Burnam's evolution: from loner to colleague

Posted Sunday, Apr. 07, 2013  comments  Print Reprints
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Lon Burnam

State representative,

District 90

First elected: 1996

Age: 59

Occupation: Consultant for organizations promoting civil rights; former executive director of the Dallas Peace Center

Wife: Carol Roark, independent writer; married in 1979

Residence: Fort Worth's Fairmont neighborhood

Religion: Quaker

Education: Bachelor of Arts from the University of Texas at Austin; master's in regional planning from UT Arlington

House committees: Criminal Jurisprudence, Energy Resources

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AUSTIN -- In his Capitol office, a black-and-white photo shows Rep. Lon Burnam at the back microphone in the state House.

More than 50 fellow lawmakers are arrayed elbow to elbow at the front of the chamber.

The scene captures the moment in 2003 when the Fort Worth Democrat was the solitary opponent to a House resolution supporting President and former Texas Gov. George W. Bush's decision to invade Iraq.

It also captures what has often been Burnam's image through much of 16-year legislative career - that of an outspoken liberal iconoclast who typically seemed intent on working against the system instead of within it.

Now, with the 2013 legislative session more than half over, another image seems to be emerging.

At 59, Burnam is dean of the 11-member Tarrant County delegation and 20th in seniority in the 150-member House. Although he is still regarded as one of the chamber's most liberal members, Burnam has increasingly forged a working relationship with Republican leaders and rank-and-file members to push bipartisan initiatives and clear a less hostile path for some of his own pet causes.

He is a co-author on 15 bills sponsored by Republicans, according to a tally by his staff. Some freshman members have also found him to be a go-to Democrat on civil liberties issues over which they share concerns.

"I've gone to Lon on a number of issues, and he's come to me on a number of issues," said Rep. Jonathan Stickland, R-Bedford, one of five GOP freshmen from Tarrant County who is aligned with Burnam on curtailing aerial drone surveillance. Although they are mirror opposites on the political spectrum, Stickland said he and his senior Democratic colleague "get along great."

During the House budget debate last week, Burnam worked closely with Rep. Richard Zerwas, R-Richmond, a Republican point man on health issues, to win initial House approval of a Medicaid expansion amendment before House members voted to reconsider their action, prompting Burnam to drop the proposal.

In an interview in his fourth-floor Capitol office, Burnam acknowledged that he has refined his approach since the days when he was persona non grata under Speaker Tom Craddick. After Republicans took over the House in 2003, Burnam was the only member to vote against Craddick, R-Midland. He was effectively isolated and unable to advance legislation throughout Craddick's speakership.

"On the inside, I'm still the same person," Burnam said, noting that he still defiantly adheres to principles that often put him out of step with the Republican majority.

But he adds, "I have softened my exterior."

"During election cycles, I'm talking about how bad it is having Republicans in control, but during the Legislature I'm doing everything I can to work with the Republicans that are in control," he said. "It's about getting things done incrementally."

Burnam has apparently fared better under Speaker Joe Straus of San Antonio, who took over the House leadership in 2009 after dissident Republicans teamed with Democrats to dump Craddick and pick Straus. They disagree on the issues, but Burnam says he and the speaker have "always had a friendly relationship" dating to Straus' early days as a House member.

Rep. Charlie Geren, R-Fort Worth, chairman of the House Administration Committee and a member of Straus' leadership team, said, "Lon is a liberal Democrat and Joe is a conservative Republican but they try to work together."

Burnam has been a member of the House since 1997, but his ties to politics and Austin go back much further.

Backing LBJ

Burnam took his first political steps in the sixth grade when he served as a volunteer for Lyndon B. Johnson. During his senior year at Western Hills High School, he followed the advice of a teacher and took a class in Texas government in 1971, the year the state Capitol was rocked by the Sharpstown stock fraud scandal, which tainted scores of incumbent lawmakers.

Burnam went to the University of Texas at Austin and worked as an intern for Common Cause, which helped shape many of the reform bills that grew out of the scandal. He later worked as a staff member for Rep. Chris Miller of Fort Worth, founder of the Texas chapter of the National Organization for Women.

Bolstered by what he considered his legislative apprenticeship, Burnam set his sights on the central Fort Worth legislative seat occupied by Rep. Doyle Willis, a legislative titan who served in the Texas House and Senate for a total of 42 years. Burnam lost in 1992 and 1994 but in 1996, after Willis decided to retire from political office, Burnam prevailed over a seven-way Democratic primary field.

He escaped primary challengers every election cycle until 2012, when he faced a hard-fought race against school board member Carlos Vasquez. Burnam won with 52 percent of the vote.

Burnam describes himself as "a dyed-in-the-wool Democrat" who works relentlessly to advance his party's cause at the ballot box. He co-chairs the House Democratic Campaign Committee and helped Democrats break the GOP supermajority in the House with a six-seat pickup in the 2012 elections, reducing the partisan ratio to 95 Republicans and 55 Democrats.

