Losing Lon

Burnam may not have passed many bills, but the liberal Democrat put his mark on Fort Worth.
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Posted June 4, 2014 by PETER GORMAN in News

Burnam is Fort Worth through and through. His dad retired from Lockheed Martin after 37 years. His mom taught in Fort Worth schools for two decades.  Both his parents graduated from Texas Christian University. Lon and his two brothers went to public schools on the city’s West Side.

“In our house it was all education, education, education,” he said. “I knew by the second grade that I was prepared for a life in politics. I’m not sure how I knew that; I just did.”

His first foray into the political arena was doing volunteer work for Lyndon Johnson’s 1964 presidential campaign. “I was in sixth grade then,” Burnam said. He later helped Ann Richards in her first run for political office, when she was elected county commissioner in Austin.

Burnam donned a Santa suit last December to tell constituents about the benefits of Obamacare. Courtesy Lon Burnam

Burnam donned a Santa suit last December to tell constituents about the benefits of Obamacare. Courtesy Lon Burnam

Following high school, where he said he was a mediocre competitor on the Western Hills High School swim team, Burnam attended the University of Texas at Austin, graduating in 1975 with honors and a bachelor’s degree in government. He went on to earn his master’s degree in city and regional planning from the University of Texas at Arlington in 1979 before starting to work as a city planner, helping community organizations to revitalize neighborhoods. He later worked as a special assistant to the regional administrator of the Texas Department of Human Services.

All the while, he was also working in election campaigns. Finally, he said, “After 20 years of working to get other people elected, it was time for me to run or quit doing electoral politics.”

He ran in the District 90 primary in 1992 and 1994 and lost both times to longtime incumbent Doyle Willis. When Willis decided not to run again in 1996, the door was open for Burnam, who won the primary and general elections and began serving in 1997.

It’s a lot of work for a job that pays $7,200 a year. Even with a per diem while the House is in session, it only comes to about $35,400 for two years of work.

“My wife, Carol Roark — she worked as an archivist at the Dallas Public Library for 20 years — supported me for a lot of years,” he said. “Plus, we bought a house for $24,000 in 1981. We never had kids, so we didn’t need a lot of money. Still, the only thing that pays worse than the Texas Legislature is community organizing jobs like running the Dallas Peace Center, which I did for 12 years.”

He described the peace center as “in the broadest brush, [aiming] to avoid wars by seeking justice at home and abroad.

“My time there was punctuated by George Bush starting two wars,” he said. The job included raising money to remove landmines in Cambodia and working on a variety of human rights and civil liberties issues, including public school education and women’s rights both in the United States and other countries.

Some politicians are motivated by prestige or power or the friends they can make who will pay them handsomely as lobbyists once they retire. Those who’ve worked with Burnam say he is motivated by a zealous need to help people.

Democratic legislators in red-state Texas “have to be smarter, work harder, and maintain our cool,” he said. “I’m just a straightforward progressive Democrat, and in Texas that can leave you frustrated a lot of the time. I’ve stood up to special economic interests so often that I think I’ve made a number of political enemies over the years— at least I hope so.”

One group that hated him enormously was the major insurance companies. While serving on the House Insurance Committee, he submitted a bill that particularly set the industry off.

“At the time, insurance companies had to get you to the hospital and save your life, but they wouldn’t cover rehab for people. So I pushed for that, got a Republican to join me, and we got it passed,” he said. “That was a huge legislative battle — and I know the insurance companies hated me because at one point the seven biggest companies all sued me to try to prevent me from getting the information I needed from them.”

Another group that dislikes Burnam is the Texas Right to Life Committee, which gave him a zero rating for his support of abortion rights.

“You’re always going to have people upset with you, particularly if you vote your conscience and do not compromise the values of your constituents. That’s the nature of the game,” he said.

Some people were also upset with him for holding 17 community meetings to get people signed up for Obamacare. “But I feel really good about that work,” he said.

Burnam acknowledged that most of the bills he’s introduced never made it out of committee. He didn’t see that as a reason not to introduce them.

“Look at all the bills on oil and gas I introduced to make them clean up their act. They were never going to pass, because there was enough money from special interests to kill them,” he said. “But by introducing the bills, we still advanced the issue for people in other parts of the state by getting the information out there, getting the issues talked about.”

