Saturday, April 30, 2011

"No Pass, No Play": Texas School Reform, Take Two

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 school reform and the struggle to finance public education in Texas in the 1980s and the 1990s.

After a tentative start, House Speaker Gib Lewis made his mark on state government as Democratic Gov. Mark White called for teacher pay hikes. Lewis said he would agree to raises, but only if they were tied to education reform. Mark White had promised [when he was elected governor that] school teachers would get a raise. And so he came over to my office and said, “Here’s what I want” . . . and I said, “Mark, I’ll tell you what. Number one, to do that, you’re going to have to have a tax increase. And before you have a tax increase for school teachers, you’d better sit back and get some better quality education.”

"What had happened . . . I had gone through about four [receptionists] who couldn’t spell, or you couldn’t read what they’d written . . . These were recent products of the Texas educational system. And I said, 'We’re going to have to do something to teach these kids how to read and write and do arithmetic.' . . . I said, 'I think I had a better education when I was in the sixth grade than some of these kids who are getting out of high school . . . I’m going to tell you, you’re not going to get me to sign off on it until we have a complete overhaul of our education system.'

. . . We got Ross Perot to head it up, which was great, because that gave him the visibility he wanted . . . I think he did a great service to Texas by taking the time and energy that he took . . . and I think the recommendations of the committee turned out to be good."

When Lewis, Lt. Gov. Bill Hobby and White began mulling school reform, Texas ranked 30th in the nation in teacher pay and 49th in expenditure per pupil. Texas students also ranked near the bottom nationally in Scholastic Aptitude Test scores (a type of college entrance exam) and 42nd in percentage of high school graduates attending college.

White, Hobby and Lewis impaneled a citizen’s committee headed by the eccentric billionaire Perot, later to run as a third party presidential candidate in 1992 and 1996. Examining education from top to bottom for a year starting in 1983, the committee sought to reverse the perceived lax school standards of the 1960s and 1970s and presented a package of reforms known collectively as House Bill 72, changes in Texas education as significant as the earlier Gilmer-Aikin laws. The recommendations, costing a total of $4.2 billion, were approved by the Legislature in a 30-day special session on July 3, 1984.

The reforms attempted equalization of state funding formulas for school districts, with the 151 poorest districts receiving a 44 percent per capita funding increase while the 151 richest saw state funding cut by 25 percent. The bill raised teachers’ salaries, and instituted a career ladder for educators based on years of service (though this was not funded by the state.) The new law also required teachers take so-called competency tests and meet tighter certification standards. The state would fund pre-kindergarten for economically disadvantaged children and free summer school for English-as-a-second-language (ESL) students and required schools to provide tutorials for failing students.

Undergraduate degrees in education at state colleges and universities were replaced by degrees in specific subject areas like history or science. Standardized tests were also implemented to measure school performance. The most controversial aspect of the bill beside the teacher competency tests, however, became the bill’s “no-pass, no play” requirement. The Legislature raised the minimum passing grade to 70 and students failing a class would become ineligible for extracurricular activities, including sports, unless the next six weeks grade report showed passing marks.

That the Legislature implemented such major changes in a mere month, as opposed to the marathon wrangling over school funding that would happen in the early 1990s and at the start of the 21st century, can be credited to the cohesion of the top leadership, many observers of the 1984 education special session agree. "We had a consensus among the leadership on what direction we were going to take on the major issues," said Bill Haley, who led the House Public Education Committee and sponsored the Perot reforms in the lower House.

"One thing the Perot committee did do right was we covered this whole state and we worked hard," added Carl Parker, the Senate sponsor of the Perot reforms in 1984. "We listened to everybody who had an ax to grind about education. We had a plan when we got there (for the session)," he said. Many also credit Ross Perot, who spent a great deal of his own money to promote the reforms, hiring his own political consultants to ensure public support.

“Ross Perot of course is an absolute tornado of energy,” said political columnist Molly Ivins. “And he swept around the state . . . and . . . among other things, went all over the state preaching to businessmen and business groups and chambers of commerce. “Look y’all, if we don't improve the public schools, y’all aren't going to have workers who are worth anything. Your businesses will go to pot.” And of course it's a perfectly legitimate argument and nobody can make it . . . with more vigor than H. Ross.”

