After nearly a decade of declining seniority, the Tarrant County legislative delegation is forging a comeback with key leadership posts in the House and Senate and widening expertise among second- and third-term members who were finding their way around the Capitol just a few years ago.
The presence of four members of the Tea Party-aligned House Freedom Caucus assures intense philosophical divisions that often put Tarrant County at the center of dissent against the House leadership during the just-ended 140-day legislative session last week. Those differences will be back on display if Gov. Greg Abbott returns lawmakers to Austin for a special session.
Tarrant County lawmakers in both chambers authored a total of 70 bills that cleared the Legislature and reached the governor’s desk, covering a broad range of topics from ethics, cybersecurity, jurisprudence and health care to obscure improvements for the inner-workings of local government. More than 30 have been signed into law.
The Tarrant County delegation…maybe would rate as the highest profile delegation because of the high profile of its members,
Bill Miller, an Austin-based lobbyist
Rep. Charlie Geren, R-Fort Worth, was at the forefront of one of the biggest issues of the session as House sponsor of a controversial “sanctuary cities” bill that was expanded by Tea Party amendments to allow law enforcement officers to ask about the immigration status of people they detain.
“The Tarrant County delegation … maybe would rate as the highest profile delegation because of the high profile of its members,” said Bill Miller, an Austin-based lobbyist. “They plan it that way and they succeed well.”
Since 2009, when Tarrant County held three committee chairmanships in the House and two in the Senate as well as more than 90 years of collective seniority, the county’s representation in Austin has begun to stabilize after years of electoral turnover that removed several longtime incumbents and reshaped the delegation in the House.
Today, the seniority level has eclipsed that of 2009 — a total of 109 years in both chambers at the start of session — and, for the first time in years, there are no House freshmen from Tarrant County. Sen. Kelly Hancock, R-North Richland Hills, describes Tarrant County’s delegation as ‘one of the strongest” in the state.
Power on both sides of the rotunda
Perhaps the most impressive array of North Texas power is in the Senate, where the four senators representing parts of Tarrant County hold three chairmanships and a vice chairmanship. The titan of the Senate delegation is Sen. Jane Nelson, R-Flower Mound, who has 24 years of seniority and chairs the budget-writing Senate Finance Committee.
Hancock, who was a House member before entering the Senate in 2013, chairs the Business and Commerce Committee. Sen. Brian Birdwell, R-Granbury, whose 10-county district includes a small slice of Tarrant, is Nominations Committee chairman.
And Sen. Konni Burton, R-Colleyville, who serves the Tarrant County Senate district formerly represented by 2014 Democratic gubernatorial nominee Wendy Davis, is vice chair of the Senate Administration Committee.
In the 150-member House, which is also led by Republicans, power appears to be flowing back to Tarrant County’s 11-member delegation, composed of eight Republicans and three Democrats, after the loss of at least eight incumbents since 2009, either through election defeats or retirements.
Tarrant holds strategic leadership positions in both parties. Geren, who was instrumental in the election of Joe Straus as House Speaker eight years ago, remains a top lieutenant on Straus’ leadership team as chairman of the House Administration Committee.
Both Republicans and Democrats in the Tarrant delegation say Geren is undisputedly looked upon as the delegation’s de facto leader.
It’s one of the more ideologically diverse delegations I think that there is,
state Rep. Chris Turner, D-Grand Prairie
“The Geren name gets a lot of respect,” said Rep. Ramon Romero, a Democrat from Fort Worth.
Rep. Chris Turner, D-Grand Prairie, took over at the outset of the 2017 session as chairman of the 55-member Democratic Caucus, becoming the voice of the loyal opposition to the House Republican leadership. And on the Republican side, Rep. Craig Goldman, R-Fort Worth, chairs the Republican Caucus policy committee that meets at 7:30 every morning to decide what bills to support or oppose.
“It’s one of the more ideologically diverse delegations I think that there is,” says Turner, whose district includes a large section of Arlington.
Compared to the three House committee chairmanships held by Tarrant County representatives eight years ago, Tarrant currently has only one chairmanship — Geren’s. But other members who have gained recognition and expertise in particular areas over the last two sessions are being touted as up-and-comers who hold the potential to expand Tarrant’s influence in the future.
“They’re coming back,” said Assistant Tarrant County Administrator Mark Mendez, who serves as the county’s legislative liaison in Austin. “We’ve got some very well-seasoned newer members that are in line for leadership positions next session. We’ve probably got a handful that are ready to take the next step.”
