Tag Archives: John Smithee

Time to re-calibrate political antennae

Twenty-three years in the Texas Panhandle gave me an up-close look at politics in one of the state’s most reliably Republican regions.

I’m no longer living there full time. I hesitate to say my wife and I have severed our ties to the Panhandle, because we haven’t … exactly. We’re still making periodic trips back to check on family matters.

But the fact remains that we’re registered to vote in Collin County, which brings me to the point of this blog.

I am having to re-calibrate my political antennae. I now must look at other sources for local political grist to help keep High Plains Blogger reasonably fresh. This will be a challenge for me.

I wanted to vote in the next election for the 13th Congressional District. Although I harbor a considerable personal affection for the congressman who has represented the district since 1995, Mac Thornberry has been a disappointment to me. It just so happens that his Democratic opponent this year is a good friend of mine, a fellow I’ve known almost as long as I’ve known Thornberry.

Greg Sagan wants to represent the 13th District when the next Congress convenes in January. Will he be able to step into the job? That remains huge, given the 13th’s significant GOP bent.

Sagan has made one pledge that Thornberry — despite critics who contend wrongly that he did — never made: Sagan has vowed to step aside after serving a set amount of time. Thornberry didn’t make such a declaration for himself, although he has endorsed congressional term limits legislation whenever he’s had the chance to vote on it.

But I believe it’s time for a change in the Panhandle’s congressional representation. Although I cannot vote for Sagan, I can speak on his behalf through this blog, which I intend to do when the opportunities present themselves between now and November.

My former Texas state representative, John Smithee, has a Democratic foe this fall. He is Mike Purcell of Amarillo, with whom I have a casual acquaintance. Smithee is another matter. I’ve known him well since my arrival in Amarillo in 1995. What I’ve always liked about John is his willingness to answer direct questions with equally direct answers. Have I always agreed with the Republican’s legislative point of view? No, but his candor always has meant much to me whenever I sought it from him.

Purcell’s chances of defeating Smithee are, um, zeee-ro!

Again, I cannot vote in that one either.


As for the statewide races on the ballot, I’ll be dialed in on one for sure: the U.S. Senate contest between Republican Sen. Ted Cruz and Democratic challenger U.S. Rep. Beto O’Rourke.

I won’t belabor the point here about the Cruz Missile. I do not want him re-elected. My strong preference is for O’Rourke, if only because I want him to think first of Texans and much less of his own political ambition. Sen. Cruz, to my mind, has demonstrated clearly that he puts his own needs, wishes and desires first. Ted Cruz needs to go.

I’ll chime in later on the race for governor and some of the other statewide races, namely the contest for agriculture commissioner.

I’ll be watching all this unfold from a new perch in the Metroplex. I’ll need to get up to speed in a hurry in the race for the 3rd Congressional District, Texas Senate District 8 and Texas House District 89, all three of which will be represented by freshman lawmakers next January.

Hey, come to think of it, everyone is starting fresh in the halls of power in Austin and on Capitol Hill.

Just like me!

A new trio forms a ‘Three Amigos’ team

I was fond years ago of referring to three Republican Texas state representatives as the “Three Amigos.”

They were Reps. John Smithee of Amarillo, David Swinford of Dumas and Warren Chisum of Pampa. Two of them — Swinford and Chisum — have retired from the Texas Legislature; only Smithee remains in public life. Indeed, Smithee is one of the longest-tenured members of the Texas House of Representatives, having served there since 1985; that’s 33 years.

Well, here’s the thing: Smithee has two new members of a trio of legislators with whom he has teamed up.

Sen. Kel Seliger and Rep. Four Price, both Amarillo Republicans, have joined their pal Smithee in creating a formidable team of “amigos” to represent the Panhandle’s interests.

I suppose I could include state Rep. Ken King, a Canadian Republican — but that would create a sort of “Fearsome Foursome” for the Panhandle. I cannot speak with any authority on the job he’s doing; King was elected after I left the working world.

So, for the purposes of this blog, I’ll stick with the newly constituted Three Amigos, all of whom I know quite well.

They’re all dedicated to their public service.

Smithee has been setting his legal practice aside for more than three decades during legislative sessions. He serves as chair of the House Insurance Committee and my experience with him has been always on the up-and-up. What I always appreciated about Smithee is his willingness to provide direct answers to direct questions. There’s no flim-flam or obtuseness where Smithee is concerned.

