One of the most anxious nights in Delma Clayton’s life came October 21, 1980 when the jury deciding the fate of her husband, Texas House Speaker Bill Clayton, recessed after deliberating for two hours without reaching a verdict. Clayton was charged with accepting a bribe as part of an FBI sting operation called Brilab, and Delma had expected a quick acquittal.
“I had felt confident, all during the trial, that when the jury had all the evidence, they’d find him innocent,” she told author Jimmy Banks. “The only thing that bothered me was the fact that some people think all politicians are crooks -– and I was afraid there might be someone like that on the jury, someone who would decide he was guilty before hearing the evidence.”
The assumption that politicians lie and enter public life to get rich only deepened in Texas after the Sharpstown scandal rocked Austin, along with Watergate and unrelated Congressional scandals. This suspicion of public officials is a tradition dating back to the earliest days of American government. In addition, conservative political culture frequently preaches that government is not a solution to society’s ills, but the problem. A belief that all government is corrupt creates an expectation that any social program aimed at solving deep-rooted problems, such as racism or poverty, is doomed to failure because of the stupidity and dishonesty of office-holders and bureaucrats.
Texans traditionally have relished their outsized reputation for being the biggest, the loudest, the bravest, and the rowdiest. This self-promoted mythology has proven a double-edged sword for politicians. Texas folklore tends to paint the state’s post-Alamo, post-Civil War leaders as the most dim and venal in the country. As one comic musical group in the state capital, the Austin Lounge Lizards, put it in their “Stupid Texas Song”:
"Our accents are the drawliest/our howdies are the y'alliest,
Our Lone Star flag's the waviest/ our fried steak the cream-graviest,
Our rattlesnakes the coiliest/ our beaches are the oiliest,
Our politicians most corrupt . . ."
Texans joke that the Constitutional provision calling for the Legislature to meet for 140 days every two years should have called for them to meet two days every 140 years. Carl Parker, a liberal leader who represented Port Arthur in the House from 1962 to 1977 and in the Senate from 1977 to 1995, once quipped that if you took all of the fools out of the state Legislature, it would no longer be a representative body.
Over the past century, the House chamber has occasionally erupted into fistfights. Bored with interminable debates, members have relieved the tension with nonsense resolutions, such as one passed during the 1971 session that commended Albert DeSalvo, the Boston Strangler, for his efforts at population control. Another resolution passed by the House two years later required lawbreakers to give 24 hours notice before they committed a crime. Also in 1973, members of the Apache Bells drill team cheered on ethics legislation wearing letters on their posteriors that spelled out the word “reform.”
For whatever reason, debates of the Texas Legislature frequently turn baroquely farcical. During an open session of a conference committee, Jim McWilliams, a Democrat from Hallsville, stunned those in attendance when he proclaimed that, “I know the health department doesn’t do its job, because ten years ago I had gonorrhea, and nobody talked to my wife.”
During the 1954 session, one Houston lawmaker made a habit of keeping a six-gun in his desk on the House floor. As former House member Chet Brooks, who was a reporter at the time, said, it was “a long barrel . . . like an old .45, something out of a Western movie. If he’d get excited in arguing, he’d reach in his desk and pull that gun out and wave it around. He never shot anybody . . . Of course, the speaker (Reuben Senterfitt) would just get terribly upset . . . and try to get him to put that gun away or take it away from him or something.”
Such tales may have led some Texans to believe the worst of those who served in the state House. Aside from the fun and frivolity that frequently made headlines, governing the growing state in the post-Sharpstown era created more challenges for elected officials and state administrators alike. This led an energized media to focus more attention on the proceedings in Austin throughout the entire year, not just during biennial legislative sessions, and coverage became increasingly critical. However, as former Speaker Rayford Price pointed out, the Texan contempt for politicians was not universal. “People usually are mad at the Legislature, but they usually like their legislators,” Price said.
That was certainly true in Billy Clayton’s case. After retiring for the night, a jury found him not guilty of bribery the following day. After announcing the verdict, the jury joined the general cheering in the courtroom and several members came up to Clayton to shake his hand and those of his attorneys. Marge Hudock, a juror from Houston, said that she hoped Clayton would be “our next governor.”
