After 26 years and more than 300 passed bills, social justice warrior Elliott Naishtat, MSSW ’72, JD ’82, prepares to leave the Texas House.
Even as the contents of well-worn shelves and drawers make their way into cardboard moving boxes, a visit to State Representative Elliott Naishtat’s offices in the Texas Capitol feels like entering some redoubt of latter-day Texas liberalism.
Born and raised in New York City, Naishtat has spent the last 26 years representing House District 49 in the state legislature. During this time, he’s won the reputation of an unassuming and effective operator best known for his unrelenting advocacy for health and human services in a state often opposed to public spending. Late last year, Naishtat announced that he wouldn’t seek reelection come November.
On plum-colored carpets, every piece of furniture in the office seems to be made of dark wood and studded leather. Scattered artifacts and memorabilia fill the office, and every nook, cranny, and surface that can hold a file or brief does. On one wall, framed news clippings commemorate the 2003 Walkout, when Naishtat and over 50 Democrats deprived the House of a quorum and blocked a Republican redistricting plan.
“You know Molly Ivins? She was a dear friend. After she died, her family said ‘What do we do with that?’” Naishtat says, pointing across the room at a taxidermied armadillo peeking out from atop a bookcase. “One day, a box showed up here, and the note said, ‘Place this where Molly and her armadillo can always keep an eye on you,’” he recalls, chuckling.
Naishtat mentions the armadillo as an aside to the story of how he came to Texas in the first place.
To hear him tell it, the bright-eyed 20-something had been promised a role in President Lyndon B. Johnson’s War on Poverty with AmeriCorps out in San Francisco. A last-minute change sent him to Eagle Pass instead, amidst the cacti, armadillos, and the acute underdevelopment of the Texas border with Mexico.
As Naishtat recalls, the work was all about “developing local leadership potential” and the mantra was “maximum feasible participation of the poor.”
“That’s when I learned about being a catalyst for change through community organizing. Today you hear about ‘empowerment,’ and that’s really what it was,” he continues.
After AmeriCorps, community organizing brought Naishtat to the historic Clarksville neighborhood of Austin, and from there he found his way to The University of Texas at Austin School of Social Work.
As a second-year student in the school’s newly minted organizing and planning master’s program, he’d never considered straying from grassroots organizing. One day the late dean Jack Otis told him, “Elliott, everything that you’ve done is at the grassroots level, and that’s great, but I need you to understand that there are other battlefields, and one of them is right here in Austin.”
With that impetus, Naishtat arranged to have his field placement with the State Capitol’s Legislative Budget Board, focusing on health and human services.
After he graduated, Dean Otis hired him to put together and direct the school’s first-ever legislative training program. Through the program, second-year master’s students were placed in the offices of members of the legislature to gain hands-on experience in the law-making process.
The initial program eventually ran out of funding, but when Naishtat was elected to public office in 1990 he made a point of reviving it and has been receiving office interns and recruiting staff from his alma mater ever since.
“They do great work, and they get hired like that,” he says snapping his fingers. “I get absolutely competent full-time professional interns, and they’re treated like members of the staff.”
Over the years, more than 30 social work students have been placed in Naishtat’s office and have gone through what is arguably the best imaginable crash-course in the state’s legislative process for the socially minded. Interns got to research and draft legislation under Naishtat’s watchful eye — and feared pen, with which he edited line by line anything interns wrote. Some students stayed on as staff members after completing their internships, and the experience convinced many others to take up policy-related careers.
“It’s been a total success,” Elliott says, reflecting. “I’m very proud of where they ended up.”
As we talk, hanging on a coat rack in the corner of the room is Naishtat’s signature Save the Children tie — a tie that he started to wear everywhere shortly after he was first elected in 1990.
Looking around, there’s a conspicuously empty shelf running the length of the room.
“That’s where my awards were,” he tells me, more frankly than wistfully. Now they’re in six or seven large,
carefully stacked cardboard boxes
“Early on, I decided to measure my success as a legislator by how many bills I passed,” he says, perhaps sensing the looming question of what the legacy of so many years in office could be.
By that measure, he’s outstripped the majority of his peers with over 300 bills passed in 13 house sessions. Another metric might consider the people — those 30-some interns, the folks in Eagle Pass and Clarksville, friends, fellow legislators, constituents and Texans all over, and the countless more that can’t be mentioned for want of space — whose paths Representative Naishtat’s lifetime of social work through public service no doubt influenced.
