Monday, May 02, 2011

Money, Influence Peddling and Power: The Gib Lewis Era in Texas Politics

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 ethics charges made against Speaker Gib Lewis and his often considerable impact on Texas politics.

Although he received well-deserved credit for his leadership in the education issue, Texas House Speaker Gib Lewis still generated controversy with his personal finances and his use of state property. In 1987, reporters discovered that the Texas Department of Parks and Wildlife stocked 187 deer over a four-year period on two ranches owned by Lewis.

The Austin American-Statesman reported that state law required landowners wanting deer to find the animals themselves and pay for trapping and transportation expenses. State law also required the Parks and Wildlife to approve privately owned ranches for stocking. Lewis’ ranches apparently had never been inspected and the speaker never paid for the deer. Trapping and transportation of the deer cost the state $12,425. Officials later discovered that Parks and Wildlife transported 100 black bass from an East Texas lake to the speaker’s Williamson County ranch. Hoping to quiet negative coverage, Lewis returned the deer and three elk.

The new flap began as press concerns rose over the high number of lobbyist-paid trips taken by state legislators. The Austin American Statesman reported in November 1989 that the House parliamentarian co-owned a sport lodge with lobbyists. About 800 registered lobbyists spent $1.86 million on entertaining legislators during a five-month period in 1989, with just 25 lobbyists accounting for a third of that amount. In 1984, Lewis took a golfing vacation in New Mexico paid for by trucking and horse racing lobbyists, traveled to apartheid-era South Africa for two weeks at the expense of the racist regime in Pretoria, and vacationed for four days in New York City in 1986 at the expanse of Dallas businessman Jess Hay.

The ludicrous weakness of Texas ethics laws reached comic heights in 1989 when millionaire chicken processor Lonnie “Bo” Pilgrim passed out $10,000 checks on the Senate floor as the body debated bills pertaining to work-related injuries. Concerns about what increasingly looked like lobbyist bribery sparked debate over the need for a new ethics bill. Previously opposed to lobby reform, Lewis sought to mend the damage to the Legislature’s image. Elected to an unprecedented fifth term as speaker in 1991, Lewis changed course and declared he would support new ethics rules.

Lewis’ legal and political problems increased in 1990 when a Travis County grand jury in Austin, at District Attorney Ronnie Earle’s direction, investigated ties between the Head, Goggan, Blair & Williams law firm in San Antonio and several legislators, including the speaker. Allegations arose that Lewis and other members of the state Legislature received gifts, including free trips and political contributions, from the firm in return for protecting the law office’s lucrative, exclusive contract for collecting delinquent property taxes. The San Antonio firm paid half of a delinquent $10,433 tax bill owed by Shooter’s Palace, a bankrupt gun store half-owned by Lewis and paid for a trip to Mexico attended by several lawyers from the San Antonio firm, former legislator Bill Harrison, lobbyist Dean Cobb, and six women, including a Houston stripper who went by the stage name Chrissee.

In December 1990, the Travis County grand jury indicted Lewis on two misdemeanor counts, including one charge of illegally accepting a gift and another of failing to report that gift as required by state disclosure laws. In spite of the indictment, Lewis won a fifth term as speaker on a 146-1 vote on January 9, 1991 and used the occasion to call for tighter ethics laws. “Practices that were once acceptable in the past now raise doubts about the integrity of our system,” Lewis said. “We must understand that it is no longer enough to be innocent. We must be above suspicion.” During that session’s Speaker’s Day in April, lobbyists showered lawmakers with $120,000 worth of food, entertainment and presents.

Lewis’ support eroded when he failed to show up on time for a court hearing on the two pending misdemeanor charges and Judge Bob Perkins ordered him arrested. Perhaps his House peers disliked the spectacle of the speaker emerging from the Travis County jail harangued by a gaggle of reporters. Lewis didn’t help himself when he hinted he might not seek a sixth term, a statement he quickly retracted. In any case, several members of the Lewis leadership team, including Pete Laney of Hale Center, began to openly campaign for the speakership. By January 7, Lewis announced that he would not seek re-election to the House. “I had pretty much made up my mind two years ago that this would be my last term,” Lewis said.

