The Texas House of Representatives is beginning the most tense, nerve-fraying day of the 81st Legislative Session, and Trey Martinez Fischer has a red tie wrapped around his forehead.
Facing a midnight deadline to pass critical statewide legislation, the House is headed into its fifth and final day of a mind-numbing process known as chubbing, by which Democrats are purposefully dragging out the deliberations on hundreds of noncontroversial bills to prevent a Republican-backed Voter ID bill from coming to the floor.
Republicans detest this run-out-the-clock stalling marathon, and Democrats resent Republicans for forcing them to carry out this farce by refusing to dump Voter ID (which Democratic leaders derisively call “Voter Suppression”) — or at least move it down from its slotted place on the calendar.
Only yesterday, House Speaker Joe Straus called Democrats “obstructionists,” and Democratic leaders — who feel that they played a big role in elevating Straus to the Speaker position — openly gripe that he’s squandered a remarkable amount of bipartisan goodwill in a matter of days.
So, on a morning fraught with so much tension, why is Martinez Fischer down on one knee, rocking a samurai look, with a big goofy grin on his mug? The short answer is that Representative Chuck Hopson (D-Jacksonville) always wears red ties to work, and his wife thought it would be a nice session-ending gesture to bring in red ties for all of his colleagues. Of course, most of those colleagues chose to wear the tie around their neck. It took Martinez Fischer, the boisterous class cutup, to turn their group picture into a silly, what-I-did-on-my-vacation moment.
At the end of his fifth term in the House, the 38-year-old West Sider and former linebacker for the Holmes Huskies occupies a place of special promise in the lege. Blunt and combative by nature, he’s also gregarious and approachable enough to earn the admiration of GOP movers who disagree with him on nearly every key issue. Over the last five years, Dems have gained 12 seats in the House and now trail the GOP by a razor-thin 76-74 margin. As the chairman of the Mexican American Legislative Caucus at a time when this state’s swelling Latino population could tilt the House into the Democratic column, Martinez would probably be on a short list of Speaker candidates if the 2010 general election gives his party a House majority.
“From the time he got here, you knew he was smart as a whip,” says Laredo Democrat Rep. Richard Raymond. “The other thing is, he’s very, very likeable. He’s great to work with, because he has the ability to be tough but also the ability to find a light moment any time we’re in the middle of a tense one. He’ll continue to rise as much as he wants to.”
Moments before Speaker Joe Straus pounds his gavel to launch this Tuesday-morning session, Martinez Fischer, decked out in a cream-colored suit, stands in the back of the House chamber. Because of the lege’s demanding May schedule, he hasn’t seen his infant daughter in two days, and he reluctantly turned down an email invitation from the Obama administration to a White House Cinco de Mayo reception. He softly notes that he’s suffering from sinus problems, mischievously adding that he’s not responsible for whatever behavior may ensue. “I’m heavily medicated, so if tempers flare, and you find me in the middle of a pile, I’m going to blame it on the medicine,” he jokes.
Martinez Fischer has the face of a boxer, specifically one of those relentless 1940s pugilists who measured their manhood by how many shots they could take to the melon. Short, broad-shouldered, with dark, curly hair, a round jaw, and a nose that looks like its been semi-flattened by a series of left jabs, he most resembles a post-retirement Jake LaMotta, after LaMotta put on a few pounds. To put it another way, if Jackie Gleason had been a Latino, he might have looked like Martinez Fischer.
He also recalls a type of politician frequently celebrated in the first half of the 20th century: the Happy Warrior. A term applied at various times to Al Smith, Harry Truman, and Hubert Humphrey, it seems antiquated in our cool-medium age, when we no longer expect — or even want — our elected officials to be hyper-animated, wordy attack dogs. While Martinez Fischer shares little of Al Smith’s style (just as Justin Timberlake will never be mistaken for Rudy Vallee), it’s his zealous manner that screams Happy Warrior. He relishes being in the front lines of legislative combat and rarely settles for a polite, diplomatic response when a verbal dart can generate more impact.
More than most of his colleagues, he’s willing to expose some of the inside-baseball maneuvering that goes on at the Lege. His blog Poli-Tex (on which he dismisses most elected-official blogs as “hot air and day-old bread”) is an entertaining read because it names names and acknowledges the absurdities of the legislative process. On his blog, he’ll tell you that if he were chair of the Elections Committee, “early voting would last a month, and the general election would be on a Sunday right before a Dallas Cowboys game.”
He’ll call out lobbyists who try to strong-arm his colleagues, including former Texas Secretary of State Phil Wilson, who now lobbies for the Dallas generating company Luminant. Showing none of the false decorum we’ve come to expect from our political figures, TMF (he says the acronym stands for “Tough Mother Fusser,” in its cleaned-up version) posted Wilson’s compensation from Luminant and warned him: “I am hearing that some of my colleagues are going to give you a ‘training day.’ You should note that it might be bipartisan, which probably means you’re going to get rolled.”