Clayton’s long trip to that Houston courtroom began with his birth in the West Texas town of Olney on September 11, 1928. Clayton spent most of his childhood in Springlake, where he discovered a dislike of farm work on his parents’ property. “He started out with his Daddy on the combine when he was so little his feet would just hang in midair,” Clayton’s mother later recalled. “ . . . He used to come in from the fields and tell me, ‘Mamma, when I get through school, I’m not gonna farm.’”
Texas A&M University provided an escape from this career. The conservative College Station institution offered him a rough-and-tumble introduction to the hyper-macho world he would later encounter in the state Capitol. Aggies revered as a longstanding tradition the verbal and physical harassment of freshmen, or “fish” as they were called at the campus. “[I]n those days, nobody ever forgot their freshman year, because hazing was pretty rampant,” Clayton recalled in a 2004 interview. Clayton remembered having to go to the showers with 15 or twenty other freshmen wearing “heavy wool army overcoats, and then they’d turn the hot water on, just as hot as they could get it. They’d make us stand over in a corner, in the steam, and ‘grab butterflies’ – standing on our toes and reaching into the air. They had upper classmen holding single-edged razor blades under our heels, so we had to stay on our toes. You’d just stand there and do that until you’d fall out . . . I’ve done so many knee bends at night that I’d start to class the next day and just fall down. I couldn’t help it.”
Clayton earned a degree in agricultural economics in 1950, but his father's heart attack on October 16, 1949 brought the future speaker back to Springlake prematurely. For a time, Clayton ran the family farm. Clayton became politically active in the local Democratic Party and served as a delegate pledged to presidential candidate Lyndon Johnson in the 1960 Democratic National Convention.
Clayton perceived Johnson as a more conservative alternative to John Kennedy. “Come to find out, Johnson was more liberal than Kennedy, really, in actions,” Clayton said later. The former speaker admitted that he had reservations about Kennedy other than the Massachusetts Democrat’s liberalism. “[B]eing brought up in a very religious community and particularly Protestant, the big concern was basically, Kennedy and the Catholics,” Clayton said. “. . . And, before my father died, he said, ‘We’ll never elect a Catholic.’ [O]f course, when I went out to the convention and met Kennedy, and when he won the nomination, I got to escort him around to the Texas delegation, and begin to know him a little more, I kind of liked him. I came home and campaigned for him, after the convention . . . [H]e was really easy to get acquainted with. He was very easy to talk to . . .”
Clayton said the Texas Democratic delegation to the 1960 Democratic National Convention split between the liberals, lead by Ralph Yarborough, and the conservatives. The more conservative delegates backed Johnson, but the liberals adamantly opposed the Texas senator. Clayton said:
"I never will forget the evening before the nomination, Johnson came there . . . before us and said, 'You know, we never will take a second position, and we’re going to take it all or nothing.'
Well, sure enough it was nothing. And then he came back, and said the same thing to us again with big ol’ crocodile tears in his eyes . . . And that night [U.S. House Speaker] Sam Rayburn got hold of him and got hold of the Kennedys, and the deal was cut, and it was cut and dried. He was going to [get] the vice presidential nomination. And I don’t think Kennedy would have gotten elected if it hadn’t have been for Rayburn. "
Clayton caught the political bug, running successfully for the state House. In 1962, at age 34, Clayton represented a district that included Bailey, Castro, Deaf Smith, Lamb and Parmer counties. He served in the Texas House for the next 20 years. Clayton joined an unusually large freshman class elected in voter anger over the sales tax approved by the previous Legislature. Clayton made opposition to the tax a key point on the campaign trail and immediately sensed he and other newcomers could make a big impact on Capitol politics.
On December 8, 1962, Clayton wrote an ill-advised letter to his fellow freshmen. “I am writing all the freshmen members of the House, to see if you would be interested in forming a freshman members’ organization for the coming session,” Clayton wrote. “With sixty new members in such an organization, we certainly could demand our share of recognition. By helping one another we could stand a good chance of passing prime legislation, projects that may be hard to accomplish individually.”
Clayton’s independent streak irritated Byron Tunnell, who had already cinched his election as the next speaker. Tunnell worried Clayton’s letter represented an incipient rebellion from the House rank-and-file launched before the incoming speaker had even been sworn in. Tunnell sent word to Clayton that a “freshman members’ organization” would be unnecessary, and that aborted the effort. Tunnell later said, however, that Clayton’s initiative impressed him. “It was an indication that he was not an ordinary farmer,” he said.
