Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Empowering Lobbyists: Undoing Political Reform in 1970s and 1980s Texas Under Billy Clayton

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 how corporate lobbyists regained control of state government even as Billy Clayton expanded the political reach of the Texas House speakership.

After the reform movement in Texas inspired by the Sharpstown bribery scandal fizzled in the early 1970s, it was perhaps inevitable that the speaker’s office continued on its trajectory toward greater power and that the lobby would continue to extend its influence over state politics. Under Clayton, the speaker’s fingerprints would appear on almost every action of the House. Speakers’ powers extended beyond the power to guide the fate of legislation, as the office became responsible for managing the capitol grounds and gained hiring authority over an expanding number of jobs under the dome. In his inaugural speech, however, Clayton promised a sharp break from the leadership style of convicted Speaker Gus Mutscher. “I stand before you today to say the days of iron-handed rule are gone,” Clayton told a cheering House. “The public won’t stand for it, the members won’t stand for it and, most of all, I won’t stand for it.”

It didn’t seem like Clayton was ushering in a new era of democracy, however, in the opening days of his speakership. On the one hand, he distanced himself from the imperial trappings of the office by declining to live in the speaker’s apartment, converting the space into offices. He also contradicted expectations by releasing substantial financial records. On the other hand, Clayton tightened access to public records. He required a written request and his personal permission before information on “the operations, records, employees, or deliberations of the House of Representatives and any of its committees or departments” could be released to the public.

Challenged on the legality of blocking access to public records, Clayton told the Fort Worth Star-Telegram the move would stop “nosy employees checking on a colleagues’ salary and precipitating a feud.” State Attorney General John Hill ruled that Clayton’s restrictions did not violate Texas’ Open Records Act. Clayton also tried to ban all non-members from access to the House floor, even though the Capitol press had traditionally been granted access to this area. Outrage forced Clayton to abandon this plan. These actions, however, probably created a rocky relationship with the Capitol press that only grew pricklier.

The major legislative controversy of Clayton’s first term came with the speaker’s advocacy of the so-called “Bentsen Bill,” designed to give the junior senator from Texas a leg up in the 1976 Democratic presidential primary. First elected to the United States House of Representatives in 1948, Bentsen served until 1955. The South Texan proved predictably conservative, participating enthusiastically in the Red Scare and pledging to ferret out “Reds” in the Truman administration. Bentsen retired from public office for 15 years, but conservative Democrats like former Governor John Connally persuaded him to challenge incumbent liberal Senator Ralph Yarborough in 1970. Well-funded, Bentsen upset the favored Yarborough in the Democratic primary and then won against Republican nominee and future President George Herbert Walker Bush in the November election.

Bentsen announced in 1975 that he would run for president in 1976, and Lt. Governor Bill Hobby immediately endorsed him. The same day, the Texas House Elections Committee approved a bill written by Bentsen's staff creating the state's first-ever direct presidential primary. This "Bentsen bill" included a so-called "winner-take-all" provision that actually would award 75 percent of the state's Democratic National Convention delegates to whomever carried a plurality in the preference primary.

The bill also set stiff requirements for out of state presidential candidates to get on the Texas ballot and prohibited uncommitted delegates from being elected, which would make it more difficult for liberals to pool resources to gain control of the Texas delegation from the Bentsen supporters. The law also allowed Bentsen to appear on the primary ballot not only as a presidential candidate but also to run for re-election as senator. Hobby, Clayton and other state party leaders pushed for the bill's passage.

In spite of all these advantages, however, Bentsen lagged far behind the surprising underdog campaign of former Georgia Gov. Jimmy Carter. Bentsen's well-financed effort completely sputtered before the Texas primary, although he announced he would stay on as a favorite son candidate to "see that the Texas viewpoint is heard at the Democratic convention.” Unfortunately for him, many conservatives in the Democratic Party voted instead in the Republican primary to back Ronald Reagan's challenge to incumbent President Gerald Ford. As a result, liberals constituted a disproportionate percentage of Democratic primary voters May 1, 1976. The main beneficiary of the Bentsen bill turned out to be Carter, who won 92 of the state's 98 delegates after the May primary. Bentsen got the remaining six.