Opposition to the reforms remained fierce. The most conservative Republicans in the Texas House, such as Tom DeLay (later elected to majority leader of the U.S. House) and Tom Craddick (later elected Texas House speaker) voted against the Perot reforms and the taxes to pay for them. Parents of public school athletes and coaches organized campaigns to reverse no-pass, no-play. Other parents objected to high-stakes standardized testing while teachers protested the competency tests and the increased bureaucracy required by the Legislation in order to monitor school progress.

The reforms did move teacher salaries upward so Texas matched the average nationwide for the first time, but teacher resentment remained deep. The Texas State Teachers Association, one of the largest organizations for educators in the state, refused to endorse White in 1986 as it had in 1982. Many teachers ended up staying home when White faced former Governor Bill Clements in a rematch in November 1986.

By then, oil prices, which had fueled an economic boom in the state in the early 1980s, had collapsed from $35 a barrel to $10, requiring White to call a special session of the Legislature to close a $2 billion state deficit by revoking state employee pay raises and raising taxes just months before the state ballot. Clements returned to the governor’s mansion with 53 percent of the vote, although many political commentators noted that his margin over White was surprisingly small given the awful circumstances surrounding the incumbent.

The oil bust combined with a real estate market collapse and the savings and loan crisis of the late 1980s placed state government in desperate straits. These crises made a mockery of House Bill 72’s attempts to equalize desperately uneven school spending across the state. The state’s school funding system had already faced a long legal challenge by parents living in poor school districts beginning in the late 1960s.

On May 16, 1968, 400 students had walked out of predominantly Mexican American Edgewood High School in San Antonio to protest poor funding and inadequate facilities. Edgewood schools lacked up-to-date textbooks, chalk and in some cases toilet paper. Parental protest led the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund (MALDEF) to challenge the constitutionality of school funding in the Rodríguez v. San Antonio ISD case, filed in federal court.

MALDEF lawyers demonstrated that Alamo Heights, San Antonio’s richest district, could raise $413 per capita while the Edgewood district could only levy $37 per pupil, an 11-1 ratio. On March 21, 1973, the United State Supreme Court ruled in a 5-4 decision that Texas’ financing system did not violate the United States Constitution and that funding inequities would have to be resolved by the state of Texas. The battle moved to the state courts in 1984 with the Edgewood ISD v. Kirby case. This time MALDEF lawyers argued that unequal school funding violated the provision of the Texas Constitution requiring the state to provide an “efficient and free school system.”

Following five years of wrangling, the case finally reached the state supreme court, which in October 1989 ruled in favor of the plaintiffs. Funding inequity had only worsened since the United States Supreme Court dismissed Rodríguez v. San Antonio. The Texas Supreme Court noted that Alamo Heights held property wealth of $570,109 per student compared to $38,854 in Edgewood, a 15-1 ratio. The court ordered the state Legislature to implement a fair system of funding by 1991.

Gov. Bill Clements ended up calling three separate special sessions to consider school finance. He provided the sticking point by insisting that any increase in funding for poor districts be paired with a reduction of state regulations and standards for public schools. A fourth special session finally produced a bill that raised school spending by $528 million. An increase in cigarette taxes and a quarter-cent increase in the sales tax provided the revenues. This legislation did not, however, address the inequities created by Texas’ reliance on property taxes. Legal challenges to the finance system continued in the courts.

In 1991, the state supreme court ruled that the new school-funding scheme also failed to meet Constitutional requirements. Once again, it gave the Legislature the summer to come up with an equitable funding plan or face a court takeover of the school system. The Legislature developed a plan that shifted tax funds from high-wealth school districts to poorer ones. In response, the courts extended the Legislative deadline. In a 1992 special session, Republicans killed a proposed constitutional amendment that would have reduced administrative costs by consolidating school districts while in 1993 Texas voters rejected a constitutional amendment that would have equalized school funding to a limited degree.

With one month left before a court takeover of state schools, the Legislature passed a “Robin Hood” law that took “surplus money” from the state’s 100 richest school districts and distributed it to poorer districts throughout the state. The state Supreme Court upheld this approach in 1995, but more and more school districts would encounter another crisis when they no longer qualified as poor districts and reached the Legislature’s cap of $1.50 per $100 property valuation. As enrollments expanded and the cost of food, fuel, health insurance and other necessary expenditures increased, more districts would be left with slashing programs, cutting staff, and delaying purchases as the only options available to balance budgets.

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."

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."

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

The Brilab Scandal and the Fall of Bill 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 the Brilab Scandal derailed the career of one of the most important Texas political leaders of the 1970s and 1980s, House Speaker Bill Clayton.