In spite of this rough start, Clayton and Tunnell became close. On January 8, 1963, when Clayton joined 140 other House members voting in Tunnell as speaker, the freshman representative visited the new speaker in Tunnell’s office and had a premonition of his future. “Joan Hollowell was his secretary,” Clayton said. “And she tells the story and I vaguely remember that I walked in there, looked around the office, and said, ‘Someday this office’ll be mine.’” Hollowell, who later became Joan Whitworth, said she recalled being impressed that Clayton sounded confident rather than cocky.
Clayton certainly demonstrated that he was going places as a key part of fellow conservative Tunnell’s team. The future speaker became one of only four freshmen to serve on the critical Appropriations Committee. He served as well on the Committee on Conservation and Reclamation, which dealt with water issues, later Clayton’s signature issue.
Clayton’s instinct for attaching himself to up-and-comers did not fail when Tunnell became a Texas Railroad Commissioner. Tunnell tipped off Ben Barnes, and Clayton joined Barnes’ phone team at Austin’s Driskill Hotel, which blitzed House members to lock up the speaker’s race. For his efforts, Barnes awarded Clayton with choice office space.
Clayton never earned a reputation as a skilled orator, and as speaker would became famous for his occasional potshots at a defenseless English language. Speaking of pending legislation, he once urged members to “do this in one foul sweep.” Trying to shut down one session, Clayton declared, “It’s the sediment of the House that we adjourn.” "Clayton butchers the English language as if it were a hunk of mutton," one Capitol reporter wrote in 1982.
His clumsiness with the language, however, deceived opponents, and his House peers came to call him “country slicker” (as opposed to “city slicker.”) Clayton didn’t have to be a great orator because he tirelessly worked the floor for his priority issues. “By the time he got a bill up on the floor, he’d probably have talked to at least 100 of the 150 members about it – so that he didn’t have to be that good on the mike,” said fellow Representative Randy Pendleton, who represented the West Texas county seat of Andrews from 1963 to 1969.
Clayton distinguished himself as one of the most conservative members of an already extremely conservative House. Clayton repeatedly introduced a resolution opposing court-ordered school busing to achieve racial integration. As a legislator, Clayton also wanted to make it a misdemeanor to teach bilingually in classes above the third grade and opposed any gun control bills and the Constitutional amendment granting 18-year-olds the vote. He also resisted a 1971 constitutional amendment to increase Texas’ small welfare payments. “Bill Clayton has a voting record that only Attila the Hun could appreciate,” Angleton Rep. Neil Caldwell said. Finally, Clayton voted no on the Equal Rights Amendment and the creation of a Martin Luther King Day holiday in Texas, thus rounding his image as a social and economic conservative.
Although prosperity allowed Texas and other Southern states to increase expenditures for public services and education in the 1960s and 1970s, the state still continued to spend more on highways than other needs. Texas remained tied to the rest of the Southern states in providing public services below the national average. In a 1975 study of the “business climate” of states, those that rated highest were those with “low taxes, low levels of public assistance, restrictive labor legislation, and a low level of government spending and debt.” Texas ranked near the top of such lists among all the states. The vast majority of House members and other state leaders in Austin agreed with this philosophy. Yet, thanks to federal civil rights legislation, minorities and women began to make inroads into the once solidly white male political system.
Representing the always-parched region of West Texas, Clayton spent much of his House career obsessed with development of a state water plan, a focus that earned him the nickname "Mr. Water." Clayton pushed for legislation to develop irrigation in West Texas, to purchase water from other states, and to encourage water conservation. Environmentalists, however, sharply criticized him for pushing development schemes that would have devastated the landscape, endangered wildlife and caused pollution.
Water arose as a dominant political issue in the High Plains during a prolonged drought in the 1950s with the Legislature creating the Water Pollution Control Board and the Texas Water Research Committee to examine the state's water usage. The recommendations of these groups led to the wide construction of manmade lakes and the creation of local water districts. Many West Texas farmers opposed a state water conservation program, arguing that such regulations violated property rights.
