State Rep. Leo Berman Prepares For End Of Term
By ADAM RUSSELL
State Rep. Leo Berman arrived at his office before 8 a.m. Wednesday, a little early, but not atypical of a weekday for the legislator.
A week after being upset by a political newcomer, the seven-term Tyler representative's office already shows a few signs it will be vacated by January. Framed posters from local nonprofit events sit idly on the floor as nails driven to hold them mark their former, now empty, spots.
Berman is preparing to wade through political and military mementos populating his office's walls, shelves and desk with his wife and staff to determine their future but he pointedly added, "I still have seven more months of work to do."
There are always emails, messages and letters to check, he said. Answering constituents' questions and concerns is his favorite part of being a state official, he said.
It gives him the opportunity to move mountains for people who would likely spend an eternity fighting an uphill battle with the state. Whether addressing a veteran's question about benefits or getting to the bottom of a child-support issue for a single mother, Berman said, he gained his greatest satisfaction in delivering results.
"I love helping people with problems they have, problems that normally might go unresolved," he said.
Berman said he will continue in that capacity and make way for an easy transition for Matt Schaefer, who will be sworn in Jan. 1.
Sitting at his desk, surrounded by photos with political heavyweights such as Gov. Rick Perry and former President Ronald Reagan, commendations from his military and political past and snapshots of his family, Berman reflected on more than 30 years of public service.
Berman retired as a lieutenant colonel in the Army after 22 years, served on the Arlington city council from 1978-85 and as District 6 representative since 1998.
A black and white photograph of Berman, 23 years old and fresh from graduating a 1958 Texas National Guard Officer Candidates School tops in his class sits behind his leather chair. It was the beginning of a distinguished career spanning battlefields, a bittersweet homecoming and time as a peacetime legislative liaison.
While being transported to a fire-base on the Cambodia-Vietnam border Berman's helicopter took heavy enemy fire. Helicopters flew near tree tops to avoid enemy fire, he explained. While attempting to maneuver above the tree-line the helicopter clipped a tree knocking the front windshield out while traveling more than 100 miles per hour. The helicopter made it to base but Berman said it was a harrowing ride.
While leading a Vietnamese artillery unit an enemy sniper's bullet crossed between Berman and a member of the unit. The "snap" of the bullet passing by him was an unforgettable sound, he said.
Berman's military career spanned peace-time assignments within the guard and the U.S. Army, from time as a military liaison to Congress, and an artillery commander laying barrages to interrupt Viet Cong supply lines in Vietnam to a post-war recruiter.
He ended his career a lieutenant colonel in the Army with three Bronze Stars, numerous Air Medals among other war- and peace-time citations.
Berman said his interest in politics came during his time as a military liaison for members of Congress after he came back from Vietnam.
After retiring from the military, Berman made an unsuccessful run for U.S. Congress in 1978 while living in Arlington. A year later he was elected to the Arlington City Council where he served until 1985.BERMAN TAKES DISTRICT 6
Berman moved to Tyler with his wife Sue in 1990. In 1998, he unseated state Rep. Ted Kamel to become the District 6 representative. In 1999, during his first legislative session, Sue died of cancer. A year later he met his wife Lou Ann.
During his first two sessions Berman made little headway as a staunch social and fiscal conservative under Democratic leadership. But the emergence of a Republican dominated House and the election of Tom Craddick as the first GOP House Speaker since Reconstruction in 2003 landed Berman in leadership positions.
Craddick shared a similar conservative philosophy, Berman said.
Berman was appointed to the Appropriations Committee, which controls the budget, and also was made chairman and vice chairman of two other committees, making him a part of the speaker's leadership team. He maintained those positions the next session.
Being a part of leadership meant Berman could maneuver legislation.
In 2005, Berman played a role in bringing a doctorate nursing program to The University of Texas at Tyler. Berman called the program a major accomplishment for the university and Tyler because of the community's health care industry.
That year, Berman also filed a bill designed to curb the manufacture of methamphetamine. The bill, which required all medications containing pseudoephedrine or ephedrine, major ingredients in meth, to be placed behind drugstore counters, passed.
Berman's legislative focus shifted toward illegal immigration after the 2005 session. He served as chairman of the elections committee in 2007 and pushed for a voter identification bill to address voter fraud by illegal residents.
During the same session Berman drew national attention by filing legislation denying automatic citizenship to babies born in the U.S. to illegal immigrants, which he termed "anchor babies."
Berman continued to press the immigration issue with dozens of bills each session, mostly to deny state benefits.
