In the House: Geren keeps chamber on track

Dave Montgomery Austin Correspondent

AUSTIN – As a rare and welcome downpour falls outside, the House of Representatives is just beginning to come to life on an early afternoon midway through a special legislative session. House members are knotted in small huddles on the House floor, speculating on the outcome of a transportation bill that will face a too-close-to call vote later in the day. Rep. Charlie Geren of Fort Worth is in the back hallway, alongside a framed historic flag emblazoned with the bravado declaration, “Live or Die.” Momentarily disrupting an interview, Geren alerts a passing colleague: “Hey, there was an open records request filed on you today.” Later, he will stand at the front of the House chamber to remind members of an imminent deadline for filing campaign finance reports.

Watching out for fellow members is a fundamental job description in Geren’s powerful role as House Administration Committee Chairman, and by all accounts from members in both parties, it’s one that the Fort Worth Republican carries out with round-the-clock dedication. In ranking Geren as one of the 10 best legislators of 2013, Texas Monthly recently described him as “the glue that holds the House together.” House Speaker Joe Straus puts it another way: “He’s smart, passionate, loyal and has an ability to see around the corners ahead.” And, the House leader notes, “He knows how to roar when he needs to.” Geren, who represents northwest Tarrant County and has been in the Legislature for nearly 13 years, has been one of Straus’ top lieutenants since the San Antonio Republican ascended to the speakership in 2009. Geren was a central figure in that ascension as one of 11 Republicans who joined Democrats to oust former Speaker Tom Craddick and pave the way for Straus’ election. Now, as the 83rd Legislature nears the end of its second 30-day special session following a 140-day regular session that began in January and ended in May, Geren says his fundamental mission remains the same as when Straus first came to power: “to cover the speaker’s back” and “put out fires,” always a tall order in a chamber composed of 150 strong-willed personalities with sharply varying philosophical views. “Some days it’s very tedious. Some days it’s a lot of fun,” says Geren, who considered but ruled out a run for agriculture commissioner next year and now plans to seek at least one more two-year term in the House. “You touch a lot of people’s lives and you need to be very thoughtful in what you do.”

At 63, with grayish-white hair, Geren cuts an imposing figure in the House, commanding attention with a deep voice that can alternately impale colleagues with undiplomatic bluntness or ignite laughter with what Straus calls a “wicked sense of humor.” He can be a tough customer. The Texas Monthly 10-best profile featured words such as “direct” and “candid,” and phrases such as “he praises, he berates, he inspires.” Yet Geren displays a warm, compassionate side, evident on those occasions when he goes to the front of the chamber to report on an ailing member or a death, sickness or hardship in a colleague’s family. He dissolved into tears as House members encircled him when they adopted a resolution honoring his father, prominent Fort Worth architect Preston Murdoch Geren Jr., who died June 12. Last week, Geren was hurrying to California to be with his daughter for the birth of his second grandson – Matthew John Leonard – born just one day after the world celebrated the arrival of a future king in England. Geren had vowed days in advance that nothing happening in the state capitol would prevent him from being on hand for his grandson’s birth.

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“I think he does get sentimental,” says his girlfriend, Mindy Ellmer, an Austin lobbyist who has shared a relationship with the twice-divorced Geren for more than eight years. “He has a soft side, and it’s about the people he cares about.” Like other citizen-legislators in a body that conducts regular sessions once every two years, Geren also has a life outside of Austin – and Geren’s world back home in Tarrant County is rich with business and civic commitments.