By the late 1960s, however, Clayton (representing a region of the state where 3 percent of the population used 30 percent of the water resources but produced an even larger percentage of the state's agriculture) became chief advocate for a Texas water plan. His plan called for the transfer of water from the Mississippi River through North Texas to the High Plains and to the Rio Grande. The Mississippi water would have flowed through a series of canals and aqueducts and would have required the construction of 67 dams.
Critics called Clayton’s cost estimates for the project unrealistic and called the chain of proposed dams harmful to the environment. Dr. Daniel Willard, a University of Texas botanist, warned a legislative committee that implementation of Clayton’s Texas Water Plan “would completely destroy the face of Texas.” He predicted that the proposed East Texas reservoirs, with the region’s high evaporation rates, would produce climate changes actually aggravating drought in West Texas.
Nevertheless, Clayton enjoyed the support of Lieutenant Governor Preston Smith, another West Texan, and other powerful state officials. The Legislature placed the plan on the ballot in 1969 in the form of a Constitutional amendment. It narrowly failed, with the “no” vote in Houston large enough to provide the margin of defeat.
In 1974, Clayton called for a similar plan to import water from out of state and to construct 27 new reservoirs, but voters also rejected this proposal. In 1981, the state enjoyed a budget surplus and Clayton, then House speaker, called for half of the money to be placed in a permanent water fund, but this time he did not submit a comprehensive water plan, and water supply competed with other budgetary needs such as education. Voters shot down this proposition by 4-1.
With his campaign for a state water plan, Clayton again demonstrated leadership, forging close relations with powerful men in the state such as Preston Smith, proving his talent for prodigious money-raising, and garnering $100,000 (more than a half-million in today’s dollars) for an advertising campaign on behalf of the water plan amendment. In recent years, East and Central Texans dominated the speakership. Nevertheless, it seemed that Clayton might be able to fulfill his long-ago prophecy that he would occupy the speaker’s office. Clayton bided his time, but as the Sharpstown scandal erupted he would quickly emerge as a contender for the top House post.
On September 24, 1971, the day after a grand jury indicted Speaker Gus Mutscher on bribery charges, around 40 members of the Legislature met in a Dallas hotel to discuss possible speaker replacements. Clayton’s name came up in the conversation. Mutscher resigned March 28, 1972, and was succeeded by Rayford Price. When Price lost in a runoff for re-election to the House in June of 1972, he became a lame duck. Clayton nearly entered the speaker’s race and even wrote a letter to his House peers announcing his candidacy, but never released its contents. Instead, a fellow West Texas conservative, Frank Calhoun, announced his bid.
Under Speaker Price Daniel, Jr., Clayton maintained high visibility as a member on the Elections, Intergovernmental Affairs, and Natural Resources Committee. Daniel had announced that he would serve only one term, and the 1975 race for the speakership began before the 1973 Legislative session started. On June 6, 1973, Clayton publicly announced his long-acknowledged ambition to run for speaker of the 1975 session.
Clayton immediately contrasted his vision with that of Price Daniel, announcing that, unlike his predecessor, he would not pursue a specific legislative agenda but would make the legislative process more efficient. “I don’t think it’s the speaker’s prerogative to get involved in a legislative program,” he told the Dallas Morning News. Clayton pledged to stress “economy and efficiency in the operation of the House . . . a more orderly system of scheduled committee and subcommittee meetings” and said he would seek more office space for House operations.
As would be the case with later speakers Gib Lewis and Tom Craddick, Clayton became entangled in the interlocking web of personal and political interests. Even as he announced his candidacy for the speakership, reporters posed questions about a land deal involving property along Lake Austin in which Clayton partnered with Texas Railroad Association lobbyist Walter Caven. Reporters also asked why Clayton, a director of Olton State Bank, voted to raise consumer loan interest rates and supported a bill that would have allowed state officials to file financial disclosures in secret, sealed envelopes, even as he voted against legislation calling for lobbyist regulation. Clayton denied there was any conflict of interest regarding his votes.
Clayton entered a heated three-way race. His opponents included Fred Head, the maverick who had successfully challenged Rayford Price’s bid for re-election to the House. The third major candidate, Carl Parker, (acknowledged as a liberal leader in the House) nevertheless had angered labor Democrats with his support of the 1974 proposed Constitution that included a right-to-work clause.
