Wednesday, 31 October 2001 09:00

As crazy as a bedbug - or is it a peach orchard squirrel?

Written by Tom Slear

In 1999, when I last looked in on the Texas political scene, it was in the process of meltdown, as least as it relates to the collision repair industry.

A nascent organization called the Texas Lone Star Collision Association (TLSCA) tried to hit a legislative home run by pushing a bill that would have severely limited direct repair relationships, cut back on imitation parts, and outlawed steering. The bill was the collision industry's Holy Grail. The Association of Automotive Service Providers of Texas (AASP-Texas), the dominant collision organization in the state, said that was precisely the problem. The bill reached too far. AASP-Texas wanted the language toned down. Otherwise, the sleeping giant that is the insurance lobby would awaken and squash everything in sight.

The ensuing spat revealed more about the legislative process than a graduate course in civics. Granted, disagreements are as much a part of politics as bad taste is a part of rap music, but what distinguished this particular spat was its level of nastiness. After it was all over, lobbyist Lisa Ross dropped AASP-Texas as a client specifically because she wanted to have no more dealings with TLSCA. For their part, TLSCA members, and Dallas shop owner Roy Smalley in particular, offered no apologies for their aggressive tactics and intransigent mind-set.The internecine fighting caused Les Breeding, legislative director for Lon Burnam, the House member who sponsored the bill, to shake his head in disbelief. The insurance lobby was just over the horizon and the two collision industry associations in the state were at each other's throat.

11th hour death

The bill progressed further than most observers thought it would, but at the 11th hour the insurance industry snuffed it. Predictably, Ross and Smalley blamed each other. Ross thought Smalley and the TLSCA had upset the delicate balance that turns bills into laws. You don't confront, you compromise. You don't spit in the opposition's face, you negotiate.

Smalley had no time for Ross' compromising or negotiating. He saw DRPs and steering as the key issues confronting the collision industry. Each had a time fuse attached. If something wasn't done promptly, Smalley and other independent shops would be out of business.

I shall return

Both foresaw a much different future. Ross thought Smalley had worn out his welcome in Austin, the Texas capital, and poisoned for years any legislative effort on behalf of collision repairers. Smalley thought he had built a solid base in Austin. He would be back in two years wiser and more astute. (The Texas legislature convenes every odd year for 140 days.)

TLSCA and Smalley did return this year. Their agenda was broader and their tone muted, but nothing else changed. The two major bills they presented were essentially the 1999 bill split in half. The goal was still the Holy Grail. The tactics were the same. TLSCA wanted no part of compromise. It didn't approach AASP-Texas about a joint effort. In Smalley's mind, AASP-Texas was all about DRP shops. The organization was as palatable to Smalley as week-old bread.

You can't help but admire Smalley's persistence and rectitude. But as Ross warned, politics isn't about rectitude; it's about what will work, and what works, above all, are united fronts and small steps.

The need for a united front hardly needs an explanation. As Breeding says, "The insurance industry is not really interested in compromise, and why should they be? They have the collision industry over a barrel because they know it's divided."

The need for small steps is less obvious, but just as important. Put yourself in a legislator's shoes. He or she has scant time each session to consider and act on any one of hundreds of bills. A bill with controversy attached takes up precious time and forces the legislator to chose sides. While the first rule of politics is to get elected and the second is to get reelected, the third is to make as few enemies as possible. Small steps avoid controversy and the subsequent ill will. The whole loaf doesn't disappear, just a bite, and most people don't even notice.

"This can be hard to accept, especially when you don't have much time or money," says Breeding, "but the legislative process is about the long-term. You knock off a little piece each session."

Insurance money talks in Austin

As in 1999, TLSCA came away with nothing. Its two bills made it out of the House but died in the Senate. And once again, Smalley placed the blame elsewhere. It was the system, which he believes is money-laden and dominated by large special interest groups. It was the other shop owners throughout the state, who are apathetic to a fault. It was AASP-Texas, which takes marching orders from its DRP members. It was the lobbyists (and presumably TLSCA's lobbyist, too), who don't understand the collision industry. It was the state senator who promised support and then wouldn't act. Of course, it was never the two bills and their large steps, or TLSCA and its refusal to work with AASP-Texas.

Smalley won't compromise principles

However, it's tough to discredit Smalley. He's adamant in his belief that DRPs are a dishonest business practice forced on consumers by insurance companies. It's a matter of principle, and Smalley doesn't compromise when it comes to principle.

More important, Smalley's motives are pure. At 61, he's entering the dusk of his career. He'll survive. He's working to benefit the younger shop owners, the ones who might not have a business to run if the power of the insurance companies isn't corralled somehow.

But you have to wonder: Is there a better way? TLSCA and Smalley deserve high marks for honesty, but the fact of the matter is that they had two tries at the legislative plate and they struck out both times. Does the political process allow for both honesty and results?

Probably not, at least not honesty as our elementary school teachers defined it.

Watch what I do, not what I say

"You come to the capital, legislators are nice, and you think this civility means something," says Durward Curlee, a Texas lobbyist for 30 years. "When the legislator says your bill looks good, you might think he is going to vote for it, but he doesn't mean that at all. He doesn't know what he'll do. He'll think about it right up until the vote."

Curlee learned about the collision industry during his 10 years as executive director of the Texas Collision Association, which went belly up in 1998 in no small part because of Smalley. To say Curlee and Smalley have little use for each other would be the understatement of the millennium.

Curlee sees Smalley and others in TLSCA as gunslingers who must turn over their six-shooters at the city line. Smalley might know collision repair, but that matters little inside the city limits of a state capital. What matters is a firm grasp of how the game is played.

"You never run a full-fledged war on the insurance industry," Curlee says. "If you take them on directly, they will swamp you. You run a guerilla war. You catch them in tight places. Look what happened (with TLSCA's bills) this year. They couldn't even get a sponsor in the Senate."

Peach orchard squirrels

Curlee, of course, is the consummate insider. He works the angles. The end usually justifies the means. He laughs at Smalley's approach. "Crazier than a bed bug," he says. Better yet, "crazier than a peach orchard squirrel."

A peach orchard squirrel?

"The squirrel gets in the orchard and sees so many peaches that it runs around in circles," Curlee explains. "They come to Austin and bounce around from one legislator to the next. The legislators tell them they will vote for their bill just to get them out of their office. And then they are surprised when none of their bills pass."

Roy, are you listening?

Not a chance.

"I'd rather not respond to anything Durward has to say," Smalley says. "He has no credibility. He is only working for himself. I'm not interested in anything he has to say."

Smalley predicts he probably won't be back in 2003 for another round in Austin. Curlee isn't surprised. The ones who last and have success are the ones who learn how the process works. According to Curlee, Smalley isn't interested in learning.

"Suppose I tried to tell him how to repair a car, do you think he would listen?" says Curlee. "But here he is telling us how the legislature works. It's a shame. If united, the collision industry could have a lot of success at the state level."