WASHINGTON — Silhouetted against the window of U.S. Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson’s Capitol Hill office is a model Vulcan 500 series rocket, seemingly ready to blast off into the summer D.C. sky.
It’s a reminder to those who walk into the room that the 82-year-old Dallas Democrat — and ranking member of the U.S. House of Representatives’ Science, Space and Technology Committee — has her eye on the future.
Johnson was first elected to the House in 1992. In the 26 years since then, Democrats have only controlled the U.S. House for six years. But if her party has as good a midterm election as some pundits are predicting, Johnson could soon become both the first African-American representative from Texas to chair a standing committee and the first woman from the state to do so. If it happens, she intends to use her gavel to steer that committee’s focus “back to basics” on science research and fighting climate change.
“I certainly won’t be spending time questioning decisions that were arrived at thirty years ago in science research,” she said in a not-so-subtle dig at the committee’s current head and fellow Texan, U.S. Rep. Lamar Smith.
Unlike Republicans — whose committee leaders turn over every six years because of term limits — Democrats put considerable stock in seniority when it comes to their committee heads. Colleagues say Johnson, a Democrat who has served on the science committee for 26 years and as its ranking member for eight, is virtually a shoo-in for the chairmanship if Democrats manage to flip the roughly two dozen seats they need to gain the House majority. The battle for control of the chamber remains up in the air, but political analysts view Democrats as having a slight edge heading into the fall.
The Science, Space and Technology Committee holds jurisdiction over the non-military research and development projects of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, the National Science Foundation, the Environmental Protection Agency, the Department of Energy and the National Weather Service.
Though the committee is not considered a Capitol Hill heavyweight like Homeland Security or Ways and Means, it’s particularly important to Texas, which is home to NASA’s Johnson Space Center, massive oil fields, several major research universities and more than 300 miles of coastline vulnerable to hurricanes. Texas also produces the most wind power of any U.S. state.
“To me, the committee is really the door to the future. If you don’t do research, you might as well shut up and go out of business,” Johnson said in a recent interview.
If she ends up as chairwoman of the committee, Johnson won’t just be the only Texan in the state’s 36-member U.S. House delegation chairing a committee. She’ll also replace a Texan with whom she has clashed in the past over how that committee should be run.
Smith, who denies that humans are the primary drivers of climate change — despite the overwhelming scientific consensus that carbon emissions are the main cause — has used his gavel and subpoena powers to push for deregulating the EPA and obstructing climate research.
“Much of climate science today appears to be based more on exaggerations, personal agendas and questionable predictions than on the scientific method,” the San Antonio Republican said during a committee hearing in 2017.
Smith has proposed measures — which the Trump administration is now seeking to implement — that would impose requirements on scientific studies that scientists and university leaders have warned would bar lawmakers from considering many studies when crafting policy. And he launched a high-profile investigation into a National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration climate study in an effort to discredit the scientific consensus on global warming.
As Smith and Johnson have sparred over climate change and its connection to the burning of fossil fuels, Texas’ oil drilling boom has continued unabated. If the state were a country, it would be on track to become the world’s third-largest oil producer next year, according to a recent report.
Johnson has no patience for people who, like Smith, deny the role humans play in climate change.
“I can understand somebody being on a different wavelength. What I don’t understand is when you’re looking at it everyday and deny it,” she said.
Smith did not respond to a request for comment.
Despite occupying the position of dissenter in a GOP stronghold, Johnson said she is trying to do what she can on politically charged issues like the environment.
“You can’t get the whole hog sometimes. You take the parts you get and keep working on it,” she said.
That philosophy is one Johnson has followed her whole life — a progressive pragmatism born of her experience starting a career and breaking barriers in segregated North Texas.
Johnson, who grew up in Waco, attended Saint Mary's College in Indiana because Texas' schools were segregated at the time. She moved to Dallas to begin a career in nursing in 1955 — a year she remembers for Emmett Till’s lynching. When she arrived in the city, the poll tax was still in place and black women couldn’t even try on clothes in department stores. This was the “very Southern, black and white town” Johnson adopted — and she quickly immersed herself in civic life. She joined the local YWCA chapter and took part in activism against segregation.
A nurse by training, Johnson served as the Dallas Veterans Administration hospital’s first African-American chief psychiatric nurse for 16 years. She decided to run for the Texas House of Representatives in 1972 – seven years after the Voting Rights Act passed — and became the first black woman elected to any public office from Dallas.
Johnson left state government for a brief period to work in President Jimmy Carter’s administration as the regional director for the U.S. Department of Health, Education, and Welfare. She re-entered state government when she was elected to the Texas Senate in 1986.
U.S. Rep. Gene Green’s ascent from the Texas Legislature to Congress closely tracked Johnson’s.
“We kind of grew up together” in the Legislature, the Houston Democrat said in an interview last month, affectionately referring to his colleague as “Eddie B.” He said the two “went through the valley of death” working under then-Lt. Gov. Bob Bullock, who Green described as “one of the meanest elected officials” but one who deeply cared about the state’s well-being.
“He taught us that the value is not just your district, but for Texas. If it’s not good for Texas, you shouldn’t be doing it. We try to live by that,” Green said.
It’s a mentality Johnson carried to Washington when she was elected to Congress in 1992. “I first think of Texas rather than party, so much so that I’ve had to get accustomed to such a strong line between Democrats and Republicans here,” she said.
Colleagues on both sides of the aisle agree: Johnson always has the Lone Star state at the front of her mind.
“She’s good for Texas, that’s for sure,” U.S. Rep. Ted Poe, R-Humble, said.
