Youngest freshman legislators’ first session takes surprising turns

By Jonathan Tilove - American-Statesman Staff

They were the freshest of the freshmen — the two youngest members of the largest freshman class of the Texas House in 40 years. And even before they took office, Mary González, an El Paso Democrat who will turn 30 in October, and Jonathan Stickland, a tea party Republican from the Fort Worth suburbs who will be 30 in September, each had made a defining declaration.

Stickland announced his ambition to compile the most conservative voting record of any member of the Texas House. “It’s time to do battle,” he said.

And González, uncomfortable with the imprecision of being described as the first openly gay woman to be elected to the Texas Legislature, announced to the Dallas Voice that she was actually “pansexual.” She explained that gender isn’t binary but a spectrum, and she has said that while her partner may be a lesbian, “I’m not.”

“Authenticity is important to me,” she said in a recent interview.

It was a breathtaking bit of sharing, especially for a representative who was from a socially conservative district and who was about to enter an institution that is dominated by an older generation of men and has had only one openly gay member — Austin’s Glen Maxey, who left the House a decade ago.

Though the 83rd Legislature ended its regular session just two weeks ago, it isn’t too soon to conclude that its two youngest members, in very different ways, had successful freshman seasons. Their experience offers a window into the sometimes surprising workings of the Legislature, and how novice members find their way amid the hurly-burly of the biennial mayhem, and why it is that a member of the board of the Texas organization for “queer people of color” might find herself more welcome than the darling of the Northeast Tarrant Tea Party.

Stickland, according to a preliminary analysis by Rice University’s Mark Jones, met his ambition of compiling the most conservative voting record — and González, with sweet symmetry, the most liberal.

But beyond that, to a remarkable degree, Stickland emerged as the single identifiable political name brand of his class. With a General Educational Development certificate and no previous political experience, but with a fervent faith in a set of guiding principles and a lot of brass, he emerged as the most prominent voice among the 20 to 40 members — depending on the issue — of the tea party/conservative House bloc that Texas Tribune Editor in Chief Evan Smith, at session’s end, christened “the Republic of Sticklandia.”

They are, in effect, “the opposition” in a 150-member House generally guided by a governing coalition of establishment Republicans and Democrats — outnumbered, but with a claim on the conservative grass roots that makes them dangerous for other Republicans to ignore.

And no member of that opposition was more oppositional than Stickland.

“The old adage is that you’re only getting shot at if you’re in the battle,” said Michael Quinn Sullivan, president of Empower Texans, whose politics largely align with Stickland’s. “I think that very clearly Stickland must have been in the battle because folks sure did like taking shots at him.”

Some of this might be the Seinfelds of informed opinion purposely placing the stocky Stickland in the role of Newman (“Hello, Stickland”) as an inviting target. But insults in Austin are music to the ears Stickland cares about back home. Think U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz.

“Has Ted Cruz ever passed a bill? I don’t think he has, but he’s one of the most influential and powerful senators, and he’s done it as a freshman,” said Stickland, who, in fact, passed a bill with state Sen. Wendy Davis, D-Fort Worth, to allow excused school absences for the children of active-duty military personnel. “Ted Cruz has become a sensation because of what he’s fought against and not what he’s fought for. People love him for it.”

González’s success, which might have seemed even more unlikely, was her ability to surmount her exotic introduction, emerging from the session as the Mexican American Legislative Caucus freshman of the year, and, it seems from relationships she’s forged across party lines, something like the Miss Congeniality of the class of 2013. In her unique 140-day gestation in the Capitol hothouse, she seemed to find a way to become one of the boys without becoming one of the boys.

“It’s been a lot of hard work to go to 149 members to get them to go beyond their projections, beyond their stereotypes, beyond the stigma and beyond the boxes,” González said. “Hey, I’m getting a Ph.D. Hey, I grew up on a farm. Hey, I am so much more than the one thing, the only thing that people want to write about.”

Or, as state Rep. Poncho Nevarez, D-Eagle Pass, a fellow freshman who sits next to her in the House and represents an adjoining border district, put it, “Mary’s the only woman on this floor who can palpate a cow.”

“In heels,” adds González.

Earlier in the session, state Rep. Byron Cook, R-Corsicana, who chairs the State Affairs Committee, serves on Calendars and sits diagonally behind her on the House floor, told her, “ ‘You’re basically the same age as my daughter, so you’re going to be my adopted daughter on the floor,’ and that’s kind of what we did. She’s a wonderful young lady to work with.”

Of Cook, said González, “I’m so surprised how close I have gotten to him.”

Asked to compare her approach to Stickland’s, Cook said, “I think you catch more bees with honey.”

And, unlike Stickland, González focused mostly on more targeted legislation for her district.

“We were able to get wastewater service to three colonias, sewerage to over 1,000 families in my district,” González said of the impoverished neighborhoods. “That’s amazing. No one is ever going to write about that, but I know what it means.”

“Mary is pretty much positive, not only a sunny disposition but a very positive person,” said state Rep. Richard Peña Raymond, a veteran Democrat from Laredo. “You get the sense with Jonathan that he’s just not very content with anything.”

