Texas state Representative Garnet Coleman is known to all who deal with him as a workaholic. Friends sometimes call him at the office at the end of a typical 18-hour day to tell him to get some rest. Then again, he may have no choice but to work hard. Coleman, 40, has devoted much of his legislative career to expanding health insurance coverage for children and poor families, and in a low-tax, low-service state such as Texas, that is more than an ordinarily difficult task.
Outside the legislature itself, Coleman is known less for his work habits than for his forthrightness about a malady much more serious than workaholism. In 1994, during his first full legislative term, he sank into depression following his father’s death, disappearing for a time before being hospitalized. Upon his recovery, he talked frankly with his constituents about his struggle with bipolar disorder. He also wrote and successfully sponsored legislation that requires insurers to provide mental health coverage more or less on a par with coverage for physical ailments. “By interacting in the mental health system, it gives me a personal understanding of how it works or doesn’t work,” he says. “That is why we have representative democracy.”
Most of the time, Coleman focuses on poverty and social welfare issues. He was a lead sponsor of Texas’ welfare reform law, as well as authorization for the state’s participation in the Children’s Health Insurance Program, which provides health care to 475,000 youngsters. His influence as a legislator comes from an old-fashioned source — greater knowledge than anyone else in the room about the nuts and bolts of the issue at hand. “Asleep and on his worst day, Garnet will understand more about the intricacies of public health and its financing than I will on my finest day,” says Patty Gray, chair of the Texas House Public Health Committee.
When he is not preoccupied with health care, he has been instrumental in smoothing the way at the state level for economic development projects in his home city of Houston. It was Coleman who came up with the funding mechanisms that are paying for Houston’s new baseball and basketball stadiums.
This year, Coleman experienced some of his greatest legislative triumphs, as well as continued personal struggles. One of his Medicaid bills greatly simplified the process for parents applying to enroll their children in the program. The state had required as many as 14 different forms from parents and recertification every few months. Coleman’s legislation reduced the paperwork to a single four-page form. That change alone is expected to put one-third of the state’s 1.4 million uninsured children on the rolls.
Another Coleman effort in 2001 was to expand Medicaid’s reach in covering low-income women, legal immigrants and individuals with HIV or mental illness. Drawing on his experience with welfare, Coleman scoured federal regulations for new ways to leverage money that the state was entitled to draw down. After four months of negotiation, he came up with a package under which the federal government would have paid 90 percent of the costs. The bill passed both chambers of the legislature by voice vote, but Governor Rick Perry vetoed it. Coleman is ready to try again. “We’re talking,” he says, “about long-run policy that takes time to build.”
After the legislative session ended this summer, Coleman found himself attracting unwanted media attention — and a misdemeanor charge — following a skirmish with the owner of his children’s private school. The school owner accused Coleman of hitting him repeatedly in the face. Coleman describes it as a mutual shoving match that he regrets. “I’m extremely human,” he says. Political observers in Austin expect him to weather this storm, and his constituents appear supportive.
— Alan Greenblatt
Photos by Rocky Kneten