Bud Kennedy

2001: Sen. Harris, a legislative Attila, shows soft side

Tammy and Sen. Chris Harris pass through the honor guard in 2001, when Harris was sworn in as “Governor for a Day.”
Tammy and Sen. Chris Harris pass through the honor guard in 2001, when Harris was sworn in as “Governor for a Day.” AP

First of all, Chris Harris doesn’t give a goldang what I write about him, or what anybody thinks about him, or what his fellow lawmakers say about him on the floor of the Texas Senate.

After all, this is an Arlington lawyer and senator of such curmudgeonly demeanor that he is often compared — flatteringly — to Attila, king of the Huns.

Since Attila is not avilable for comment, we are left with the words of Harris’ fellow state senators, who greeted the inauguration of “Governor for a Day” Chris Harris on Saturday about the same way they might greet a runaway bull in the Senate chamber.

State Sen. Florence Shapiro, R-Plano, said Harris, 53, is often called “stubborn, hardheaded, cantankerous.”

Then, she sweet-talked him: “Of course, we know him as Dollface, Baby Doll, Sweetness-and-Light and Mr. Congeniality,” she said, grinning to roaring laughter from what amounted to an all-Arlington family reunion in the Texas Capitol.

The 10-year bull of the Texas Senate only smiled. He’ll have his chance to settle any scores in the next three weeks, as the Legislature rides to its usual hellbent finish with work yet undone on nursing homes, teachers’ insurance, Medicaid care for poor children and the all-consuming task of redistricting.

For one day, though, laughter and pride filled the chamber as Harris, the Senate president pro tem, enjoyed the ceremonial tradition of inaugurating Texas’ No. 3 executive as “Governor for a Day.”

Harris was the state’s acting governor in late January, when Gov. Rick Perry and Lt. Gov. Bill Ratliff left for President Bush’s inauguration.

Strangely, one of Harris’ few acts as governor fulfilled a campaign speech he made in 1984. Then, he was 36 and attacking incumbent state Rep. Roy English for supporting an option of life in prison as a sentence for capital murder.

“Life sentences create more of a burden on the state,” Harris said in 1984, not knowing that in 2001 he would preside over an execution.

Only days after that execution, he announced his support for a new Texas public defender law, saying that while he and his staff waited in his office for word of the death, “I bet the temperature in the room dropped 12 degrees.” He said he wants to be sure that anyone put to death has a decent lawyer.

In Austin, that is one of many examples of what is now being called the soft side of Chris Harris.

It’s not a joke. In this session, with lawmakers wishing they could bring back the money lost to Bush’s tax cuts, Harris has stuck up for kids’ Medicaid, for better Texas insurance and for seniors’ health care, and not only because he recently had Lyme disease.

State Comptroller Carole Keeton Rylander called him “a tough, tender, tell-it-like-it-is, true-grit Texas hero.”

When Harris finally took the oath and the lectern, his words were more gentle than his usual lawyerly cross-examination tone.

“I am not what I consider to be a politician — and I never claimed to be one,” he said.

“But I do what I say. And I even do it when it is not the popular thing to do. … I hope my passion has helped make things a little better.”

He closed by saluting the late former Lt. Gov. Bob Bullock and by expanding on Bullock’s famous closing line:

“God bless Texas.

“It is only through the hard work of all of us that we can make it happen.”

If only every lawmaker worked as hard as Chris Harris.

Bud Kennedy: 817-390-7538, bud@star-telegram.com, @BudKennedy. His column appears Sundays, Wednesdays and Fridays.

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