In June 1976, Clayton expressed worry over the 350,000 or more conservative Democrats who opted to vote in the Republican primary. Clayton claimed that conservatives suffered an unfair disadvantage since the most conservative presidential candidates were on the GOP primary ballot but the Texas Republican Party was not strong enough yet to be competitive in state races. Conservative cross-party voting proved decisive, he believed, in Bentsen’s defeat in the Texas primary earlier that year. Clayton called for combining the two presidential primaries onto one ballot so voters could choose a candidate without picking a party affiliation.

This effort never gained traction, but Clayton and Lt. Gov. Hobby continued to experiment with party primary laws in order to strengthen conservatives in both major parties. In 1979 Hobby pursued passage of the so-called “Connally” bill designed to give an advantage to former Texas Gov. John Connally, who officially defected to the GOP in 1973 after already serving as Republican President Richard Nixon’s Secretary of Treasury. Connally already had begun his campaign for the Republican presidential nomination in 1980. In 1979 Hobby asked the Senate to pass a bill to separate the presidential primaries from other races on the ballot. A voter under this system could vote in the Republican presidential primary for Connally, or perhaps Reagan, and then back conservatives in a Democratic primary for lower ballot races. Like Clayton’s “unitary primary” concept, this system would have been without parallel in the United States.

To defeat the Connally Bill, a dozen of the more liberal senators ducked out of the chamber’s back door to break the quorum required for the Senate to conduct its business and hid in an Austin garage apartment, playing cards and napping even as the press and the Texas Rangers combed the capital city looking for them. Sen. Gene Jones of Houston, tired of the cramped quarters, fled home. Texas Rangers armed with a faxed photograph of the senator showed up at his door. Rangers asked the man who answered the door if he was Sen. Jones. The man said yes and the Rangers arrested him and flew him back to Austin. Only upon the party’s return to Austin did the Rangers discover they had arrested Jones’ look-alike brother. When the Rangers had arrived at his residence, the real Sen. Jones fled to the back yard, hopped the fence and remained invisible for another day.

The escaped senators became known as the “Killer Bees,” named after Africanized honeybees causing hysteria in Texas because of their alleged lethality and aggressiveness and their rapid approach toward the United States border from Mexico. The “Bees” triumphed after Hobby gave up on reaching a quorum. In the end, Connally spent over $10 million and won just one delegate to the GOP national convention, dropping out of the race long before the 1980 Texas primary.

Democratic conservatives like Clayton and Hobby tried to preserve the dominance of conservatives in the Democratic Party, but the political world had already substantially changed. The two-party era in Texas began with the election of William P. Clements as governor in 1978. The Democratic Party primary that year produced a surprise when Attorney General John Hill, a relative liberal, defeated incumbent Democratic Gov. Dolph Briscoe in the party primary. Hill’s campaign alienated the governor’s rural supporters, who opted instead to support the Republican nominee that fall, Bill Clements.

The multimillionaire founder and chief executive of an oil drilling company, Clements was nominated by President Richard Nixon as Undersecretary of the Navy and served for four years before he returned to Texas and announced plans to run for governor. He promised to cut taxes and slash state government programs to balance the budget. The age of pro-government conservatives had ended. Cultivating an image as a tough, no-nonsense “Texan to his toenails”, by the general election Clements won over many Briscoe Democrats.

Historian Randolph “Mike” Campbell also attributes much of Clements’ success to white anger against programs such as affirmative action supported by past Democratic administrations in Washington. “[T]he Republican Party’s ‘southern strategy’ – based on backlash against the civil rights movement and federal support of minority interests – had come into its own in Texas,” Campbell writes. “Republicans in the 1976 primary, for example, voted overwhelmingly [in a non-binding referendum] against busing to achieve school integration, whereas Democrats refused to put the question on their ballot. The Democratic party continued along the road to becoming the refuge of minorities, a high percentage of whom did not vote, and Republican candidates such as Clements benefited from a steady influx of whites into their party.”

Clements’ November 1978 victory sent shock waves through Texas’ political world comparable to John Tower’s Senate victory almost two decades earlier. The number of Republican Party primary voters increased from 158,403 in 1978 to 265,851 in 1982, signaling a deeper shift in sentiment toward the GOP. Clements lost the governor’s race that year to Democrat Mark White, and mostly progressive Democrats swept the statewide races in the executive branch.