Critics called Berman a racist and hatemonger. Even Gov. Perry called the anchor baby bill "insensitive" and "divisive."
Berman said the bills were never about race but rather protecting the needs of citizens and immigrants here legally. He said lobby groups fight every session to maintain benefits for illegal immigrants so the state subsidizes a cheap labor force. He said it is wrong for taxpayers to pay for the benefit of people here illegally and the industries that profit from their work.
He especially took exception to legislation that gave illegal immigrants benefits, the ability to pay in-state tuition if they attended Texas high schools, which other U.S. citizens did not qualify for. The legislation was part of the education funding portion of the budget bill, which Berman voted for
"It bothers me that any elected official in (Washington) D.C. and some border states would give more benefits to people here illegally than to citizens," he said. "That is outrageous and should be stopped."
Despite his efforts, Berman made little ground with legislation to address illegal immigrants. He said he became a "lightning rod" for controversy because of his stance but that he made an unpopular stand for something he believed was right.LEADERSHIP CHANGE
Before the 81st legislative session began in 2009, state Rep. Joe Straus, R-San Antonio, a second-session legislator, was nominated from among 12 dissident Republicans who joined 64 Democrats to create a majority and oust Craddick.
Craddick was vying for his fourth term as the presiding officer of the 150-member chamber.
Republicans held a 76-74 majority in the House at the time. The narrow partisan split and divided GOP loyalties meant House Democrats, who endorsed Straus, decided the race for speaker.
With Craddick deposed, Berman found himself outside the leadership circle.
Harvey Kronberg, a political analyst and publisher of the Quorum Report, said Berman was fiercely loyal to Craddick and viewed Straus as an illegitimate speaker who used Democrats to attain the power-position. Most members in the House wanted to put any bad blood created during the attempted coup behind them, Kronberg said.
But Berman raised his hand, objected to the traditional vote by acclamation and forced members to show where they stood.
Berman said his objection to Straus leading the House was so deep he couldn't let the election go by without a public tally. In the end, Berman and 14 other members voted against Straus.
During the last two sessions Berman continued to file bills to address illegal immigration. He said his constituents wanted legislators to debate the topic but none of the bills made it out of committee to be discussed on the House floor. Berman continued to draw accolades from conservative political action groups for his pro-life, pro-gun and pro-business votes but his political tactics, stance on immigration and willingness to challenge any state official alienated him with some colleagues, Kronberg said.
Berman announced a bid for governor in May 2009. He said his candidacy was to challenge Perry's unwillingness to address illegal immigration. He dropped out of the race that July after Perry said he would make illegal immigration a top priority.
Texas is in better shape economically because conservatives such as Berman created a better business climate, enacted tort reform legislation and worked within the state's fiscal means, Smith County Republican Party chairman Ashton Oravetz said.PASSIONATE, PRINCIPLED
Berman's 14 years in the House ties District 14 state Rep. Fred Head, D-Athens, as the longest serving House member to represent Tyler and portions of Smith County. District 14 mainly served Anderson and Henderson counties, but also portions of Freestone and Smith from 1975-81. Head and Berman tie Bill Wood, who served in the House and Senate from 1947-61, as the longest serving legislators for Tyler, according to the Legislative Reference Library of Texas.
Kronberg said Berman's call for a record vote from members when the battle for House speaker was over during the last legislative session is indicative of his tenure.
Kronberg said similar moments throughout his career point to Berman's passion and willingness to buck popularity over principle. It made him popular with core conservatives but rubbed House colleagues raw at times, creating obstacles for his causes and in the end his constituents.
"He was passionate and ultra-conservative," he said. "He represented the people who elected him for sure."
State Rep. Dan Flynn, R-Van, said Berman represented his constituents with passion and honor. Flynn was seated near Berman on the House floor during a few sessions and said Berman always considered his constituents first when on the floor.
"He would call schools, elected officials, people in the industry, anybody who might be affected and ask them how they would be affected," he said. "Sometimes he went with constituents over the (Republican) party but that was how he voted."
Flynn said representing constituents' priorities is the job of a representative and Berman acted with their concerns and interests at heart.
Oravetz said Berman was a great representative because he loved people and was involved in the community. Berman and Oravetz became friends soon after the representative arrived in 1990.
Oravetz, whether he agrees or disagrees with Berman, said he respects his adherence to personal principles.
Berman said he will cherish the memories, his staff, colleagues and constituents.
"It was a great honor for you to allow me to serve as state representative for 14 years," he said. "I've done the best I could for you and this district because I love Tyler and Smith County."