Billy Clayton's hopes for higher statewide office crashed in 1980 when the FBI announced it was investigating the speaker as part of a sting operation involving corrupt union officials bribing politicians that came to be known in the press as “Brilab.” On October 19, 1979, Clayton had met with L.G. Moore, regional director of the Operating Engineers International Union and former member of the Texas Constitutional Revision Commission, and Joe Hauser, identified to Clayton as one of the top people with the Prudential Insurance Company.

In fact Hauser, previously convicted in California and Arizona on insurance fraud charges, had been sent to Clayton as part of an FBI bribery sting. During his meeting with Clayton, Hauser complained about the State Employees Retirement Board’s acceptance of a bid from the Metropolitan Insurance Company and claimed that Prudential could save the state $1 million a year. At the end of their conversation, Moore and Hauser said they wanted to make a contribution to Clayton’s political fund. Clayton admits he was handed $5,000 and then Moore and Hauser said they could contribute up to $600,000 in the future. Clayton later said he told his secretary to put the money in an envelope in a safe place because he intended to return the money, believing it would be a political embarrassment for him to receive so much from a liberal labor leader and for Moore to be seen by his union colleagues as backing a conservative. Clayton never reported the receipt of cash because, he said, he intended to return it. He said he didn’t refuse the money, however, because he didn’t want to embarrass his friend Moore. In a 2004 interview, Clayton said:

I would’ve done the same thing again had I been approached the same way. A friend of mine brought this guy in my office, and he said we could save the state a million dollars if we can open the bidding so we can bid. . . . I couldn’t see anything wrong with that . . . My friend wanted to give me a $5,000 contribution at that time. I said, “No, you don’t -— you can’t afford this and I don’t want it.” And he just insisted. So I took the cash and put it in the . . . cadenza drawer. And it lay there and lay there . . . And consequently . . . the only violation that . . . . really occurred, because we didn’t do anything to benefit the guy, was to not report that $5,000 . . . And I didn’t report it because I was going to give it back . . . So that cost me about $400,000 and a six weeks trial to prove my innocence . . .
On February 9, 1980. the Dallas Times Herald ran a front-page story leading with this explosive paragraph:
FBI agents posing for a year as Prudential Insurance Co. agents paid thousands of dollars to union leaders, organized crime figures, and elected officials in four Southwestern states in connection with an insurance kickback scheme . . . [P]olitical leaders involved in the investigation included . . . Billy Clayton, Speaker of the Texas House . . .

Clayton’s five-year sway over the House weakened immediately after the Brilab allegations, and members started floating their names as possible replacements. Potential speakers included Fort Worth Rep. Gib Lewis, who began collecting pledges of support from House members committed to Clayton should the speaker step down. “I don’t see how Clayton could remain a candidate under indictment regardless of his guilt or innocence,” said Rep. Bob Maloney, a Dallas Republican. “We couldn’t have a speaker under that kind of cloud.”

An extraordinary meeting of 12 leading lobbyists convened in Austin to see if they should cut off the momentum of a liberal speaker candidate, John Bryant of Dallas, by anointing a successor. The committee decided that Clayton’s defense seemed plausible. “We decided, kind of informally, that God-almighty, let’s hang loose for awhile,” Durward Curlee of the Texas Savings and Loan League told the Dallas Times Herald. “Clayton’s looking better. This is not a Sharpstown.” Amazingly, the Times Herald did not comment on the spectacle of lobbyists holding a private meeting to contemplate whether they should handpick a new speaker.

Clayton’s position became more perilous when a federal grand jury indicted him on June 12, 1980. During Clayton’s trial that fall, his performance on the witness stand impressed jurors. Defense lawyers even turned the ten minutes of wiretapped conversation between Moore and Clayton to their advantage. Clayton could be heard saying during a November 8 meeting with Moore and Hauser, “You know, our only position is we don’t want to do anything that’s illegal or to get anybody in trouble, and you all don’t either.” Jurors later said they could not identify any specific illegal act Clayton supposedly committed, and they accepted Clayton’s story that he considered opening up bidding for a state contract only as an attempt to save the state money. By contrast, jurors were heavily put off by Hauser’s criminal record, which undercut his credibility. Prosecutors made a monumental goof when they called to the stand Assistant Secretary of State Chip Holt, director of that office’s Campaigns and Ethics division, who told jurors that Clayton had not violated the law by failing to either report or return the $5,000 given by Moore. Jurors were also swayed by the fact that Clayton put the money away and never deposited it in his campaign fund.

