Sunday, April 24, 2011

The Short, Tragic Political Life of Price Daniel, Jr.

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 meteoric rise and fall of one of the most idealistic politicians in 20th century Texas, late former House Speaker Price Daniel, Jr.

The sordid, influence-peddling Sharpstown scandal that destroyed countless political careers in Austin shaped the agenda of the regular legislative session in 1973 and the career of the next House speaker, the moderate Marion Price Daniel, Jr., of Liberty.

No person seemed more destined to fill the post of speaker than Daniel. On his mother Jean’s side, he was the great-great-great grandson of Sam Houston. His father, Marion Price Daniel, Sr., the former House speaker, state attorney general, U.S. senator, and governor was, by 1971, serving on the Texas Supreme Court. The younger Daniel was born in 1941 and grew up in the town of Liberty, in Liberty County, near Houston. Daniel studied law at Baylor University and received his degree in 1966. Daniel felt impelled toward a public life and, after passing the bar exam, he successfully ran for justice of the peace in Liberty.

Price Daniel Jr. won a seat in the Texas House in 1968. The press characterized his voting record as “liberal,” though Daniel preferred the labels “moderate” or “independent.” He emerged, however, as a favorite speaker candidate among the liberal faction of the Dirty Thirty. Daniel enjoyed distinct advantages in the speaker’s race, according to his friend, Democratic State Rep. Bill Bass. “He came with a famous name and he wasn’t particularly apparent,” Bass said. “I mean, he didn’t get on the microphone a lot. But when it came down to voting . . . [h]e did what he thought was right . . . he voted in a genuinely independent way.”

Bass said that he approached House Speaker Rayford Price, who rose to the speakership when Gus Mutscher resigned following his conviction for accepting bribes in return for laws favorable to banker Frank Sharp, about aligning himself with House independents, but Price worried that he would alienate too many if he was seen working with the Dirty Thirty. The group - formed to oppose Mutscher's speakership - included conservative Republicans but was perceived as dominated by liberals. At this point, Bass said, he began to ask, “Why not Price Daniel?”

Bass said that he and his allies in the House already fondly regarded Daniel’s father “as the person who fought the sales tax.” Bass did not know that Price Daniel, Jr. had grown disillusioned with the House under Gus Mutscher and at the beginning of the 1971 session decided he would drop out of politics. Oblivious to Daniel’s frustrations, Bass and John Hannah, representative from Ben Wheeler, ate ice cream cones in an Austin Baskin Robbins where the two discussed which member of the progressive faction they could back in a race against Gus Mutscher.

“They came up with the name of Price Daniel Jr. and instantly decided it was the best idea since Rocky Road,” Molly Ivins reported in the Texas Observer. Neither legislator knew who would support Daniel’s candidacy or where money for a race would come from, Bass said. All they had was Daniel’s name and they hadn’t even approached the Liberty representative about running. “Later on, when we persisted in encouraging Price to run, he was reluctant, almost derisive of the idea,” Bass said. “He would say to his secretary, ‘The two movers and shakers in the Texas House of Representatives are here to talk me into being speaker.’ . . . It took a while to get Price on board.”

Daniel had not endeared himself to all of the Dirty Thirty, having failed to fight against Mutscher’s redistricting plan and not supporting Farenthold’s call for a full investigation of Sharpstown. He had, however, sided with most of the Dirty Thirty on 12 of 19 key reform votes. The AFL-CIO scorecard for Daniel credited him with casting 25 “right” votes, five “wrong” votes and four absences, enough for him to earn the union’s endorsement in his speaker’s run. Enough people, Bass said, whispered in Daniel’s ear for the legislator to reconsider his retirement plans and openly campaign for the 1973 speakership during the 1971 regular session.

According to reporter Dave Montgomery, Daniel’s supporters “cajoled, coaxed and -– some say -– even lied to get votes” by exaggerating the number of House members pledged to Daniel to make his speakership appear foreordained. Meanwhile, Bass said, several of the Dirty Thirty made an alliance of convenience with the “Mutschercrats” as they were called to derail Rayford Price’s chances of getting re-elected speaker.

The two factions mapped out a strategy to keep Rayford Price tied up with procedural votes and other time-consuming matters to prevent him from campaigning in his legislative district for re-election. Tom Moore of Waco, John Hannah and Bass met with top Mutscher allies to iron out details in a room at the Stephen F. Austin Hotel. As Bass relates the story:

". . . [W]e believed that if Rayford was elected speaker, he would be unbeatable in his home district and Price Daniel’s chance to be speaker would evaporate. We knew that Mutscher and his loyalists were, out of pure vindictiveness, anxious to prevent Rayford’s election as speaker. So [Rep.] Tom Moore of Waco, John Hannah and I were delegated to meet with Mutscher’s henchmen to select a compromise candidate who would agree to hold the office for the balance of the present session but not for the next.

