Thursday, April 28, 2011

The Color of Money: The Rise of Gib Lewis

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 role campaign money played in the rise of one of the state's most important speakers, Gib Lewis of Fort Worth.

Texas leaders often felt as they were in a hole, either from deficits or in attempting to keep up with the ever- increasing demands for services from a booming population and diverse business community. In 1990, the entire Legislature stood side by side in an honest-to-goodness hole over 100 feet deep north of the Capitol.

The dramatic renovation of the state Capitol and its expanded underground office facility saved the venerable structure from literally collapsing due to neglect and misuse. This moment also stood as a metaphor for the decade of the 1980s as state leaders fought to recover from a devastating economic recession. The first representative to serve five terms as House speaker, Gib Lewis, presided over some of the most dramatic changes in state government. Equally momentous, he also led a reluctant Legislature in renovating and expanding the 100 year-old seat of government.

Although he would represent the Fort Worth area in the Texas House for more than 20 years, Gib Lewis grew up in small town Texas like his predecessor Billy Clayton. Literally born in a log cabin in 1936 in Oletha –- described by Fort Worth Star-Telegram report Mike Ritchey as “an eye-blinker of a town in East Central Texas” –- Lewis grew up in the Central Texas community of Mexia, which in the 1950s had a population of less than 7,000.

His parents divorced when he was only two. Lewis describes his family as struggling occupants of the lower middle class. “Kind of like a comedian said one time,” Lewis recalled. “ . . . ‘I was raised poor but I didn’t know it . . . I really wasn’t poor. My mother was poor, and she just kind of drug me around with her.’” Everyone worked in Mexia, he said, and the lack of general prosperity served as a social equalizer.

". . . I remember working from the time that I was eight, nine, ten years old, from sacking groceries at the local grocery store, to hoeing and picking cotton with everybody else out in the fields, and at the same time having the paper route and doing it because everybody else did . . . Every kid had some kind of a job, and I remember the incentive was, if you picked enough cotton, you could always get your choice of school clothes . . ."

Lewis attended Sam Houston State University in Huntsville before a four-year tour of duty in the Air Force flying on B-36 and B-52 bombers. While stationed at Carswell Air Force base in Fort Worth, he began attending Texas Christian University. After his military service, Lewis brought his extensive work experience to the Olmsted-Kirk paper company in Dallas, which hired him to work in their Fort Worth office.

This job turned out to be a turning point in Lewis’ life. “ . . . I guess this was where I got involved in my politics,” Lewis said in a 2004 interview. “. . . They wanted their salespeople to be very visible in the community . . . and to do that, they wanted you to be involved in the civic activities. They wanted all their people to be members of the Kiwanis Club, the Lions Club, the Rotary Club, or the advertising club

". . . And that is when I got really involved in politics. I was president of the Lions Club one year and president of the Junior Chamber of Commerce the following year and they have a couple of craftsmen clubs, which were industry clubs, and I was also president of these clubs. So, pretty much through civic activity politics, you learn how to cut a deal . . . I used to say that through my civic activities and involvement in Fort Worth, I knew almost everybody in town. I mean, I could go to downtown Fort Worth and people would tell you, they were amazed that I would know everybody on the street."

Lewis said that later when he served in the Legislature, he was surprised to find how many of his House peers he had already met through his club activities. Working in a non-partisan environment before collaborating and colliding on controversial legislation, Lewis believes, created a more convivial atmosphere in the state House. The intense partisanship of recent legislative sessions, he believes, is in part a product of the decline of civic clubs.

“ . . . When I got elected to Legislature . . . I had a good relationship already established. Of course, once you establish a relationship outside of the Legislature, it gives you more credibility. They know who you are, and they feel more like they have something in common with you,” Lewis said.

In 1964, just three years after starting at Olmsted-Kirk, Lewis opened his own firm, Lewis Label Products, Inc., which specialized in manufacturing pressure-sensitive labels and decals. The company made Lewis a millionaire. Lewis entered politics in 1969, winning election to the city council of River Oaks, a Fort Worth suburb.

Fort Worth voters elected him to the Texas House of Representatives in 1971, the tumultuous session that saw Gus Mutscher step down as speaker and Rayford Price emerge as his successor only to lose his re-election bid. Watching Sharpstown unfold, Lewis said, taught him a suspicion of the press he believed to be dominated by anti-establishment reporters who had been “hippies” and “demonstrators” during the 1960s. Later on, when Lewis became speaker, he came to call the Capitol press corps “the wolf pack.”

