Hutchison leaves legacy of Texas projects
Analysis: Hutchison leaves legacy of Texas projects but fell victim to changing electorate
Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison spent 19 years tending to the needs of Texas, hard work with tangible results for military installations, flood projects and highways, as well as many taxpayers.
Two years ago, in a bruising bid to become governor, her knack for bringing home the bacon and her deftness at setting aside party became liabilities. Concerns about red ink trumped demands for largesse, and fears of federal overreach fueled a hard right turn among Republican voters.
As the Hutchison era ends, her approach is giving way to much different expectations resting on successor Ted Cruz, a tea party darling with a national agenda and a markedly sharper ideology.
"We're going to miss her, and Ted Cruz and I have our work cut out for us to try to fill the gap that's going to be left by her departure," said Sen. John Cornyn, the party's deputy Senate leader and, next week, Texas' senior senator.
Texas counties, researchers, road builders and rocket scientists may feel the impact. Hutchison advocated for a robust national defense. She looked after Texas veterans. She pressed for a fairer Texas slice of gasoline tax revenue. She championed tax-deferred retirement accounts for homemakers and easing the so-called marriage penalty, and made sure that Texans, who pay no state income tax, could at least deduct state sales tax.
"I hope some of the priorities I have championed will continue," she said last week in her Senate farewell address.
Those priorities weren't always glamorous or controversial. More dogmatic colleagues commanded the spotlight on major debates over judicial nominees or health care policy, for instance.
"Some senators choose to focus solely on national issues. She chose early on to make fighting for Texas the highest of priorities. And she made a difference," said Chet Edwards, a former Democratic congressman from Waco.
Voters didn't always reward her. The tea party wave crested just as Hutchison took the plunge to run for governor two years ago. Party activists shunned her. Gov. Rick Perry mocked her as an "earmark queen" and "Kay Bailout," for her support of the bank rescue package enacted at the height of the 2008 economic crisis.
Perry won their primary by 21 percentage points, a crushing rejection for a senator who had drawn more votes in 2000 than any statewide candidate in Texas history.
"It was a horrible experience," she told WFAA-TV (Channel 8) this month, voicing regret that her biggest ambition eluded her. "I love the Senate, but I always wanted to be governor."
In hindsight, she said, she should have challenged Perry in 2002, when he'd been on the job just two years, or four years later — the year he won another term with less than 40 percent of the vote in a four-way contest. But she kept biding her time, citing a desire to promote party unity.
By 2010, her moment had passed.
"I just don't think she sensed the changing mood that was out there," said Dallas lawyer Tom Pauken, who chaired the state GOP in Hutchison's early years in the Senate. "You get into an insular atmosphere where you're talking to the lobbyists, you're talking to the insiders, and you begin to lose touch with the frustration at the grass-roots level."
After the defeat, Hutchison got back to work, setting aside plans to retire early, win or lose.
"She was a grown-up in a party filled with radicals," said Bruce Buchanan, a longtime University of Texas at Austin political scientist.
With President Barack Obama's re-election suggesting a pendulum swing away from tea-party-style radicalism, her departure takes on an ironic poignancy.
"It's unfortunate. If she'd held on for another term, she might have been a player in the Senate in a way she hasn't been before," Buchanan said.
Through aides, Hutchison, 69, declined numerous interview requests over several months for this story.
Texas has seen any number of larger-than-life senators, from Sam Houston to Lyndon Johnson and John Tower — lawmakers who left a lasting mark on Texas history, the national discourse or both.
Stylistically, Hutchison's behind-the-scenes focus put her more in the mold of Sen. Lloyd Bentsen, a centrist Democrat, than that of Cornyn's predecessor, Phil Gramm, a Republican attention-magnet who put his stamp on banking and budgetary policy.
That made it a challenge for Hutchison to tamp down grumbling among social conservatives as their dominance grew within the Texas GOP.
She was booed at the party's 1996 convention, just three years after her election, and anti-abortion activists took the extraordinary step of trying to exclude her from Texas' delegation to the presidential nominating convention.
Her stance on abortion has long confounded activists on both sides. She has voted to affirm the ongoing validity of the landmark Roe vs. Wade ruling legalizing abortion.
She accepted funds from and served as an honorary board member of The Wish List, a group that helps GOP candidates who support abortion rights. Yet she routinely voted to restrict access and funding for abortion.
This summer, she began to describe herself as "pro-life," to the dismay of some anti-abortion crusaders.
"It's a very difficult issue," she told The News in 2005. "Sometimes being predictable is easier, even if people disagree with you, than when you are thoughtful and maybe conflicted about an issue."