He is the hands-on president of the Railhead Smokehouse, a popular barbecue restaurant on Montgomery Street. He works cattle on the family’s 4,400-acre LGS Godley Ranch 30 miles south of Fort Worth. He serves as a trustee at Texas Christian University, where his family has a long record of philanthropy, and has been a driving force at the Fort Worth Stock Show and Rodeo for more than three decades. He hasn’t missed a grand entry in the rodeo in more than 30 years of participation. “Everything he does, he does 110 percent,” says his younger brother, Pete Geren, 61, a former Fort Worth congressman and Army Secretary who is now president and CEO of the Sid W. Richardson Foundation in Fort Worth. “When Charlie volunteers for something, his name doesn’t just go on the letterhead,” he says. One of the lawmaker’s close friends is businessman and civic leader Ed Bass, who ticks off a long list of shared experiences, including “hundreds of Grand Entries,” real estate deals, foundations, non-profits and civic organizations, water issues, ranch work, legislative issues, hunting and fishing trips and “just hanging out and having fun in general. “I’ve done so many different things with Charlie Geren over the past 25 years that I don’t think I can count them on all my fingers and toes,” Bass said in an email. “If I were to sum up Charlie’s approach to life, I’d say: Gets things done and has fun!” On July 22, far from the reach of the House dress code, the older Geren was clad in jeans, moccasins and a blue-green shirt with a Railhead logo as he sat in a near-empty dining room at his restaurant.

It was shortly after 9 a.m. – nearly two hours before the daily onslaught of lunchtime customers would begin – but Geren had already performed his Monday morning ritual of inspecting the kitchen, tending to paperwork, and performing other duties that typically bring him to the restaurant at 7 a.m. when the Legislature isn’t in session. Before all of that, he took his morning walk. “It does pretty good,” Geren says of the business amid the thwacking of brisket-slicing from the kitchen. “I’m proud to be a part of it.” The secret of success? “Just be consistent with what you put out. People are either going to like it or not.”

Geren and a now-deceased partner, barbecue pitmaster Harry Pilcher, started the venture nearly three decades ago when they purchased a shuttered beer barn called “Brew Cruise” on Vickery Street and converted it to a barbecue stand. Since moving to the Montgomery Street location, the Railhead has become a popular dining destination in West Fort Worth, serving up hundreds of pounds of hickory smoked ribs and briskets to hungry crowds from 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. every day except Sunday. Restaurant awards festoon the walls along with sports and rodeo pictures. “Life’s too short to live in Dallas” is emblazoned on the wall, on cups and on the backs of wait-staff T-shirts. Geren, described by his brother as a “great grill cook,” says he learned the art of barbecuing from Pilcher but no longer cooks. Nevertheless, manager Gilbert Gamez says the boss takes a personal role in making sure the cuisine measures up each day. “He knows all the recipes,” says Gamez, who has known Geren for years. “He can walk back there and tell if we overcooked the brisket, (if) the ribs aren’t right. He’ll tell you what the facts are.” Charlie and Pete Geren have deep roots in Fort Worth on both sides of the family. Their father, Preston Murdoch Geren Jr., was a decorated World War II hero who went on to become a Fort Worth civic leader, philanthropist and architect whose designs are evident in buildings on the Texas A&M campus and public schools across Texas. After Preston Geren died on June 12 at the age of 89, Fort Worth Mayor Betsy Price eulogized him as a man who “left both tangible and intangible footprints on his beloved Fort Worth and well beyond.” His two sons describe him as a dominant influence in their lives and the inspiration for their involvement in public service. “He had a strong sense of duty and civic commitment,” said Pete Geren. Charlie remembers his father “as just a super guy” and a devoted family man. “Dad taught us never to be embarrassed about saying, ‘I love you’,” the lawmaker said after his father’s death. Their grandfather on their mother’s side was Charles Lupton, who, along with T.J. “Tom” Brown, owned the Fort Worth Coca Cola Bottling franchise. In 1944, the two partners formed the T. J. Brown and C.A. Lupton Foundation that has donated millions of dollars to TCU, a pattern of philanthropy reflected in the Brown-Lupton University Union and the Charlie and Marie Lupton Baseball Stadium. Charlie Geren has continued the family’s direct involvement on the Fort Worth campus as a member of the TCU board of trustees and president of the Brown-Lupton Foundation.

