Meet the opposite ends of the spectrum in the Legislature.
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.
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.”
Yes, I’m sure it’s now the fondest wish of Jonathan Sticklands everywhere to grow up to be Ted Cruz. No question, from reading the story or just generally following the news from the Capitol this year, Stickland had a lot of success with his mission to obstruct anything he didn’t like. If that’s what he wants out of being a legislator, and that’s what the people who elected him want out of him, then mission accomplished. I’m sure there will be some political opposition to his tactics back home, not to mention opportunities for payback among his colleagues if the people of Stickland’s district ever ask him to get a bill passed for them, but he’ll just turn that into fuel for his persecution complex, like every other straight white boy from the suburbs who’s convinced that he’s the real victim here.
On a much more pleasant and productive note, there’s fellow freshman Rep. Mary González, who was paired with Stickland in this article not just for their youth but also for their position on the political spectrum, with Stickland measuring as the most “conservative” member while González was the most liberal.
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.
How the cow got into those heels…never mind. I was channeling Groucho Marx there for a minute. Carrying on:
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.”
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.”
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.”
I was in Austin for a training class last month, and had the pleasure of meeting Rep. González at the ten year reunion of the Killer Ds. My impression of her, even before meeting her, was as positive as everyone else quoted in the story. She’s already got at least one opponent for next March, and the story notes that her predecessor, former Rep. Chente Quintanilla, is also thinking about getting in. Rep. González will have the support of her caucus mates, who have committed to her over their former colleague, and she’ll have mine as well. The world is full of Jonathan Sticklands, but it’s the Mary Gonzálezes that truly leave a mark. Stuff does need to get done, and we need the people who are there to get it done working for us.