Editor’s Note: Burnt Orange Report is delighted the one and only “Mean” Rachel accepted our invitation to share her thoughts on the news of Rep. Elliott Naishtat’s (D-Austin) decision to retire from the Texas House. Her eponymous blog was a must-read throughout its six years in publication from 2005 through 2011.
Being asked to write a commentary on Representative Elliott Naishtat’s — or “The Representative” as I like to call him — decision to resign from the Texas House of Representatives after 25 years of service is similar to being asked to summarize the importance of the United States Constitution in a 140-character tweet. First of all, I was six years old when The Representative, a native of Sunnyside, Queens, was first elected to office in 1990. That either makes me very old now that he’s retiring or him very young when he got elected (we’re still doing the math). But secondly, there’s absolutely no way I could do justice to The Representative’s impact on the lives of Texans, not only in his district but also those far beyond the boutique-lined reaches of his district’s Lamar Boulevard.
Instead, I want to tell you about a politician. Further, I want to tell you about a politician who makes a difference. I’m not talking about the “I want to make a difference because that gets me elected” politician. Or even the “I want to make a difference because I’m delusional to the point of crazy and politics is the only job I can get” politician. Instead, I want to tell you about what a politician in a democracy where elected officials are for the people, of the people and, often in The Representative’s case, by the people eating. There aren’t enough of them left.
My story of this politician cannot begin without disclosing that Elliott Naishtat does not have a website. I was not the first person to discover this, but I was probably the first person to write an open letter suggesting he (among other things) get with the times. This open letter, written nearly eight years ago, launched local headlines that included “Lawmaker gets zinged for not having a website” and “‘Stone Age’ Lawmaker?”. Yet rather than retreating, The Representative volleyed back — “I think it’s wonderful of you to offer to design a website for me, obviously long overdue (not your offer, but my need for a website).” — and our banter kicked off an epistolary friendship that eventually led to us meeting over tacos. We kept in touch, and I’d often see him out and about at Democratic events, invariably gnawing on a baby carrot or peering over someone’s half-eaten plate of food asking “Are you going to eat that?” Over the years, I also occasionally received a postcard from The Representative. My favorite was one sent during The Representative’s annual New Year’s trip to Big Bend, which I didn’t receive until late January as it was first routed by accident to Pennsylvania. The postcard, a hazy sunset shot of the Rio Grande, arrived with a big pink scrawling script across the bottom that said “Please forward – came to Pittsburgh by mistake!”
A VISTA volunteer in the late 1960s, it could be said The Representative came to Texas by mistake. He was originally told by VISTA that he would be sent to San Francisco, but ended up in Eagle Pass, Texas. He eventually moved to Austin and completed a Masters in Social Work and earned his law degree from the University of Texas. One of The Representative’s favorite stories to tell is how his first opponent, a Republican incumbent, ran a negative ad on television based off of the then-popular Pace hot sauce commercial. The ad showed cowboys sitting around a campfire, with an ominous voice asking “Want to elect a liberal social worker from New York City? Get a rope!”
As it happened, The Representative won handily, and spent the next 25 years advocating for the people. He was the un-politician who wore Save the Children ties and prided himself in throwing one campaign fundraiser a year at which the key selling point was “No speeches!” His legislation largely focused on public health, education, and social justice. Every one of us knows someone who has been affected by poverty, benefitted from public schools, struggled through traumatic brain injuries or navigated the foster care system. The Representative was a politician who chose, deliberately and intentionally, to fight for those individuals. He was a politician who rooted for the underdog, who used his power to speak up for those whose voices might otherwise not be represented, and in doing so, he represented all of us.
There’s so much more I could tell you about The Representative, but it would all be useless trivia. Like the time he was interviewed by The Daily Show’s John Oliver and we organized a watch party at Nuevo Leon to watch his appearance. A group of us sat at a hightop table with The Representative, plucking at tortilla chips and sipping on margaritas, through the entire episode only to arrive at the ending credits and realize — with simultaneous horror and hilarity — that they had cut The Representative’s segment entirely. Or I could tell you about the time he posed with a group of exonerated prisoners for a photo at the Capitol and later discovered the photo in an issue of The Texas Observer with the caption “Exonerated prisoners visit the Capitol,” without mentioning that a State Representative was also pictured with them.
But I’ll end by saying that we owe The Representative a debt of gratitude, which he’d likely prefer paid in baby carrots, for his service. If you see him at his District Office (for the uninitiated, that’s what The Representative calls Deep Eddy Pool), be sure to say thank you. Offer him a bite off of your plate if you run into him at Polvo’s. And for the future generation of politicians that will follow in HD-49, I hope you hold up The Representative’s journey as our gold standard: use your power for the good of the people, serve selflessly and ethically and, please, no speeches at your campaign fundraisers.
Thank you, Representative Naishtat. You, and your website you never had, will be missed.