As a Senate operator, though, Hutchison found a political strong suit.
Early in her tenure, she teamed with Maryland Democratic Sen. Barbara Mikulski and others to create tax-free individual retirement accounts for homemakers; Mikulski and Cornyn have worked this fall to rename these the "Hutchison IRA."
With growing seniority on the Appropriations Committee, she funneled many billions to Texas military bases, water projects and university researchers.
Cornyn likens his departing colleague to the Energizer Bunny.
"I spend most of my time just trying to keep up with her," he said. "She's a person of enormous energy and intensity, particularly when it comes to advancing Texas issues."
Jack Peterson, who lobbies Congress on behalf of Houston and Harris County, lauded Hutchison for championing transportation projects, and prodding the Army Corps of Engineers to widen and deepen ports along the Texas coast, often through tedious, little-noticed backroom work.
"That keeps the economic engine purring. If you can't move your ships and barges, you don't move goods," Peterson said. "She's been a tremendous champion. . It's every single solitary issue that impacts the state of Texas. Only the very largest ones get talked about."
One of her secrets, he said, was a knack for understanding what Senate colleagues needed for their states and helping them get it, racking up chits in the process.
Hutchison's efforts went toward landing research grants for Texas A&M, the University of Texas and other institutions, or to scrape together funds for a desalination plant in El Paso, a new border crossing or housing at Fort Hood. She protected Dallas' Trinity River project.
She steered more than $10 billion to Texas in the five years leading up to the 2010 primary. In another era, that tally would have endeared any senator to her constituents.
But old-fashioned logrolling had begun to fall from public favor, as deficits grew and excesses such as Alaska's infamous "Bridge to Nowhere" came to light. With prodding from Perry, Republican voters punished her.
Pauken, a Perry ally, foresees a sharp contrast between the outgoing senator and her successor. She's been conservative but pragmatic. Cruz has vowed a more robust brand of advocacy for fiscal restraint, state's rights and restrained federal government.
"It's timely because there are so many big issues, fundamental issues. It's a different mood, a different situation. He will have a different focus," Pauken said. "Kay was very good at bringing home the bacon. . She played to her strengths and there's nothing wrong with that. That's what she was comfortable with."
One other likely difference: Hutchison's willingness to work across party lines.
In 2003, the Veterans Affairs Department announced it wanted to close the Waco VA hospital, a major employer and source of pride for the city.
For Edwards, the timing was especially bad. Redistricting had left the Democratic congressman vulnerable for re-election.
But as chairman of a subcommittee that controlled billions of dollars in spending for military bases, he had worked closely with Hutchison on behalf of Fort Hood and other Texas priorities.
Edwards' political scalp was a top priority for Texas Republicans, but Hutchison jumped into the fight to save the Waco VA, working very publicly with Edwards and later, after the VA relented in May 2004, rebuffing pressure to campaign against him.
Edwards, ousted two years ago, remains a fan.
"She has left a lasting mark on Texas, whether it is our military installations, NASA, water infrastructure, or hundreds of other critical projects," he said. "Everyday citizens would have far more respect for Congress if they knew that people such as Kay were just out working hard every day in behalf of their states and our country."
One of Hutchison's most lasting legacies will be the role she played in breaking down barriers for women.
Famously unable to find work as a lawyer after graduating from the University of Texas law school, she began her career as a TV reporter before running for the Legislature, and became the first Republican woman elected statewide, winning the now-defunct office of state treasurer.
For years, she was one of only four women in the Senate. As of early January, there will be 20, the most ever, though only four are Republicans, down from five Republicans but a jump from 17 the last two years. (Women hold roughly 18 percent of House seats.)
Hutchison kept trailblazing as she became Texas' first female senator, but never made "women's issues" the main focus of her portfolio — which is noteworthy, said Jennifer Lawless, director of the Women & Politics Institute at American University's School of Public Affairs.
"She demonstrated that women don't have to be pigeonholed or stereotyped," Lawless said. "She normalized the fact that a woman could hold a Senate seat and not necessarily be more moderate than her male counterparts."
Cruz projects a more uncompromising approach than Hutchison's stated preference for bipartisanship, which she emphasized in her farewell address.
"This is an example of how increased party polarization in Congress has led to far more ideological and extreme candidates," Lawless said.
With the Republican Party suffering an identity crisis in the wake of Obama's re-election, Buchanan said, Cruz would be wise to look to Hutchison's approach as a model.
"Extremism of the right is not a good calling card now to appeal to a Republican electorate concerned with electability," Buchanan said. "His aspirations are more national than hers were. But he's a fellow who can understand the lay of the political land."
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