Interview with Lt. Governor Ben Barnes, part 1
Here's a transcript of my interview with Lt. Gov. Ben Barnes. This is part 1 of 3.
We talked about a month ago, but for various reasons I decided not to post it until now.
His book is Barn Building, Barn Burning. I read it, enjoyed it, and recommend it.
One more thing: I wouldn't guarantee that this transcription is perfect. Some of the exact words used here and there might be slightly off. If you're a pedant, I plan on posting the audio after I've posted the transcripts, so you'll have an opportunity to listen to the source.
Part One below the jump.
Pvw: What's the best story that didn't make it into the book?
BB: Oh, maybe one of the things that people would've liked is to add that one about down at the Houston Livestock show, I had to give my horse to a cowboy, a cowboy singer because his horse was so nervous. And they said you're going to have to ride with this singer, this entertainer. So I got in with Elvis Presley and we went around the Astrodome a few times and he said "boy, they sure do love you here Ben." They were clapping for Elvis, but we became friends and I went out to Vegas to see him a few times. Just stories like that, I don't know whether people are interested in them or not.
Pvw: That's pretty neat.
BB: It's the only story I tell that my daughters like or any photographs I have with Elvis. They don't care about me being with Kennedy or Johnson or Bush or Connally. My picture with Elvis is the only one that interests them.
Pvw: Well that makes sense. Getting your picture with Elvis is pretty cool. I guess they've probably grown up seeing political figures around the house, so they're less interesting.
BB: Yeah, that's true.
PvW: So, why do you want to talk about redistricting?
BB: Well, I don't know. That's what the PR firm called and told you...that I wanted to talk about redistricting?
BB: You know I'll talk about anything you want to talk about. I will say this about redistricting: I've made up my mind, Evan, that the framers of the Constitution wrote the constitution very carefully that there would be one body very close to the people and they'd have to go out and run every two years. And they'd have to stand up and answer for what was currently happening in Congress. And they originally elected the United States Senators by the legislatures. Because they wanted one body for stability, but they wanted one body that would be very close to the people. But now what's happened because of gerrymandering by both parties. right now, the one thing that Nancy Pelosi and Dennis Hastert can agree on: there's probably only 35-40 seats that could change from Republican to Democrat. So what's happened is that 90% of the members of Congress are in safe districts. They're safe from the other party, they're safe from the public, but they're not safe from their own political party because they are safe Republican districts or safe Democratic districts so they have to vote and get along with their parties much more than they do the people of their district, because the parties provide the money. And the parties can run someone in the primaries. You saw in Texas this year where Dr. Leininger ran, what, 5 or 6 or 7 -- I don't know how many -- Democrats against other Democrats cos they didn't vote for vouchers. I don't know, I think he lost more races than he won, I don't remember...
PvW I think he was something like 2 for 5.
BB: But you see that's what's happening is peope need to be responsible to their political parties rather than to the people of their district. As a result, what's happening is the parties are very partisan and it's caused the members to be very partisan. And I think the number one problem with Washington today -- and i think to some extent it's true of the Texas Legislature to some extent -- is the fact that...this partisanship. This very bitter and divisive partisanship. I think it's tearing away at the very fabric that holds this county together. I believe in civility and I believe in working together, trying to compromise and work out very difficult problems and I grew up in a time when every person like Lyndon Johnson fought like hell in the daytime but they were friends and drank scotches together at night. I happen to think that that formula of government works alot better than this go out and be negative, not only beat 'em, but destroy 'em. I think it's very unhealthy.
PvW: To go back to safe districts: it seems to be like there has to be some balance, because obviously we want more districts to be competitive, but somebody like Anne Northrup in Kentucky. She has like a 51% district. It seems to me like all she does is campaign, full-time for two years. I don't know that people who are in super-swing districts end up legislating much. Seems like all they do is campaign.
BB: I don't think the forefathers ever had any idea that politics would cost this much as it does. And I think that you've raised a very valid point about people have to raise money continuously. To get re-elected they got to raise money again, start campaigning again. But if I got to choose between people not having to campaign at all and not going home and staying in Washington 360 days of the year to come home for 5 to ride in the Christmas parade. If I've got to choose between that and campaigning all the time, I'd rather have someone campaign all the time.