A jubilant jury acquitted Clayton on October 22, 1980. Several jurors said they felt Moore and Hauser entrapped Clayton. The jury’s decision freed Clayton to win a fourth term in the speakership. Clayton felt so confident after his acquittal that he hinted he might seek a fifth term as speaker in 1983, a statement that caught Gib Lewis, planning to run for speaker that year, completely off-guard. “That’s entirely the reverse of what he’s told me,” Lewis told the Fort Worth Star-Telegram.

House dissidents made a last stab at limiting Clayton’s powers, apparently undiminished by his Brilab ordeal. Frank Gaston of Dallas introduced a package of House rules changes that would have allowed members to select the committees they serve on, based on seniority; curbed the power of committee chairs appointed by the speaker by not allowing them to pass legislation on to subcommittees without the consent of other committee members; and required the House Administration Committee and the speaker to submit itemized reports of expenditures to the House. Gaston argued that committee chairs answerable to Clayton had too much power to kill legislation by referring bills they didn’t like to unfriendly committees. Clayton’s allies dismissed Gaston’s faction as “termites,” and the House rejected the proposals 89-48. Another proposal would have ended the speaker’s power to appoint the House parliamentarian, chief clerk and sergeant-at-arms, requiring these posts to be voted on by the full House, but a majority also rejected that measure.

The power of the speaker’s office had so grown that Clayton could snuff a full rebellion in utero even after the humiliation of an indictment and trial. Nevertheless, Clayton’s chances of winning statewide office suffered a serious blow when voters rejected, by a 57 percent to 43 percent margin, a state constitutional amendment setting aside half the state’s budget surplus to create a water fund. Clayton had campaigned heavily for the amendment, and analysts believed the proposition’s failure reflected general voter distrust of Clayton after the Brilab trial. Clayton’s support among Democrats statewide also declined sharply due to the perception that he cooperated too willingly with the congressional redistricting demands of conservative Republican Gov. Bill Clements during the 1981 session.

In early December 1981, Clayton announced his plan to run for state land commissioner the following year. But by late January he had dropped out of the race, eventually won by liberal Democrat Garry Mauro. The power of the speaker’s office played a role in Clayton’s decision. He apparently decided that the Brilab trial had destroyed his chance of winning a gubernatorial race, but incumbent Democrats Bill Hobby and Bob Bullock already filled the positions of lieutenant governor and state comptroller. State Democratic Chair Bob Slagle said that Clayton probably viewed serving as land commissioner as “at best a lateral move” and probably a “rung down” from the speaker’s post.

After expanding the speakership’s authority over House administration and effectively using his appointment authority to guide legislation, Clayton created an office that would soon be a step up from the governorship. Clayton’s personal power had diminished, but two of the men who followed him in the House leadership -– Gib Lewis and Pete Laney -– would expand the foundation the Springlake speaker laid and make the office one of the most powerful in the United States.


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.

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.

Monday, April 25, 2011

Big Money and Low Comedy: Texas Politics in the Billy Clayton Era, Prt I

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 low esteem in which politicians were held in 1970s Texas and the retreat from political reform in the House Speakership of Billy Clayton.

One of the most anxious nights in Delma Clayton’s life came October 21, 1980 when the jury deciding the fate of her husband, Texas House Speaker Bill Clayton, recessed after deliberating for two hours without reaching a verdict. Clayton was charged with accepting a bribe as part of an FBI sting operation called Brilab, and Delma had expected a quick acquittal.

“I had felt confident, all during the trial, that when the jury had all the evidence, they’d find him innocent,” she told author Jimmy Banks. “The only thing that bothered me was the fact that some people think all politicians are crooks -– and I was afraid there might be someone like that on the jury, someone who would decide he was guilty before hearing the evidence.”

The assumption that politicians lie and enter public life to get rich only deepened in Texas after the Sharpstown scandal rocked Austin, along with Watergate and unrelated Congressional scandals. This suspicion of public officials is a tradition dating back to the earliest days of American government. In addition, conservative political culture frequently preaches that government is not a solution to society’s ills, but the problem. A belief that all government is corrupt creates an expectation that any social program aimed at solving deep-rooted problems, such as racism or poverty, is doomed to failure because of the stupidity and dishonesty of office-holders and bureaucrats.

