Go West

With Dallas Democrats' return from the dead, state Senator Royce West is poised for bigger things, like maybe paychecks

Of course, the merits of West's bill are up for debate. Officials at the University of Texas say it has forced them to accept too many students from within the state, while kids at suburban schools say the law forces them to cut down on their extracurricular activities to focus exclusively on grades.

Two years after West authored the top 10 bill, Texas Monthly named him one of the "10 Best Legislators in Texas." In 2001, West drafted a bill that in essence outlawed racial profiling, and later he promoted legislation that provided stipends to grandparents raising grandchildren. Last year, West was a member of the joint House and Senate negotiating team that passed the widely heralded school finance bill that helped the state comply with a court order to change how it funds public education. The bill involved balancing the interests of the state's rich and poor districts and their competing legislators.

"If not for Royce West, we would not have been able to pass a bill," says state Senator Leticia Van de Putte, a San Antonio Democrat. "We would have been in special session after special session."

Royce West
Illustration by Jason Seiler
Royce West
Royce West is the political man of the hour, thanks to the Democrats' surprising November sweep.
Mark Graham
Royce West is the political man of the hour, thanks to the Democrats' surprising November sweep.

State Senator Florence Shapiro, the Republican chair of the Education Committee that crafted the school finance bill, also credits West for his role in ending—at least for now—the long-running drama over how to fund poor districts without unduly penalizing the wealthier ones. The two make an unlikely pair, she a Plano Republican and he a Democrat from southern Dallas. But if the two aren't exactly ideological soul mates, they get along surprisingly well.

"He was involved in every step of the process with me," she says. "He was my confidante and someone I have a very high regard for."

Although West has fought for distinctly Democratic values, he has developed the ability to work well with Republicans like Shapiro. That's helped him win approval and millions of dollars in funding for a University of North Texas campus in southern Dallas, on the DeSoto line, a rare serving of pork that might actually be worth its weight.

"That is one of his main accomplishments," says Shaw, a political analyst for dallasblog.com. "Royce worked on that deal for years. He had that vision when none of us could see what the hell he was talking about. That was his baby; he fought for it. He went from Washington to Denton to Dallas to Austin.

"Fifteen years from now if there are 30,000 students there, that will be one of the biggest parts of his legacy."

Although West can play the role of the partisan firebrand, he embodies the Tip O'Neill style of politics, in which you fight like hell for your side during the day and make peace at night.

Shapiro says that at her father's recent funeral, West was one of the first people she saw. "When I said 'Thank you so much for coming,' he said, 'We're family, and we're family in times of joy and family in times of sorrow.'

"To me, that's Royce West."

For that family to which West and Shapiro belong, it's not the times of sorrow that are the problem, it's the times of joy. Texas has notoriously weak ethics requirements for its lawmakers, allowing them to use their campaign funds to subsidize a lavish political lifestyle. In the past, Texas legislators have used campaign donations to pay for upscale apartments, steakhouse dinners and expensive gifts for their staff and constituents.

"The whole system is rancid," says Fred Lewis, an Austin activist who favors a cap on campaign donations. "We have semi-privatized our Legislature, and it's an incredibly dumb way of doing business."

For West, it's a comfortable way of doing business. Last year, he used more than $18,000 in campaign donations to pay rent on an election office in Oak Cliff. Those payments went to a company called Skyview Development, according to his campaign disclosure forms on file with the Texas Ethics Commission. What West does not disclose is that he is the registered agent and director of Skyview Development. It's his company. Skyview Development owns the $1.4 million office building that is home to both West's law office on the third floor and his election office on the second floor, a sparsely furnished space with a biography of Lyndon B. Johnson lying by itself on the bookcase.

When asked about Skyview Development, the otherwise cordial West shuts down. "I'm not going to get into all my personal stuff," he says, not angrily but firmly. He does confirm that Skyview owns the office building and that he and some of his family members are part owners of Skyview. (According to the secretary of state's records, only Royce West is listed as an officer with the company.)

How does West the landlord determine how much rent West the politician should pay? "Based on what everyone else is paying," he says, now becoming irritated.

The problem is that it's up to West the landlord to determine market rate for West the politician. If the rent's too high, the landlord benefits; if he charges too little, the politician wins out. (Who's feeling dizzy?) Even if rent payments are fair and square, West the landlord can still count on having a steady, reliable tenant in a local commercial market that is not blessed with high occupancy rates.

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