, Port Arthur, Texas


March 14, 2013

A leap: Texas turning purple?

AUSTIN — Texas legislators from time to time memorialize Congress to do this or that. Since it bears no force of law, the result is sort of like pouring a beer over the side of the Grand Canyon and listening for it to hit.

But a freshman Texas House member several weeks ago had a good idea to boost camaraderie and considerate behavior in the legislature. It is already having an effect in the Texas capitol, and perhaps by mental telepathy may be spreading to Washington. More on that later.

The freshman is Ron Simmons, a Republican from Carrollton. What he did was go to his freshmen colleagues — 41, including him, and one of the largest beginning classes in 40 years — and say, why not send a message that we want to get along with each other?

The result is "Purple Thursdays" — a day each week when the freshmen wear purple — a tie or jacket or shirt or scarf. It's to show that they are not just Republican red or Democratic blue, but want to work together for bi-partisan solutions. And, even if they don't achieve solutions, respect each other in the process.

Simmons' initiative, which has caught on not just with the freshmen but spread to some of the upper classmen, is refreshing. That's because the other 109 veteran legislators have suffered through some rather rancorous times in the last few years.

It's one reason there were enough legislative seats up to produce such a large freshman class: some members were just worn out by the in-your-face squabbling.

It's a reason that some freshmen got to Austin by unseating other House members, who had bought off on the divisive attitude, underlined in the rancorous anti-Obama 2010 election.

Some of these freshmen heard from constituents during the 2012 election that they want lawmakers not to fight, but to seek common ground.

We need some deal-making lawmakers, they said, who realize compromises don't give everyone everything they want, but are better than being frozen in place.

The practice in the Texas House is to refrain from considering bills during the first 60 days, except those the governor deems emergencies.

That 60 days may seem wasted to some people. But, used properly, it is the meet-and-greet time for 150 members, and particularly the 41 new ones, to get to know each other — and maybe make some new friends.

Rep. Mark Strama, D-Austin, said that time is valuable to establish some good will, that he said will help ease tensions when tough subjects come up later.

 “There’s value in building equity in these relationships while things are relatively easy, so when the friction inevitably develops, you can draw on some of that equity,” Strama told the Austin American-Statesman.

Legislators in 2013 were spared some rancor because the governor didn't lay out any fight-inducing subjects as emergencies like those he did in 2011. Among them were requiring sonograms for women getting abortions, banning sanctuary cities, requiring photo IDs to vote, and other controversial topics.

The Legislature is also facing fatter fiscal times than the shortfall it saw in 2011. Legislators, under Perry's no-tax-increase watchful eye, cut $5.4 billion from public schools rather than raise taxes or dip into the Rainy Day Fund.

And, the Republican super-majority of 101 to 49 Democrats in 2011 has been knocked back to 95-55, which makes across-the-aisle bargaining more necessary.

Suddenly in Washington, maybe it's just that spring is coming, but that getting-to-know-you value may have gotten pollinated in the nation's capital.

In recent days, President Obama, a Democrat, hosted a dozen Republican senators at a dinner, ostensibly just to talk things over.

Then the next day, he had House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan –the 2012 Republican vice-presidential candidate – over to the White House for lunch.

In both instances, the Republicans breaking bread with the president seemed in better humor as a result.

It's certainly tougher to get to know the members of Congress, with 435 House members and 100 senators, than in Texas, with 150 House members and 31 senators – as George W. Bush learned in 2001.

But one thing that helped Lyndon Johnson achieve as much as he did after moving up from the vice-presidency following John F. Kennedy's assassination was that, after more than two decades in the U.S. House and Senate, LBJ already knew a lot of those folks.

So maybe the efforts of people like Rep. Simmons, and  belatedly, President Obama, may bear fruit, and help return cooperation, and maybe even camaraderie, to our lawmaking process.

Maybe someday there can be an easy positive answer to the plaintive question posed a session or two back by Senate Dean John Whitmire, almost like a prayer:

"Can't we all just get along?"

Right on, Purple Gang.

Contact McNeely at or 512/458-2963.

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