We met a roomful of Mutscher’s people in a smoke-filled room in the Stephen F. Austin Hotel. We had hardly sat down when Tom Moore got up and said, 'I thought when I came here that I could stand being around you bunch of whores, but I see now that I can’t take it.' [Laughs] And he walked out the door leaving John and I to negotiate a deal.

We agreed to nominate Dewitt Hale of Corpus Christi . . . He had generally voted with the speaker, but he wasn’t a member of Mutscher’s inner circle. And he agreed to hold the office for only the balance of the session.

However, our compromise was not well received by a substantial part of the Dirty Thirty who were appalled by the prospect of voting for a compromise candidate so tainted by Mutscherism, even if the result was the election of Rayford Price who had almost the same voting record on reform issues as Dewitt Hale. That group supported the nomination of Zan Holmes for speaker. Zan was one of the two African American members and a great gentleman. When the vote was taken, we lost seventeen of the purist, ultra-liberal members who were thrilled silly at the opportunity to vote for the first black candidate for speaker of the House. So the seventeen purists remained undefiled, and the loss of their votes resulted in Rayford Price’s election as speaker."

Bass and Hannah’s larger plans, however, returned to life with Fred Head’s victory over Price in the primaries. With Price out of the way, Daniel started campaigning for the speakership in the second half of 1972. Daniel’s aggressive reform platform included limiting speakers to one or two terms, limits on the powers of conference committees to rewrite bills, establishing a limited seniority system to reduce the speaker’s powers over committee membership, and reduction of the number of committees and the size of the speaker’s staff.

“A speaker does not need 28 aides (which Mutscher has), if he’s only going to preside, rather than try to run the floor,” Daniel said. Daniel went one step farther than his rivals, suggesting that a one-term limit would be critical to curbing the tyrannical excesses that had characterized the Mutscher speakership. With only one term, Daniel said, “the temptation or motive for a speaker to hold up a member’s bill, threaten to gerrymander his district, stall a meritorious appropriation, or otherwise deny fair treatment until the interested member signed a pledge for the speaker’s re-election” would be removed.

On June 16, 1972, Daniel released the names of 77 House members pledged to support him in the January speaker election, enough to win, and said he had backing from 26 others. Frank Calhoun of Abilene, Daniel’s chief opponent in the speaker’s race, dropped out in August 1972, five months before the election.

Daniel revealed how sweeping his reform agenda had become a month before he officially won the speakership post. In addition to democratizing House procedures, Daniel declared that his priorities for the 1973 legislative session included reducing the penalty for first-time possession of marijuana from a felony to a misdemeanor, stronger pollution controls, and setting up a transit system for the state’s major urban areas. In one of the strongest repudiations of the Mutscher era, he also called for a shield law that would allow Texas reporters to protect the identity of confidential sources. That last proposal won him the journalism fraternity Sigma Delta Chi’s “Friend of the Press Award” in March 1973. On January 9, 1973, the House elected Daniel unanimously. In one of his first moves as speaker, he cut the size of the speaker’s office staff from 27 to eight people.

Seasoned political observer Sam Kinch, Jr. noted that Daniel’s mild personal manner and moderate politics had not prepared Austin for the depth and breadth of the new speaker’s agenda. According to Kinch:

"All Daniel did was propose about the straightest-arrow ethics code we’ve seen in these parts. It’s a gutty little fellow, full of goodies like a ban on legislators who are also lawyers doing triple duty by making piles of money practicing before the very state agencies that the Legislature controls. That sort of reform. And like the financial disclosure part: it doesn’t just cover the state official or candidate. It goes to his wife or kids, so he can’t hide a bunch of income that he gets from an oil lease that a lobbyist bought him at a fire sale.”

Sam Kinch and Bill Bass, however, eventually believed that the wealth and protection that marked Daniel’s childhood influenced this speaker in a profoundly different and tragic way than other children of comfort entering politics. Bass recalls one moment that captures the painful contradictions that drove Price Daniel, Jr.:

"[Rep. R.C.] Nick Nichols was a member from the Gulf Coast, from somewhere near Houston, and he was a big hulking bear of a man. And a real nice guy too. And not just a labor union stooge. Price was very small and dainty in his suit. Nick was hulking alongside him on the sidewalk on front of us. John [Hannah] and Diane [Daniel] and I were coming along behind while Price was making this pitch to Nick. And somehow it occurred to me that, 'It’s Pooh Bear and Christopher Robin.' So everyone, at least the three of us, saw it.

