When I first started covering local politics almost a decade ago, I had this thought that they were inherently less partisan than much of the national conversation.
While national political figures argued about the major culture clashes of the day, the work of local leaders was decidedly less sexy, my thinking went. Whereas a U.S. Senator might become famous largely through criticizing the opposition party, those in municipal government had to make decisions about issues that provided no easy Democratic or Republican answers.
Where should we place this road? How should we address neighborhood flooding concerns? The work of local government is essential, but in a more grassroots manner. A Democrat and a Republican could conceivably agree on how to address some of the biggest issues in a way that seems impossible in Washington D.C. these days.
It might come as a surprise to no one, but the thoughts of a naïve, 22-year old recent college graduate weren’t quite right. I’ve now seen people get elected to local office, not with a firm understanding of the specific issues facing a community, but by banging the drums of culture war, and proudly touting their political affiliations. But while the optimistic musings of a young professional have been proven wrong by cynical reality, perhaps that ideal is still worth considering.
If you weren’t paying close attention to the latest Texas Legislative session, you could have easily missed the passage of Senate Bill 1055.
Also called the Lisa Torry Smith Act, the bill was sponsored by State Sen. Joan Huffman, a Republican, with a companion bill in the Texas House, sponsored by State Rep. Ron Reynolds, a Democrat. It unanimously passed both the House and Senate before Gov. Greg Abbott signed it into law June 18.
It will take effect Sept. 1.
The legislation’s history begins in Fort Bend County, where District Attorney Brian Middleton, a Democrat, worked on the bill that provides new criminal charges for someone who strikes a pedestrian at a crosswalk or intersection. Middleton at an emotional press conference last week said he felt compelled to work on the bill after speaking with Smith’s family, and hearing of their efforts to get justice after Smith was struck and killed by a motorist while walking across the street with her son in 2017.
Absolutely striking to me was just how cordial everyone was while discussing the success. Huffman praised both Reynolds and Middleton. Middleton praised his colleagues. Everyone seemed genuinely proud of their success. And several made a point of emphasizing just how unusual the victory was, given that Texas has not been immune to the partisan warfare that has infected Washington. The Lone Star State, in many ways, is reflective of the nation at large.
No doubt, Senate Bill 1055 will get less media attention than some of the other issues that came before the Texas Legislature this year. Perhaps there’s even some sense in that – fewer people know what it’s like to lose a loved one in a crosswalk than what it feels like to freeze and shiver for days after the state’s electric grid fails.
But this bill mattered deeply to the family of Smith, who died while taking her son to school. And, if Middleton is to be believed, perhaps it will make a difference in the lives of some future Lisa Torry Smith. If the legislation even forces people to stop, and be more cautious at an intersection, that alone will be a victory.
More notable still is that a bevy of legislators, perhaps moved by the story, momentarily put aside their political differences and worked together to pass a bill that can make a small, but noticeable difference in the lives of their constituents.
Robert Caro, in his biographies of Lyndon B. Johnson, writes of a time when someone pressed the president to not speak about civil rights in his first speech, arguing the president shouldn’t waste power on a lost cause. “Well, what the hell’s the presidency for?” Johnson replied.
And that’s exactly it. While the current tenor in this country would suggest politics are an inherent ill, they possess the possibility to bring positive change to people’s lives.
Stories like these don’t happen often anymore in government. But they are also the essence of the positive impact local and state government can have, at their most ideal. It’s the sort of victory well worth savoring.