This kind of public discourse might not be suitable from a United Nations ambassador, but it spices up the daily action inside the Capitol dome.
When conservative Republican Dennis Bonnen took to the House floor last month during a debate about modifying the automatic-acceptance rule at state universities for Texas high-school students who graduate in the top 10 percent of their class, he made waves by stating, “In the Hispanic culture, they are less interested in seeing their young daughter go to Austin or College Station at 18 years of age. They want to keep them at home.”
Martinez Fischer responded by putting Bonnen on the Mexican American Legislative Council’s “naughty list” and posting a YouTube snippet of Bonnen’s speech. While Bonnen believed that TMF unfairly posted the short clip out of its proper context, he nonetheless called Martinez Fischer to explain himself and sent the San Antonio rep a University of Texas Onesie for TMF’s four-month-old daughter, Franscesca.
Even this brief online tussle couldn’t bruise their friendship. “He’s honest, he’s upfront, he’s very truthful with the way he does his business,” Bonnen says. “In the House, we’ve always had a lot more respect for members who walk right up to your face and say, ‘Hey, I’ve got a problem with your issue,’ or ‘I’m gonna do some battle with you today.’”
Martinez Fischer similarly considers Straus a longtime friend, but he doesn’t hesitate to express his disappointment at the way the Speaker has allowed Voter ID resentments to fester and mar the final days of this legislative session. He hints that the Speaker is caving to private pressure from the extreme right flank of the Republican party. House Democrats insist that they have provided multiple options and concessions to GOP leaders, usually to a positive response, only to find, after both parties break into their respective caucuses, that Republicans will renege on the deal.
“They always come back with a hardline Republican stance,” Martinez Fischer says. “So you have to question who’s running the Republican party. That kind of hardline position is so not Joe Straus and so not his Republican leadership.”
Noting that Straus, generally identified as a moderate Republican, was not the favorite choice of his own party, Martinez Fischer ruefully says: “This Speaker got elected with 64 Democrats. I don’t think I could get five to vote for him today.”
There’s a joke Martinez Fischer often tells about his mixed Mexican-German ancestry. He attributes it to his friend Steve Hahn, morning co-host for KISS 99.5 FM. It goes like this: “I wake up in the morning sometimes and say, ‘Man, I’m going to take over the world.’ And then I reflect for a minute and say, ‘Hmm, mañana.’”
The son of a car-salesman father and a mother who apprenticed her way into a career as a Licensed Vocational Nurse, Martinez Fischer was born on the South Side, grew up on the North Side, and ultimately settled on the West Side. He says his fourth-grade teacher at St. Luke’s Catholic School once told his mother that “there was no question that I was going to be a leader. But what she couldn’t determine was whether I’d be leading the mob or the country.”
Always the biggest kid in class (“I’ve been this size since I was in fifth grade”), Martinez Fischer learned early to defend himself against anyone eager to challenge his toughness. While at Holmes High School, he played for a powerhouse 1986 football team that lost only one game all season, and ended up sending Keith and Kerry Cash, as well as Johnny Walker, to stardom at the University of Texas. That season, the team, obviously inspired by the Chicago Bears’ 1985 self-promotional anthem “The Super Bowl Shuffle,” performed in a music video called “Husky Proud.” While Martinez Fischer only makes a couple of brief on-camera appearances in the video, he makes the most of them: enthusiastically leaning into the camera and mugging in a manner familiar to his Capitol cohorts.
Martinez Fischer credits Judy Howe, his freshman American History teacher, with spotting leadership potential in him. She encouraged him to run for class president, a position he won three years in a row.
“He was an impressive person even then because he was so well-liked by his peers, yet he was so responsible, too,” Howe recalls. “He wants to be wherever the action is. He wants to do something to influence what’s happening.”
After playing football at McMurry University in Abilene, Martinez Fischer transferred to UTSA, and during his junior year he took a job interning for then-Attorney General Dan Morales, a fellow Holmes graduate, ultimately using his time in Austin to study law at the University of Texas. In 2000, spurred by Council member friends Ed Garza and Bobby Perez, he decided to challenge State Representative Leo Alvarado after Alvarado’s defeat by Leticia Van de Putte in a special election for the state senate indicated that Alvarado might be politically vulnerable. Outspent roughly four-to-one, Martinez Fischer nonetheless made it to a runoff with Alvarado and pulled off a stunning victory, with 60 percent of the vote.
