Texas Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison: 'I think it's the right time' to leave D.C.

12/31/2012 7:22 AM

01/01/2013 4:05 PM

When newly married Kay Bailey Hutchison left Houston for Dallas in the late 1970s, she discovered that she had become something of a desperate housewife.

The meticulous and pulled-together future U.S. senator had her finances in order, including the individual retirement account she'd started when she was vice chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board.

But she got quite a surprise when she tried to add to it.

"I wasn't working," Hutchison said in an interview, "and I was told I couldn't contribute to this." The law restricted homemakers from contributing to IRAs because they were not in the workforce.

"I said, 'This is so wrong,'" said Hutchison, an attorney whose varied career had included time as a television reporter, a Texas House member and a safety board official.

She later was senior vice president and general counsel of Republic Bank and eventually became the state treasurer.

But she never forgot about the housewives.

And when Hutchison made it to the Senate in 1993 -- winning a special election to replace Democrat Lloyd Bentsen, who resigned to become Treasury secretary -- at the top of her legislative shopping list was changing the homemaker IRA.

Hutchison relentlessly pushed for it with senior members of the Texas GOP delegation. And by 1995, aligned with House Majority Leader Dick Armey of North Texas and Ways and Means Committee Chairman Bill Archer of Houston, she succeeded in getting IRA parity for homemakers.

Before she stepped in, the contribution limit for homemakers had been changed to $250 a year.

Now, nonworking spouses can contribute up to $5,000 a year.

It's a legacy that Sens. John Cornyn, R-Texas, and Barbara Mikulski, D-Md., are honoring with legislation naming the homemaker IRA after Hutchison. The measure sailed through the Senate last week and is pending before the House.

"I would be so honored," Hutchison, R-Texas, said with a smile.

It will almost certainly make the onetime University of Texas cheerleader's name endure. The well-known Roth IRA, for example, allows tax-free withdrawals and was named for the late Sen. William Roth, R-Del.

Hutchison, who is retiring, has an impressive legislative record in her nearly 20 years in the Senate, including phasing out the controversial Wright Amendment, which limits service at Dallas Love Field; fixing the so-called marriage penalty, which taxed married couples at a higher rate; directing millions of dollars to higher education and research at Texas institutions; making state sales taxes an itemized deduction on federal income tax returns; and fighting for NASA dollars and the space program in the face of cutbacks.

"I think history will judge her as one of the greatest legislators we've ever had," said Patrick Oxford, chairman of the Bracewell & Giuliani law firm of Houston and a lifelong friend and supporter of Hutchison's. "She was Lyndon Johnson-level in terms of understanding the legislative process really well."

Oxford and Hutchison attended the University of Texas at Austin as undergraduates and were law school classmates.

Working with Democrats

A hallmark of Hutchison's Senate career has been her willingness to work with Democrats, especially Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., whom Senate wags widely call her BFF (Best Friend Forever).

"When I first came to the Senate 20 years ago, Sen. Hutchison gave me a small briefcase that I still carry to this day. It hasn't worn out, and neither has our friendship," Feinstein said.

"I worked closely with Sen. Hutchison for two decades, particularly on issues related to women and families."

The two joined forces on the Amber Alert legislation for abducted children, named for Amber Hagerman of Arlington, who was abducted and killed in 1996.

They also collaborated on the Breast Cancer Stamp bill, which has raised more than $76 million for breast cancer research.

"Her legacy as a tireless advocate for these causes will live on," Feinstein said.

Another close associate is U.S. Rep. Kay Granger, R-Fort Worth, whose 1996 election prompted talk of "the two Kays" in Texas political circles.

"Kay Bailey Hutchison is a good friend, and I'm sad that we won't be serving together again next year," Granger told the Star-Telegram.

"Sen. Hutchison has done so much for Texas, and I have been honored to work with her on preserving our state's C-130 squadron, the Wright Amendment and Trinity River Vision, among many other things."

The two Kays worked to ensure funding for the Trinity River Vision flood control and economic development project in Fort Worth and to stop an Air Force plan to move the C-130s from Naval Air Station Fort Worth to Montana.

U.S. Rep. Joe Barton, R-Ennis, also has a long association with Hutchison.

"I have a close personal relationship with Kay that goes beyond the halls of Congress. We worked together to represent the people back home for nearly 20 years. She was a warrior for Texas and she will be missed," Barton told the Star-Telegram.

"We have shared many memories -- both political and personal -- but one of the stories that sticks out to me was the first time Kay went to Texas A&M after she was elected to the Senate," said Barton, a gung-ho Aggie.

"She wore burnt orange to an event in College Station. I pulled her aside and jokingly said, 'Kay, I don't think you realize this -- but that is not a really popular color here at A&M.' As far as I know, she never wore burnt orange to campus again -- unless she was cheering on her Longhorns at Kyle Field."

She has admirers among Texas Democrats, too. U.S. Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, D-Houston, said, "You could count on Sen. Hutchison to do the right thing."

Hutchison's support for Texas interests, especially NASA, made her a "pioneer," Jackson Lee said.

U.S. Rep. John Carter, R-Round Rock, said Hutchison hosted joint Democratic-Republican Texas delegation breakfasts for a number of years. And he appreciated her work on the Senate Appropriations Committee.

"She's been a lifesaver," he said. "She's been a godsend on so many things. We're going to miss her a lot. Seniority counts, especially in the Senate."

'Should be a rotation'

Hutchison said she thinks that term limits make sense.

"I'm not sorry about leaving," said Hutchison, 69. "I think it's the right time."

"I'm a strong proponent of term limits. I intended to serve two terms, not three. There should be a rotation."

One factor in her thinking is the desire to return to Texas. Her husband, Ray, and 11-year-old adopted children, Bailey and Houston, live in Dallas.

But there is also the political fallout from the drubbing she took in 2010 in her chaotic run for governor.

Ben Barnes, a former Texas lieutenant governor and a well-known Democratic lobbyist, said he'd give her legislative record "an above-average grade."

"The low point of her career was when she lost that governor's race," Barnes said.

Hutchison lost badly in the GOP primary to Gov. Rick Perry in 2010 after putting off a run in 2006. She also effectively became a lame duck by saying she would step down from the Senate, then decided to stay on through the end of her term.

Hutchison is certainly a survivor: Shortly after being elected, she was indicted in Texas on allegations of campaign abuses. In a Fort Worth courtroom, she was acquitted when Travis County prosecutor Ronnie Earle refused to continue after the judge would not allow much of the prosecution evidence.

"It was so political and so baseless," Hutchison said in the interview.

But it also showed Texans their new senator's steely resolve.

Time for the kids

In her farewell address, Hutchison showed a softer side, talking about having her children visit her office.

"And while Washington has occupied much of my time, they have loved coming to the Capitol, and I know that my children's fondest memory of my time here will be of playing soccer in the Russell building's hallways in the evenings when the coast is clear."

In the interview, she said, "I certainly want to be home with them, and I want to raise them in Texas."

Hutchison said she hopes to be "of counsel" at a law firm and to continue to do public speaking and to serve on corporate boards. "I believe this is the right time for me to be able to start another career."

And she doesn't think she'll be back in politics even though Fort Worth lawyer Dee Kelly said that "I hope this isn't the end of her public service."

Twitter: @maria_e_recio

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