In spite of constant controversy, Lewis’ fingerprints remained on every important piece of legislation passed in Texas from 1983 to 1993 including the signature bill of that decade, House Bill 72. Under Lewis’ leadership, the House passed laws establishing an indigent health care system, creating a state lottery, legalizing pari-mutuel betting, reforming worker’s compensation, providing a set of tax increases that prevented state government from shutting down in the oil-bust days of 1987 and increasing school funding in the cash-strapped early 1990s. He also appointed a record number of women, African American and Mexican American House members to leadership positions.

Nevertheless, Lewis’ record would remain clouded by accusations of ethical laxity. Even as colleagues sang his praises at the beginning of his last year as speaker, Lewis entered into a plea bargain January 22, 1993 with prosecutor Earle, pleading guilty to two campaign financial reporting violations and paying a $2,000 fund. Earle revealed that he had demanded Lewis’ resignation as part of the plea arrangement. When Lewis left the Legislature in January 1993, several political accounts he had opened held about $1 million, most of which he was free to use as he pleased. Lewis pledged to use the money to start a scholarship fund before pursuing a lucrative career as a lobbyist. He earned $600,000 his first year in that position.

Regardless of the long-lasting impact of legislation Lewis successfully supported, the legacy he bequeathed to the speakership will probably prove more durable. By extending the speaker’s authority over the makeup of committees, he gave that office nearly complete control over legislation in the House. Lewis also became the first speaker to see the office as an end unto itself and not as a steppingstone to a supposedly higher position. The speaker’s office had come of age and, in Lewis’ view, surpassed the governors’ and lieutenant governors’ powers.

Lewis and Clayton also played an important role in easing the state’s transition from one-party Democratic rule to a brief period of competitive two-party power sharing. Both came from the Democratic Party’s conservative, business-oriented wing. Clayton and Lewis found common cause with Republican members of the House in their opposition to liberal Democrats. As Republicans became a sufficient force in the House to warrant attention, both speakers appointed Republicans as heads of committees and subcommittees.

What appeared as bipartisanship to the outside world functioned as an alliance of conservatives independent of party label. Clayton and Lewis both enjoyed amiable relations with Republican Gov. Clements and seemed more than sympathetic with the GOP in redistricting years. Clayton essentially endorsed Clements in his 1982 race with Democratic gubernatorial nominee Mark White. Clayton surprised no one when he switched to the Republican Party in 1985, though he later characterized himself as an independent.

Clayton and Lewis represented change and tradition, a transition that Texas and the rest of the South experienced during the period following the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s. The state and the entire South became more urbanized as the region’s economy expanded. Hoping to promote economic development, the region’s leadership class pushed for increased public school funding and greater expenditures for infrastructure to accommodate business and population growth. They also developed strong political support networks as the region’s businesses expanded and diversified. However, these contributors often caused ethics problems as attempts to gain influence increased. As the power and the influence of the speaker grew, so did the attention to the individual who occupied the position.

At the same time, Southern Democrats and Republicans came to be more closely identified with their respective national parties. The vitriolic debates over segregation disappeared, to be replaced by more cordial race relations (although mistrust and misunderstanding between whites on one side and African Americans and Mexican Americans on the other continued.) Southern Democrats moved towards the liberalism of their Northern peers while the national Republican Party increasingly assimilated the ideology of its Southern wing.

Bill Bass, a former Democratic legislator aligned with the Dirty Thirty in the early 1970s, said that the Democratic Party in Texas became culturally tone deaf by the 1980s.

"I went to the Democratic State Convention in 1986 and there was a motion to censure all of the Democratic members of Congress who had voted for aid to the Contras. You know, Iran-Contra. Well that included all the Texas delegation. And so the debate was on. And a Latin American woman delegate spoke against the censure motion. She argued, 'I think you ought to fight communism in Nicaragua rather than on the Rio Grande,' and instantly, some delegates started booing a little bit.

The lady continued, 'I’ve got a son, a corporal in the United States Marine Corps.' BOOO! And the booing became intense and mean, and one lady next to me got up in her chair with her hairy armpits and her big sandals and she shouted, 'Get in the other party, where you belong.' And they are booing a mom, and the United States Marine Corps. I felt uncomfortable, alienated, from a Democratic Party whose state convention boos the Marine Corps and their mothers.

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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