Price has emerged as star in the House and is now being discussed openly as a possible candidate for speaker of that body when the 2019 Legislature convenes. He has championed mental health reform and has learned quickly the unique language of legislators.

Seliger, too, emerged as a quick study in legislative-speak after he took office in 2004, succeeding the late Republican Teel Bivins, who had received an ambassadorial appointment from President George W. Bush.

And just this past week, Seliger and Price sent out mailers that were paid for by the Associated Republicans of Texas Campaign Fund. Both men’s flyers say they are “getting conservative results for Texans.” They both said, “John … we know it isn’t easy to stand up to special interest groups. Tell (them) to stand strong and keep up the good work.”

Tag-team campaigning? Sure looks like it to me.

All three men have been endorsed by Amarillo Matters, a local political action group with a mission to help shape the community’s agenda for the future.

The Three Amigos have opponents this year. Seliger and Price are facing primary challengers; Smithee has a Democratic foe awaiting him this fall.

The Three Amigos aren’t the same trio that I once knew. They are just as effective, though, in fighting for the region they represent.

Slow ’em down along Russell Long Blvd.

West Texas A&M University officials believe traffic moves too rapidly along Russell Long Boulevard, which borders the northern edge of the WT campus in Canyon.

It’s now working with the Texas Department of Transportation, which has jurisdiction over the thoroughfare. Canyon City Hall has joined the effort, too.

WT is building a football stadium on its campus. Russell Long Boulevard — named after the former WT president — is getting a lot greater volume of student pedestrian traffic.

According to KFDA NewsChannel 10: “We’re having more and more students cross Russell Long. Russell Long is a state highway. It is controlled by the state of Texas, so the speeds on it are not really friendly to pedestrians and so there’s some concern there,” said Vice President of Business and Finance Randy Kirkel. “So we’ve just been in initial discussion with the City of Canyon. What can we do to make this a possibility and a long-term plan to make Russell Long more of a campus/city street.”

I have a thought that WT and the city ought to consider if it wants TxDOT to surrender authority of the street traffic to local officials: Place a phone call to state Rep. John Smithee, the Amarillo Republican who is one of the Texas House’s senior members. Smithee, who’s served in the House since 1985, surely has some stroke with TxDOT.

WT happens to be Smithee’s major institutional constituent. My strong hunch, based on what I know of Smithee, is that he’d be willing to carry the torch on WT’s behalf to the halls of the Texas highway department.

I happen to agree with the assessment that Russell Long Boulevard speed limits need to be reduced to accommodate the greater pedestrian traffic at WT.

Smithee’s office is in downtown Amarillo. Call him.

Legislators remain neutral in presidential race


The Four Horsemen of the Texas Panhandle legislative delegation are keeping their political powder dry.

According to the Texas Tribune, none of the four has endorsed any of the seven remaining candidates for president of the United States.

Silly me. I said “seven,” even though only the five Republicans still standing are what matters, given this region’s heavy GOP bent.

State Sen. Kel Seliger of Amarillo is neutral, as are state Reps. Four Price and John Smithee of Amarillo, and state Rep. Ken King of Canadian.

It’s an interesting twist to see so many legislators lining up for candidates in both party primaries.

I’ve been of two minds on whether elected officials should make endorsements in party primaries. If they remain neutral, then they can say they “support” the winner without having to demonstrate it. There won’t be any hell to pay if they back the “wrong” candidate. Their vote, of course, remains a secret and if they don’t want to disclose who gets their vote, they aren’t obligated to tattle on themselves.

Then again, why not lead? Why not show us your allegiance to give us a clue as to how you believe the country should be run, in what direction it should travel?

I, of course, fully endorse the secret balloting that’s one of the hallmarks of our representative democracy.

If they don’t want to tell us who they support, that’s their business.

Not ours.


Huey to ‘land’ at Panhandle War Memorial


Ernie Houdashell is the master of the deal.

The Randall County judge was chief of staff to state Rep. John Smithee and before that worked for U.S. Rep. Beau Boulter. His job description in both of his prior lives was to make things happen for the seasoned politicians.

He also is a proud veteran of the Vietnam War.

Houdashell has just scored another coup to honor those who served as he did during two tours in ‘Nam. A Vietnam War-vintage Huey helicopter has been towed from Arizona to the Texas Panhandle.

Eventually, the old bird is going to get gussied up, painted, detailed out and put on display at the Texas Panhandle War Memorial. Houdashell has worked for years to bring a Huey here, to show it off and to have it serve as part of an eternal display to honor those who served in Vietnam.

I’m proud of Houdashell for showing the persistence needed to bring another display to the War Memorial, which is slated to grow into a truly spectacular exhibit for visitors and those who live here.

Fundraising has begun on a 12,500-square foot education center that will be built at the War Memorial, next to the Randall County Annex at the corner of South Georgia Street and Interstate 27. The center will serve as an interactive exhibit to educate visitors on all the nation’s conflicts.

The memorial already contains stone tablets describing the conflicts dating back to the Spanish-American War; the tablets also contain the names of those Panhandle residents who died in service during those conflicts.

Houdashell developed his interest in aviation the hard way. He served in the Army and on his second tour in Vietnam served on a flight crew aboard a Huey. He remains a licensed pilot. Indeed, a few years ago, he negotiated for the delivery of an F-100 Super Sabre fighter jet that had seen service during the Vietnam War; the F-100 is not on display at a corner of the War Memorial property.

The county judge isn’t certain when the Huey will be ready for display. It was simply enough for him to negotiate for its delivery to the Panhandle.

As a fellow Vietnam veteran, I will await eagerly the day when the Huey is delivered to the Panhandle War Memorial, where it can enhance what has become a wonderful tribute to those who have defended our nation.

Thank you, judge, for your hard work.

Turner bids teary farewell to Legislature

rep. turner

This is something you don’t see every day: politicians from both sides of the political paying heartfelt tribute to one of their own as he prepares to depart their ranks.

So it was when state Rep. Sylvester Turner bid farewell to the Texas House of Representatives. He’s leaving the House, where he served for 26 years, to run for mayor of Houston.


Is this a huge thing? Not really. It’s simply worth noting in light of the occasional acrimony that flares up in Austin and more often, it seems, in Washington, D.C.

Turner is a Democrat, but the praise he got from Republican colleagues seemed heartfelt and sincere.

They praised Turner’s rhetorical skills. This came from Rep. John Smithee, R-Amarillo: “He could turn the House with logic and good argument.”

I once heard the late Republican state Sen. Teel Bivins of Amarillo say the same thing about a one-time foe, former Sen. Carl Parker, D-Port Arthur, who used to deride his GOP colleagues as “silk-stocking Republicans.” He included Bivins among that category of Republican. Bivins didn’t take it personally and they men remained friends despite their political differences.

That’s the way it ought to be.

As Turner told his colleagues to their faces, with tears welling up in his eyes: “I love each and every one of you. Whether we have voted together or not is not important to me. Whether you are a D or an R is not important to me. The reality is we are Texans, but proud Texans.”

Well said.


Texas to keep Daylight Savings Time

We’ll all need to catch up on our sleep over the winter after all.

Texas legislators have defeated a bill to toss out Daylight Savings Time in Texas. The House of Representatives rejected a bill by Rep. Dan Flynn to revert solely to standard time in Texas, joining Arizona in staying away from having to spring forward and fall back every year.


I’m one who never quite has understood the problems people have with the time change. It’s been around off and on for many decades. It was brought back in force in the 1970s as a way to conserve energy. Longer daylight hours in the summer months meant using less electricity. What’s so terrible about that?

It’s interesting to me that Amarillo’s House delegation split their votes on this deal. John Smithee, who represents Randall County, voted “yes” on Flynn’s bill; Four Price, who represents Potter County, voted “no.” I don’t know why that’s important. I just thought I’d mention it to illustrate that occasionally the two Republican lawmakers do not vote in tandem.

I’ve gotten used to the time change since I was in my 20s. It’s no big deal to me.

Then again, I’m not a farmer or a rancher.

As Flynn told his House colleagues: “The only one who knows if it is sun up or sun down is the rooster.”

Whatever. It makes no difference to me.

Legislators earn a pat on the back

Forgive me, all you cynics, but I’m about to say something good about the Texas Legislature.

The Texas Ethics Commission has approved a $40 daily boost in the per diem allowance paid to lawmakers, increasing that amount to $190 daily while the Legislature is in session.

Why the good word for legislators? The commission had considered boosting the per diem expense allotment to $210 daily, but cut it back 20 bucks a day — on the recommendation of legislative leaders, according to the Texas Tribune.


You know, we all tend to get all hot and bothered when politicians boost their pay. The state, of course, takes that task away from legislators directly, handing it to the Ethics Commission. That’s only right, given that asking legislators to give themselves a raise would smack of, well, feather-bedding.

