Kay Comes Home

Kay Bailey Hutchison has been quietly cracking the glass ceiling for decades. Now—with the U.S. Senate behind her—she’s come back to Texas.

When she was first elected to the Texas Legislature in 1972, Kathryn Bailey had very big hair. Seventies big. She was 29 years old, an attractive former TV reporter and a former cheerleader. The voters had cast against type. They had selected not a good old boy, not an oilman, or a rancher. They picked the popular girl from the Leave it to Beaver-esque hometown of La Marque.

Hutchison, LLB ’67, BA ’92, Life Member, Distinguished Alumna, graduated UT Law as one of only five women in her class. She entered the U.S. Senate in 1993—one of only seven women. She was the first and only female Republican to represent Texas in the U.S. Senate. She’s authored and co-authored multiple books on influential women. Her body of work—from promoting scientific research to the passage of the tax-free retirement plan for stay-at-home parents that bears her name—ties back to her Texas roots: career woman meets Southern belle. Her public persona is a kind of feminist contradiction, a knot that numerous writers, reporters, pundits, and critics have tried to untie.

“Her legacy as a female politician is as big and as important as anyone in Texas,” says Brian Sweany, senior executive editor of Texas Monthly, who interviewed her for the magazine’s October 2012 issue. “I would say that very objectively.” He notes that through her nearly 20 years in the Senate, she’s seen what he calls the “modern arc” of the Republican Party.

Hutchison, 69, calls me on Election Day. She’s en route to Mitt Romney’s Boston Headquarters to watch the results of the presidential race, nearly 40 years to the day since she won her first election. “Normally, I’d be having my own party,” she tells me, laughing. She seems calm and candid. After all, this is just one of many exit interviews she’s giving. Eager to talk about The University of Texas at Austin and how she wants to continue to help it, it’s clear she doesn’t plan on slowing down.

Since the beginning, she says, she’s just tried to do a good job. “Through the years, I worked really hard to be effective in the Legislature,” she says, remarking on her four years in the Texas House of Representatives.

“Kay was one of the best legislators in terms of understanding the process and making it work for Texans,” says Pat Oxford, BBA ’66, LLB ’67, Life Member, former UT System regent and friend of Hutchison for nearly 50 years. “I think it surprised a lot of people.” He reiterates the points you hear often from people who know her. People trying to give you context, give you quotes, or even just transferring your call, repeat a few of the same words. Unphased. Relentless. Hard-working. Pioneer.

Dave Beckwith, JD ’71, Hutchison’s friend, long-time spokesman, and occasional target of liberal ire, is clear and considered in his praise. “She shows me what you can do when you put your mind to it in this country,” he says.

When you ask her to define herself, she’ll give you one word. “Perseverance. I’ve been able to persevere,” she says.

Perseverance entered Hutchison’s vocabulary long before she entered the Legislature. It goes all the way back to UT.

When discussing her early political career, Hutchison talks a lot about family, community, and her University. She remembers campaigning on a shoestring, relying on her network of family and UT alumni to help her. In her first race for the Legislature, she enlisted her father, and together they knocked on the doors of just about every registered voter in the district. An early campaign stop in a rural area was noted in the local paper. Among the sparse crowd, Hutchison found a familiar face. It was an old friend from UT, a sorority sister who had read the news item and come to support her. Hutchison made her the county campaign chair.

“There certainly weren’t a lot of women, that’s for sure,” Hutchison laughs, thinking back to her time at UT Law. “But I didn’t feel I had any kind of disadvantage.”  Not having a disadvantage isn’t the same as having it easy. “The experience at UT was complicated,” she admits, “learning to adjust, pick yourself up, and keep going.”

Oxford puts it more plainly: “She had some bumps, but she kept trucking.”

Hutchison says she had a supportive community, whether in class, study groups, or even carpooling to campus. That’s how she met Oxford. In the fall of 1964, he was waiting tables in Austin and taking classes at UT Law. They shared rides to the law school and became fast friends.

Her mother, also named Kathryn, inspired Hutchison to be what Oxford calls “a gentlewoman of the old school,” relentlessly polite, but also, he says, “made of iron.” Her mother was refined, upstanding, and supportive.

“She was ramrod straight, a steel magnolia,” Oxford says “It always pleased Kay to please her.” Those early lessons stuck with her. It pays to be strong as steel and soft as kid gloves, alternating in careful balance. It’s a balance that has defined her career—and prompted decades of analysis and criticism.

She’s drawn comparisons to the robotic Stepford wives and has appeared on the cover of Dallas’ D Magazine with her face photoshopped onto a bikini model. It’s a confusing web of politics, power, and gender. For the most part, Hutchison seems unfazed by it. She’s heard it all before. She doesn’t entertain what she calls “psychobabble” about herself and her career. Her fashion, mannerisms, speaking style, and icy blue-eyed stare have prompted that discussion for 40 years.

