the speaker’s office with Craddick’s chief of staff Nancy Fisher to pressure him to change his vote. He and his constituents abhor vouchers. But the House leadership and the party’s small collection of campaign moneymen could easily run a well-funded primary opponent against Blake that would unseat him or send him into debt.

A few minutes later, Blake walks back onto the floor looking a little dazed. Charlie Geren, a moderate Republican from Fort Worth and a leading voucher opponent, intercepts him, “You okay, Roy? Are you okay?” Blake nods wearily.

Geren is called away. His amendment to SB 422 is up next. He and other voucher opponents have spent months crafting and honing their amendments in anticipation of this floor fight. Geren’s amendment is just an empty shell, it doesn’t affect the bill. He comes to the microphone with a surprise. He has an amendment to his amendment, one that voucher supporters have not seen yet, that he will substitute for his original amendment. It gives the House leadership a taste of its own medicine.

Geren’s amendment would remove the Dallas and Fort Worth school districts from the proposed voucher pilot program and replace them with Arlington and Irving. The choices aren’t random. Arlington is Education Chairman and chief voucher cheerleader Kent Grusendorf’s district. Irving is home to Republican Linda Harper-Brown, who also sponsored the voucher proposal.

If vouchers are such a great idea, let’s try it in Grusendorf’s and Harper-Brown’s districts, argues Geren. He’s already surveyed a swath of pro-voucher Republicans, who told him they don’t object to the idea. Geren also knows that the Arlington and Irving school districts bleed into the districts of Republicans Ray Allen and Toby Goodman, both of whom may vote against the voucher plan if it will take money from their schools. “All I did was swap the districts so the authors of the bill could participate in the bill,” Geren says from the front microphone.

Grusendorf opposes the amendment, and moves to table it. Five pro-voucher Republicans flip to support Geren’s amendment. Grusendorf’s motion fails by a relatively resounding 76-67. An excited buzz rings through the House. It’s a huge defeat for the leadership. A team of lawmakers gathers in front of the dais to deliberate with Craddick about what to do. After five minutes, the conference breaks up, and Grusendorf announces he will accept Geren’s amendment. It goes into the bill without a vote. But the damage to Craddick’s cause has been done.

As luck would have it, the next amendment is another by Geren. (Geren and Casteel would later note that the order of the amendments favored their cause.) It would still allow school choice, Geren explains to his colleagues, but students could choose only among public schools. “It just takes private out,” Geren says, his eyes twinkling. “It still creates this competition which seems so important… still maintains choice.”

Grusendorf is plain in his opposition; a vote for Geren’s amendment will kill vouchers this session. When Geren returns to the microphone to urge passage, he quotes from the state GOP platform: “[Vouchers] can only be considered upon passage of a state constitutional amendment that prohibits imposition of state regulation on private and parochial schools.

“Ladies and gentlemen, this [bill] isn’t anything about a constitutional amendment.”

The vote begins. The House floor is silent as everyone stares at the even number of green and red lights springing to life on the giant boards. Craddick looks glum. A columnist from the Waco Herald Tribune will later describe the speaker appearing as if he “had swallowed a cobra.”

“There being 74 ayes and 70 nays, the amendment is adopted,” Craddick says flatly. Vouchers are out. Just as Geren thought, Ray Allen and Toby Goodman vote to gut vouchers from the bill rather than have it include their school districts.

But the leadership makes one final, desperate play. Grusendorf walks to the front microphone and moves to pull the bill down. There is still time to twist a few more arms and bring the bill back up. Before he can finish, Houston Democratic Rep. Senfronia Thompson darts to the front of the podium and snatches the microphone away. As she bends it back toward her, Thompson shouts, “Mr. Speaker! I call a point of order against this bill.”

Craddick overrules her point of order—a procedural weapon to kill bills on technicalities—that in this case would have killed the entire calendar of bills. But it’s over. Four minutes later, Craddick sustains another point of order, raised hours ago, that he had yet to rule on. It sinks SB 422 and vouchers with it.

In GOP circles, there’s little doubt that some of the rural Republicans who defied their leadership will find themselves fending off primary opponents funded by Leininger. Rural Republicans who voted with the leadership in defiance of their constituents might also find opposition in the primary from their public school community. Sixteen of these weak-willed Republicans lamely tried to explain away their pro-voucher votes with a statement placed in the House journal the next day. They wrote about an amendment—never offered—that would have ensured that no funds from rural school districts would be spent on the voucher pilot program. Their constituents might fall for this argument in 2006, but on May 23, Rep. Casteel and the other fighting moderates didn’t.

“If you think there are two or three pots of money up here I want you to show them to me,” she scolded her fellow Republicans.

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