Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Catching Lightening in a Bottle: The Meteoric Rise and Fall of Ben Barnes

In 2010, the University of Texas Press published "The House Will Come to Order: How the Texas Speaker Became A Power in State and National Politics," a book I co-wrote with Dr. Patrick L. Cox. In this passage, we describe the dramatic career of one of the most important political politicians in post-World War II Texas, one-time Texas Speaker of the House Ben Barnes.

This rightward drift of Texas in the early 1960s makes the rise of Ben Barnes, a moderate but often progressive representative from De Leon, even more surprising. Born in 1938 in Gorman, Ben Frank Barnes grew up in a poor, Depression-era West Texas rural community. Barnes first learned a love of politics as a University of Texas student working for the state health department. As Barnes remembered:

". . . I was working about five blocks from the Dome on 5th Street at the State Health Department and I got to be supervisor after about six months of all the part-time employees . . .

One of my responsibilities . . . was cosigning the checks that . . . went into this [bank] account. They called it the employees' flower fund. It was meant to pay for flowers for people when their granddads died or to pay for Thanksgiving parties or Christmas parties. And I had to cosign the checks and an assistant to the Health Department commissioner brought me some checks to sign and that was back when Texas just had private clubs and a lot of the checks were to the Tower Liquor Store and the Tower Hotel and the Tower Club and I said, 'What are these for?' And he said, 'It is none of your business. If you like the job, sign it.'

Well it made me very angry . . . [T]here was a former state representative that worked at the Health Department named Bert Hall who is now deceased. I went to see Bert Hall and I said, 'What should I do?' and he said, 'I advise you to go up the Legislature and see your state representative and tell him what happened at the Health Department.' And I did."

Barnes said that his state representative, Ben Sudderth, introduced him to Bill Heatly and to Truett Latimer of Abilene, who launched a House investigation of the Health Department. “. . . [T]he Commissioner of Health, his secretary, and his assistant made [a deal] but they had to resign,” Barnes said. “He had to leave Texas, he and his assistant, he had to give up his right to practice medicine in Texas . . . and they never came back here to visit, and they had to reimburse . . . thousands of dollars . . . seven, eight, maybe nine thousand dollars that they had taken out of this fund over a period of time.”

Before he testified before the legislative committee investigating the matter, Barnes said, he had rarely made it to the seat of state power. “I fell in love with the Capitol,” Barnes said. “I saw what those men were doing, and women, and so my state representative was not going to run for re-election and I did.”

Barnes attended the University of Texas at Austin law school before he decided to enter the 1960 Democratic primary for Comanche County’s state House seat against a heavily favored opponent.

"[His name was] Ike Hickman and Eisenhower was just leaving office and he had all these ‘I like Ike’ buttons [laughs] so you know it was the stupidest thing that a young man could do because nobody knew me and so it was crazy . . . We had a big rally, for the Veterans of Foreign Wars and the Farm Bureau and Hickman . . . drew to speak and he got to speak first and told about being a prisoner of war and spending two and a half years in a German concentration camp and how he loved his country and how he nearly died for it, how he had gone through all the abuses in prison, and now he wanted to come back and serve more time. I seriously contemplated standing up and saying, 'I’m going to resign and go back to law school.'

I just got some kind of almost divine intervention because it just popped in my head about what I was doing in World War II. I just said, 'Well, I was two years old when Pearl Harbor was attacked, but I remember my brother and I did what we could do as young boys.' I said, 'I had a red wagon and I would take that red wagon and try to fill it up every Saturday with scrap iron and put it in the back of the car and take it to the scrap iron dealer and that was the way I tried to serve.' And I saw a bunch of women in the audience just kind of nodding their head about that red wagon. I said that I would go ahead and run another day.

. . . He took me very lightly . . . I had worked for the extension service measuring peanut allotments, and I took the soil conservation map and I took a red pencil and every time I went to a house I put an ‘X’ on it and when I got through I had these three counties’ soil conservation maps where I literally knocked on every door in all three of those counties and he didn’t get out and work like that. He couldn’t miss. I ended up beating him two to one, surprisingly, and I felt very good. I got 90 percent of the vote in my home county."

