Perry's new 'mechanic' blunts private toll road moratorium.
Trusted by lawmakers, even-keeled legislative director defuses bombs
May 15, 2007
By CHRISTY HOPPE
The Dallas Morning News
AUSTIN – Huck Finn had his friends mend fences. Rick Perry has Ken Armbrister.
On Monday, the imprint of Mr. Armbrister's hammer was evident on an anti-toll-road compromise that unanimously passed the Senate. The deal that the governor's legislative director helped craft may avert a meltdown on state transportation policy: Just last week, Mr. Perry was threatening vetoes and special sessions.
"He's been Mr. Fix It for this governor," said Sen. Rodney Ellis, D-Houston.
A longtime lawmaker, Mr. Armbrister, 59, has long been a master of the improbable – from allocating water resources to fixing budgets. If state leaders manage to avoid an explosion over transportation issues in the final two weeks of the legislative session, Mr. Armbrister will probably be on the squad that defuses the bomb.
The conservative Democrat joined the Perry team this session after the Republican governor had weathered three caustic special sessions on redistricting and four on education funding, earned animosity over a record number of vetoes in 2001 and suffered bruises in a few public skirmishes with House Speaker Tom Craddick.
Within weeks of Mr. Armbrister's hire, Mr. Perry announced surprise proposals about selling the state lottery and requiring the human papillomavirus vaccine for 12-year-old girls – roiling lawmakers who already were agitated over Mr. Perry's toll road initiative.
Suddenly, being the face of the governor in the Capitol got even tougher.
Still, Mr. Armbrister, who retired from the Senate last year, believes the governor is liked and respected by the members, and that the state's leadership gets along fine.
"Do they agree on everything? No, but who does in this crazy environment?" he said.
If some lawmakers see Mr. Perry in the role of bad cop, then they see the former Victoria police captain as the good one.
Mr. Armbrister has 20 years in the Senate and four in the House under his Mr. Fix It tool belt. But it's some of those long-ago lessons as a cop – hostage negotiations and quelling riots – that are serving him best this session.
Around the Capitol, he is seen as the even-keeled pragmatist. When he first met with freshmen lawmakers, he wanted to know what he could help them accomplish. "What issue do you need to go home with?" he asked.
"It's a people business," he said of his job. "It's the art of the possible."
His face is often inscrutable – another cop trait. But his penchant for details and quickness at divining whose fingers are in what pies have earned him respect. As a senator, he helped more House members pass their bills through the upper chamber than probably any other member. Many believe he was equally helpful to lobbyists.
In these last two weeks of the session, he is nudging and tweaking hundreds of bills more to the governor's liking. He will recruit lobbyists to help push his agenda or call the lawmaker's hometown business owner to write a note. He will find lawmakers time with the governor.
Master of the rules
His motto with a problem bill: fix it or kill it. And when he kills it, it's usually not with blunt force but with the surgical precision of a parliamentary question or a committee vote that never happens. He is a master of the arcane rules that govern the House and Senate.
"He's a good mechanic. He's quiet behind the scenes," Mr. Ellis said. "Oftentimes you can tell his presence when you don't see him."
Now his wrench and scalpel are trained on the transportation bill, which the governor believes would give local authorities too much power over transportation policy at the expense of state officials.
At the beginning of last week, there was revolt. On Wednesday, Mr. Perry threw down the threat of a special session. By the end of the week, things were churning along.
"Ken is the tip of the spear for the governor, working with members of the Legislature, and they're making progress," said Mr. Perry's press secretary, Robert Black.
In a recent meeting with lawmakers, Harris County representatives and other vested parties, Mr. Armbrister tried to lead everyone back from the ledge and look for consensus.
"We all want to build roads," he began.
His effort, he said, was to talk about what can be accomplished. "Get the politics out of it. Get the personalities out of it."
Your father's politician
Part of Mr. Armbrister is an old-style pol: He loves a soft golf green and a stiff drink. His greatest lament with the new job is its time-consuming nature. He knows his short game is suffering.
In the echoing terrazzo hallway of the Capitol, he greets everyone by name and with equal enthusiasm, from the information desk volunteer to the dean of the Senate. And they all, still, call him Senator.
He dips Skoal and keeps a spit cup in his ground-floor office just near the Capitol's doors. Governors used the office for eight decades but were eventually moved upstairs to a more secure suite. The arrangement makes some sense; after all, the legislative liaison is already taking figurative bullets for the governor.
"There have been some difficult issues for the governor," said Sen. Jeff Wentworth, R-San Antonio. "It didn't matter who was the liaison."
Still, he said, when Mr. Armbrister comes around, "We know him and trust him."
Rep. Dennis Bonnen, who wrote the bill that reversed Mr. Perry's HPV mandate, praised Mr. Armbrister as "the voice of logic and reason."
"He's done a good job of keeping us all focused," said Mr. Bonnen, R-Angleton.
Really? Keeping lawmakers focused when they are openly defying his boss?
"Having been a very successful senator, [he] knows as well as anyone will ever know that, 'This bill, I'm fighting with you; my next bill, you are the best friend I may have,' " Mr. Bonnen said. "He realizes you can't get emotional, you can't get personal; you just roll with it. And he's great at it."
Mr. Armbrister said he recognized that the HPV mandate set off a firestorm among lawmakers.
"One of the rules of engagement, whether a personal relationship, a riot, judo – you always ensure there's an escape out," he said.
With mobs, always make sure there's an avenue for them to disperse. "An executive order can be trumped by a bill," Mr. Armbrister said.
Once the legislation was filed, lawmakers had their avenue, he said. "Votes are what they are. You either have them or you don't," he said.
The session has been rocky not just for Mr. Perry but for Mr. Craddick and Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst, Mr. Armbrister conceded. But each has been in office for three regular legislative sessions, and as far as senators and representatives are concerned, "the awe is off."
Leadership is always more difficult the longer you hold the same office, he said. It's like when he asked a motorcycle cop years ago what it takes to be a good rider.
"He said when you get confident, sell it," Mr. Armbrister said.
Mr. Black said the governor hired Mr. Armbrister because he has years of built-in relations with the members.
"Another attribute you have to have is someone who can close the deal," he said.
The governor's agenda is ambitious, and it's not expected to all happen at the same time, he said.
"The legislative director in any governor's office has one of the most difficult jobs there is because a speaker has to manage 150 members and a lieutenant governor has to manage 31 members, but a legislative director has to deal with all of them on behalf of a different branch of government," Mr. Black said.
"That in itself is a pretty darn tough job."
© 2007 The Dallas Morning News Co
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