Charlie Geren: Great legislator, great friend

Richard Connor 

Charlie Geren says he hung up on me but the way I remember it, I slammed down the phone first. This was many years ago, when I was running the Fort Worth Star-Telegram and he was operating his businesses in town, including the Railhead barbecue restaurant. He was not a politician at that point. We were having a stupid argument about the quality of a cowboy hat – or lack of quality, Geren would say. The hat had been given as a gift to contributors to a fundraising effort to help the National Cutting Horse Association.

We both simmered for quite some time over the spat and both of us were too stubborn to forget it, even though we ran in some of the same circles of friends. Finally, our wives suggested we act like adults, have dinner, laugh off this ridiculous fight, and forget the whole thing. We did.

Today, it’s a rare month that my phone does not ring with Charlie’s gravelly voice on the other end, just checking in. No agenda. No political tips or story suggestions from a man who has become Fort Worth’s most prominent political force in Austin. He just phones to ask if I’m doing OK and to catch up on any news about my wife and young daughter. Somewhere along the way, he usually offers a joking personal insult. Even though he’s an elected official and an influential leader in the Legislature, Geren is still not what most people think of as a “politician.” The negative connotations associated with that word just don’t fit where Geren is concerned. He does, however, possess the razor-sharp political skills and instincts that define the most accomplished politicians – and he has used them to the benefit of the state and his constituents while remaining faithful to his trademark honesty and candor, not to mention the legendary gruffness that’s as much a facade as it is a glimpse of the real Charlie Geren. Beyond all that, he’s got a big heart.

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The work he’s done over the years at the Fort Worth Stock Show and Rodeo, an institution that has provided hundreds of thousands of dollars in scholarships, is a testament to his caring personality. He’s been known to work in Austin all day and fly or drive back to Fort Worth at night to work the show. Even though he is a longtime member of the stock show’s executive board and a founder of the “calf scramble,” much of his work is done behind the scenes, in the livestock barns. It’s far from glamorous.

Geren comes from good Texas stock. His father, Preston, who recently passed away, was a leader in Fort Worth all his life and a man of incredible graciousness and intelligence. His brother Pete was a congressman and a Secretary of the Army. These days, state Sen. Wendy Davis is understandably Fort Worth’s most visible elected official. And rightly so. She stepped up and took on the big dogs, Gov. Rick Perry and Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst, on the controversial bill restricting abortions in Texas. With her dramatic filibuster on the final night of a special session of the Legislature, she almost singlehandedly delayed the bill’s passage and forced Perry to call a second special session to get it passed.

Along the way she has become a national figure in Democratic politics, stirring talk that she might run for governor. She’s featured on the cover of the current issue of Texas Monthly and heralded in the cover story as the Democrats’ leading hope for statewide resurgence. The story reports what anyone familiar with Davis’ life and career learned long ago: Among her strongest assets is her willingness to fight. I happen to have personal knowledge of her in that regard. Just as with Geren, Davis and I have had our disputes. And, just as with Geren, those disputes are long gone. I admire Sen. Davis and her accomplishments. When you look at legislation passed by our Austin representatives, though, Geren stands out. Granted, he’s been working in the Legislature longer than Davis but his accomplishments are indisputable.

He’s become a leader of the Republicans and he’s become a bridge builder in the Capitol. Texas Monthly’s annual review of the best and worst legislators in Austin rated him as one of the best of the best. He gets things done and he does them with his own personal style of fierceness, directness and humor. We’re lucky to have him in Austin representing Fort Worth, and I’m comfortable saying it. That’s because you can’t buy Charlie with compliments. Can’t soften him up. He’s too honest and independent to be charmed. But he’s not so independent that he’s unwilling to forget about an argument with a friend – even an argument about something as important as a hat.

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