The 1974 Constitutional Convention, or “Con Con” as it was known, profoundly affected the speaker’s race. Daniel, elected convention president, appointed Clayton, Head, and Parker to the important Committee on Legislative Provisions. During the convention, a bitter battle broke out between Head and Parker, who accused each other of campaign dirty tricks such as issuing phony press releases announcing that certain House members had pledged their support for one of the candidates. Meanwhile, Clayton floated above the fray and to many of his peers increasingly looked better than his opponents.
The convention proved a political disaster to both Head and Parker. Parker once declared, “No one can get on a liberal like a bunch of other liberals. If you don’t agree with them one hundred percent of the time, they figure you are bound to have sold them out.” Parker’s support of the new Constitution proved fatal.
Head, meanwhile, emerged as the only major speaker candidate to vote against the proposed Constitution. Two-thirds of the convention delegates, or 121 out of 181, had to endorse the proposed Constitution for it to be brought to the voters. Proponents fell three votes short, and Head came in for a large share of the political blame for what United Press International called a “seven-month exercise in futility that cost the Texas taxpayers $5 million.” Price Daniel in particular blamed Head, who he claimed was owned “lock, stock and barrel” by organized labor. Shortly afterward, nine House members previously committed to Head announced they were withdrawing their pledges because of the “lack of leadership” he had shown during the convention.
Head’s campaign collapsed and his bitterness toward Parker meant that Clayton received the fallen candidate’s endorsement. Borrowing the tactic so successful when Ben Barnes got the scoop on Byron Tunnell’s appointment to the railroad commission, Clayton organized a telephone blitzkrieg of members and rapidly secured a number of endorsements from former Head supporters. Clayton built an odd coalition of conservatives, liberals, African Americans and Mexican Americans who found him more trustworthy than Parker.
“If I had chosen the person who would have been closer to me philosophically, it would not have been Billy Clayton,” said Dallas State Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson, later to serve in the United States Congress. “But I felt that I could trust what Billy Clayton said or did, and on that basis I decided to go with him.” In the end, enough liberals and moderates agreed with Johnson to provide Clayton with an easy 112-33 victory over Parker on the opening day of the 1975 Legislature.
Michael Phillips has authored the following:
White Metropolis: Race, Ethnicity and Religion in Dallas, Texas, 1841-2001 (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2006)
(with Patrick L. Cox) The House Will Come to Order: How the Texas Speaker Became a Power in State and National Politics. (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2010)
“Why Is Big Tex Still a White Cowboy? Race, Gender, and the ‘Other Texans’” in Walter Buenger and Arnoldo de León, eds., Beyond Texas Through Time: Breaking Away From Past Interpretations (College Station: Texas A&M Press, 2011)
“The Current is Stronger’: Images of Racial Oppression and Resistance in North Texas Black Art During the 1920s and 1930s ” in Bruce A. Glasrud and Cary D. Wintz, eds., The Harlem Renaissance in the West: The New Negroes’ Western Experience (New York: Routledge, Taylor and Francis Group, 2011)
“Dallas, 1989-2011,” in Richardson Dilworth, ed. Cities in American Political History (Washington, D.C.: CQ Press, 2011)
(With John Anthony Moretta, Keith J. Volonto, Austin Allen, Doug Cantrell and Norwood Andrews), Keith J. Volonto and Michael Phillips. eds., The American Challenge: A New History of the United States, Volume I. (Wheaton, Il.: Abigail Press, 2012).
(With John Anthony Moretta and Keith J. Volanto), Keith J. Volonto and Michael Phillips, eds., The American Challenge: A New History of the United States, Volume II. (Wheaton, Il.: Abigail Press, 2012).
(With John Anthony Moretta and Carl J. Luna), Imperial Presidents: The Rise of Executive Power from Roosevelt to Obama (Wheaton, Il.: Abigail Press, 2013).
“Texan by Color: The Racialization of the Lone Star State,” in David Cullen and Kyle Wilkison, eds., The Radical Origins of the Texas Right (College Station: University of Texas Press, 2013).
He is currently collaborating, with longtime journalist Betsy Friauf, on a history of African American culture, politics and black intellectuals in the Lone Star State called God Carved in Night: Black Intellectuals in Texas and the World They Made.