Texans traditionally have relished their outsized reputation for being the biggest, the loudest, the bravest, and the rowdiest. This self-promoted mythology has proven a double-edged sword for politicians. Texas folklore tends to paint the state’s post-Alamo, post-Civil War leaders as the most dim and venal in the country. As one comic musical group in the state capital, the Austin Lounge Lizards, put it in their “Stupid Texas Song”:

"Our accents are the drawliest/our howdies are the y'alliest,
Our Lone Star flag's the waviest/ our fried steak the cream-graviest,
Our rattlesnakes the coiliest/ our beaches are the oiliest,
Our politicians most corrupt . . ."

Texans joke that the Constitutional provision calling for the Legislature to meet for 140 days every two years should have called for them to meet two days every 140 years. Carl Parker, a liberal leader who represented Port Arthur in the House from 1962 to 1977 and in the Senate from 1977 to 1995, once quipped that if you took all of the fools out of the state Legislature, it would no longer be a representative body.

Over the past century, the House chamber has occasionally erupted into fistfights. Bored with interminable debates, members have relieved the tension with nonsense resolutions, such as one passed during the 1971 session that commended Albert DeSalvo, the Boston Strangler, for his efforts at population control. Another resolution passed by the House two years later required lawbreakers to give 24 hours notice before they committed a crime. Also in 1973, members of the Apache Bells drill team cheered on ethics legislation wearing letters on their posteriors that spelled out the word “reform.”

For whatever reason, debates of the Texas Legislature frequently turn baroquely farcical. During an open session of a conference committee, Jim McWilliams, a Democrat from Hallsville, stunned those in attendance when he proclaimed that, “I know the health department doesn’t do its job, because ten years ago I had gonorrhea, and nobody talked to my wife.”

During the 1954 session, one Houston lawmaker made a habit of keeping a six-gun in his desk on the House floor. As former House member Chet Brooks, who was a reporter at the time, said, it was “a long barrel . . . like an old .45, something out of a Western movie. If he’d get excited in arguing, he’d reach in his desk and pull that gun out and wave it around. He never shot anybody . . . Of course, the speaker (Reuben Senterfitt) would just get terribly upset . . . and try to get him to put that gun away or take it away from him or something.”

Such tales may have led some Texans to believe the worst of those who served in the state House. Aside from the fun and frivolity that frequently made headlines, governing the growing state in the post-Sharpstown era created more challenges for elected officials and state administrators alike. This led an energized media to focus more attention on the proceedings in Austin throughout the entire year, not just during biennial legislative sessions, and coverage became increasingly critical. However, as former Speaker Rayford Price pointed out, the Texan contempt for politicians was not universal. “People usually are mad at the Legislature, but they usually like their legislators,” Price said.

That was certainly true in Billy Clayton’s case. After retiring for the night, a jury found him not guilty of bribery the following day. After announcing the verdict, the jury joined the general cheering in the courtroom and several members came up to Clayton to shake his hand and those of his attorneys. Marge Hudock, a juror from Houston, said that she hoped Clayton would be “our next governor.”

Clayton’s long trip to that Houston courtroom began with his birth in the West Texas town of Olney on September 11, 1928. Clayton spent most of his childhood in Springlake, where he discovered a dislike of farm work on his parents’ property. “He started out with his Daddy on the combine when he was so little his feet would just hang in midair,” Clayton’s mother later recalled. “ . . . He used to come in from the fields and tell me, ‘Mamma, when I get through school, I’m not gonna farm.’”

Texas A&M University provided an escape from this career. The conservative College Station institution offered him a rough-and-tumble introduction to the hyper-macho world he would later encounter in the state Capitol. Aggies revered as a longstanding tradition the verbal and physical harassment of freshmen, or “fish” as they were called at the campus. “[I]n those days, nobody ever forgot their freshman year, because hazing was pretty rampant,” Clayton recalled in a 2004 interview. Clayton remembered having to go to the showers with 15 or twenty other freshmen wearing “heavy wool army overcoats, and then they’d turn the hot water on, just as hot as they could get it. They’d make us stand over in a corner, in the steam, and ‘grab butterflies’ – standing on our toes and reaching into the air. They had upper classmen holding single-edged razor blades under our heels, so we had to stay on our toes. You’d just stand there and do that until you’d fall out . . . I’ve done so many knee bends at night that I’d start to class the next day and just fall down. I couldn’t help it.”

Clayton earned a degree in agricultural economics in 1950, but his father's heart attack on October 16, 1949 brought the future speaker back to Springlake prematurely. For a time, Clayton ran the family farm. Clayton became politically active in the local Democratic Party and served as a delegate pledged to presidential candidate Lyndon Johnson in the 1960 Democratic National Convention.