PvW: Why interview on a blog? It's a great interview for me, I'm flattered to get to interview you, but what made you...
BB: Well I'd read some of your clips. Let me tell you, why blogs. I just got off a radio program that goes statewide in Pittsburgh and Philadelphia. But why blogs? Because I am becoming convinced Evan that the young people today ages 30 and under....Quite frankly, I don't think they read the newspapers, I don't think they listen to political talk shows on the radio. I don't think they watch television that much. I think blogs are the way that young people are getting their news. And I tell you, the only way we're going to get young people interested in politics, and to listen to people like you and particularly people like me is we've got to go where tehy are. So why a blog? I want to go where people are listening and where people are paying attention. I don't think I've reached them on regular radio and television
Pvw: You wrote a little bit in your book about trying to get thenext generation involved in politics.
BB: If this book accomplished one thing...if it got a dozen more young people Repulican and Democrat to be interested in politics, I'd consider it a great success. I want young people to realize that...I was lucky. This is not about me, but people can be effective at a very young age. And they need to take their shoes off and jump in ..
Pvw: You certainly were...
BB: They can jump in and be effective. We need that. We need more participation and alot more participation, more people showing up to council meetings, legislative sessions, and sessions of Congress. The young people have the greatest stake. I know that's trite sounding and everyone says it at commencement speeches at high school, college that you've got the greatest stake in the world. But you do. And it may have taken me to get this old to really realize really how important young people really are.
PvW: You are sorta the poster child for getting involved early. It was amazing to me going back and reading your book about how your career started. I was struck by you seemed to get where you got so quickly because you were very daring, almost...naively daring. [Evan note: Among other things, I was referring to his first state House race, which he won. Then, as a freshman-elect Barnes immediately jumped into whipping his new colleagues for the race for the speakership.]
BB: I wouldn't disagree with that. I think I was probably naively daring. But I think what I did: I didn't realize this at the time. But as I look back, I brought a work ethic to the state legislature that not alot of people had. It's because I grew up on that peanut farm and I was working down at the health department and selling vacuum cleaners on the weekend to feed my family, y'know, everything was always hard for me. It was always work, work, work and I took that same work ethic with me to the legislature and I think that people became impressed and people let me develop some leadership skills and hold some leadership posts because I was working so hard. People want people to work hard. By and large, people want someone else to do all the work.
PvW: On redistricting, how many times did you go through redistricting? Was it two or three? '65, '71?
PvW: '61 too?
BB: We had to redistrict twice. One of our deals was found to be...we had to go back and redo it. I may have only gone through two redistricting periods, but I'm not sure. I'd have to go back and do some research, but I believe I'm correct when I say three.
PvW: Okay. Uh... [Evan's note: Yup! I'm a great interviewer!]
BB: We had a very interesting situation on congressional districts. I think we had 23 congressman at that time. This is when I was lieutenant governor; that's why I know there's three, because we did the congressional districts when I was lieutenant governor. But Ralph Hall and JP Word were chairmen of the Redistricting Committee...JP was chairman of the committee, and I was on it. They called me at 3 one morning, got me out of bed and said "we have got the redistricting deal solved. We're protecting the incumbents and we've just got it absolutely...you're not going to believe how great it is." And they said "get up!" and I said, "it won't keep til morning?" And they said, "No, we got to do it right now. We gotta start this thing right in the morning." So I get up out of bed, I go down to JP Word's office, and I look at it. Of course I was half-asleep, and boy it was unbelievable because it was taking care of alot of problems. I look at it for 30, 40 minutes and I see that it is really great. I say, "I'm gonna wake the governor up. Y'all have just created a miracle plan and I want to let him see it." I call him at the mansion, he gets up, comes over in his robe and pajamas. Connally looks at it and says "it's great," and then he counts 1, 2, 3, 4 ... 17, 18, 19, 20, 21, 22, 23, 24. And Connally looks at me and says, "when did they give us 24 congressional districts rather than 23?" Hall and Word looked at each other..we were just so tired, it was hilarious. They'd solved all those problems because they'd given us a congressman we didn't have.
PvW: As someone close to Connally, what would he think of politics today? What would he think of redistricting?