Former state Rep. Steve Wolens, a Democrat who represented a Dallas-based district, praised her ability to deliver on projects for the Dallas area while withstanding “partisan bickering” for more than two decades.
“Even as a Democrat in a Republican-led Congress, she has stuck in there and she has kept swinging and fighting for North Texas,” he said.
The district remains solidly blue, but Texas politics have shifted dramatically since Johnson first arrived in Washington in 1992. During Johnson’s first term, Democrats occupied 21 of Texas’ 30 U.S. House seats, the governor’s mansion and a majority in the state Legislature. With the rightward shift of state government in the ensuing decades, Republicans now dominate every level of state government and control more than two-thirds of the congressional delegation.
Amid shifting political tides, though, Johnson has hung on. She’s a Dallas institution; the city recently named its prominent downtown train station after her. Though she has occasionally faced primary challengers, Johnson’s closest call was back in 1996, when she won with 55 percent of the vote. She typically boasts double-digit leads over her opponents.
She hasn’t evaded controversy, though; a national scandal engulfed the congresswoman in 2010 when she gave thousands of dollars in Congressional Black Caucus Foundation scholarship money to relatives and an aide’s children, violating the foundation’s anti-nepotism rules. Her actions drew condemnation from caucus leaders, and she agreed to repay the money. Still, she coasted to victory that year with 76 percent of the vote.
As the composition of the Texas delegation changed, Johnson grew accustomed to working with Republicans. “If you want to try to get to the answer or solution or something, you go to the people that can help you, not withstanding party,” she said.
She eschews grandstanding, instead preferring behind-the-scenes work. She spends her evenings reading up on policy issues and keeps a short list of fellow Texans to call on for help with pet projects. And members of the Texas delegation know they can count on her to push infrastructure projects for their districts — and her own — through the other committee she sits on, the U.S. House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee.
Colleagues describe Johnson’s style as no-nonsense, straight-shooting and down-to-business. They say she has no interest in opining on the House floor. Poe describes her as “the calming waters” in a delegation composed of “independent” and “kind of hyper” Texans.
Green added: “She’s real thoughtful and she's not a screamer. She’s somebody who’s methodical and explains what she would do to help you.”
It’s an approach to legislating informed by a lifetime of being in the minority.
“Because of who I am, being an African-American female in a society that makes me a double minority — not in number, but in treatment — you don’t go into a battle thinking that you gonna whip anybody,” Johnson said. “You go into battle thinking you’re going to convince somebody to do the right thing.”
For Johnson, the right thing often involves championing women and minorities in science, technology, engineering and mathematics. Former science committee chairman Barton Gordon, a Tennessee Democrat who retired from Congress in 2011, described the committee in a recent interview as “an incubator for innovation” — and Johnson’s greatest legacy to date is working to ensure that traditionally underrepresented groups help drive that innovation, he said.
“We know that we need the brain power, and there’s as much brain power among females as males. And when you’re going to have a big discovery, nobody checks to see what’s the difference between your brain and a male brain or an Asian brain or an African-American brain,” Johnson said. “We just have to have the knowledge.”
Johnson’s voice grows more animated when she describes the “electric” enthusiasm of young researchers guiding a drone on Mars or when she marvels at how far technology has come since the black-and-white televisions on the market when she was a girl.
The prospect of becoming a leading steward of American innovation does not faze the octogenarian.
“We have to keep saying, what else is there?” she said.
If Democrats take the House in November, Johnson would likely become the only Texan to wield a gavel once the new Congress is sworn in — and with that gavel, she’d also become the first female chair of the House science committee and the first woman from Texas to chair any congressional committee. No matter which way the political headwinds blow, Johnson is slated to become the dean of the Texas delegation after a wave of retirements this year.
In a departure from her would-be predecessor, she said she’ll advocate measures to curb climate change and promote research to create “more resilience” when hurricanes like Harvey hit, among other priorities.
Johnson knows that posing any imminent existential threat to fossil fuels wouldn’t go over very well in a Republican-leaning, oil-producing state.
“I am not one that’s going to be radical enough to think we’re just going to get rid of fossil fuels,” she said. But she believes humans have an obligation to mitigate their adverse effects. She recently proposed a bill with U.S. Rep. Marc Veasey, D-Fort Worth, that would fund research on removing and recycling carbon from the atmosphere.
From the chair’s seat, she would have a much better shot at advancing bills she supports. Committee heads drive a committee’s agenda and hold significant sway over the legislative process by deciding which bills get hearings and presiding over the markup process.
The Texas delegation on the whole will lose clout if Democrats take the House; seven Republicans from Texas currently chair committees. But one chairmanship is certainly better for the state than none.
“Any state that has a chairman of a committee is better off — not only in that committee, but they’re part of the leadership meetings and can be an advocate,” Gordon, the former science committee chairman, said. A chairperson’s seat with Johnson’s name on it, he added, would provide “a great platform for the state.”
Johnson said she’s not focused on campaigning for the position at the moment. “I don’t think it’s the time at this point to get excited about that aspect of it; the time at this point is trying to make sure you win in November,” she said.
Johnson said she’s glad to see Democrats running in every district in the state and mounting serious campaigns against Republican incumbents. Regardless of whether the blue wave in Texas ultimately takes the form of a ripple or a tsunami, energy on the left is good for the state, she said.
“What I have seen in Texas is that the longer we’ve had one party in rule, the more right-wing it becomes. And so if you’ve got more competitive seats, you’ll see a few more minds open up,” Johnson said.
She added, “It’s time for the pendulum to swing back a bit.”
This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune.