August 16, 2022      4:42 PM
HK: Living Texas politics with Paul Burka
Some personal recollections from the political war zone
I stumbled into writing
about Texas politics and government quite by accident in 1989.
Texas was in the midst of its greatest economic downturn since the
great depression. The price of oil plummeted to $8/barrel, Savings and Loans
were falling like flies and the term “banner banks’ was commonplace as
regulators closed one bank after another and turned them over to new
owner/managers who put up a banner with the “new” bank’s name.
A common bumper sticker
was, “Will the last one out please turn off the lights.”
Meanwhile, in an epic
battle between business and then dominant plaintiffs’ attorneys, the
Legislature went through eight special sessions to pass workers comp reform. State
reps like Mike Toomey (then known as Mike the knife), Chris Harris
and Ric Williamson were called as the Pit Bulls and spear-headed budget
cutting as state revenues disappeared.
Things were so bad that in
my other business, the state would take 90+ days to pay for flags as well as
In other words, it was the
perfect time to walk on to the floor of the Texas House for the
first time as a total novice to the world of Texas politics.
I like to say I lost my
political virginity within a half hour of being on the House floor.
Which is, of course, where
I met Paul Burka, Sam Kinch, Sam Attlesey, Wayne Slater and Dave McNeeley, all extraordinarily
generous with their time to a newbie. At that point I realized how severely
over my head I was.
By my second session, I
was beginning to hit a few doubles and triples with stories.
But I doubt if I would
have made it to that second session without Burka. All of
the other reporters had daily or at best, weekly deadlines.
With a monthly
publication, Paul had the luxury of time to sit with a rookie, reflect, tell
stories about decades long rivalries and feuds among members and lobby. And
simply sitting outside the rail with Burka was taken as a vote of confidence by
all the players who had no clue what a Harvey Kronberg was. But if Burka
was taking him under his wing, he must be OK.
In addition to having time
to schmooze, he already had two decades’ more institutional knowledge than me
and frankly, more than any journalist in the building.
In the last 24 hours, I
have heard more Burka stories than I can count, and they were always told with
a smile and frequently a belly laugh.
integrity was impeccable. His most notorious exercise, was of course, “Ten
Best, Ten Worst Legislators.” Campaigning to
win an election paled next to members campaigning for winning a spot on Ten Best. On the flip side, members earning Ten Worst
learned to go home to explain their new title was simply because of that
“liberal Texas Monthly”
But Paul had the unique
position of watching two decades of Democratic control and nearly two decades
or Republican control. He brought the same standards to bear in both scenarios.
The worst was to be called
“Furniture” by Burka. There was no ‘splainin’ that
And it had a therapeutic
effect. Some members took his most severe criticism to heart and actually became serious legislators. And for those who
thought him biased, they usually forget that members could move from Ten Best
to Ten Worst and vice-versa in two consecutive sessions.
Even the press corps
waited with bated breath for his bi-annual wrap up. We who thought ourselves
deeply embedded in the process always found surprise narratives in Burka’s
discoveries of arcane maneuvers by members that moved the needle – whether for
good or bad.
But, of course, Burka had
Ross Ramsey and I shared countless stages with Burka for trade
associations, lobby events and the like. Burka would always make it at the last
minute or, more commonly, ten minutes late. Ross and I were always prepared to
cover for him and may have even expressed what we knew to be his opinion on a
matter in his absence—all with proper attribution, of course.
“Paul would say…..”, we told these audiences.
We both knew that if Burka
was on deadline, it was anyone’s guess if he would actually
make it to the event. More than once, I was walking on stage to do a
duet with him and Paul would call to tell me he
couldn’t make it…minutes before we were supposed to make the audience laugh at
how dysfunctional Texas politics was.
Whether it was Ross and me
together or just one of us scheduled to be on stage with Burka, we were always
prepared to carry the whole show.
Another favorite was when
he was one of the questioners in a gubernatorial debate. Burka asked Rick
Perry why the State had so badly flubbed some Medicaid
process. Perry may have “dissembled” in his response (Burka knew HHS issues
better than most). Perry’s confident but brazenly inaccurate response left
Burka totally flummoxed.
He said, “Well, I will
have to check.” But everyone watching knew whose version of the issue was
Burka and former Speaker Tom
Craddick both arrived on the scene in the 1970s and knew each other well. To
say that Craddick’s speakership was controversial would be an understatement. Craddick
was ultimately the target of his own committee chairmen trying to remove him
from the Chair in 2007. They failed but Craddick was ultimately deposed by Joe
Straus in 2009.
In his Ten Best-Ten Worst
that year, Burka chronicled some of the many things Speaker Craddick
accomplished for his district in the Appropriations bills during
He questioned how many
parochial dollars Straus sought for his district in the Approps
bill and reported --- “Zero.”
He may have coined it
beforehand, but one of my favorite Burka-isms surfaced during Tony Sanchez’s
expensive but failed campaign to take down Perry in 2002. Burka famously said,
“I have a term for candidates counting on new voters showing up at the polls. They
are called losers.”
Both Obama and Trump
proved to be the exceptions to that rule and Beto O’Rourke certainly
hopes the rule doesn’t apply to him.
Burka was no fan of the
legendarily mercurial Bob Bullock. Often heroic but completely flawed as
a human being, Bullock was…unique.
Paul went to interview
then-Lt. Governor Bullock back in the days when journalists actually
used reporter pads. Halfway through the interview, Burka completely
irritated Bullock with a question the Lite Guv did
not want to answer. Bullock simply got up, grabbed Burka’s pad and, as I recall
the story, walked out of the room.
Burka never forgave him.
He was always outraged
when Democrats or Republicans would not allow reporters into “private” caucuses
in the Speaker’s Committee Room adjacent to the House Floor. “That
room belongs to the people,” Paul would rant.
The lobby knew and trusted
Burka and he reciprocated. But while he respected confidences and counted them
as friends, he never shied away from reporting bad behavior – at least, visible
For those of us who try to
report from inside the game, that may be one of the toughest lines to walk.
To call Paul my mentor was
One of the highest honors
I ever received was when Paul started calling me asking what he was missing
about a battle or what the back story was in some issue or campaign we were
There will never be
another Paul Burka. Shelf life in politics is short but Paul did move the
needle and helped shape modern Texas in countless ways for decades. Political
folks always knew Paul was watching.
There is no greater
I was proud to call him a
friend and even prouder that he called me a friend.
RIP Paul Burka.
By Harvey Kronberg