This report was updated with information about a special election for House District 79.
AUSTIN (Nexstar) — With tools and team in tow, State Rep. Joe Pickett carefully removed an antique automobile he sneaked into the Capitol a few years ago.
The El Paso Democrat moved the Model T out as he cleared his office to make room for a new lawmaker.
“Packing things up is a little different for me than everybody else,” he said. “It means moving a car, memorabilia, license plates, oh yeah, and then files — files, pictures, 24 years of awards.”
He sneaked the 1927 Ford into the Capitol with help from a team of Austin mechanics, not wanting to ruffle the feathers of Capitol police or the State Preservation Board (which coordinates the Capitol grounds).
“Getting it in was a complete secret,” he smiled, recalling that he brought it in during a weekend in pieces.
“I said we are going to be bringing some stuff in … everything was wrapped,” he said. “You couldn’t tell what it was… Then we shut the door and assembled it here.”
Pickett didn’t hide the move this time. The longtime legislator announced last week he was stepping down to focus on his health. His cancer diagnosis was another secret he held onto. He said he found out about the disease just before last session and underwent treatment, but has faced recent complications.
“(I’ve got) some therapy to do, but it won’t be as bad as the first wave a couple of years ago,” he estimated. “I kept it kind of secret. It was pretty rough session the first couple of months especially, and I think the worst is behind me, but at the same time I don’t really want to do all that and 18 hour days and everything else.”
Pickett was elected to the Texas House the same year George W. Bush was elected Texas governor. Only seven others have surpassed his tenure in the lower chamber. He is known for taking the lead on transportation issues, having chaired the transportation committee twice. He has chaired half a dozen other committees during his 24 years in office.
“When we were driving in this morning, there was a Silver Alert on the freeway. I created the Silver Alert. So it was kind of ‘Hey, that’s kind of strange,'” the veteran policymaker said.
He said the stream of visitors over the last week felt like a funeral.
“It was like a wake almost,” he joked.
Capitol visitors looked on as he wheeled the feeble frame of the Model T down the historic halls. The relic has served as an icebreaker in his office.
“I’m a long way from home, I’m proud of my community in El Paso,” he said, noting that people often share photos of the vehicle on social media. He said the Capitol tour office gets frequent requests to stop in his office to see the car.
“When they do, it’s El Paso: Where is this guy from, how come he has a car, what does he do?” he mentioned. “So, it brings attention to a community that is so far west that it’s a shorter distance for me to drive from El Paso to San Diego then Beaumont.”
“I’ve enjoyed bringing that attention to my hometown,” he continued.
Pickett also boasts an impressive license plate collection.
“I’ve always tried to do some things that had a historic or educational value,” he explained. “My license plate collection is one of the most extensive there is — I’ve got every year represented since Texas issued license plates,” he added.
Pickett said he has been in talks with management at El Paso’s airport to put the car and some of the plates on display for the public to continue to share.
“My guess it’ll be the only one that’ll ever have been in the capitol, so it by itself is historic,” he stated. “I would like to share some of my license plates display with other people, and it’s a perfect place, at the airport, people are coming and going. It’s transportation related, so I hope to share the car and the license plates later on or the beginning of this next year.”
As he clears the way for a replacement, he said he is not done serving. He plans to stay in El Paso but expects to return to Austin at some point.
“Down but not out as the old adage says, right?” he quizzed.
“I will be feeling good here in a few months you better watch out,” he said. “That’s what got me started in the first place. I was pissed off about things not being done the way I thought they should be and so I’ll be back. I just don’t know what capacity yet, but I’m pretty ornery. I’ll be around.”
Gov. Greg Abbott’s office announced a special election to fill Pickett’s seat would be held Jan. 29, 2019, with early voting beginning Jan. 14. Candidates who wish to have their names on the ballot must file with the Secretary of State’s office by close of business on Jan 3.
Pickett said his Jan. 4, 2019 departure from his post would allow for a new member can participate in the 86th Session.
“I am leaving early enough that… whoever from El Paso will replace me, they will be here in time to actually file bills and participate,” he said.