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Junkyard Jim

by Published on
Jim Mattox, 1983.

The least peaceful person I have ever known has died peacefully. May he rest in peace.

Jim Mattox was restless, irrepressible, and combative on plenty of occasions. He was never one to let sleeping dogs lie. As a kid, I feel certain, he never passed a wasp nest without poking it with a stick just to watch the chaos. He was also, to my mind, the best Texas attorney general of my lifetime. He was hard-working, conscientious, smart and determined to be a good representative for the people of Texas.

He died in his sleep on Nov. 20. He was 65.

When I first ran across Jim in Dallas in the mid-1960s, he was already involved in progressive Democratic politics. We were both caught up in the liberals’ efforts to take over control of the Dallas County Democratic Executive Committee, an ongoing battle of that era. In hindsight it seems a somewhat foolish struggle, but it was a point of engagement, and Jim was destined to be on the front lines of the battleground issues of the day.

In 1972 we successfully challenged the existing scheme for electing members of the Texas House of Representatives from at-large districts. As a result of our lawsuit, Dallas County was carved into single-member electoral districts. The principal thrust of the case was to pave the way for the election of black candidates to the Texas Legislature, and it worked. Our election guru, Dan Weiser of Dallas, drew up the plans that were adopted by the federal court. He suggested that he could produce another district that would elect an Anglo progressive such as Mattox. He drew such a district and suddenly Jim was on his way to Austin as a member of the Legislature.

Mattox came to the Legislature in one of those rare reform moments, this one precipitated by the Sharpstown stock fraud scandal, which led to the indictment of state leaders in 1971. He was immediately involved in efforts that produced open-meetings legislation and overhauled lobby and campaign-finance rules. Ambition called, and in 1976 Jim ran successfully for U.S. Congress from the 5th District of Dallas. There followed two successful races against Republican Tom Pauken. These races became legendary for their vitriol and assured Jim’s well-deserved reputation as a take-no-prisoners campaigner.

Jim Mattox, 1989

With the arrival of the 1980 Census, redistricting was once more on the agenda and Republican Bill Clements was in the Governor’s Mansion. Clements’ principal political goal that year was the removal of Mattox from Congress. Under the utterly bogus cover of wanting to create a black congressional district in Dallas (the population wasn’t sufficient at the time), Clements proposed a district that would effectively eliminate Mattox. The battle continued through two special sessions of the Legislature, but the Clements plan was blocked in the Texas Senate. Then tragedy struck: Mickey Leland was killed in a plane crash, creating a vacancy in his Houston congressional seat. Craig Washington, the ablest member of the state Senate at the time, was elected to fill the vacancy. His election removed the blocking 11th vote in the Texas Senate, and Clements’ congressional redistricting plan was shoved through in the closing days of 1981.

Shortly afterward, Jim reappeared in my life and persuaded me to file suit challenging the Clements plan. The case was tried as the deadline to file for office was approaching, and the court extended the deadline for filing for congressional office, but not for other offices. As the filing deadline for statewide offices neared, Jim called and said he was going to have to file for attorney general unless I could assure him I was going to win the congressional suit. No such guarantees were available, and Jim went on to become the Texas attorney general after a bitter primary battle with John Hannah. Clements had his Pyrrhic victory-Mattox was gone from Congress-but the Republicans had to suffer their blood enemy as attorney general for eight years. As it turned out, the congressional seat was ultimately saved by the court and the great Democrat John Bryant succeeded Mattox.

In December 1982 Jim asked me to join him at the attorney general’s office and assume responsibility for the state’s litigation. At the time the title was executive assistant attorney general. It sounded challenging, although none of us appreciated how truly challenging it would prove to be. The Texas attorney general has broad authority as the state’s lawyer, and Mattox, in a substantial departure from the past, chose to exercise that authority aggressively.

Mattox’s resolve was tested early, but he was fully prepared to make tough decisions. At the tail end of the Mark White administration, a Dallas federal court, considering a suit brought by gay-rights activists, had declared the Texas sodomy statute unconstitutional. White had filed a notice of appeal and the case was dumped in our lap. Jim didn’t hesitate; he felt the statute was wrong and the lower court decision was right. We moved to dismiss the appeal, triggering a backlash, since historically the attorney general’s office routinely appealed such cases. The end result was protracted warfare with an unhappy district attorney and an en banc decision by the 5th circuit upholding the statute over the objection of the Texas attorney general. Our judgment was vindicated in a later case when the U.S. Supreme Court invalidated the Texas sodomy law.