It was Julie McCarty, president of the Northeast Tarrant Tea Party, who plucked Stickland from obscurity, asking him to run for state representative after seeing him upbraid U.S. Rep. Michael Burgess, R-Flower Mound, at a town hall meeting for voting to raise the debt limit.

“I think this is why we relate to Jonathan so well: He has the same anger, and he’s managed to stay grounded,” McCarty said. “I talk to him on a regular basis, and, I’ll tell you, when I get burned out, Jonathan is the reason I keep going.”

“I did what I said I was going to do,” Stickland said. “Austin didn’t break me.

“The first thing they try to do is sever the ties between you and your district,” said Stickland, being told, “Now you are operating in a different atmosphere. You’re in Austin. People back home don’t understand what’s going on. They don’t get it. They don’t see the whole big picture.”

Stickland, said Sullivan, “stands out particularly because he does his own thing. Clearly, he is one of those guys who refuse to buy into the old patriarchal paradigm that, despite what our state constitution says, all legislators aren’t created equal,” and newcomers are supposed to “sit down and shut up and come back in a few years and maybe we’ll let you fix something.”

Stickland, an oil and gas consultant, describes his philosophy as constitutional conservatism, stitching together a belief in small government, free markets, social conservatism on issues such as abortion and a streak of civil libertarianism on issues such as privacy.

But, outnumbered, he employed the language of disruption.

In a place where most freshman recite boilerplate about being sent by their constituents to work in humble unison to build a better Texas, Stickland, his eyes gleaming with conspiratorial fervor, would talk about how gridlock was good but chaos was better, about throwing monkey wrenches into the machinery, about knocking the session off the rails, about how “we’re going to blow this thing up.”

As the session wore on and his reputation grew, Stickland said, he had lobbyists sidling up to him with bills they’d like killed and highlighting sections he would disapprove of, and nervous colleagues checking in to make sure he hadn’t found fault with their handiwork.

He said he killed a bill renaming a stretch of Interstate 35 near his home in Bedford for César Chávez — he doesn’t believe in spending money on new signs — by whispering in the ear of a couple of like-minded senators.

The price, of course, is retribution, but he said his office, which he described as a hive of movement activists he called the “liberty factory,” churned out ideas and bills for others to use, and he did manage to slip into a passing bill an amendment hailed as a landmark email privacy measure.

“Not bad for a freshman,” said Scott Henson, who writes the criminal justice blog Grits for Breakfast. He worked with Stickland as part of the Electronic Privacy Coalition and was impressed.

“He’s really getting a bad rap,” Henson said. “He seems a well-intentioned guy.”

Stickland said when he was looking for a seat on the House floor, he chose one across the aisle from state Rep. Tom Craddick, R-Midland, so he could study at the knee of the man who went from being one of eight Republicans in the House in 1968, when he was first elected, to speaker, and who has taught him the value of resilience and perseverance.

And Stickland said, when it comes to rustling votes on the floor, “No one works a room like Craddick.”

Unfortunately, on Craddick’s signature legislation this session — banning texting while driving — Stickland had to say “no” to what he considers a government intrusion that would only lead people to slide their phones and their gaze farther into their laps to text.

Before running for the House, González was already an assistant dean and professor at Southwestern University and completing her Ph.D. at the University of Texas in intersectionality pedagogy.

Say what?

“Diversity education,” González said. “Mostly, I teach young people how to think about and understand oppression and how to interrupt and analyze it. You know, things like that.”

Unlike Stickland, González arrived well experienced in the ways of the Legislature, having worked for Raymond during the 2003 session, state Sen. Mario Gallegos in 2005 and state Rep. Paul Moreno in 2007. She wrote her senior thesis at UT about Moreno.

“He was the longest-serving Latino legislator in the country, but he never filed any legislation,” González said.

Much like Stickland, Moreno felt that his mission was to kill bad bills and that filing his own bills could only compromise that effort.

But González has taken a very different tack, shepherding four bills to passage — three exclusively directed to the needs of her district, including the sewerage bill, and another that would require the state to re-examine the decision to close the once-flourishing dairy industry in El Paso County in 2001 after fears of an outbreak of bovine tuberculosis.

When she showed up as a member of the Agriculture and Livestock Committee, Chairman Tracy King, D-Batesville, said he assumed she had gotten stuck with the assignment, but he was delighted to find out that she grew up in 4H, the daughter of a Texas A&M agricultural extension agent in El Paso, and that the committee had been her first choice.

“We developed a kinship sitting next to one another on the ag committee,” said state Rep. Kyle Kacal, R-College Station. “I like to judge people for myself, and we’ve formed an incredible relationship.”

“My dad’s a big-time Republican,” González said. For 20 years, Alfred González was an extension agent. For 10 years, he served on the school board in Clint.

For college, González wanted UT. She was interested in politics and social change, and Austin seemed the place to be. Her father preferred A&M. For 45 days, Alfred González recalled, they argued, until he relented.