By this measure too, the evidence seems pretty positive.
Social work alumni on Naisthat’s legacy
Michael Lucas (MSSW ‘98), Deputy Director, Atlanta Volunteer Lawyers Foundation. Intern for Naishtat, fall ‘96 – spring ’97. Worked as legislative aide, legislative director, and committee director on the House Committee on Human Services, 1996 – 2002
I can honestly say that my time working for Elliott shaped the rest of my career. When I was an undergraduate social work student I was planning on just working with youth directly but I was encouraged to take the internship on faith that I would appreciate working for Elliott in the legislature. I was told that he was an MSSW with a law degree that cared passionately about the same things that I cared about. But I was skeptical about whether or not that was the path for me when I went there. I am now an MSSW with a law degree whose whole career to this point is to advocate for the people that I wanted to work with as a social worker, but to do so through the justice system and through more macro-level change. Elliott taught me about those roots of our profession so it’s not overstatement at all to say that he shaped my very path.
Nancy Walker (MSSW ’99), Senior Advisor to the Executive Commissioner for Texas Health and Human Services. Intern for Naishtat, spring ’99. Worked as legislative aide and legislative director, 1999 – 2012
I’ll be honest with you, working for Representative Naishtat, working in the capitol, as a social worker interested in policy, that was the ultimate job. I’ve never had a job that felt like such a perfect fit. His values and my values were so aligned and so aligned with social work values. That’s extremely rare in many situations and especially within the legislative setting. As I see it, his legacy’s really standing up for people who otherwise don’t have a voice in the legislative process and in politics, because politics tends to drive policy. His whole passion, his whole make-up is about helping indigent populations, low-to-mid income populations, really disenfranchised populations. I believe that’s his legacy.
Doug Smith (MSSW ’00), Policy Analyst, Texas Criminal Justice Coalition. Intern for Naishtat, spring ’00. Worked as policy analyst, 2000 – 2001
Why is it that we go into the field of social work? Why do you serve in public office? He’s made service his life’s mission. You look at the countless people who’ve worked in his office as staff members and interns and they were deeply influenced by that. You look at the number of people who were impacted by the policies that he passed, that’s his legacy. I think that his legacy is also challenging those who characterize those who live in poverty in the most negative way. The battles that he was fighting when I worked for him are the battles that are still being fought today. We want to depersonalize poverty. We want to blame the individual who is living in poverty–make it a statement of their character or a statement of their lack of their responsibility—and he knew that that was a lie and he forced other legislators to acknowledge that.
Laurie Cook Heffron (PhD ’15, MSSW ’02), Assistant professor, St. Edward’s University. Intern for Naishtat, fall ‘00 – spring ’01. Worked as policy analyst, 2001-2002
When I was placed at Elliott’s office I had no concept, despite my education, of how policy actually gets made: how bills get passed, implemented, and become policies that have an impact on real people. And I say this in a positive way, in the sense of how many opportunities regular citizens and advocates have to shape the process. People literally walked into the committee office, and we would hear anyone wanting to give their insight. I still remember this person, when we were working on a suicide prevention report, she would come to our office and every time she she had something written to give to us, and it always had attached a picture of her son, who had died by suicide. Elliott was at the Capitol everyday. Many elected officials check out during the interregnum, but Elliot was known as someone who was there every day, interregnum or not. I think his legacies lie in his day-in, day-out presence and attentive engagement in public service, and most importantly, in his steadfast commitment to the needs and rights of marginalized communities in his district and throughout Texas. Over the years, he and his staff also created a training ground and mentorship network for social workers, public policy analysts, and advocates working toward social justice.
Linda Rangel (MSSW ’13), Social worker, Communities In Schools of Houston. Intern for Naishtat, spring ‘13
I think his legacy is going to be that for all of the years that he was in office, we had a legislator that the people of Austin, his district, could count on. The staff truly cared about his constituents and the issues that they were facing and I’m sad that he’s retiring because I think he was one of the good ones. I think that social work students were lucky to have his office as one of the possible field placements. Personally, it was my favorite field placement. And just getting to know him and learn from him is one of the best experiences that I’ve ever had. Oh, and his tie! Part of his legacy is also going to be his wonderful tie!
– Photos and text by Martin do Nascimento