As Sam Kinch wrote, Daniel, like the fictitious Christopher Robin, was a visionary “surrounded by characters who are always entertaining if not always understandable . . There is also something of . . . Gus Mutscher in Daniel. Like the former speaker . . . Daniel has a scarcely suppressed streak deep within him to succeed, build, achieve. Unlike the Machiavellian Mutscher, however, Daniel does it with style –- a style that puts the emphasis on, well, style.” From these friends and acquaintances emerges a portrait of a man somewhat shielded from the outside world who nevertheless had a steel will and committed himself to cleaning up a dirty system. Because of his confidence in his vision, he expected others to follow him.

Daniel desired a genuinely democratic House and sometimes ruled with a light hand, especially when compared to his immediate predecessors. Many of his peers interpreted his podium style and his pledge not to run again for speaker as weakness. “Daniel does not interfere in the committee process or in floor debate,” reporter Bill Collier of the Houston Chronicle observed. “Everyone gets his say. He does not pressure the House in any way. There is no ‘Daniel team’ working under the whip to pass his reforms.”

In the 1973 session, Daniel took on big reform projects, only to be frustrated by the more conservative Texas Senate, but none proved bigger than his attempt to shelve the cumbersome, outmoded 1876 state Constitution. Daniel emerged quickly as the likely president of the 1974 Texas Constitutional Convention.

Daniel said he favored leaving out of a new Constitution anything that could be covered by statute and opposed inclusion of the state’s “right-to-work” law in the document, saying that had already been provided by legislation. Rep. Ray Hutchison, a Republican, and Roy Orr, a Democrat, were already lobbying for inclusion of a right-to-work measure. Unions strongly opposed this. Labor hoped to win the right to declare work sites closed shops, a battle that would only be made harder if repeal of the right-to-work law required a Constitutional amendment. The battle over this issue would prove fatal to Daniel’s efforts.

Bass believes that Daniel overstepped when he made the transition from being a reform speaker to president of the Constitutional Convention. In guiding a controversial and potentially politically damaging convocation, Daniel hoped to live up to his father’s illustrious legacy. “All sorts of people tried to persuade him against it,” Bass said. “ . . . I’d mention it to him, that it was going to be a major disaster . . . I wish I had done more.”

In preparation for the convention, set to begin in January 1974, a 37-member Constitutional Revision Commission, appointed by the governor, lieutenant governor, attorney general and speaker of the House, traveled the state, visiting 19 Texas cities and holding 30 public hearings to get voter feedback. The commission then broke into nine committees to suggest different articles of the proposed document to the convention.

Enthusiasm for a new constitution remained tepid at public forums during the commission’s 90-day term, according to Bill Hartman, the vice chair of the local governments committee, who at that time worked as editor and publisher of the Beaumont Enterprise and Journal. “There wasn’t a groundswell of people clamoring for a change,” Hartman said. “We didn’t have thousands of people show up for our public hearings, but we had hundreds of people.”

Among the commission’s recommendations was a call for a shorter, more broadly worded Constitution designed to provide general guidelines for governance and descriptions of powers for constitutional offices. They suggested increasing the power of the governor, annual rather than bi-annual legislative sessions, reorganization of the judicial branch, and deleting matters from the Constitution better covered by legislation.

“. . . [T]his may sound self-serving, but from our position everything was fine until we handed the ball over to the Legislature,” Hartman said. “Politics took over then. As a commission we were not particularly bothered by lobby or interest groups.” That changed once the proposed Constitution went to the convention. Hartman said it was a mistake to let the Legislature serve as the Constitutional Convention and it would have been better if delegates had been selected through a special election. “The commission presented what we felt was far better than the existing Texas Constitution,” Hartman said. “The one that was going to come out in the convention, we as interested members of the commission who followed it felt, was inferior to our product and probably inferior to the existing Texas Constitution, because whoever had the biggest gun was getting the biggest portion of what they wanted and it just became a special-interest document.”

The convention eventually hammered out an 11-article Constitution in July 1974. By this point, though, with several convention members already positioning themselves to run for speaker and with the atmosphere poisoned between pro-union Democrats and their corporate-friendly peers, the assembly descended into acrimony.

Daniel tried to run the convention the way he ran the House, allowing delegates to speak at length and trying not to impose his constitutional views on the gathering. He had appointed opponents to key committees and tried to make each committee reflect the number of Republicans, African Americans, Latinos and women in the Legislature. Liberals, however, bitterly attacked Daniel when, realizing that business conservatives had a majority, he gave in to demands and placed a right-to-work provision in the final draft of the Constitution.

Members of the African American caucus such as Mickey Leland and Craig Washington also bitterly denounced Daniel when he allowed conservatives to water down a section of the Constitution that would have guaranteed health care to every Texan. The revised provisions made universal health care a goal, not a guarantee.