One bill he introduced that did get passed ended up as one of his regrets. “The worst bill I ever got passed was the fracking fluid disclosure legislation. Now I knew I’d never get that passed in Texas without a Republican signing on, and so I got Jim Keffer from Granbury. But by the time the thing was actually passed into law, it had an exemption so big you could drive a Mack truck through it. It was a piece of crap.”

He said he’s used it as an example for new legislators who come into the House eager to get their names on laws. “You get too eager to pass legislation, and in the end it’s not worth having passed.”

He still respects Keffer and thinks Keffer respects him as well. He just doesn’t like the way that particular bill came out.

“Over the years I’ve worked with hundreds of people in the House, and I’ve managed to get along with both Republicans and Democrats,” Burnam said. “But the House is like the general population. Out of the 150 people in it, some are good people, some are pathological liars, some are open and funny but still wrong most of the time.

“I got exasperated a number of times when people were aggressively ignorant,” he said, “but I never felt like quitting.”

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14 Comments


  1.  
    Roy

    Romero is a Republican masquerading as a Democrat. The Republicans have realized that they can win Democratic districts by running Hispanic-surnamed fakes. Just like the Republican in Arizona who literally changed his name to Cesar Chavez and is running now as a Democrat.




  2.  
    Jim

    Thanks for this. Lon’s help was invaluable to the local and statewide environmental community. For a grassroots perspective: http://www.downwindersatrisk.org/2014/03/lon-burnam-fighting-the-good-fights-that-needed-fighting-in-austin-for-18-years/




  3.  
    Stark

    Calling Romero a Republican is pretty brain-dead. I don’t know many Republicans who live in Poly and work as hard as he has in the community. Lon had many admirable stands on issues. But too often he was tilting at windmills and not focusing on the bread and butter concerns of his constituents. Those in the know find it hilarious that Lon Burnam has launched an ill-fated election challenge while accusing Romero of harvesting ballots.

    Too funny! No one has employed more “ballot harvesters” than Lon Burnam. Lon pulled out all the stops in this last election and had more money “on the streets” than ever. If anyone engaged in illegal practices, it was Burnam.

    The author may want to look for a better source to vouch for Burnam than Renny Rosas. Renny is notorious for always backing an anglo “patron” over qualified Hispanics. So backing Lon is no surprise.

    Too bad Lon could not have salvaged his dignity in the way he went out. But he did it as he always has: Lon’s way regardless of the cost or the consequences.




  4.  
    JT Grant

    Lon has been an unfortunate mistake from the start. He tried repeatedly to impose a state income tax on Texas apparently oblivious to the state constitution disallowing such a move. Even more, to the universal disapproval of the people of such a bizarre, regressive plan to reduce property taxes (he says), answering my own question about his logic with “the average person simply can’t understand the economics of it.”
    The book of personal and public anecdotes about him is legendary. His rancorous nature has had some of Ft Worth’s top pols and executives throw him out of their offices for his baseless accusations and threats. When voting was taking place including legislation naming Martin Luther King Day as a holiday his colleagues engaged him in admiring conversation. He mindlessly voted “no” on every called measure as they chatted him up like an old buddy. When The MLK measure came up he again automatically voted no. At that, his good friends burst into laughter and walked awayOur forlorn Frank Burns had to scramble to have his vote changed. When the KKK attempted to “adopt a highway” here he spoke in favor of it saying, as he so often does, “We need every penny we can get.”
    He is an unfortunate mistake who has finally been erased.
    Those who love him always will.
    There is little doubt that this poor legislator and poorer sport will attempt to unseat Romero in the next election, but hopefully bright contrast will show him as he is….simply an unfortunate bumbler.




    •  
      weekly reader

      Actually a state income tax would make more sense than the crazy property tax and sales tax machinations we have now.




    •  
      Guest

      Anyone who calls an income tax (that started at $100k+ income) regressive compared to a property taxis too dumb to understand the economics of it.




  5.  
    Colleen Morgan Butterfield

    I’ve known, respected and admired Lon Burnam for over twenty-five years. He remained a hero to the environment, a lover of Ft Worth and its’ citizens, and never lost sight of fighting for justice for the people who cannot speak for themselves. He has been a wonder to behold, and we will all miss his voice of conscience. A good and fearless servant of the people.




