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John Whitmire was riding high back on April 12 when he took to the floor of the Texas Senate for a rare "personal privilege" speech. The legislative battle over auto emissions testing, in which Whitmire had been in the forefront, was at a critical juncture. The veteran senator already had gotten considerable mileage out of his highly publicized efforts to kill or revise the mandatory tailpipe examinations. Watching him strut and pace that day on a small patch of the Senate floor, more than one person was moved to wonder what higher office "Boogie" -- the nickname Whitmire had acquired years before as a partying young lawmaker -- had his sights on.
Attorney general, or, maybe, lieutenant governor? Or perhaps Whitmire desired to follow in the footsteps of his former sister-in-law, Kathy Whitmire, and become mayor of his hometown.
Whatever his intentions, his speech that day was vintage Boogie. Waving his arms and jabbing his index finger, his voice hoarse with emotion, Whitmire let his enemies in the auto emissions fight -- real and imagined -- have it.
What triggered Whitmire's outburst was the efforts of Tejas Testing, the politically connected company that had won the lucrative contract to perform the tests, to salvage the emissions program. Whitmire had succeeded in temporarily delaying implementation of the program, just as Tejas' franchised testing sites were opening for business in the Houston, Dallas and Beaumont areas. But Tejas was now mounting an all-out lobbying effort against a permanent dismantling of the program, and Whitmire was accusing the company of doing so with the $8.8 million "bridge loan" it had received from the state to get it through while the program was in limbo.
Boogie, it seems, was taking it all personally.
Referring to Texas heroes who fought and died for the Republic, Whitmire portrayed himself as the protector of Texans against the intrusions of the federal government, specifically the Environmental Protection Agency, which was once again butting into the state's affairs by trying to make Tejas' emissions testing program a required part of the state's compliance with the Clean Air Act.
"It is unbelievable to me that the federal government, who has tried to run our schools, our prisons, our air, is now trying to get involved in controlling our legislative process," shouted Whitmire, who's never been adept at subject-pronoun agreement.
That was a mildly ironic comment, coming as it did from a politician whose continued election to office heavily depends on his support from African-Americans who might still be denied the right to vote or to an equal education by the state of Texas if the federal government had not intervened. But Whitmire, following the lead of conservative talk-show host Jon Matthews, had latched on to the emissions testing issue with a fervor reminiscent of red-baiting Cold Warriors or anti-abortion zealots. Emotion seemed to be carrying him along as he railed, "The principles that individuals die for is too important for us to stand by and take it."
More ironic still was the accusation by Whitmire, a past master in cultivating special interests and spreading dirt on his opponents, that the EPA was "in bed with Tejas Testing from the get-go" and was now working in tandem with the company to do a "mud smear" on him.
"They have hired investigators on me," Whitmire claimed, suggesting that Tejas operatives were spreading rumors that he and his wife were separated and that he had engaged in weekend trysts in Galveston with someone who wasn't his wife.
"I can't describe in printable language that would address what they're doing," he added. "You know what they're doing with the $8.8 million -- they hired my political consultant this week." And with that, Whitmire ticked off a lengthy roll of lobbyists and politicians who had turned on him and the interests of the state.
"This is crap! That's all I can call it," he declaimed. "You ought to be outraged."
Whitmire was putting all his frenetic trademark behavior on display, from the windmilling arms to the rather shaky grasp of the truth. As it turned out his political consultant, Dan McClung, had not been hired by Tejas, or the EPA, for that matter. One consistent strand running throughout Whitmire's two decades as a legislator is his pronounced inability to tolerate either criticism or effective opposition, and under the pressure of the auto emissions battle, he was reverting to some old, unpleasant habits.
"I think he started out having a good session, and then the emissions thing sort of got out of his control," says a lobbyist who knows Whitmire well. "I think he jumped on it without thinking much about it, and the next thing he knew, he was having to battle the EPA and industry.
"I think it got away from him, and then he resorted back to the old John Whitmire of just lashing out at whoever was standing by."
The "old John Whitmire" -- the hotheaded, self-serving legislative lightweight -- was a persona that Whitmire had been working diligently to shed over the past few years. In the era of Lieutenant Governor Bill Hobby, jokes one lobbyist, Whitmire had been so inconsequential that he "couldn't get a clean seat in the bathroom." But under the patronage of Hobby's successor, Bob Bullock, who had appointed him chairman of the Senate's Criminal Justice Committee (and contributed $15,000 to the senator's campaign fund recently), Whitmire won accolades for leading the overhaul of the state's penal code during the 1993 legislative session. He was even named one of Texas Monthly's "ten best" legislators that year. And by jumping out in front on the emissions testing issue late last year, Whitmire had inflated himself into a populist hero of sorts with the potential of attracting a whole new conservative following out there in talk-radio land.