Clayton perceived Johnson as a more conservative alternative to John Kennedy. “Come to find out, Johnson was more liberal than Kennedy, really, in actions,” Clayton said later. The former speaker admitted that he had reservations about Kennedy other than the Massachusetts Democrat’s liberalism. “[B]eing brought up in a very religious community and particularly Protestant, the big concern was basically, Kennedy and the Catholics,” Clayton said. “. . . And, before my father died, he said, ‘We’ll never elect a Catholic.’ [O]f course, when I went out to the convention and met Kennedy, and when he won the nomination, I got to escort him around to the Texas delegation, and begin to know him a little more, I kind of liked him. I came home and campaigned for him, after the convention . . . [H]e was really easy to get acquainted with. He was very easy to talk to . . .”

Clayton said the Texas Democratic delegation to the 1960 Democratic National Convention split between the liberals, lead by Ralph Yarborough, and the conservatives. The more conservative delegates backed Johnson, but the liberals adamantly opposed the Texas senator. Clayton said:

"I never will forget the evening before the nomination, Johnson came there . . . before us and said, 'You know, we never will take a second position, and we’re going to take it all or nothing.'

Well, sure enough it was nothing. And then he came back, and said the same thing to us again with big ol’ crocodile tears in his eyes . . . And that night [U.S. House Speaker] Sam Rayburn got hold of him and got hold of the Kennedys, and the deal was cut, and it was cut and dried. He was going to [get] the vice presidential nomination. And I don’t think Kennedy would have gotten elected if it hadn’t have been for Rayburn. "

Clayton caught the political bug, running successfully for the state House. In 1962, at age 34, Clayton represented a district that included Bailey, Castro, Deaf Smith, Lamb and Parmer counties. He served in the Texas House for the next 20 years. Clayton joined an unusually large freshman class elected in voter anger over the sales tax approved by the previous Legislature. Clayton made opposition to the tax a key point on the campaign trail and immediately sensed he and other newcomers could make a big impact on Capitol politics.

On December 8, 1962, Clayton wrote an ill-advised letter to his fellow freshmen. “I am writing all the freshmen members of the House, to see if you would be interested in forming a freshman members’ organization for the coming session,” Clayton wrote. “With sixty new members in such an organization, we certainly could demand our share of recognition. By helping one another we could stand a good chance of passing prime legislation, projects that may be hard to accomplish individually.”

Clayton’s independent streak irritated Byron Tunnell, who had already cinched his election as the next speaker. Tunnell worried Clayton’s letter represented an incipient rebellion from the House rank-and-file launched before the incoming speaker had even been sworn in. Tunnell sent word to Clayton that a “freshman members’ organization” would be unnecessary, and that aborted the effort. Tunnell later said, however, that Clayton’s initiative impressed him. “It was an indication that he was not an ordinary farmer,” he said.

In spite of this rough start, Clayton and Tunnell became close. On January 8, 1963, when Clayton joined 140 other House members voting in Tunnell as speaker, the freshman representative visited the new speaker in Tunnell’s office and had a premonition of his future. “Joan Hollowell was his secretary,” Clayton said. “And she tells the story and I vaguely remember that I walked in there, looked around the office, and said, ‘Someday this office’ll be mine.’” Hollowell, who later became Joan Whitworth, said she recalled being impressed that Clayton sounded confident rather than cocky.

Clayton certainly demonstrated that he was going places as a key part of fellow conservative Tunnell’s team. The future speaker became one of only four freshmen to serve on the critical Appropriations Committee. He served as well on the Committee on Conservation and Reclamation, which dealt with water issues, later Clayton’s signature issue.

Clayton’s instinct for attaching himself to up-and-comers did not fail when Tunnell became a Texas Railroad Commissioner. Tunnell tipped off Ben Barnes, and Clayton joined Barnes’ phone team at Austin’s Driskill Hotel, which blitzed House members to lock up the speaker’s race. For his efforts, Barnes awarded Clayton with choice office space.

Clayton never earned a reputation as a skilled orator, and as speaker would became famous for his occasional potshots at a defenseless English language. Speaking of pending legislation, he once urged members to “do this in one foul sweep.” Trying to shut down one session, Clayton declared, “It’s the sediment of the House that we adjourn.” "Clayton butchers the English language as if it were a hunk of mutton," one Capitol reporter wrote in 1982.