Luck frequently played a role in Lewis’ House career. For instance, occupying a desk near to Price Daniel, Jr., may have played a role when Daniel became speaker and named Lewis chair of the important House Committee on Natural Resources in 1973. Achieving high visibility early in his career, Lewis became Billy Clayton’s choice to head the House Committee on Intergovernmental Affairs in 1977, a post he held for four sessions. Lewis and Clayton clicked. Like Clayton, Lewis considered himself a business-oriented conservative who drew a broad spectrum of members to his leadership team.

He added to this a vastly more gregarious personality that made him highly attractive as a possible replacement speaker when Clayton ran into legal difficulties with Brilab. To many legislators, he presented a more attractive alternative to liberal Legislator John Bryant. “Gib Lewis is a man who can appeal to more Democrats and at the same time to more Republicans,” said Frank Gaston, a Republican from Dallas. “I expect that a lot of Republicans, knowing that there is little opportunity for one of their own in the race, might support Gib.”

Lewis shied from taking the microphone on the House floor, which allowed him to avoid unpleasant disagreements with legislators possessing long memories. “Dapperly dressed with a long cigar jammed between his teeth, Lewis is a shrewd operator – a politician to the quick,” a Dallas Morning News story said. “A glad-handing back-slapper with the finesse of a snake-oil salesman, Lewis has nurtured long and fast political friendships by going to great lengths to avoid offending anyone. A fence straddler, he’s a political pragmatist, unburdened by any overwhelming passions to right social wrongs.”

These same eager-to-please traits, however, aroused the suspicions of the Capitol press, which described Lewis as “lacking brains.” Lewis’ predecessor Billy Clayton became well known for the occasional verbal faux pas. Reporters found Lewis’ way with words worthy of its own name: “Gibberish.” As speaker, Lewis would proclaim particularly auspicious events as “mon-e-mentus” and once introduced England’s Prince Charles by saying, “Let me welcome you to Texas and tell you how thankful you are to be here.” Websites today recall the more legendary gaffes of Lewis’ speakership such as when Lewis told an assembly, “I am filled with humidity.” Other classic “Gibisms” included:

"This is unparalyzed in the state's history."

"I want to thank each and every one of you for having extinguished yourselves this session."

"There's a lot of uncertainty that's not clear in my mind."

"The budget can be cut by employee nutrition."

"This problem is a two-headed sword.”

"They're just beatin' their heads against a dead horse."

Lewis acknowledged that he had committed verbal miscues during his tenure as Speaker, but credited the Capitol press corps with stressing these statements. “The problem I had was that I never realized that it was such a detriment to my career that I had a lot of colloquialisms and a lot of expressions.”

Appearances were deceiving, Lewis’ many friends in the House noted. “Fortunately we don’t have to take an intellectual test to run for political office or a lot of us would fail,” said Rep. Chris Semos, the Dallas County Democratic Chairman. “The only test we have to take is with the voters. Gib Lewis is as intellectually sound as most members and probably more so than most. Those who know him, love him for what he is. That’s better and more advantageous than us getting a Rhodes scholar as speaker.”

Even as he ran his tentative first speaker’s race, newspapers asked questions about his fundraising. Clayton’s fate remained unclear in 1980 as Lewis raised approximately $21,000 by the end of June 1980 for an anticipated speaker election the following January.

In a problem that would plague him through his decade as speaker, he failed to report in-kind contributions provided through the free use of fellow Legislator Charles Evans’ airplane. Evan flew Lewis to meet legislators across the state for 94 hours between March 1 and June 30.

Lewis also failed to properly report the free use of other lawmakers’ planes and some 200 hours of volunteer work from state lawmaker Mike Millsap. Lewis raised eyebrows as well when he presented members of the Intergovernmental Affairs Committee, which he chaired, gold-colored watches paid for by pari-mutuel betting lobbyists and other political contributors with pending legislation before the House. Lewis initially claimed he had paid for the watches but when he was unable to produce a cancelled check, he admitted lobbyists paid for them.