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A conference room at the student union is named in Geren’s honor, and TCU Chancellor Victor J. Boschini believes he sees the lawmaker’s likeness in a portrait of Lupton that hangs in the student union. “He is an outstanding trustee,” Boschini says of Geren. “He is one of those kind of people who is always keeping an eye out for a new opportunity for TCU. And a lot of times, he’ll call me with an idea he has. He went to SMU but he’s 100 percent TCU now.” Geren is also a familiar presence at another Fort Worth institution – the 117-year-old Fort Worth Stock Show and Rodeo that annually brings more than 1 million visitors to the Will Rogers Memorial Center in the Cultural District. Geren, who is vice president of the stock show and rodeo, calls the event an “economic engine that drives the west side of Fort Worth.” Geren has been on the stock show board since 1976 and serves as co-chairman of the calf scramble committee and junior steer superintendent. “I’ve known Charlie for many years,” says Bob Watt, the stock show’s 79-year-old president emeritus. “He’s a very active, good-hearted person.”

The Geren brothers grew up with their mother in the River Crest neighborhood after their parents divorced, but they remained close to their father. Charlie Geren attended the Baylor military school in Chattanooga, Tenn., for two years before enrolling at SMU, graduating with a major in real estate and finance. Geren’s first marriage – to Sue Sealy, whom he met at SMU – ended in divorce. A second marriage to Toni Ray, the younger sister of Pete Geren’s wife, Becky, also ended in divorce. “We were brothers-in-law and brothers,” says Pete Geren. Geren and Ellmer began dating more than eight years ago and describe each other as girlfriend and boyfriend. “Hi, darling,” Geren answered when Ellmer called him on his cell phone at the Railhead last week. Ellmer, a former legislative staffer who has been a lobbyist for more than two decades, says Charlie Geren’s private persona is little different from the persona lawmakers see on the House floor.

“He is what you see,” she says. “He doesn’t mince a lot of words. He’s very direct and the members know where they stand. There’s never any question about anything. I just think that direct approach lends itself well to the position he’s in.” Asked if Geren has a gentle side, Ellmer replied: “Of course he does. And I think the members see that. Anything that has to do with family. They get into debates and they do disagree on issues but there is genuine compassion for each other on that floor.” Over the years, Geren has worn an assortment of different hats – both figuratively and literally. After graduating from SMU, Geren worked for Coca Cola, first as a truck driver and later as a manger. He then moved into real estate, farming and ranching, and he still spends as much time as possible on the family ranch, which his grandfather, Charlie Lupton, purchased in 1931. Perhaps his most adventurous career move was his nine-year stint as a part-time deputy U.S. marshal from 1981 to 1990. Working under U.S. Marshal Clint Peoples, who was a fabled Texas Ranger, Geren once scaled a junkyard fence after a high-speed car chase in pursuit of a fugitive. He also provided security for judges, transferred prisoners, and arrested people trying to bring guns into the federal courthouse.

Sharing his father’s commitment to regional water planning, Geren served on the Tarrant Regional Water District Board from 1990 to 1994, a position that led to an appointment on the Texas Water Development Board from 1994 to 2000. When then-Rep. Sue Palmer (R-Fort Worth), decided against another term in 2000, Geren made a successful bid for the seat, escaping a primary challenge and winning the general election with 63 percent of the vote. He faced his toughest re-election battle in 2006 when San Antonio billionaire James Leininger targeted Geren and four other GOP incumbents for defeat for their opposition to school vouchers in the previous 2005 session, donating hundreds of thousands of dollars to their Republican primary opponents.

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Geren defeated retired Lt. Col. Chris Hatley, a West Point graduate, with 55 percent of the vote. Hatley, now a 56-year-old author who lives in Magnolia, still harbors bitter memories of the campaign. “They threw everything out there they could because they thought I was a viable contender,” Hatley said of the Geren campaign. “There’s no way you can beat him. He has a lot of power in Austin.” Geren’s last of three contested primaries in the Republican friendly district was in 2010 against Matt Krause of Fort Worth, who rebounded from that loss and went on to join Geren in the Tarrant County delegation this year after winning a seat in another House district in 2012. Krause said he expected a hostile reception from his senior colleague but instead found Geren to be “incredibly kind and unbelievably gracious.” Geren is still viewed suspiciously by conservative detractors, who say that Straus and his leadership team are too moderate and have strayed from conservative principles. Some are still angered by Geren’s participation with Democrats to help elect Straus in 2009. “Most conservatives don’t think Charlie is one,” says Steve Hollern, a longtime Republican activist who chaired the Tarrant County Republican Party during the Reagan era. Geren’s supporters say he works hard to represent District 99, maintaining close ties with the numerous municipalities and school systems scattered through the northwest district. One of his trademarks is a 1949 Jeepster that he painted in TCU purple and outfitted with a speaker system programmed to play district school songs during parades and other events. The economically diverse district encompasses more than a dozen communities, including Azle, Blue Mound, Pelican Bay, Lake Worth, Lakeside, River Oaks, Saginaw, Sansom Park, Westover Hills, Westworth Village, White Settlement and the upper northwest part of Fort Worth.