Looking ahead, Burnam might aspire to seeking another office some day, saying without specifying which office that "I'm very open to that."

For the moment, though, he wants to stay in the Legislature as long as District 90 constituents keep him there or until "I decide I'm ready to hang it up." And, he adds, "I'm not ready to do that yet."

Hispanic district

Burnam's district is heavily Hispanic - in fact, more so after 2011 redistricting - and includes low-income neighborhoods surrounding downtown Fort Worth. The average income is about $12,000.

The district's demographics contribute to Burnam's impassioned stances on such issues as healthcare and education and his repeated denunciation of Republican policies under Gov. Rick Perry. Never one to pull punches rhetorically, Burnam denounced the 2011 Legislature as "the most racist" in 25 years after it cut $15 billion in state spending and passed a Perry-backed voter identification law that Burnam and other Democrats said would discriminate against minorities and the poor.

"I don't think there is a single vote that Lon has ever taken that you would suggest was ever motivated by anything but his belief that he was acting in the best interest of his district," said state Sen. Wendy Davis, a former Fort Worth councilwoman who has known Burnam for years. "It's not something that you could say about every legislator in this building."

One of Burnam's overarching priorities in the 2013 Legislature is restoration of more than $5 billion in public school funding cut in the 2011 session. In a speech on the House floor just before lawmakers passed a $193.8 billion budget, Burnam announced his opposition to the measure because it restored only about half of the education cuts. The 2011 budget, he told House members, deserved an F. This one, he said, rose only to a D-minus

Although Burnam was one of 12 members who voted against the budget, he worked with House budget writers to include an optional amendment that he said could open the door to further restoring education money. The amendment, he said, is designed to allow lawmakers to appropriate an additional $2 billion if the comptroller certifies that more revenue is available. But it is unclear whether the amendment will remain intact when House and Senate conferees begin negotiating differences to craft a final 2014-15 budget.

Consultant Bill Miller said the Democratic lawmaker "still pushes the rock up the hill" in championing ill-fated causes and is "a little bit of a round peg in a square hole" because of the Legislature's overwhelming Republican makeup. But, at the same time, he said, Burnam is reaching out to the other side.

"He's developed a better reputation for working with people," said Miller, who describes himself as a friend of Burnam's.

Pushing legislation

Burnam began introducing bills before the start of the session, compiling a portfolio that totals 57, the most in the Tarrant County delegation. The package includes several that even Burnam acknowledges are destined for oblivion in the Republican-led Legislature. They include his perpetually introduced bill to create a state income tax and a measure to repeal the state's ban on same-sex marriage (which he filed on Valentine's Day.)

Others perhaps have more promise. A bill that would allow certain nonviolent offenders to receive probation instead of jail time has attracted support from the Texas Public Policy Foundation, a conservative think tank that generally embraces policies more in line with the governor and other Republicans. Jeanette Moll, policy analyst for the foundation, said the measure would reduce recidivism and help cut prison costs.

Many of the measures reflect Burnam's signature positions on the environment and conservation, including several that would strengthen regulation on natural gas drilling in the Barnett Shale.

Burnam has also signed on to Republican-sponsored bills to restrict the use of drones, protect property rights, promote water conservation, and curb police surveillance powers.

He is also joint author of a bill by Rep. Lyle Larson, R-San Antonio, that would require Perry to reimburse the state for security costs whenever he takes a campaign trip outside Texas.

Even those who differ with Burnam on philosophical grounds describe him as approachable and easy to get along with on a personal level. Stickland, whom Burnam often addresses as "Stick," said the senior House member helped him and other new members get their footing at the outset of the Legislature.

"Lon has been very sincere in trying to help where he can, and we're very honest with each other, " Stickland said.

'More willing ... to talk'

The detente that Burnam shares with Republicans this session perhaps stems from a less contentious atmosphere in the House after the volatile 2009 and 2011 sessions. Hot-button issues such as voter ID and "sanctuary cities" are off the table in this session, and robust revenues have lawmakers talking about expansive new infrastructure projects instead of cutting services.

"I think it's fair to say I'm more willing to try to talk to Republicans," Burnam said. "But that's kind of one of those two-way streets. People have to be willing to move to the middle."

Burnam's approach this session has been to approach committee chairmen and other senior Republicans.

Two of his amendments were included in a major education bill recently after he consulted with House Education Chairman Jimmie Don Aycock, R-Killeen.

Zerwas, a physician, said he and Burnam met to discuss the Medicaid expansion amendment, which Burnam agreed to refine with changes proposed by Zerwas. The amendment didn't directly permit expanded Medicaid in Texas but would have required the Health and Human Services Commission to establish conditions if Texas and the federal government engage in negotiations for additional Medicaid dollars.

After initially approving the amendment, House members backed away from the proposal amid fears that it would lead to an outright expansion.

"There is no doubt that Rep. Burnam and I come from polar-opposite philosophies," Zerwas said, "but ... he is somebody you can work with."

Dave Montgomery is the Star-Telegram's Austin bureau chief.

512-739-4471

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