With the popular and deep-pocketed Sen. Lloyd Bentsen leading the ballot, Democrats capitalized on a massive, coordinated campaign that elected one of the most diverse groups of statewide officeholders in Texas history. Yet when Tower retired from the Senate in 1984, Republicans held onto the seat with the victory of former Democrat Phil Gramm. An oil bust in 1986 allowed Clements to recapture the governor’s mansion from White, opening the door to Republican dominance of the state in the next decade.

The varied efforts of men like Clayton to alter the state primary system shared an undemocratic essence. The idea behind these schemes was to make the primary voter base significantly more conservative than the general electorate and to parlay even a minor victory by a conservative favorite son into a delegate rout. Yet, in spite of his role in these failed efforts, Clayton received high marks from his peers -- even liberals who disliked his agenda -- for his fairness toward members. Eddie Bernice Johnson gave Clayton only tepid support in his first speaker’s race, yet Clayton rewarded her by making her chair of the Labor Committee, a key post. “When he called me to ask me to take the chairmanship, I said I was not philosophically on the same side as he was and I wasn’t sure how comfortable I would be on his team,” she said. “He told me he wanted me to do whatever I needed to do to abide by my principles.”

Clayton exhibited the characteristics of other successful white, Democratic and Southern politicians of the era. While accommodating the new voices in the Legislature and expanding and modernizing the services provided by state government, he focused on promoting businesslike management and economic development. Regardless, critics emerged when Clayton won an unprecedented third term as speaker in 1979. Although he was hailed as a man in a white hat by some after his election in the wake of Sharpstown, by the end of the 1970s his opponents derided him as the second coming of Gus Mutscher.

“Speaker Bill Clayton is spending state money at the rate of more than $192,000 per year to pay for a staff that he admits may help him formulate key legislative programs and retain leadership of the House for years to come,” Andy Welch of the Denton Record Chronicle observed in a 1976 analysis. Clayton’s staff of 18, significantly larger than that enjoyed by speakers in the 1960s, included a full-time press secretary, George Works. This indicated that speakers now made news year-round even when the Legislature wasn’t in session.

Even if he presented himself as a limited government conservative, Clayton instituted a professionalization of the state Legislature and its staff unprecedented in Texas history. Drafting legislation now became a year-round affair, and there were no off years. Clayton allocated money so members had more support services, and for the first time the House used computers extensively in its work. To provide members more room, he moved some offices and agencies out of the Capitol to other state-owned property in Austin. “We were the first ones who put the House on computerization,” he said. “I wanted to see [the state government] operate efficiently, and I wanted to see everybody be pleased with the way it operated.”

As speaker, Clayton also expanded the role of standing committees, which met in between sessions. He would direct the chairs of these committees to examine certain bills or legislative issues while the House was in recess so solid research could be provided earlier in sessions. He also gave these standing committees and their chairs greater budgetary authority over agencies. Finally, Clayton allowed members to file bills in advance of a session.

No speaker before had asserted such authority over Capitol staffing. At the time of his computerization drive, Clayton fired four senior staffers he said were standing in the way of progress. Clayton removed about 30 janitors, many with long years of service, replacing them with a cheaper custodial service. While the budget for the speaker’s office increased, Clayton instituted tighter limits on members’ postage and telephone call expenses. Dallas Rep. Paul Ragsdale said this move made members more dependent on the speakers’ staff for research and information. “I think we’re turning the clock back to the Gus Mutscher days,” said liberal House member John Bryant of Dallas. “I think he’s trying to set himself up as an absolute power so that we can’t do a dadgum thing about it.”

In a majority urban state, representatives from Texas’ largest cities complained about the Legislature’s dominance by Clayton’s men, known as the “rural mafia” or “Billy’s Boys.” “If you’re not on the team, you’re not in the game,” one member complained to the Dallas Times Herald.

The cohesion of Billy’s Boys, which included future Speaker James “Pete” Laney, increased as Clayton began holding Sunday night “briefings” in the space formerly used as the speaker’s apartment. Committee chairs would munch snacks and down drinks as they swapped status updates on pending legislation. The extent of Clayton’s power, however, became clear in March 1977. He announced he had enough votes to be elected speaker a third consecutive time, in 1979, and that he planned to remain speaker through a fourth term. He noted that in 1981 he could enter the gubernatorial race, the state comptroller’s race, or run for some other statewide position in 1982.


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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