Perhaps even more controversial, although ludicrous, was the issue of women in the Texas A&M band. A federal court had ordered the band to accept women. Mattox said the decision was correct and we were not going to appeal. A&M’s regents went nuts, bombarding the office with threats and complaints. They even hired a lawyer to pursue an independent appeal. Mattox successfully scotched that effort, the court’s order was implemented, and the band does not seem to have suffered. Before Mattox, the attorney general’s office would have bowed to the wishes of the regents, regardless of the merits of their position.

Another issue facing Mattox’s office was the hiring of outside lawyers to handle the state’s legal business. Mattox had campaigned against the practice as a waste of taxpayer money. The Ruiz case, a prison reform lawsuit that had bedeviled the state for years, was a prime example. It had been farmed out to the Fulbright & Jaworski firm at substantial cost to the state, with negligible results. This case and others were promptly brought back in-house to be handled by our lawyers. Taxpayer money was saved and the cases were handled in a lawyerlike manner.

This is but a sampling of the accomplishments of the two-term Mattox administration. Consumer protection efforts were rejuvenated and child-support enforcement became a priority, as did aggressive recruitment of minorities and women in top positions. Because it seemed to be a new day, we were able to recruit talented lawyers such as Mary Keller, Scott McCown, Renea Hicks and Pat Wiseman, among many others. Mattox was willing to give them responsibility and resisted second-guessing them as they took on challenging cases. The loyalty this generated enabled the office to perform well even during the trying times of Jim’s indictment and trial for “commercial bribery”-a charge of which he was ultimately acquitted.

Jim’s entanglements were his own doing. His stubborn nature, which made him a good attorney general, also produced a variety of problems. He became personally involved in a feud with Fulbright & Jaworski, and then with Travis County District Attorney Ronnie Earle, which led to his indictment. I always saw the indictment, as I guess the jury eventually did, as much ado about nothing, but it was a painful and unnecessary experience for all of us at the attorney general’s office. Jim seemed unable to dissociate himself from scoundrels such as Clinton Manges, the relationship at the core of his indictment, but that relationship may have been simply another way of thumbing his nose at the establishment. Finally, in 1990, Jim ran a deplorable campaign against my former wife, Ann Richards, for governor, which I am sad to say ultimately caused him, and many others, a world of grief. But that’s the way Jim was, for better or, as in this instance, worse.

One story that’s reflective of Jim’s boldness, and of the insanity of political life, concerns former Lt. Gov. Bill Hobby. As the 1980s came to a close there was much jockeying for the upcoming governor’s race. Mattox had been openly running for some time. Hobby was thought to be a likely Democratic candidate as well. Jim had been in his usual attack mode, chastising Hobby for fox hunting in Britain, among other things. He had also implied to the press that he had compiled a file on Hobby’s supposed misadventures, which he would spring at the appropriate time. As the filing deadline drew near, a well-known Houston private eye appeared at the attorney general’s office, seeking an audience with Mattox and claiming to represent Hobby. Mattox met with the emissary, who explained that Hobby was considering not running for governor. Before making that decision, Hobby wanted to be certain that Mattox destroyed whatever incriminating files he might have.

Mattox, a consummate bluffer, had no such files. Playing out the charade, Mattox buzzed his principal aide, Steve Hall, and told him to bring in the Hobby file. Steve, no slouch himself, grabbed a few old newspapers, put them in a folder, and delivered them to Mattox. Jim riffled through the contrived file, refusing to let the private eye inspect the contents. After some negotiations, Jim finally agreed to destroy the “file,” allowing the representative to watch as he burned the contents and flushed the ashes down the conference room toilet. Bill Hobby shortly thereafter announced he was not going to run for governor, and everyone was happy. Hobby had obviously decided not to run well before Jim’s theatrics, but it makes a good story.

Jim was a complex personality hosting a multitude of contradictions. He was intensely loyal to family and friends. He was a teetotaler in the world of boozing politicians. One of his favorite pastimes was cruising flea markets and secondhand stores for bargains. When it came to the responsibilities of his office he never wavered. Jim was opposed to capital punishment as a moral matter, yet he felt it was his obligation as the state’s top legal officer to attend executions, and he dutifully traveled to Huntsville on such grim occasions.

My wife Sandy gave Jim the best advice he ever received, and it would seem he took it to heart. We ran into Jim sometime after his loss to Ann in the 1990 governor’s race. He was muttering to Sandy that he didn’t know what to do next with his life. She wisely suggested that the most rewarding thing he could do would be to get married and have children. As we know, he did, and family life seemed to soothe him, even as it gave him many opportunities, as Texas had in earlier years, to express his fierce loyalty and stubborn determination. He is survived by his wife Marta, children Jimmer and Sissi, and a political legacy worth remembering.

Dave Richards is an author and attorney.