A member of the House at age 23, Barnes emerged as a leader in the opposition to Turman and Daniel’s tax plans. Backing Tunnell in the next session, Barnes quickly achieved high visibility, chairing the important House Rules Committee and serving as vice chair of the Banks and Banking Committee. He also served unofficially as the chief liaison between Speaker Tunnell and Gov. John Connally.

Barnes supported Tunnell’s bid for a second term, which the speaker had locked up just before the 1965 session opened, when Governor Connally suddenly appointed Tunnell to fill a vacancy on the Texas Railroad Commission. Barnes had cultivated support from both liberals and conservatives in the House and coasted to victory in the election to replace his mentor. At age 26, Barnes became the youngest speaker since Ira Hobart Evans in 1870-71. A close ally of former Speaker Tunnell, Gov. Connally and President Lyndon Johnson, Barnes entered the speakership with stronger political connections than any of his predecessors. As authors Sam Kinch, Jr., and Ben Proctor noted in the early 1970s:

"Ben Barnes is totally and completely a political animal . . . From 1960 on, all of his adult life, politics occupied almost every waking moment -- and his dreams as well. Nearly all of his close friends have been politicians or interested in the art of government; his social life has been the campaign trail, the receptions, the dinner meetings, the fund-raising activities and speaking engagements ad infinitum; his work has been the affairs of state and tending to constituents’ needs; and even his relaxation has served only as a short breather before the next public demand."

Barnes said that he was obsessive about his political priorities because he saw that, in spite of hype surrounding his political future (including a prediction from Lyndon Johnson that Barnes would one day be president ), his window of political opportunity could close rapidly. He said he told his leadership team, “We are not going to come down this trail but one time. Let’s get out there. Let’s not just sit over here and react. Let’s go act. The Senate gets all the credit for what good legislation passes. The House has always kind of been a second place to the governor and the Senate. So let’s change it. Let’s get out there and be proactive. Let’s make some changes.”

Barnes showed such single-minded devotion during his speakership because he knew the importance of the office had grown. “All of a sudden the speaker’s office kind of had a statewide base,” Barnes said. “[Before,] a speaker just had to worry about his own district and worry about the members. But when I started I was probably taking more positions on more issues before they got to the Legislature . . . I got the Sigma Delta Chi Friend of Journalism Award because I invited in the press . . . I invited them to the speaker’s office every Monday morning to let them ask me questions and tell them what I wanted to get done that week. And they couldn’t believe that when that practice got started. Speakers normally played their cards very close to their vest.“

Barnes, who three decades after leaving public office still talks like someone who could deliver a stump speech at a moment’s notice, acted like a man in a hurry during his two terms as speaker. By the early 1960s, Texas ranked 33rd among the states in terms of per capita income, 44th in adult literacy and dead last in per capita expenditures on child welfare. Barnes’ close friend, Navy veteran John Connally, who had served as Lyndon Johnson’s campaign manager during the latter’s 1948 Senate campaign against Coke Stevenson, beat Price Daniel, Sr. and three other candidates in the 1962 governor’s race. Connally made improvement of the state’s universities a top priority during his first term.

Connally appointed a Governor’s Committee on Education Beyond High School and this board recommended $100 million in state expenditures to upgrade university faculty salaries, improve libraries, support research and expand graduate programs. Connally proposed almost $33 million in taxes to begin work on the committee’s recommendations, but Connally was forced by conservatives in the House like Speaker Tunnell to slash $13 million from that total. Anticipating a second term, Connally vetoed another $12.5 million of expenditures in the state budget, which he considered a foundation for higher education spending in the 1965 session.

By appointing Tunnell to the Railroad Commission, the ever-practical Connally removed a legislative stumbling block to his education program. Receiving advance word from Connally of Tunnell’s appointment, Barnes established a campaign command center at the Commodore Perry Hotel. With his allies stationed at 15 phones, he secured support pledges for his speakership from a majority of House members within 36 hours.

