Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Meet the New Boss: Political Turmoil in Texas After the Sharpstown Scandal

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 discuss the political instability in Texas during the Sharpstown Scandal of the early 1970s.

The Sharpstown Scandal - in which a number of powerful Texans such as state House Speaker Gus Mutscher were convicted for accepting bribes in return for passing favorable legislation for banker Frank Sharp - ushered in an era of political instability. The speakership of Mutscher’s successor, Rayford Price, proved breathtakingly brief. Born in Jacksonville in Cherokee County, Price grew up in the nearby town of Frankston in Anderson County. His father, Quanah Quantrill Price, was owner and publisher of the Frankston Citizen. Quanah Price’s position in the community meant that Rayford saw many local politicians in his youth who would drop by the newspaper office or the Price home to discuss issues. Interested in the broader world, the younger Price attended the University of Texas at Austin where he received his law degree in 1963. Price won his first election to the Texas House of Representatives before finishing law school. Price had no plans to run when he suddenly received a call from the incumbent. According to Price:

"The incumbent member was Jerry Sadler . . . and at that time he was running for land commissioner. And I was in school down here in my freshman year in law school and got a call about five o'clock in the morning . . . Jerry was a snuff dipper, and I think he was dipping snuff at five o'clock in the morning. At least he sounded like it. He said, 'Hi. Your dad said you might be interested in running for the Legislature.' And I said, 'Well, Mr. Sadler, I don't know.” He said, “Well, if you are, there's nothing but an old woman running, and you ought to run' and hung up"

I went back to sleep and woke up at the normal time and said, “My God, did I dream that?” So I called my dad. I had no idea of running for the Legislature, because I was concentrating on law school. My dad said, “Yes, Jerry's not running.” So I went home, checked around, and sure enough, there was a lady running, who was a very nice retired schoolteacher. And so . . . I filed, and it turned out there were three more by then, five of us in the race when it all was said and done. . . . I think my dad got me elected.

Price represented Palestine as a Democrat from 1961 to 1973. Price’s voting record reflected his conservative politics. Shortly before he won election as speaker, an AFL-CIO scorecard graded him as casting 17 anti-labor and two pro-labor votes. A business lobby poll, however, scored him at 20 “good” votes and seven “bad” votes during the recent Legislative session. During his drive for the speakership, Price received support from the Texas Manufacturers Association and the Texas Chemical Council, two of the most conservative business lobbies. Price held a leadership position every term he served, including chair of the Committee on Contingent Expenses his freshman term. He was later named chair of the Committee on Constitutional Amendments and then head of the Committee on State Affairs in his next-to-last term in the House.

Price said that when he ran for speaker, he wanted to stop the abuses of the committee system he had seen under Mutscher. The race turned out to be particularly difficult for Price who said he faced off against an odd alignment of conservatives and liberals. Hostility had broken out between Price and Mutscher, who remained a House member and still had allies in the chamber. Meanwhile, Price Daniel, Jr., son of the former speaker and governor, had arisen as a favorite choice of the liberals in the so-called Dirty Thirty coalition that formed to oppose the Mutscher speakership. “So it was a 'Stop Rayford’ campaign because everybody thought that if I won that, well, then there'd be no problem for me to be reelected [as speaker] in 1973,” Price remembered.

Price won the speakership over DeWitt Hale of Corpus Christi by a narrow 77-65 margin, but quickly impressed critics with his commitment to reform and his fairness in dealing with his opponents. In the three special sessions he presided over as speaker, Price said he made a point of democratizing the House.

The back room dealings that had been going on I wanted to get rid of. I didn't have any policy issues that I wanted to push. I wanted to clean up the legislative process and procedures . . . We adopted new rules. We reorganized the committees, and put in a limited seniority system where the speaker didn't have total control over the process.

Price would find 1972 the most crowded year of his life. As author Charles Deaton wrote, virtually every challenger running in the May Democratic primaries “tried to tie Mutscher around the neck of the incumbent. In many of the races, it was quite effective.” Sharpstown loomed large in a primary season that featured more contested races than any Legislative campaign since World War II. In Fort Worth, Betty Andujar defeated Mike Moncrief in a Senate campaign in which her ads asked, “Why fire the ventriloquist [Mutscher] and keep the dummy [Moncrief?]” Jim Nugent of Kerrville, Delwin Jones, author of the former speaker’s infamous redistricting plan, and Tommy Shannon, who was found guilty along with the speaker in the Abilene trial, numbered among the key Mutscher allies defeated in May.