Rep. Giovanni Capriglione, R-Southlake, who is in his third term and serves as vice chairman of Government Transparency & Operation, continued to burnish his reputation as a leader on government accountability with the end-of-session passage of a bill requiring public officials to report government contracts.
Republican Stephanie Klick and Democrat Nicole Collier, both of Fort Worth, helped address a well-publicized crisis at the Child Protective Services agency as members of the House Public Health Committee. Romero, a second-term Democrat, also had an effective session as lawmakers sent a third of his legislative package — seven of 21 bills — to the governor.
In the Senate, Hancock used his leadership on the Business and Commerce Committee to advance developing technology, including a measure permitting the testing of self-driving cars on Texas roads. Burton led efforts to kill a so-called “granny tax” fee on nursing homes and co-sponsored a sweeping tax reform bill that she ranked as one of her top priorities.
The tax reform measure, backed by Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, collapsed in a standoff with the House, but the issue seems certain to resurface if Abbott calls a special session, which he seems likely to do. He’s expected to announce his decision this week.
Tea Party bastion
The Tarrant County delegation emerged as a bastion of Tea Party strength after a succession of elections that upended perceived moderate Republicans supportive of Straus and replaced them with Tea Party hardliners who declared war on business as usual in the State Capitol.
The largest bloc of the 12-member House Freedom Caucus is composed of Tarrant County Republicans Bill Zedler of Arlington, Jonathan Stickland of Bedford, Matt Krause of Fort Worth and Tony Tinderholt of Arlington. Zedler, who is now in his seventh term, is the senior member and vice chairman of the Freedom Caucus.
Working with the other members of the caucus, the Tarrant County members — particularly Stickland — have often irritated, if not infuriated, their colleagues by challenging House rules and using parliamentary maneuvers to advance an agenda ranging from anti-abortion issues to religious liberties.
The tactics could explain why Tarrant’s four Freedom Caucus members wound up without any bills on the governor’s desk this year.
“Did you notice that?” Zedler replied with a note of sarcasm when asked about the bill deficit, blaming the House leadership for letting Freedom Caucus bills die in committee. “They try to keep us bottled up because we’re the ones who are screaming the loudest.”
They try to keep us bottled up because we’re the ones who are screaming the loudest,
state Rep. Bill Zedler, R-Arlington
Zedler said the Tea Party representatives have resorted to other options to pass legislation, such as amending their priorities onto other bills.
Tarrant County members insist that the differences have rarely degenerated into personal animosity, saying that they often lend support to one another. When Romero was embroiled in a nationally publicized confrontation on the House floor following tumultuous demonstrations in the gallery over the sanctuary cities bill last week, Stickland came over to quietly offer moral support.
“ ‘Ramon, sometimes you just need to realize that tomorrow is going to be a better day,’ ” Romero quoted Stickland as saying. “Jonathan Stickland and I don’t always agree, but we respect each other.”
Putting up a united front
Similarly, Tarrant County members in both chambers say they put aside political differences to form a united front on behalf of legislative initiatives pushed by city and county officials back home. And with their growing seniority, they say, they are also able to do the job more effectively.
“I think that for the most part we put our heads down and get what needs to be done for Tarrant County,” said Stickland, adding that lawmakers’ increased experience has had a “huge impact” in pushing local issues. “When we all came in the first time, there was a lot of new people. There was not much seniority. We got rid of a lot of it. Now a lot of us are older members in the House.”
It’s a very diverse delegation … but they represent a very diverse community,
Fort Worth Mayor Betsy Price
Officials in city and county governments say Tarrant County lawmakers are unfailingly attentive to their legislative needs, but the officials have nevertheless met resistance from conservatives who sought to wrest away local control over property taxes, annexation and short-term rentals that are often used as party houses.
“That was probably the biggest sticking point for most local officials,” said Fort Worth Mayor Betsy Price, describing retention of local control as one of Fort Worth’s most important issues. “We may not have swayed their ideology, but at least they were willing to listen to us.”
Price and other Fort Worth representatives were part of a parade of Tarrant County officials who worked with their representatives in Austin to try to transform legislative wish lists into results. “It’s a very diverse delegation,” said Price, “but they represent a very diverse community.”
Capriglione, Goldman, Turner and Nelson formed a bi-partisan, bicameral coalition to help Tarrant County College create broader investment options. The Tarrant County District Attorney’s office also worked with members from both parties on legislation that included cracking down on unethical funeral home operators by increasing penalties for abusing a corpse.
“Tarrant County has a delegation they could be proud of,” said Assistant Criminal District Attorney Vincent Giardino, the DA’s legislative liaison. “They’re all fighters.”
Staff writer Anna M. Tinsley contributed to this report.