When she graduated law school, she went to Houston intending to practice law. But in 1967, not many firms were hiring young women for partner-track positions. Hutchison did not want to use her degree for taking dictation.

And so, driving through Houston, she stopped at the studios of the local NBC affiliate and asked for a job. Just like that, Kay Bailey became Houston’s first female TV reporter. The ABC and CBS affiliates hired women of their own soon afterward. Since she had a law degree, she covered state politics during the legislative session and courts out of session. Unlike some reporters, she was, as she says, “nice.” Nice, but also smart. She became a trusted reporter, covering the 1969 and 1971 Legislatures.

In 1972, she got a call from the chair of the Harris County Republican Party. A seat was opening up in the Legislature. The girl from La Marque was going places, as long as she could withstand the whispered doubts and outright derision. She was a young, divorced woman. It was easy to be stigmatized. To this day, information on her divorce is hard to come by. She almost never discusses it publicly.

“It was always an obstacle in those early years,” she remembers. But Hutchison persevered.

After four years in the Legislature, with her star on the rise, Hutchison went to Washington in 1976 at the invitation of President Ford to serve on the National Transportation Safety Board. She learned the ropes—the pace and timbre of Washington, its breakneck speed, wealth of knowledge, and continuous, endless work. She fit right in. Though it’s not the fast-talking, Blackberry-wielding, ever-gentrifying place it is today, it was still Washington. Even in the sleepy days of the Ford administration, it was where people who tried hard could succeed.

She returned to Texas and married fellow legislator Ray Hutchison. Each lost major races in the years to come, Ray for governor in 1978 and Kay for Congress in 1982. Her winning streak—from La Marque to Washington—had come to an end. But not for long.

The girl from La Marque was going places, as long as she could withstand the whispered doubts and outright derision.

She spent time working in other fields, but in 1990, when the state GOP chair called, Hutchison answered. Would she run for state treasurer? The answer was yes.

“Nobody thought I was going to win,” she remembers. Her return to politics wasn’t an easy one. The Houston Chronicle accused Hutchison and her opponent, democrat Nikki Van Hightower, of “mudslinging.”  The New Republic said the race “carried a strong, if typically Texan, whiff of sleaze.”

Despite the accusations and trials of the campaign trail, Hutchison won, and catapulted herself into more than two decades of—what else?—unrelenting hard work. While treasurer, she withstood an ultimately fruitless indictment for misconduct. She refused to slow down, and in 1993, she took her place in the Senate. In 2001, after almost 20 years in the Senate and at an age when most women are retiring and sending their children to college, the Hutchisons adopted two children, Houston and Bailey. In 2010, she ran for the Republican nomination for governor and lost to Gov. Rick Perry. In the wake of a bruising gubernatorial race, the speculation began. Where does she go from here? With two young children and family roots that stretch back to the Texas Revolution, where else does one go?

In November, Oxford said he didn’t expect her to become a lobbyist, like other former lawmakers. She might, he guessed, join a firm and finally put her law degree to use.

He was right. At press time, it was announced that Hutchison would join Bracewell & Giuliani, the Texas-based law firm that hired her husband last year—it’s chaired by none other than Pat Oxford. She has stated explicitly that she will not lobby. As a senior counsel, Hutchison will work on energy, banking, and transportation, all while continuing to support her University.

“I’m going to keep my ties to UT,” she says as she sits in the backseat of a car, on her way to the airport on Election Day. “I think when people do succeed, they need to give back.” She’s already established a chair in Latin American law at UT. Now she wants to stay active through the LBJ School of Public Affairs and establish a center for Latin American studies within the law school. Her next leap forward is helping sustain and educate a new generation of Longhorns.

It’s legacy-building. The hard-working Hutchison has already created a complicated persona that’s part “Senator Barbie” and part modern woman; part cheerleader and part Aunt Bea.

But when you ask her whether she’s a role model, she pauses.

“Doing a good job and being effective is something I hope young people and women see,” she says after some thought. It’s a good thing, she says, that young women can see what she’s done, and will do. “Part of a legacy is having courage.”

From top: Hutchison packs up her office; Hutchison, then Kathryn Bailey, in the Texas House of Representatives (1973 or 1975); Hutchison jumping for joy as a cheerleader (1962); Hutchison reports from the Capitol for Houston’s KPRC-TV (1969 or 1971); Hutchison today.

Top and bottom photo by Stephen Voss. All other images courtesy Office of Kay Bailey Hutchison.





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