  6.  
    Logan McNatt

    As an “outsider” living in Austin, all I know about Lon is based on the article, comments, and a few campaign emails from him. Very interesting discussion. As a liberal Democrat, I tend to agree with most of the positions he has taken and bills he has fought for or against. Sounds like he has a strong personality and unpopular beliefs, so of course he has made some people angry–what legislator hasn’t? But it appears he also has strong principles about supporting people and issues (education, environment, minorities, etc) for which the State of Texas ranks very poorly, especially in recent times. If only more Texans who “serve the people” would do the same for those without power and money as they do for those with it. (FYI, I’m a 5th generation Texan and proud of it; just not proud of the decisions the majority of our state “leaders” are making.)




  7.  
    JT Grant

    Speaking of dumb, Guest, it’s is also important, in matters of US Constitutional protections to understand that a tax may not be specifically targeted to affect only a certain income level. It’s called the equal protection clause. . . that may seem dumb to some, but there is more to legislative matters than blather and bluster. There’s more to creating law than just mindless posturing. That was always Lon’s problem….couldn’t think things through…all mustache and no cattle.




  8.  
    Raul Duran

    I couldn’t leave Lon’s flippant response to my attempts to have him do something— anything —to address the unfair treatment of Hispanic students (now the majority number in FWISD), their parents, and Hispanic employees in Fort Worth ISD.
    Lon, you are well aware that I personally handed you a notebook of documentation that included copies of open records, court papers, witness statements, etc. You stood me up for our first scheduled appointment (set by one of your own staffers) in your Ft Worth office, finally met with me and a witness (that I felt I needed to have present), promised to pursue my issue because I had provided you the “… specifics [that would make it a possible] task”. Two subsequent visits to your Austin office where you were never available and your staffers knew nothing about any such issue and worse, couldn’t locate the documents— but promised that you or someone in the know would quickly get back to me— I’m still waiting for that phone to ring.
    We were looking, in you, to be an Eliot Shapleigh, the state senator from El Paso who brought the Department of Education, U. S. Justice Department, and the FBI down on the El Paso ISD. Indictments and prison sentences, along with much needed reform are now occurring there.
    But flittering around like a nervous gnat doesn’t help you stop, listen, and learn the issues (those specifics you wanted)— it just makes you look busy.
    You lost Hispanic support because we are now discerning enough to recognize that throwing frequent “pachangas” disrespects the serious nature of our concerns and you never took the time to hear us — while burying our documentation.
    Chasing land mines in other parts of the globe, those “beautiful blue eyes (Gorman’s comment, not mine)” were blind to the booby traps set by FWISD against our childrens’ and our community’s future. “There is none so blind as he who will not see”.
    The Palazzalo and other cases, plus recent developments have exposed that status quo within the FWISD that your inaction helped to preserve
    Being a Democrat, how could you have forgotten Speaker Tip O’Neill’s statement that “all politics is local”?




    •  
      Marcie H

      Prolonged terms of office by local politicians in state legislative positions produce self serving, useless beings who forget all about their constituencies and- regardless of party affiliation- all turn out about the same in behavior and the expectation that they will be re-elected in perpetuity. (kind of like a political version of “Body Snatchers” or “Stepford Wives”). They even start to look alike after a while– Lon looks eerily like former state legislator Kent Grusendorf in recent photos, for example. Wendy Davis, bless her, also stood people up, if that makes you feel any better. Somewhere along the line, I suspect fueled by personal interests and opportunities for enrichment (like the current energy trading scheme which ensnared Tea Partiers Paxton, King, Zedler,etc), and constant adulation by lobbyists, our legislators lose connection with the voters. If a “cause” isn’t politically expedient, they will find a way to ignore it.




  9.  
    Tim Ruggiero

    Sometimes, people are much more powerful after leaving office than when in it. Lon is one of those people. Lon is undoubtedly going to keep doing what he’s always done-fighting for people, especially the ones who at a disadvantage. Now he gets to do it on his terms.




  10.  
    Ben & Paulette Holland

    Every Texan living in Texas today, even if they moved here today, is prospering better…no, much better than if Lon Burnam had not served all of us so splendedly in our Capitol and here in Ft. worth & the Metroplex.. Most politicians, policemen, and Preachers careers and lives are spent looking after their personal needs more than their citizens, or parishoners needs. I have been acquainted with Mr. Burnam since before he became a Public Servant and I have watched him closely. Here is the rare difference between Lon and most other people…. he loves his work. He is driven to do good. He works hard, long, & consistently. He is imperfect but far, far, far above average as an organizer, politician, Texan and human being. God bless him.





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