During his first term, Martinez Fischer’s colleagues voted him “Freshman of the Year,” but by his second term, he says he found himself in Tom Craddick’s doghouse, with little chance to get his legislation on the floor. He adapted by working with colleagues to attach amendments to their bills, discovering that he could often achieve the same results with much less trouble.
In 2007, he passed 36 amendments off the House floor, and during the Craddick Era he successfully pushed to obtain $50 million in funding for bilingual education textbooks, and increase penalties for street racing and acts of fraud against the elderly. He also used a procedural point of order to kill a bill that would have loosened regulations on payday lenders, causing the lenders to lose $91 million in capital valuation in half a day.
“People were telling me it’s the most expensive point of order in Texas history. When a reporter asked how did I feel to cause those four companies to lose $91 million, I said, ‘Maybe now they know what it means to be poor. But they could probably always go out and get a payday loan to recover it.’”
At the beginning of the House’s May 26 session, a somber Martinez Fischer takes to the floor to acknowledge his District 116 predecessor, Leo Alvarado, who is nearing death from cancer.
Richard Raymond follows by stepping to the front of the chamber for an emotional personal-privilege speech. He tells his colleagues that although he doesn’t like making speeches, they will see him at the back microphone all day, dragging out deliberations, because he considers Voter ID a threat to basic civil rights.
Democratic Caucus leader Jim Dunnam attempts to avoid a fifth straight day of wasted time by trying to kill Voter ID on a procedural technicality; he cites the fact that corrected minutes on a committee meeting were submitted after the required three-day deadline. Straus counters by saying that established House practice dictates that he take no action. A frustrated Dunnam will later blast Straus for ignoring stated rules, arguing that established practice is not a valid excuse for exceeding the speed limit and it shouldn’t be a justification for ignoring House rules.
After this snippy exchange, it’s obvious that neither side will relent. The rest of the day is boredom shadowed by high drama. At noon, Van de Putte comes from the Senate chambers to tell Martinez Fischer that the Senate is nearing a meltdown over the way their bills are clogged in the House’s pipeline. She asks him to speak to Lieutenant Governor David Dewhurst. Martinez Fischer says that after a few minutes of debate with Dewhurst, he suggests that the Lieutenant Governor call a recess, which will allow Senators to confer with Representatives on their next strategic move. Dewhurst sounds amenable to the idea, but ultimately does not call a recess.
Dunnam and Martinez Fischer huddle frequently. The two Democratic leaders have developed a close bond and Dunnam praises the San Antonio legislator as someone who “has all the pieces: smart, very passionate about issues. On the things that you should be black-or-white on, he’s black-or-white. A lot of people try to play the middle and ride the fence, worry about reelection, and all that kind of stuff. Trey is one that just does what he thinks, and he doesn’t mind standing up and saying that.”
At one point in this long, agonizing day, Martinez Fischer recounts a phone call he received on the previous Saturday from Congressman Charlie Gonzalez. “He said, ‘I just want you to know that I support what you’re doing. If anybody gives you any problems back home, you tell me, I’ll call them.’ He said, ‘Nothing’s changed in the legislature from the time my father served there in the 1950s, except they don’t call you ‘greaser’ on the floor anymore.’”
Between May 27 and June 1, the House will sidestep its own deadlines, taking up any issues that two-thirds of its members agree to address. During those final days, they’ll pass windstorm-insurance reform, get-tough-on-graffiti legislation (which Martinez folded into a bill by freshman Houston Democrat Armando Walle), and tax breaks for disabled veterans. But several concerns go unresolved, namely the future of the Texas Department of Transportation. The possibility of a special session looms over their heads, and, with it, the threat of another Voter ID standoff.
Martinez Fischer defends the Democrats’ chubbing marathon, insisting that he and his allies gave Straus several opportunities to avoid the long farce. In his mind, it was Straus, not House Democrats, who needlessly wasted everyone’s time.
“You have to work in a bipartisan manner over here, but sometimes you get to a position on certain pieces of policy or if it comes to the rules of procedure, when there’s just an injustice, you’ve got to take a step back and represent your district,” he says. “And the district I come from, we’re fighters. We know what’s right, and we know what’s wrong.”
When the lege convenes again in 2011, Martinez Fischer might be looking at an expanded leadership role, but the only prediction he’ll make is that many House leaders will emerge from the Mexican American Legislative Caucus he chairs.
“I say that because all the membership is relatively young. We’re all professionals in some capacity. And we’ll be peaking at about the same time that the state trends decisively in another direction,” he says. “If timing presents me with an offer or an opportunity, whether it’s statewide or internal at the Capitol, I’d like to know that I’m somewhere on the short list. But if it’s not me, it’s going to be someone I know. I take it day by day, but I’d be disingenuous if I told you that I’m not extremely optimistic about what the future will hold.”