Kel Seliger: The last rural senator
Kel Seliger turns 64 this month. For most folks, that’s a year away from retirement. But the state senator from Amarillo, who’s up for re-election in 2018, says he has no imminent plans to retire.
In many ways, Seliger is a Texas throwback; in too many ways, the last of a dying breed. A 13-year veteran of the Texas Senate and former Amarillo mayor, his political strength derives from his unique brand of congeniality and resolve. Tall, bald and big-framed and gregarious, he’s the type of man that children would call Uncle Kel, and a politician that can make opponents cry uncle.
His rebuffing of retirement questions comes as a relief to many across his oddly shaped 37-county Senate district, which covers the top of the Panhandle and extends down the New Mexico line into the Permian Basin. Relieved sighs can also be heard around the Texas Capitol and near University Avenue and Broadway in Lubbock.
A political anomaly, Seliger focuses on education and local control as both issues seem to fade from the memory and vision of Texas Republicanism.
His resolve on education and local control was most evident in the 85th Legislature, in which Seliger bucked the upper chamber and voted against private school vouchers and lowering caps on property tax rollback rates. He was the only Senate Republican to do so.
Many onlookers took his votes as signs of a defiant, retiring senator. But he disagrees.
“You could say I voted like I was going to retire, or you could say I have some convictions and personal beliefs that are important to me. And I try to do things, not because of the polls and the next election, but because of conviction,” he told me.
Then, working his resolve and congeniality like a gas pedal and clutch, Seliger shifted. “There are an awful lot of people who certainly have their own personal convictions, but they have a lot of respect for (other) people who vote according to (their own) convictions.”
But why such opposition to rollback rates and vouchers?
“My conviction is that we need to do something about taxes. I’m one of the few people around who still believes in local control, who believes that the people who are closest to the to voters probably do the most effective job. Senate Bill 2 didn’t lower any taxes,” he said.
“Senate Bill 3 was offering vouchers so kids could take the money that would normally go to public schools and put them into private schools. The problem was that in that bill there was absolutely no accountability,” Seliger continued, adding that parochial schools that taught Common Core or Islamic schools that taught anti-Americanism would be underwritten by unaccountable tax dollars.
Even with an amendment that carved West Texas out of vouchers, Seliger still voted nay, “because I can’t be bought off. If it’s not good policy in Lubbock County, then it’s not good policy in Harris County. And it was the wrong thing to do.”
He confirms rumors that Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick applies immense pressure on senators, but counters, “there’s always pressure from somewhere. And in this case, there’s a lieutenant governor that has his personal priorities and he pushes them forcefully.”
Pressure that Seliger won’t justify, however, is from Empower Texans, a dark money political organization that he says influences who holds which positions in the Texas Senate. “I think they have a lot of influence. But I don’t work for some shadowy group at 8th and Congress in Austin, I work for the working folks of West Texas. And it will always be that way.”
Seliger is both a member of the powerful finance committee and chair of higher education— a significant detail in understanding the appropriation to Texas Tech’s veterinarian school proposal in the budget submitted to Gov. Greg Abbott.
Early on in the session, Lubbock state Rep. John Frullo horse traded in the House, gathering support for an appropriation in that chamber’s budget. From there, the Senate took over.
Underplaying a critical role many attribute to him off record, Seliger said, “I shepherded that through like everybody did. Certain projects are worthwhile, not just in Amarillo, but in Galveston or Tyler, in places like that so that we have the best higher education opportunities anywhere in the country.”
I asked him if sees himself as the last rural senator. “It’s not exactly accurate,” he said, pointing out other senators elected from rural regions.
Then a resolved Seliger added, “I may be the last one who votes like a rural senator.”
This column first appeared in the Lubbock Avalanche-Journal in June 2017.