The fate of the draft Constitution remained unclear during the convention’s final day. Capitol aides kept moving the clock back to give delegates more time to forge a compromise on issues like right-to-work, but to no avail. Standing at the gavel, realizing his hopes for a new Constitution probably had died and that his political future probably would suffer as a result, Daniel allowed a vote to take place. By three votes, the convention failed to approve the Constitution and thereby place it on the ballot for public approval.

A clearly saddened Daniel bitterly blamed delegates already campaigning for speakership of the next session, labor unions, and Gov. Dolph Briscoe, who declined to support the Constitution, for the failure of the convention. “We missed that constitution by three votes,” an aide to Daniel told a reporter. “You tell me the governor of this state can’t deliver three votes.” Daniel reserved his harshest words for the AFL-CIO. “Right-to-work was a bitter pill for a lot of us to swallow,” he said. “I don’t care what any special interest thinks –- I think the appropriate question is will the people of Texas ever forgive labor. In so many instances, delegates would tell me they thought right to work was a phony issue but they had to think of their political future.”

Daniel clearly did not appreciate the difficulties facing union organizers in Texas. Daniel rejected criticism that he didn’t guide the convention with a firmer hand, saying that conflicted with his belief in democracy. “I read somewhere that if Ben Barnes had been president of this convention, the delegates would have gone home wondering what was in the document,” Daniel said. “And if Gus Mutscher had been president, they would have spent the rest of their lives defending it. Well, Price Daniel, Jr., was president and we didn’t get a constitution. But we came close, and we did it the right way.”

Daniel advocated that the next Legislature place the convention’s constitutional draft before the voters in a referendum. Daniel’s successor as speaker, Constitution supporter Billy Clayton, did that. Eight amendments to the existing Constitution were proposed that would do the same work as an entirely new constitution. Daniel and Clayton both campaigned hard for the amendments, which had consumed so much metaphorical sweat and blood. The passion for reform had waned, however. Labor unions actively campaigned against the ballot measures and Gov. Dolph Briscoe opposed it. The eight amendments went down in flames, voters rejecting them by a 3-1 margin.

“I think we tried to take on too much, to write the whole Constitution,” Clayton said years later. “If you took a section or article at a time, then you wouldn’t get so many [opposed] . . . [I]f you write the whole Constitution and . . . say, somebody was against Article Five, but for the rest of it, they’d vote against it because of Article Five . . . [I]f you’re ever going to [adopt a new Constitution], and I think that we probably should, just take smaller chunks at a time.”

Bass said the reasons for the Constitution’s failure went deeper than that. Opponents won, he said, because of the simple fear of change and widespread distrust of politicians.

["For instance] . . . you’ve got the school teachers’ retirement plan written in the Constitution. School teachers are always the ones coming up with the idea that we need a new Constitution. “Look at this silly thing. It’s just a body of laws and it’s unreadable.” But when the time comes to approve a comprehensive revision, somebody tells the school teachers, 'Do you want that bunch of drunken womanizing slugs in the Legislature to be able to change your teacher’s retirement with a majority vote, or leave it in the Constitution where it takes a two-thirds vote in the Legislature and a majority vote of the people to change it? Do you want to turn that over to that bunch in Austin?' That’s all it takes to lose an important group that would ordinarily support revision.

Daniel’s chances at future public office faded with the proposed Constitution. AFL-CIO bylaws prohibited the organization from endorsing any politician on record as voting for right-to-work. Even though Daniel personally opposed that provision and accepted it only to get approval for the whole Constitution, the former speaker would be denied the campaign support of what had been one of his most important constituencies. In any case, too many union members felt too much anger at the man from Liberty for him to make amends. This became abundantly clear in 1978, when he suffered a sound defeat in the Democratic primary for attorney general to future governor Mark White.

Daniel’s speakership opened with high promise of a more open, fair political process that would be less beholden to wealthy special interests. In the end, however, Daniel tilted at windmills. He left the Capitol, and the lobby remained as influential as ever. The next two speakers, Billy Clayton and Gibson D. “Gib” Lewis, witnessed the prolonged battle from Sharpstown through the ill-fated Constitutional Convention. They sensed a need to move to other issues.

They retreated on reform, expanded the power of the speaker’s office, increased the speaker’s support staff and extended the speaker’s control of the legislative process. As the speakership grew in power, so did lobbyists’ influence, as the state continued to cope with an increasing population and demand for services. However, alleged improprieties and scandals centered on influence peddling became routine in the next 15 years as they had in the Gus Mutscher era.

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.


Michael said...

Feel free to quote.

Anonymous said...

ok then, if free to comment

Price Daniel = what a scumbag