Many in the Legislature began to resent his seemingly effortless success, perhaps not knowing how hard he worked. “I got up every morning at 4:30 and went to bed at 11:30 or 12:00 at night,” he said, describing his political campaigns, but the same tirelessness characterized his speakership.

In 1965, Connally enjoyed a much friendlier House under the leadership of his ally Barnes. The new speaker also made Texas universities a top legislative concern and under his stewardship the state created the Texas Higher Education Coordination Board. During Barnes’ two terms as speaker and two following terms as lieutenant governor, the state increased its higher education budget by a factor of three.
Not considered liberal by 1960s standards, the Connally/Barnes team nevertheless passed an extraordinary number of bills boosting education and improving social services. In addition to creating the Coordinating Board, the pair hiked university and college faculty salaries, improved and expanded the state’s community colleges, added the University of Houston to the state system and turned Angelo State College and Pan American College into a four-year schools.

Barnes, however, believed that his biggest accomplishment was persuading an impecunious Legislature that spending on education, mental health programs and assistance to the disabled represented an investment that would pay off in the future. “Someone said, ‘What is the most important thing that you did while you were in office?’” Barnes said. “I’ll tell you what was the most important thing I did. I was able to work to get a majority of the House and a majority of the Senate to vote for a tax bill every single session I was in the Legislature when I was lieutenant governor/speaker . . . I served 12 years and I passed 8 tax bills and that takes a lot of courage.”

When Barnes ran for lieutenant governor in 1969, he won 2 million votes, the first Texas politician to reach that threshold. Yet, regardless of his great political skills, Barnes proved no more adept at negotiating the tricky racial politics of 1960s Texas than his political peers. In the summer of 1966, a march of mostly Mexican American farm workers began in South Texas.

Not represented by a union, these farm workers toiled in the Rio Grande Valley under harsh conditions, including long hours and low wages, and by the summer they called a strike. The Political Association of Spanish-Speaking Organizations (PASO), a group formed by activists who participated in Henry G. González’s 1958 gubernatorial race and the “Viva Kennedy” clubs that formed in Texas during the 1960 presidential race, provided leadership for the march. Protestors faced harassment by Texas Rangers and Starr County law enforcement when the wildcat strike began against eight major local growers. PASO then organized a march to the state Capitol to heighten the visibility of the farm workers’ plight and to enlist political support.

Connally, Barnes, and Attorney General and former Speaker Waggoner Carr met the marchers in New Braunfels. Connally told the strikers he would not call a special session to address the issue of farm labor nor would he speak to a Labor Day rally in Austin called to support the strike.

In spite of this rebuff, members of Mexican American groups like LULAC and the American GI Forum joined PASO and the farmers for the remainder of the 290-mile, 65-day march. Thousands finally rallied in Austin. Some historians believe that Carr's unsuccessful Senate campaign against Republican John Tower, running for reelection that year, may have been hurt by Mexican American anger at his perceived lack of support for the strikers. “The sixty-five day march . . . catalyzed a militancy [among Mexican Americans] that would last until the mid-1970s,” historians Robert Calvert and Arnoldo de León note.

Even politically talented men like Barnes and Connally still largely operated in a whites-only world. This left the state’s Democratic Party leadership ill-prepared to deal with the changing political realities of the late 1960s and early 1970s. By the latter half of the 1960s, liberal, politically active African Americans, Mexican Americans and women in Texas had lost patience with piecemeal reforms and expected full participation in the state government. Anglo racial conservatives, disturbed by what they saw as Democratic acquiescence to minority agitators, drifted towards the Republican Party, leaving conservative control of the Democratic Party more tenuous. The old “Dixiecrat” Party in Texas would soon implode during the early 1970s scandal known as Sharpstown and Texas House speaker Gus Mutscher would stand at the center of the storm.


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.

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