‘Heroic’ amend­ment push helps man make the grade

Austin American-Statesman - - FRONT PAGE - Ken Her­man

Looks like we’re head­ing for a hap­pier new end­ing on a happy old story that some of you might not know about. Gre­gory Wat­son seems headed for an up­grade.

We be­gin back in spring 1982 when Wat­son, then a Uni­ver­sity of Texas stu­dent, signed up for Sharon Waite’s GOV 310 course on Amer­i­can Gov­ern­ment. For his term pa­per, young Wat­son re­searched the pro­posed Equal Rights Amend­ment to the U.S. Con­sti­tu­tion, a hot topic of the day.

But Wat­son di­verted when he came upon a book that listed other pro­posed con­sti­tu­tional amend­ments pro­posed but never rat­i­fied by the re­quired three-fourths of the states.

“And this one in­stantly jumped out at me,” he re­called.

“This one” was pro­posed in 1789 and con­cerned con­gres­sional pay raises. At the time Wat­son be­lieved six states had rat­i­fied it, with the most re­cent be­ing Vir­ginia in 1791. (This turned out to be wrong; two oth­ers later did.)

An­other key year here is

1917. Be­fore that, Congress did not put ex­pi­ra­tion dates on pro­posed con­sti­tu­tional amend­ments. That meant the 1789 one was still in play, and this gave birth to a term pa­per Wat­son re­calls he ti­tled, “Can a pro­posed con­sti­tu­tional amend­ment to the U.S. Con­sti­tu­tion of­fered by Congress in 1789 still be rat­i­fied by the state leg­is­la­tures af­ter all these years?”

OK, not a ti­tle that smoothly rolls off the tongue, but on point.

The amend­ment says any pay hike mem­bers of Congress OK for them­selves can’t take ef­fect un­til af­ter the sub­se­quent U.S. House elec­tion. The topic was hot in the early 1980s be­cause in 1981 Congress had, in Wat­son’s words, “slipped it­self a sneaky pay raise” by tuck­ing it into a coal miner health care bill.

So Wat­son turned his pa­per in to the course teach­ing as­sis­tant, who gave it a C-. Wat­son, a per­sis­tent fel­low, ap­pealed to Waite.

“She said she’d take a look at it. So I gave it to her,” Wat­son told me. “And then the next class pe­riod, she kind of phys­i­cally tossed it back at me and said, ‘No change.’”

He got a C in the course and says he was “kind of, sort of ” an­gry at Waite and the T.A.

“So I said, ‘I will not let this dis­ap­point me. I will go out and get that thing rat­i­fied,’” Wat­son said.

He did, start­ing by con­tact­ing law­mak­ers in Maine in 1983. Wat­son’s thing be­came the 27th (and most re­cent) amend­ment to the U.S. Con­sti­tu­tion in 1992.

And that was that. The U.S. Con­sti­tu­tion had a new amend­ment. And Wat­son still had a C in GOV 310.

About a year ago, UT gov­ern­ment pro­fes­sor Zach Elkins and KUT Man­ag­ing Editor Matt Largey con­tacted Wat­son and ex­pressed in­ter­est in his story, but Wat­son didn’t know what they were up to.

He found out March 4, live and on stage at the Para­mount Theatre, where he had been in­vited for what he thought was to be a Q&A about his in­volve­ment in amend­ing the U.S. Con­sti­tu­tion. His story was one of sev­eral told at some­thing called “Pop-Up Mag­a­zine,” which is kind of a live news mag­a­zine. Sev­eral other top­ics came up be­fore Largey’s telling of Wat­son’s story, who then was in­vited on stage.

“It was at that point that pro­fes­sor Elkins handed me the en­ve­lope,” Wat­son said.

The en­ve­lope con­tained an Up­date of Stu­dent Aca­demic Record form re­quest­ing that his 1982 grade in the gov­ern­ment course be changed from C to A+. It was signed by Waite.

In the space for “Ex­pla­na­tion of er­ror, de­lay or spe­cial cir­cum­stances,” Waite wrote, “In light of the stu­dent’s heroic ef­forts to prove the pro­fes­sor and T.A. wrong in their as­sess­ment of his term pa­per, Mr. Wat­son de­serves an A+.”

Waite, who was a lecturer at UT from 1981 to 1983, now works on a Mis­sion citrus farm that’s been in her fam­ily since 1922. Thanks to Wat­son’s achieve­ment, she proudly calls her­self “a foot­note to a foot­note of his­tory.”

But she says C was the proper course grade at the time be­cause she thought his the­ory about get­ting the con­sti­tu­tional amend­ment rat­i­fied was far-fetched. “I thought it couldn’t be done,” she said. “So he just pro­ceeded to prove me wrong.”

“Hey, a lowly lecturer has had more ef­fect on the Con­sti­tu­tion than any­body in the pro­fes­so­rial ranks,” Waite said with a laugh.

Elkins said he teaches about Wat­son’s ef­fort as an in­spir­ing ex­am­ple of “heroic cit­i­zen­ship.”

“We just need the dean’s sig­na­ture, and it’s done,” Elkins said of the grade change ef­fort.

If this gets re­jected, no­body should ever wear burnt orange again.

Largey re­mains un­der­stand­ably fas­ci­nated by Wat­son’s story, which he has told at Pop-Up Mag­a­zine events in San Fran­cisco; Wash­ing­ton; New York; Portland, Ore.; and Seattle.

“He is one of a kind,” he said of Wat­son.

Largey’s KUT story about Wat­son is sched­uled to air at 6:45 and 8:45 a.m. Tues­day. You also should be able to find it at KUT. org.

Hap­pier end­ing up­com­ing, in­deed. And you might have a chance to make it even hap­pier. Wat­son, 54, long has strug­gled fi­nan­cially as he worked in the gov­ern­ment world, where jobs come and go.

Wat­son never grad­u­ated from col­lege. He’s been pretty much a con­stant pres­ence at the Texas Capi­tol since 1982, where he’s worked for 15 dif­fer­ent law­mak­ers. He moved to Austin City Hall in 2015 to work for then-Coun­cil Mem­ber Don Zim­mer­man. When Zim­mer­man was de­feated last year, Wat­son was out of work. He’s now an aide to Rep. Stephanie Klick, R-Fort Worth.

In ad­di­tion to the gov­ern­ment jobs, Wat­son has moon­lighted in re­tail and has bused ta­bles at a down­town restau­rant. His cur­rent leg­isla­tive job ends when the leg­isla­tive ses­sion ends in May. He needs a job af­ter that. Maybe you know of some­thing.

I can tell you Wat­son knows his way around gov­ern­ment and got the U.S. Con­sti­tu­tion amended.

And, as­sum­ing the change gets OK’d, he got an A+ in GOV 310.

One more thing: Yes, Wat­son still has his 1982 term pa­per — some­where.

“I have tried and tried and tried to find that thing,” he said. “I don’t know where I put it. It’s not the type of thing I would have thrown in the garbage. So it’s some­where. And I’m one of these funny peo­ple that keeps ev­ery­thing, so I’ve got stor­age unit af­ter stor­age unit. It’s some­where in a box in a stor­age unit.

“Hope­fully, the ter­mites haven’t got­ten to it.”

They wouldn’t dare.

JAY JAN­NER / AMER­I­CAN-STATES­MAN

Gre­gory Wat­son, an aide to state Rep. Stephanie Klick, R-Fort Worth, dis­plays the ap­pli­ca­tion for an up­date to his UT aca­demic record. His “C” in a gov­ern­ment class will be changed to an “A+.”

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