August 28, 2016
Legendary Texas Political Leader's Wife Will Be
Buried Near Capitol Where She Had Big Impact
Nelda Laney Obituary
By Mike Hailey
Capitol Inside Editor
A line on a full-page photo in the Plainview High School yearbook in 1961 described senior princess Nelda McQueen as "regal and majestic ... striking beauty ... spirit is her middle name."
The girl in the picture was a cheerleader with short blonde hair and dynamite eyes that a football player at Hale Center High School about a dozen miles away would find irresistible when the two met while attending Texas Tech University.
James E. "Pete" Laney had been married to Nelda McQueen Laney for 30 years by the time he became one of the most powerful political leaders in the state with his election as the
Texas House speaker in 1993. The couple had celebrated their golden anniversary three years before the former speaker's wife died last week at the age of 73.
The South Plains product who became known as the "first lady of West Texas" will be buried on Tuesday in Austin at the Texas State Cemetery several blocks from the Capitol where her spouse served 34 years in the west wing including a record-tying five terms as speaker.
Services were held Saturday in Lubbock for Nelda Laney, who fell victim to a brain tumor that had been diagnosed as inoperable.
Pete Laney had been a Texas political giant as one of the last and most famous conservative Democrats in the Lone Star State. But the ex-speaker's bride had been a major force in the public arena as well in a variety of ways including her roles as the founder of the Capitol Christmas ornament program and national president of the Texas Tech Alumni Association.
Nelda Laney's husband was widely regarded as a true bipartisan leader before his stint in the leadership post ended in early 2003 after Republicans seized their first House majority in more than 130 years at the polls several months earlier.
While Pete Laney served four years as a state representative after Midland Republican Tom Craddick replaced him on the dais, his wife got caught in the partisan warring that she'd always avoided when the GOP-controlled State Preservation Board forced her out of the leadership position for the ornament program that she'd initiated in the mid-1990s. Nelda Laney had been clearly disappointed by the power play - but she wasn't the type to be bitter about the kind of maneuvering that goes with the territory of politics.
Partisanship hadn't been a barrier, however, for a personal friendship that the Laneys shared with Republican George W. Bush and his wife Laura Bush. Laney introduced Bush as the newly-elected president in the Texas House chamber after the Florida recount in late 2000 - and the speaker and his wife were guests multiple times at the White House where they stayed in the Lincoln Bedroom when the former governor was the chief resident there.
The praise that's been showered on the late Nelda Laney in the past days has been immune to partisanship with GOP leaders like Governor Greg Abbott, House Speaker Joe Straus and the second President Bush all expressing sadness in the wake of her death while paying tribute to the positive impact that she'd had in life.
Pete Laney had been nearing the end of his first term as speaker when Bush unseated incumbent Democrat Ann Richards in the gubernatorial contest in 1994. Bob Bullock - the Democratic lieutenant governor at the time - and Laney had forged an alliance with Bush and promised to let the Republican take credit for major legislative accomplishments as long as he wasn't an obstacle during the process.
The GOP claimed the Senate majority, however, in the 1996 election before winning every statewide race two years later. Laney's leadership organization made it possible for the Democrats to stay in control in the House until the last domino in the Republican takeover of Texas finally fell when the GOP won 88 seats on a map that had been drawn by statewide leaders to ensure a red majority.
After deciding against a re-election bid in 2006, Laney worked to elect a Democratic successor in a district that had become heavily Republican like the rest of West Texas. Several more rural House Democrats who'd been regarded as relatively conservative all lost re-election bids in 2010 when a massive red wave propelled the GOP to its first ever super majority in the Legislature's lower chamber.
One thing that would never change, however, was the fact that Pete Laney has always been the first to admit that he owed his success to a large degree to his college sweetheart.