In Phil Gramm's world, ideas outrank relationships.

"He's probably not the kind of guy you want to go up to at a cocktail party and talk small talk with," said Christopher L. Williston, president of the Independent Bankers Association of Texas. "He has maybe more of a reputation of being a loner."

But the Texas Republican's willingness to flout popular wishes in favor of treasured ideals has been a hallmark of his three-term Senate career.

"I don't ever forget why I have values," Sen. Gramm said in an interview Wednesday. "I have values because I want to do something." The fate of financial reform will be in Sen. Gramm's hands next year as he takes the helm of the Senate Banking Committee from the defeated Sen. Alfonse M. D'Amato.

Born and educated in Georgia, the 56-year-old Sen. Gramm taught economics for 12 years at Texas A&M University. Friends and colleagues say the experience bred in him a commitment to the free market-and a professorial style that can border on arrogance.

"People respect Phil Gramm, even though he is imperial in approach," said a bank lobbyist.

In the beginning of his political career, at least, Sen. Gramm also put ideas ahead of party. Elected to Congress as a Democrat in 1978, he alienated Democratic leaders in 1982 by supporting former President Ronald Reagan's economic and tax cut program. As punishment, they pulled him off the Budget Committee.

The plucky Texan responded by resigning in January 1983 and running again in a special election-this time as a Republican. He won. A year later, he ran for and snagged the Senate seat of the late Sen. John Tower. In fact, the only significant political defeat he's suffered was a disastrous 1996 presidential bid.

Sen. Gramm reinforced his iconoclast image this fall by insisting that community reinvestment provisions be stripped from the financial reform bill. His tactic doomed the legislation.

On several occasions, Sen. Gramm's principles may have slipped. The Senate Ethics Committee investigated a deal he cut in the late 1980s with a developer/thrift owner hired to complete his vacation home in Maryland.

But Byron L. LeFlore, a longtime acquaintance and chairman of $322 million-asset Jefferson State Bank in San Antonio, said Sen. Gramm is misunderstood. "He's a man who understands standards and is one who is not afraid to live up to them. That is sometimes a rarity these days with public figures."

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