Price faced one of the fiercest contests of the year. Redistricting placed him in a largely new district where most of his constituents didn’t know him. Meanwhile, redistricting had placed incumbent Fred Head of Henderson in Rusk County in the same district as fellow Dirty Thirty member Bob Grant. Rather than run against his political ally, Head, with encouragement of the rest of the Dirty Thirty, moved to his native Troup and decided to challenge Price.

From November to March, the speaker’s race tied up Price, giving Head a five-month head start. “ . . . [I]t was a weird election, because I was speaker.,” Price said. “I was running in a district where two-thirds of it I'd never run in before and a lot of people actually thought I was Mutscher because I was speaker. Being speaker turned out not to be necessarily an asset to me at that time, because all they'd heard about was the speaker being indicted and convicted.”

A University of Houston law school student, Bill Green of Palestine, also entered the race and finished third, carrying about 23 percent of the vote. That proved enough to force a runoff. Price finished in second place with 32 percent. Head enjoyed a substantial lead, placing first at 45 percent. Having ground to make up, Price turned up the heat in the runoff. If Head tried to caricature Price as the second coming of Mutscher, Price tried to paint Head as part of a radical hippie left bent on taking over state government. Political consultant Danny Parrish of Fort Worth launched a telephone and handbill campaign that posed the question, “What Does The Dirty Thirty Really Stand For?” According to the Price handbill, the House dissidents advocated:

"Legalization of marijuana
[Abolition of] . . . the Texas Rangers
Registration of all firearms
Repeal of the right-to-work law
Liquor by the drink
. . . [Authorizing] . . . drivers’ licenses for drunk drivers
[Legalizing] . . . abortion"

The handbill closed with, “Fred Head says he’s proud of being part of the Dirty Thirty. Is this the kind of representation you want in Austin?” Campaign workers made phone calls to voters making similar charges. Head angrily denounced the handbills, calling them “vicious lies.” In the end, Price’s alleged Mutscher connection, whether fair or not, proved more decisive than the accusations he leveled against Head. Head’s lead shrank significantly by the day of the June runoff, but he still won by 309 votes. As Price later said:

"Nineteen seventy-two was a real interesting year for me and my family. My second son was born, I was elected speaker, and then I was defeated -- all in '72 . . . Oh, it was a roller-coaster year. Up, down. As a matter of fact, there was a runoff and the runoff was on June 3, which was mine and my wife's anniversary. So when we got the final result of the election, we had champagne celebrating our anniversary but not the election."

Surprisingly, in spite of his conviction on bribery charges, Mutscher also ran for re-election. Stripped of his speakership and the high-profile appearances by top politicos that had characterized earlier campaigns, Mutscher ran for another House term with a grassroots effort that emphasized the former speaker’s service to his district. During the campaign, Mutscher took credit for killing Preston Smith’s grocery tax plan, even though he had worked the House floor heavily for its approval. Mutscher actually finished first in the three-candidate primary with 40 percent of the vote while attorney Latham Boone III, a 32-year-old native of Grimes County with a long family history of political involvement, finished second. Boone, however, wound up beating the former speaker in the runoff by about 2,500 votes.

Overall, the Texas House membership experienced about a 50 percent turnover, with 76 new members elected along with 15 new Senators in a 31-member chamber. Although no investigation linked Lt. Gov Ben Barnes to Sharpstown, he had presided over the Senate when the legislation benefiting Frank Sharp passed. The suspicion of corruption crippled him during his long-anticipated gubernatorial race against Gov. Smith. Barnes failed to make the runoff in a heated four-candidate Democratic primary.

Dirty Thirty leader Sissy Farenthold, running an insurgent campaign, finished second with 28 percent of the ballot, behind rancher-banker and former State Representative Dolph Briscoe of Uvalde, who carried 45 percent. Barnes struggled to a distant third and Smith a dismal fourth, the worst-ever finish for a sitting governor. Smith won only 9 percent of the vote and failed to carry a single one of Texas’ 254 counties. Barnes received only 17 percent of ballots cast. Much better financed, Briscoe defeated Farenthold in the runoff and won the governor’s mansion in November. Republican gubernatorial candidate Henry Grover of Houston and La Raza Unida Party candidate Ramsey Muñiz of Waco, however, carried enough votes to make Briscoe the first Texas governor to win office with less than 50 percent support.

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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