It’s not that our legislators do their job for the money. They get paid $7,200 annually, plus the per diem expense allotment when they’re meeting in regular or special sessions. This means they need to have some money socked away somewhere, or else be independently wealthy.

Amarillo’s two state representatives, Republicans Four Price and John Smithee, are lawyers when they aren’t legislators. Our state senator, Republican Kel Seliger, formerly owned a lucrative steel company; but he sold it a few years ago, presumably for some serious dough. I’m betting all three of these men are financially able to devote time to legislating.

I’m glad to see legislators able to give up a few bucks. It won’t put the state over the top, but the decision does send an important symbolic message that might even assuage some of the cynicism out there about money-grubbing politicians.


Random selection for grand juries?


Grand juries have been in the news of late.

A Travis County grand jury indicted Texas Gov. Rick Perry on charges of abuse of power and coercion; another grand jury declined to indict a Ferguson, Mo., police officer in the shooting death of a young black man; and still another grand jury no-billed a Staten Island, N.Y., cop in the choking death of a black man.

All those decisions provoked controversy.

I bring this up as an introduction to a chance encounter I had Tuesday with a state district judge whom I’ve known for nearly 20 years. Judge John Board and I were visiting for a time and our discussion turned to grand jury selection in Texas. Board mentioned he’s been using a random selection method for some time, rather than relying on a jury commissioner system that remains the selection-method of choice for most trial judges in Texas.

We talked about an editorial campaign of which I was part in Beaumont many years ago. We argued vehemently at the Beaumont Enterprise for a change in the way grand jurors are selected in the two criminal courts in Jefferson County. We didn’t like the commissioner system, as it relied on jury commissioners’ discretion in picking grand jurors. Jury commissioners — who are appointed by judges — could pick friends, or friends of friends to serve on the grand jury; they could pick judges’ friends.

The theory is that the jury commissioner system enables courts to pick the “best and the brightest” of a community to decide whether criminal complaints warrant prosecution. But the system is exposed to the possibility of manipulation. It could be used to settle scores. A jury commissioner with a bone to pick with someone — for whatever reason — could find grand jurors who would side with him in getting revenge.

I’m not saying such a thing happens frequently, nor do I even have first-hand knowledge of it ever happening. But it could.

I am a strong believer in the random selection method. I was heartened to hear my friend, Judge Board, say that he uses the random system in his court, which has jurisdiction in Potter and Randall counties.

Our newspaper in Beaumont finally won out, by the way. The two courts in question in Jefferson County eventually switched to a random selection method — with grand jurors selected off the voter registration rolls — and to my knowledge it’s been working fine ever since.

So, why not require it across the state?

Amarillo is represented in the Legislature by two fine lawyers — Republicans John Smithee and Four Price. Might there be an opportunity for one or both of them to pitch legislation calling for mandatory random selection of grand juries?

If a trial jury chosen at random can be charged with sentencing someone to death, surely the state can put its trust in a random selection method to pick a grand jury to decide whether to prosecute someone for a crime.



Panhandle might fall victim to intra-party squabble

Having taken note of the political demise of a soundly conservative lawmaker from East Texas to an even more conservative challenger, the thought occurred to me: Is the Texas Panhandle susceptible to this kind of intra-party insurrection?

State Sen. Bob Deuell is about to leave office after being defeated in the GOP primary by newcomer Bob Hall. As the Dallas Morning News columnist noted, the “farthest right” defeated the “far right.”

So, what does this mean for the Panhandle?

I’ll admit that the GOP primary contest for the Texas Senate seat held by Kel Seliger, R-Amarillo, frightened the bejabbers out of me. Seliger almost got beat in the March primary by former Midland mayor Mike Canon, a nice guy who’s also a TEA party mouthpiece. Canon suggested during the campaign that Seliger, a mainstream Republican former Amarillo mayor, was somehow in cahoots with them crazy liberals in Austin.

The Panhandle, indeed all of West Texas, dodged a bullet by re-nominating Seliger in the primary and allowing him to coast to re-election in an uncontested race in November.

What does the future hold? What might occur if, say, state Rep. John Smithee, R-Amarillo, packs it in? Smithee has served in the Legislature since 1985 and has developed a reputation as one of the smartest, most legislatively savvy members of the Texas House.

Who’s lying in wait out there for a key retirement? Who’s waiting in the tall grass waiting to seize the moment to launch a sound-bite campaign the way Hall did against Deuell?

It happened in a Texas Senate district down yonder. It can happen here.