“I was afraid of exactly what happened,” he said. “She got liberal.”

His advice to her was have a career, make some money and enter politics later, but when the El Paso seat opened up, she decided to go for it, winning a three-way primary without a runoff.

“The day I take the oath of office, it’s my dad, it’s my partner, it’s my siblings. He’s all grouchy. ‘I’m surrounded by all these vegetarians. Grrr. I’m surrounded by all these gay people.’ We’re sitting on the House floor. The governor’s talking about banning abortions. My dad’s clapping. He’s saying, ‘Get up. Clap.’ We’re bickering on the House floor. (Rep.) Craig Eiland’s saying, ‘What’s going on over there?’ ”

For González, the real drama during the session was internal.

She recalled staying up all night when she was a UT student to testify against capping automatic admissions to state universities under the top 10 percent law.

“I wouldn’t be here without it,” she said of the law guaranteeing state university admission to those in the top 10 percent of their high school class. Then last month, a bill by Higher Education Chairman Dan Branch to extend the limits that she opposed was headed to the House floor, and she realized the bind she was in.

“When I was in my previous life, I could more actively fight it, but I’m a member, and you know Chairman Branch has done a lot for El Paso and a lot for my district, as far as bringing the medical school to El Paso,” González said.

“It’s this tension,” she said, “between sticking up for what you think is important and against what you think is oppression, and the reality that you still have to work with these people tomorrow and they can stop your bills, which are also trying to end oppression.”

In the end, she said, “I asked a few questions on the back mic; I talked to him,” but it was clear the bill was going to pass. She was still one of only seven votes against it, but she wasn’t as vociferous in her opposition as the old Mary might have been. “You’ve got to pick your battles.”

Meanwhile, Stickland’s war on the usual order reached a crescendo May 22, the day of the last local and consent calendar of the session, a time, as Speaker Pro Tempore Dennis Bonnen explained as the session opened, to zip through what are supposed to be noncontroversial bills that have already been fully vetted.

But Stickland opposed 36 of the bills and came to the back microphone to ask questions on about 10 of them.

On SB 768, which would allow Texas to continue to receive $4 million in federal child abuse prevention money, he went farther.

“I intend to talk for 10 minutes or 10 hours or 10 days, or whatever it takes to make sure this bill does not become law,” he declared.

State Rep. Elliott Naishtat, D-Austin, the House sponsor, looked stunned. Bonnen, clearly wearied by a long day of Stickland, said that Stickland and Naishtat needed to talk and that he would move the bill to the end of the day’s calendar.

They talked, but to no avail. Before it could come back at the end of the day, Stickland had gotten the signatures of four additional representatives he needed to kill the bill.

For Raymond, it was the last straw: “Elliot Naishtat, who’s just one of the most decent people you’ll meet in your life, has a bill on the local and consent calendar, everyone signs off on it, the governor’s office, whatever, that allows us to pull down $4 million in federal funds for a child abuse program, and who can be against that? Really?”

Raymond recalls a line from “Lonesome Dove”: “’I can’t stand rude behavior in a man, and I won’t tolerate it.’ That’s sort of how I felt about Jonathan. … If he’s re-elected, I hope that will change.”

But Cecilia Wood, an Austin family law attorney who works with the Texas Home School Coalition, which objected to the bill, said wording in the legislation might have required parents trying to regain custody of their children from Child Protective Services to go through two trials.

Stickland said that his “show” that day was more about what he considers to be the misuse of the local and consent calendar to camouflage the passage of substantive and controversial legislation that doesn’t belong there.

“This thing needs to change or we’re going to blow this thing up,” he said. “I think that message got out.”

He’s talking, of course, about the next session, when he believes his hand will be strengthened.

He believes that pushing the decision on using $2 billion in rainy day money for water infrastructure onto the November ballot was a political victory because he expects voters to turn it down. More moderate Republicans could find themselves facing tough primary re-election challenges.

But state Rep. Jason Villalba, a Republican freshman from Dallas, believes the movement has crested.

“I came down here to fix stuff. I don’t want bigger government, but we need water,” he said. “They are so pure and beholden that they’re unwilling to focus on the big picture. In Hurst-Euless-Bedford (Stickland’s home turf), people still drive on roads.”

Raymond wonders if Stickland has overplayed his hand. “The way politics works is, about every session, you have somebody serve one term, or one or two or three members serve one term for different reasons, and he may be one of those guys,” he said.

But it would be a mistake to bet against Stickland. He spent the early idle days of the special session block-walking in his district. He is indefatigable. He has kept the base energized.

González said she has heard that her predecessor, Inocente “Chente” Quintanilla, might try to reclaim the seat. But state Rep. Trey Martinez Fischer, D-San Antonio, who leads the Mexican American Legislative Caucus, said that while he is friends with Quintanilla, he would do everything he could to keep González in the House.

“Chente’s a very good friend of mine,” Raymond said. “But I’ll tell you one thing: She’ll outwork him, and in politics that means a lot. I’d be surprised if she didn’t come back.”