Pete Geren, who served as a Democratic member of Congress from 1989 to 1997, says his brother has reliable support from the Fort Worth business community but draws much of his political strength from the leadership in the smaller communities. “He’s very connected in those small towns,” says the younger Geren, whose congressional district included some of the same constituencies. The state lawmaker pushed legislation this year that would have enabled Blue Mound, just north of Fort Worth, to take control of a privately owned water system as part of an effort to reduce water rates. The bill passed the Legislature but was vetoed by Gov. Rick Perry, who said it constituted a “disincentive for investment by private utilities.” Geren also ran afoul of another Perry veto that killed his bill requiring politically active nonprofits to disclose their contributors, a measure that would have identified the backers of Texans for Fiscal Responsibility, a conservative organization critical of Straus. “Those are two big disappointments for me,” Geren says of the vetoes, “but hopefully, if the voters want me back, I’ll be back in two years and I’m going to file them again.” As chairman of the House Administration Committee, Geren is charged with keeping the House machinery running smoothly while serving as an indispensable point man to Straus. Both men say they have developed a close friendship during the four years of the Straus speakership. Geren’s office is located on the ground floor of the Capitol, directly below the speaker’s office two floors up. Straus says he and Geren see each other frequently during the day and often get together for breakfast and discuss strategy for the day. “He’s done an amazing job keeping the House together through the good times and also through the rough patches that are inevitable,” says Straus. “He’s a great friend, not just to me, but to a lot of members. No one has put on more miles going out of his way to help friends across the state than he has.”

During recent debate on a volatile abortion bill that brought thousands to the Capitol grounds, Geren presided over plans to enforce order and ward off a potential “blow-up” in the House gallery. He worked closely with the Department of Public Safety and met with leaders on both sides of the issue “to make sure that everyone knew what our expectations were.” Geren’s committee oversees open records requests, members ‘ operating budgets, travel, parking and other operations, giving the chairman immense leverage with individual members. Straus and other members say Geren also has an instinctive ability to read the mood of the House on the ebb and flow of legislation. “On a day-to-day basis, we go to Mr. Geren quite often to get the pulse of what he’s feeling on the floor, members he’s talked with, interest groups he’s hearing from,” says Jesse Ancira, the speaker’s chief of staff. “He’s a good sounding board just to get a feel of what we’re facing. If Mr. Geren tells us he’s feeling a certain way, we take that and go to work and react to it or get ahead of it.” Geren also serves as a fix-it guy for individual members. “When I had a little problem, Charlie came in and injected himself and all of a sudden I didn’t have a problem anymore,” said Rep. Harold Dutton (D-Houston), recalling how Geren met with Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst to get one of his bills dislodged in the Senate. Rep. Lon Burnam, a Fort Worth Democrat and the senior member of the Tarrant County delegation, calls Geren “an insider’s insider” and says his position on the speaker’s team makes him the most powerful member in the delegation, even though Burnam has more seniority. “He is very tight with the speaker,” Burnam says, “and that’s the reason he can be very effective in passing legislation.” Since entering the House at the start of the 21st Century, Geren has advanced to 33rd in seniority and served under three speakers, the first being Democrat Pete Laney. He has seen his share of changes, but has he changed? “I’m a lot more patient,” he says. “Hopefully I’ve learned a lot. I think I have.”