These mini-scandals erupted in 1980 while Billy Clayton battled prosecutors in a Houston courtroom. Lewis set aside his speakership quest when a jury acquitted Clayton and the speaker came back for a final term. Lewis’ long journey towards the speakership finally ended on November 12, 1981 when he announced that he had received written pledges from 113 of his 149 fellow House members.

In Lewis’ view, the speakership represented the ultimate political prize and constituted the most powerful office in the state. The speaker, he said, “can push or defeat any proposal that he wants to get involved in . . . Every piece of legislation has to filter through his office . . . [H]e has life or death [power]over what happens in the legislative process. The only thing a governor can do is veto a bill or sign it. But it has to go through the speaker’s office before any of that can happen.”

Lewis barely had time to celebrate. In the two weeks after making his announcement that he had the speakership locked up, Lewis made the headlines again after an embarrassing hunting trip. This time, the speaker-to-be fired at a covey of quail while hunting at a ranch in Duval County in South Texas and ended up peppering birdshot at a man, who remained unidentified in press reports. The man suffered a bloodied cheekbone after being struck by a pellet. “They were little old pellets hardly big enough to hurt anybody,” Lewis said.

In spite of two years of bad press, Lewis raised $430,000 for his speaker’s race by January 1982, about 20 times that of his opponent, Grand Prairie Democrat Carlyle Smith. Fort Worth oilman Perry R. Bass became Lewis’ chief financial lifeline, contributing $10,000. The fundraising paid off handsomely, with Lewis winning the speakership in mid-January 1983 by an overwhelming 144-2 margin with one abstention, the first speaker elected from an urban district since W.O. Reed of Dallas in 1947.

If many saw Lewis more as a hunting companion or fellow country club member, they were shocked when, in less than a month, he acquired even more institutional control for the speakership. Having won a comfortable mandate in the speaker’s election, he successfully persuaded a compliant House to give him the power to fire committee chairs and employees of House members. Former Speaker and Chief Justice of the state supreme court Robert W. Calvert expressed amazement that the House rank and file had surrendered so much authority to Lewis. Calvert declared:

"[In the 1930s] . . . there was no such thing as the speaker and his close friends completely dominating the process in the House. There were too many strong-willed, strong-minded people who were totally independent. It seems to me today that the 'good-old-boy' philosophy is dominant. The 'good-old-boy' philosophy says, 'Look, you can get more done being a good old boy than you can by fighting.' . . . [W]e thought that the way to get things done was to fight for them. "

Lewis’ inaugural session as speaker then ended with another controversy. Lewis made one more “inadvertent” move when he neglected to mention that he had invested in a firm that held interest in liquor-related businesses. This drew notice because Lewis had been accused of assigning liquor regulation bills to hostile committees. Bills aimed at raising the Texas drinking age from 19 to 21, to ban open containers in motor vehicles and strengthen penalties for driving under the influence of intoxicating substances numbered among the legislation under question.

Mid-session, Lewis announced the omission of 49 business interests in his financial disclosure statements, sparking a House Ethics subcommittee inquiry. Eventually, in July 1983, the state ethics panel exonerated Lewis of wrongdoing for filing incomplete financial disclosure forms. By then, Lewis already paid the state an $800 fine.

Michael Phillips is the author of "White Metropolis: Race, Ethnicity and Religion in Dallas, 1841-2001" published in 2006, and "The House Will Come To Order: How the Texas Speaker Became a Power in State and National Politics," co-written with Patrick Cox and published in 2010 by The University of Texas Press. His essay “Why Is Big Tex Still a White Cowboy? Race, Gender, and the ‘Other Texans’” appears in "Beyond Texas Through Time: Breaking Away From Past Interpretations," edited by Walter Buenger and Arnoldo de León and published by Texas A&M Press in February 2011. He is currently coauthor of a new edition of "American Dreams & Reality: A Retelling of the American Story."

1 comment:

David E. Herrington said...

Thanks for someting on the background of Mr. Lewis, the speaker whose gavel sidelined Bill Haley's education committee bill and substituted Ross Perot's bill on Education. I was school teacher sitting in the gallery behind TEA Commissioner Kirby some his staff. The legislators on the floor were incredulous including a former professor of mine Mr. Gary Thompson whose questions no one seemed to be able to answer. Had to be one of the most awkward and surprising moments on the House floor ever. Certainly impactful in terms of how the business of education would be conducted.