Samuel Lowenberg - Independent Journalist biography articles articles

Don't Mess With 'The Lobby'

Legal Times  October 17, 2000

As George W. Bush is fond of pointing out, Texas is not Washington. And the fund-raiser earlier this month for Democratic state Rep. Robby Cook certainly wasn't your typical Capitol Hill wine and cheese reception.

The invitation for the Oct. 4 event -- a fish fry and skeet shoot -- was printed on camouflage paper. An hour outside of Austin and three miles off the highway, donors drove pick-up trucks and Jaguars over a cattle guard to a ranch house where a young woman sat on a wooden fence handing out name tags and ammo bags.

Inside, supporters, most of whom were wearing hunting caps and almost none of whom were wearing ties, sipped cans of Miller Lite and watched as large men tending vats of boiling oil fried breaded catfish and potatoes.

When the crack of shot hitting skeet ended, the donors gathered under a tent for a gun auction, with Republican state Rep. Edwin Kuempel serving as barker. The event raised nearly $15,000, including the $975 that one supporter paid for a shiny new shotgun.

A group whose power is not in question in Texas politics is "The Lobby," as those who practice the art of influence-peddling in Austin refer to themselves. Unlike in Washington, where power is diffuse and battles are constant, in the Texas legislature, The Lobby has a free hand.

A lot of that is structural: The legislature meets for only six weeks every two years, has a small, low-paid staff, and is so business-friendly that its liberal members supported tort reform. And with no limit on campaign contributions, there is little incentive for members to resist big business.

"There's absolutely nothing that the real Texas establishment wants that they don't get," says Charlie Wilson, a former member of the Texas legislature and a former Democratic congressman who is now a lobbyist in Washington, D.C. with Hooper Owen & Winburn.

And while the old days of the "three Bs" -- beef, booze, and blondes -- are pretty much over now, hunting trips and Gulf Coast fishing junkets still take place despite the passage of ethics reform in the administration of former Gov. Ann Richards. The law is riddled with loopholes, says Jim Marsten, who served four years as vice chairman of a state ethics commission before resigning because he believed the reform commission was not working.

And lawmakers can still go on hunting trips paid for by lobbyists -- they just need to do it as a fund-raiser. A member may hold a fund-raiser hunting trip at $5,000 a pop and bring 50 lobbyists along.

By Samuel Loewenberg