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August 30, 2016

Former Speaker's Spouse Brings Temporary Truce
to Partisan Battlefield at Austin Graveside Farewell

Nelda Laney Obituary

By Mike Hailey
Capitol Inside Editor

Nelda Laney accomplished something Tuesday morning that her husband found impossible to achieve as one of the Texas Legislature's most powerful leaders for an entire decade.

Former House Speaker Pete Laney's college sweetheart and spouse for 53 years made the word partisanship disappear from the political vernacular in the Capitol beltway during a final tribute to her life at the Texas State Cemetery in Austin.

The Laney family matriarch had been referred to as "the first lady of West Texas" in political and media circles from the South Plains to the Capital City. So it seemed fitting to have another West Texan who'd had the same basic title at the Governor's Mansion here and the White House sitting with her husband on a row of chairs behind the ex-speaker and his closest relatives at the graveside service for his wife several blocks from the statehouse.

Nelda Laney died last week after a brief battle with a brain tumor at the age of 73. But she left behind a legacy that's timeless as someone who'd been an instrumental force in Capitol restoration and preservation efforts including her role as the founder of the Christmas tree ornament project that's still going strong after 20 years.

But Nelda Laney - like her good friend Laura Bush - had similar personalities and outlooks on life that compelled them to abstain from the partisan warring that was raging intensely when their husbands had been working together to try to keep it at bay when they were serving as the Democratic speaker and Republican governor in the 1990s.

Laney's death seemed to bring a temporary ceasefire to the nonstop battle between the blue and the red for political supremacy in the Lone Star State.

The long list of Republicans at the burial service featured former President George W. Bush and his wife - a pair of ex-Midland residents who'd hosted the Laneys at their home in Washington several times while they were the nation's first couple during an eight-year period that ended in early 2009. The Bushes had traveled to Austin from their current resident in the Dallas-Fort Worth area where the television cameras has spotted them late last night in their familiar front-row seat at the Texas Rangers game with Seattle.

The graveside event drew hundreds of people from both sides of the aisle including Pete Laney allies and some old political enemies as well. The audience of admirers who gathered in east Austin for a final farewell featured a multitude of lobbyists, Capitol staffers and current and former state lawmakers from both sides of the aisle.

Alpine Democrat Pete Gallego - a former Laney lieutenant in the Legislature's lower chamber - was on hand for the burial after taking a detour from a campaign for a congressional seat that he lost two years and is trying to reclaim this fall in a rematch with Republican U.S. Rep. Will Hurd of San Antonio.

Texas Agriculture Commissioner Sid Miller - a Republican who'd served in the House with Laney - turned out for the service at the cemetery as a first-term statewide leader who'd had a major supporting role just one week ago as a speaker at a rally in Austin for GOP presidential nominee Donald Trump.

Miller and most of the House Republicans had been Tom Craddick supporters when the Midland lawmaker replaced Laney as the GOP's first House speaker since the Reconstruction period following the Civil War. Pete Laney had won the leadership post in 1993 and held it for a record-tying five terms before Republicans seized the chamber's majority and elected one of their own as speaker in 2003.

Gib Lewis - the only other Texan to lead the House for 10 years as the speaker - attended the burial service for his successor's wife. Lewis and Laney had both been regarded as conservative Democrats during their stints in the Legislature.

One of the Republicans who'd remained loyal to Laney before the partisan coup in 2003 - Tommy Merritt of Longview - traveled back to Austin for the Nelda Laney memorial event as well. Merritt had served in the House for 14 years before falling victim to the first tea party wave in a GOP primary election in Texas. Merritt was visiting with old friends and former colleagues after the cemetery service today a few feet away from Miller, who'd defeated in a primary runoff in the state farm chief's race two years ago.

Everyone had seemed to check the R's and D's at the doors for a half-hour - and that alone was a silver lining in an otherwise sad event.


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