BB: I think this: I think he'd be very outspoken about people having safe districts and not more people having to run. Because he'd feel, as I do, that being in Washington too long creates an arrogance. You need to come back and see the people. I'm really coming to the point, Evan, where I'm probably for a non-partisan redistricting board to redistrict. All my friends in all the state legislatures across the 50 states would probably be mad as hell for me to say that.
PvW: You'd support Wentworth's bill, I guess...? He's been proposing y'know a commission in Texas for...
BB: Senator Wentworth? Yeah, yeah. I don't remember all the details of his bill, but coming to that conclusion.
PvW: But you never had before?
BB: No, I never had before. But look here, what's caused me to believe that is what the supreme court did. And I think that was a lousy decision where they said the legislature can redistrict anytime they want to. Everytime the Democrats gain control of a statehouse, or Republicans gain control of a statehouse, they're going to hurry up and redistrcit. Where they can pick up another 2 seats, 3 seats for their party.
PvW: You think that'll happen or you think people will be warned off by how divisive it was in Texas and Georgia?
BB: I don't know, but when it gets the ballots close in the United States Congress, I think the congressional leadership will be urging people to do that. And I hope that what's happened in Texas and the DeLay deal...but just think about it right now, DeLay being able to do what he did, elect those 15 state representatives. Go get rid of those, we got rid of those 5 Democratic incumbents, or was it 6?
PvW: Uhh...I think it was 6. I think there were 7 districts, but Edwards...**
BB: He got rid of 6. Well I tell you what, in this election in 2006, if the...I'd bet alot of money on this, if the Republicans stay in control of the House of Representatives, it's gonna be because of what DeLay did, because I think it's gonna be that close. I think the Democrats will take control of the House, or the Republicans will only control it by 2 or 3 votes.
PvW: That's interesting -- I would tend to disagree -- but what about the Senate? I know you're closer, or at least media reports you're closer to alot of the Senators.
BB: I think that for the Democrats to take control of the Senate, they'd have to hit an inside straight. They'd have to elect six or seven and that's against incumbents. Incumbent US Senators are very hard to defeat. I think that we'll beat 3 Republican Senators. I see three seats for sure, but I don't see. It's gonna be hard to elect 6 or 7 Democrats.
PvW: That's what I say. Probably 3 Republicans go down. Um...you said something about an inside straight. I didn't have this question planned, but are we gonna see an expansion of gambling in Texas? You have some experience in the area...
BB: The lottery is not looked upon as gambling [something, as the Lt. Gov. and I interrupt each other]...Produces a lot of revenue, produces a heckuva lot of revenue. I think you're gonna see Texas and other states look more and more to gaming, because it produces revenue. But, but when it gets to be throughout the country it's not going to produce as much revenue as people think, because if there's a casino on every corner, people are not going to drive to Texas or New Mexico or Oklahoma, they're going to stay at home and so it could raise alot of money in Texas right now.
Evan: What would it take in order for it to be more legalized in Texas...would it take a huge deficit hole?
BB: I think it's easier to justify that you're voting for some form of gaming if there's a real need for money to be spent. Even though we did not dedicate the lottery to education, Ann Richards talked about how we were gonna take this money and put it in education. Alot of people, after they got elected, in the next session of the legislature went around looking for money. There were many letters to the editor saying, "why in the world do we got the lottery. That should take care of education."
PvW: Yeah. Well, do you think that the legislature. I -- guess sorta random speculation here -- is it going to create a special fund for education?
BB: Well, first of all, we've got a fund dedicated to education: 25% of the gasoline tax goes to education. Course, everyone is against tax increases to build toll roads. Of course, there're two things about toll roads: 1) people stop and beat their chest about we didn't raise taxes is that it hurts our public transportation system, but it also hurts the 25% that goes to education. It's also very harmful to education because they aren't getting that. All this toll road money is going to go 100% to pay for the toll roads. Of the gasoline tax, 25% goes to education.
**[Evan note: It depends on how you count. Sandlin, Lampson, Stenholm, Frost, Turner all lost their seats. Chris Bell got shellacked 2-1 in a Democratic primary. Ralph Hall switched parties to the GOP because he had lots of new turf. And Chet Edwards hung on to his seat by 3.5% over Wohlgemuth, but is perpetually at risk.]
[part 2 to be posted either tomorrow or next week, depending on how I decide to serialize.]
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