His clumsiness with the language, however, deceived opponents, and his House peers came to call him “country slicker” (as opposed to “city slicker.”) Clayton didn’t have to be a great orator because he tirelessly worked the floor for his priority issues. “By the time he got a bill up on the floor, he’d probably have talked to at least 100 of the 150 members about it – so that he didn’t have to be that good on the mike,” said fellow Representative Randy Pendleton, who represented the West Texas county seat of Andrews from 1963 to 1969.

Clayton distinguished himself as one of the most conservative members of an already extremely conservative House. Clayton repeatedly introduced a resolution opposing court-ordered school busing to achieve racial integration. As a legislator, Clayton also wanted to make it a misdemeanor to teach bilingually in classes above the third grade and opposed any gun control bills and the Constitutional amendment granting 18-year-olds the vote. He also resisted a 1971 constitutional amendment to increase Texas’ small welfare payments. “Bill Clayton has a voting record that only Attila the Hun could appreciate,” Angleton Rep. Neil Caldwell said. Finally, Clayton voted no on the Equal Rights Amendment and the creation of a Martin Luther King Day holiday in Texas, thus rounding his image as a social and economic conservative.

Although prosperity allowed Texas and other Southern states to increase expenditures for public services and education in the 1960s and 1970s, the state still continued to spend more on highways than other needs. Texas remained tied to the rest of the Southern states in providing public services below the national average. In a 1975 study of the “business climate” of states, those that rated highest were those with “low taxes, low levels of public assistance, restrictive labor legislation, and a low level of government spending and debt.” Texas ranked near the top of such lists among all the states. The vast majority of House members and other state leaders in Austin agreed with this philosophy. Yet, thanks to federal civil rights legislation, minorities and women began to make inroads into the once solidly white male political system.

Representing the always-parched region of West Texas, Clayton spent much of his House career obsessed with development of a state water plan, a focus that earned him the nickname "Mr. Water." Clayton pushed for legislation to develop irrigation in West Texas, to purchase water from other states, and to encourage water conservation. Environmentalists, however, sharply criticized him for pushing development schemes that would have devastated the landscape, endangered wildlife and caused pollution.

Water arose as a dominant political issue in the High Plains during a prolonged drought in the 1950s with the Legislature creating the Water Pollution Control Board and the Texas Water Research Committee to examine the state's water usage. The recommendations of these groups led to the wide construction of manmade lakes and the creation of local water districts. Many West Texas farmers opposed a state water conservation program, arguing that such regulations violated property rights.

By the late 1960s, however, Clayton (representing a region of the state where 3 percent of the population used 30 percent of the water resources but produced an even larger percentage of the state's agriculture) became chief advocate for a Texas water plan. His plan called for the transfer of water from the Mississippi River through North Texas to the High Plains and to the Rio Grande. The Mississippi water would have flowed through a series of canals and aqueducts and would have required the construction of 67 dams.

Critics called Clayton’s cost estimates for the project unrealistic and called the chain of proposed dams harmful to the environment. Dr. Daniel Willard, a University of Texas botanist, warned a legislative committee that implementation of Clayton’s Texas Water Plan “would completely destroy the face of Texas.” He predicted that the proposed East Texas reservoirs, with the region’s high evaporation rates, would produce climate changes actually aggravating drought in West Texas.

Nevertheless, Clayton enjoyed the support of Lieutenant Governor Preston Smith, another West Texan, and other powerful state officials. The Legislature placed the plan on the ballot in 1969 in the form of a Constitutional amendment. It narrowly failed, with the “no” vote in Houston large enough to provide the margin of defeat.

In 1974, Clayton called for a similar plan to import water from out of state and to construct 27 new reservoirs, but voters also rejected this proposal. In 1981, the state enjoyed a budget surplus and Clayton, then House speaker, called for half of the money to be placed in a permanent water fund, but this time he did not submit a comprehensive water plan, and water supply competed with other budgetary needs such as education. Voters shot down this proposition by 4-1.

With his campaign for a state water plan, Clayton again demonstrated leadership, forging close relations with powerful men in the state such as Preston Smith, proving his talent for prodigious money-raising, and garnering $100,000 (more than a half-million in today’s dollars) for an advertising campaign on behalf of the water plan amendment. In recent years, East and Central Texans dominated the speakership. Nevertheless, it seemed that Clayton might be able to fulfill his long-ago prophecy that he would occupy the speaker’s office. Clayton bided his time, but as the Sharpstown scandal erupted he would quickly emerge as a contender for the top House post.

