Sunday, May 20, 2007

Sen. Nichols: "When I see something wrong, I have to act."

Jacksonville Freshman Senator Makes Big Waves

May 20, 2007

Tyler Morning Telegraph
Copyright 2007

A freshman senator should be seen and not heard - that's the conventional wisdom, at least.

State Sen. Robert Nichols, R-Jacksonville, isn't conventional. In his first legislative session, he's vice-chaired a committee, brokered deals and won passage of significant legislation.

And, he's led a fight against his own party's governor over private toll road projects.

"My intention for this session was to listen and learn, and to try to take care of my district," Nichols said. "It wasn't to charge off on any big things right away. But when I see something wrong, I have to act."

A former two-term Texas Transportation commissioner, Nichols knows the issues surrounding the privatization of toll roads. And it was that experience his fellow senators looked to when faced with Gov. Rick Perry's drive to advance projects such as the Trans-Texas Corridor.

"I have been in this body for 14 years, and I have never seen the senators coalesce as unanimously around one issue as they have around Robert Nichols' bill," said Sen. Jane Nelson, R-Lewisville. "He has wonderful credibility because of the years he served on the Transportation Commission."

And he went about it the right way, she added.

"Before he drew attention to the concerns he had, he sought to solve the problems that he saw in the bill (with the bill's author)," she said. "When that didn't work, he showed us (in the Senate) where there could be some missteps, and he convinced us of the need to slow this train down. And he did that senator by senator."

It was a bold move, she said.

"It was so important to him to do what was right that he was willing to risk the wrath of the governor of his own party - as a freshman," Sen. Nelson said. "He has great respect in this body."

Nichols begins his day promptly at 5:30 a.m.; his work at the Capitol can start as early as 7:30 a.m. with committee meetings, though the Senate usually doesn't convene until 10 or 11 a.m. On one recent Wednesday, he attended one committee meeting for about an hour, then he had to leave to lay out two bills before another committee.

Between committee meetings and the convening of the Senate at 11 a.m., he had about 15 minutes free. That was spent in a meeting at his office with about five people who objected to another bill.

When the Senate adjourns at about 3:30 p.m., it's more committee meetings and public hearings. All the while, his staff is preparing his "football," the pile of bills and analyses he'll take home for study.

"I don't go to dinner with lobbyists, though I get half a dozen invitations a day," Nichols said. "I don't know how people can, and still do their homework. If you let yourself get behind on the bills, you don't know what you're voting on, or you're just going by what your staff tells you."

He works his way through the "football" until as late as midnight.

"I make myself stop around 11:30 p.m. or 12 a.m.," he said. "I just have to quit. I have to realize this isn't a sprint, this is a marathon."

"Before I got here, I didn't realize how important working relationships between members are," Nichols said. "Just 11 members can block any piece of legislation, so you have to be careful. On any day, you may be helping someone on one bill, and then vote against them on the next bill. You've got to be civil, and you can't take it personally - because you're going to need their help on your next bill."

Nichols arrived with some connections already formed.

"I've been working in Austin since 1997, so I've worked through five sessions," he said. "I've worked with members of the House, the Senate, with Republicans and Democrats, with urbans and rurals. I worked as a (Transportation) commissioner to help them to solve problems, and now here I am, working with them again. It's like I got a running start."

No one senator can be fully knowledgeable about all the issues that come before the body.

"We all have different areas of expertise," Nichols said. "We have lawyers, a doctor, some former mayors. When we get to difficult issues, we can share our pools of resources and experiences."

Sen. Nelson said Nichols' expertise goes beyond transportation - he's also an engineer.

"I'm married to an engineer, so I know how they think. It's not like the rest of us," she said. "Robert Nichols doesn't grab the microphone and just start talking. He listens, he takes copious notes, and when he finally raises his hand, his questions and comments get straight to the essence of the issues. It's that engineer's brain."

Nichols' credibility goes across the party lines, adds Sen. Royce West, D-Dallas.

"He's brought a wealth of knowledge to this body," said West, who chairs the Intergovernmental Relations Committee Nichols serves on. "Credibility is something you develop over time. And I would say Robert Nichols is putting a solid foundation in place for that."


It wasn't an easy decision to make, Nichols said. But parts of the governor's transportation plans - 50 contracts with private firms, for example, and non-compete clauses that could prevent the state from improving its own roads - were untenable. He wanted a two-year moratorium on private toll projects.

"It makes me sick to have to do this," Nichols said. "Gov. Perry has done an incredibly positive job on transportation. I have a problem with one area of one tool that he's given us. He's been a pioneer. But they say pioneers are the ones who get the arrows shot at them, and he's getting some arrows now."

A compromise reached late last week could prevent a showdown or a special session on the toll roads issue. Nichols said he can live with the compromise - it includes the two-year moratorium on most new toll road projects and establishes broad protections for the private toll roads that are built.

"This provides the protection the state needs," he said.

Late in the day on Friday, however, that compromise appeared to be falling apart. But Nichols said he'll watch the bill as it comes back through the Senate.

Keeping legislation on track is different now that he's a senator, Nichols said. As a transportation commissioner, he explains, he could help some people with some problems. But now, he adds, he can file bills, he can vote, and he can broker compromises.

"I enjoy the work," Nichols said. "I can be effective here."

Roy Maynard covers county government and politics. He can be reached at 903.596.6291. e-mail:

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