In Memoriam

So Long, Oscar
by Published on

Oscar Mauzy died in October after a long, productive, and combative life in Texas politics. Put the emphasis on combative. As Lloyd Doggett, who served with Oscar in the Texas Senate and on the Texas Supreme Court, once said, “Killing with kindness was not Oscar’s preferred approach to his adversaries.” His adversaries were many–racists, anti-union employers, banks, insurance companies, and the conservative establishment, be it Democratic or Republican.

After many years as a labor lawyer (including a stint at the Dallas firm of Mullinax and Wells, where he and I enjoyed many battles together), Oscar was first elected to the Texas Senate in 1966. He served for two decades as a force for progressive legislation, while taking revenge on his opponents at every opportunity. A longtime advocate of women’s rights, he was the sponsor of the Texas constitutional amendment guaranteeing equal rights for women. A constant exponent of the rights of minorities, he was the driving force behind the overhauling of the Texas political map between 1966 and 1972, which changed the face of Texas politics forever. Since the end of Reconstruction, no black person had ever been nominated by either political party for any office of any kind in Texas. In Kilgarlin v. Martin (1966), a federal court struck down two provisions of the Texas Constitution that had helped disenfranchise urban districts–one which forbade any county from having more than one state senator and the other which prevented any county from having more than seven members in the Texas House. Because roughly one-fourth of the state’s population lived in Houston and Dallas at that time, these two provisions were inherently unfair: They greatly magnified the strength of rural Texas at the expense of urban areas and heavily diluted minority voting power in the state.

With the court’s 1966 ruling, the makeup of the Texas Senate changed overnight. Barbara Jordan was elected from Houston that same year, and San Antonio’s Joe Bernal a year later. Oscar himself was elected from one of the new Dallas districts created by the court, despite the best efforts of conservative Governor John Connally to defeat him. For the first time, progressives had a substantial voice in the Texas Senate.

After the 1970 census, Oscar led the battle for single-member House districts in the urban counties. Because of the decision in another lawsuit, Regester v. White, urban counties elected blacks and Hispanics in significant numbers for the first time. Among the liberals elected to the Texas House in 1972 were Mickey Leland, Craig Washington, Ben Reyes, Jim Mattox, and Eddie Bernice Johnson. These were times of dramatic change and Oscar was in the forefront. The revolution triggered by the Regester decision went on to produce single-member district elections for city councils and school boards all over Texas, and an enormous enfranchisement of minority voters in all corners of the state.

He stepped down from his seat–to open the way for Dallas County to elect its first African American to the Texas Senate–and went on to serve on the Texas Supreme Court from 1986 to 1992. There, he delivered his last master stroke. Oscar wrote the Court’s unanimous opinion in Edgewood v. Kirby, which established, for the first time, the constitutional notion of fairness in the funding of Texas’ public schools. This decision will resonate for years to come as the high-water mark of Texas constitutional law. It is a lasting tribute to Oscar’s sense of decency and equality for all. He was a stalwart liberal voice for many years, and we are going to miss him.

Longtime Observer contributor David Richards is at work on a memoir.