On September 24, 1971, the day after a grand jury indicted Speaker Gus Mutscher on bribery charges, around 40 members of the Legislature met in a Dallas hotel to discuss possible speaker replacements. Clayton’s name came up in the conversation. Mutscher resigned March 28, 1972, and was succeeded by Rayford Price. When Price lost in a runoff for re-election to the House in June of 1972, he became a lame duck. Clayton nearly entered the speaker’s race and even wrote a letter to his House peers announcing his candidacy, but never released its contents. Instead, a fellow West Texas conservative, Frank Calhoun, announced his bid.

Under Speaker Price Daniel, Jr., Clayton maintained high visibility as a member on the Elections, Intergovernmental Affairs, and Natural Resources Committee. Daniel had announced that he would serve only one term, and the 1975 race for the speakership began before the 1973 Legislative session started. On June 6, 1973, Clayton publicly announced his long-acknowledged ambition to run for speaker of the 1975 session.

Clayton immediately contrasted his vision with that of Price Daniel, announcing that, unlike his predecessor, he would not pursue a specific legislative agenda but would make the legislative process more efficient. “I don’t think it’s the speaker’s prerogative to get involved in a legislative program,” he told the Dallas Morning News. Clayton pledged to stress “economy and efficiency in the operation of the House . . . a more orderly system of scheduled committee and subcommittee meetings” and said he would seek more office space for House operations.

As would be the case with later speakers Gib Lewis and Tom Craddick, Clayton became entangled in the interlocking web of personal and political interests. Even as he announced his candidacy for the speakership, reporters posed questions about a land deal involving property along Lake Austin in which Clayton partnered with Texas Railroad Association lobbyist Walter Caven. Reporters also asked why Clayton, a director of Olton State Bank, voted to raise consumer loan interest rates and supported a bill that would have allowed state officials to file financial disclosures in secret, sealed envelopes, even as he voted against legislation calling for lobbyist regulation. Clayton denied there was any conflict of interest regarding his votes.

Clayton entered a heated three-way race. His opponents included Fred Head, the maverick who had successfully challenged Rayford Price’s bid for re-election to the House. The third major candidate, Carl Parker, (acknowledged as a liberal leader in the House) nevertheless had angered labor Democrats with his support of the 1974 proposed Constitution that included a right-to-work clause.

The 1974 Constitutional Convention, or “Con Con” as it was known, profoundly affected the speaker’s race. Daniel, elected convention president, appointed Clayton, Head, and Parker to the important Committee on Legislative Provisions. During the convention, a bitter battle broke out between Head and Parker, who accused each other of campaign dirty tricks such as issuing phony press releases announcing that certain House members had pledged their support for one of the candidates. Meanwhile, Clayton floated above the fray and to many of his peers increasingly looked better than his opponents.

The convention proved a political disaster to both Head and Parker. Parker once declared, “No one can get on a liberal like a bunch of other liberals. If you don’t agree with them one hundred percent of the time, they figure you are bound to have sold them out.” Parker’s support of the new Constitution proved fatal.

Head, meanwhile, emerged as the only major speaker candidate to vote against the proposed Constitution. Two-thirds of the convention delegates, or 121 out of 181, had to endorse the proposed Constitution for it to be brought to the voters. Proponents fell three votes short, and Head came in for a large share of the political blame for what United Press International called a “seven-month exercise in futility that cost the Texas taxpayers $5 million.” Price Daniel in particular blamed Head, who he claimed was owned “lock, stock and barrel” by organized labor. Shortly afterward, nine House members previously committed to Head announced they were withdrawing their pledges because of the “lack of leadership” he had shown during the convention.

Head’s campaign collapsed and his bitterness toward Parker meant that Clayton received the fallen candidate’s endorsement. Borrowing the tactic so successful when Ben Barnes got the scoop on Byron Tunnell’s appointment to the railroad commission, Clayton organized a telephone blitzkrieg of members and rapidly secured a number of endorsements from former Head supporters. Clayton built an odd coalition of conservatives, liberals, African Americans and Mexican Americans who found him more trustworthy than Parker.

“If I had chosen the person who would have been closer to me philosophically, it would not have been Billy Clayton,” said Dallas State Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson, later to serve in the United States Congress. “But I felt that I could trust what Billy Clayton said or did, and on that basis I decided to go with him.” In the end, enough liberals and moderates agreed with Johnson to provide Clayton with an easy 112-33 victory over Parker on the opening day of the 1975 Legislature.


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.

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.