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Bill White’s Traveling Good-Government Show, Part Two

The Democrat answers his critics, confronts his stalker, and spells out his vision for Texas' future.
by Published on
photo by Michael Stravato
White’s trademark boots—and his son, Will’s—on a six- seater plane back to Houston. “They’re very similar; Will was like a little Politico Jr.” Will White is now a first-year teacher in Houston.

Sept. 23, 1:50 p.m.

As he clambers into his chartered six-seater plane at Landmark Aviation in Addison, Bill White is making yet another quick fundraising call. “We really need your help,” he says, noting tonight’s midnight deadline for the final quarterly fundraising report of the campaign. (It will show White trailing Rick Perry in cash-on-hand for the first time, but still raising funds at a healthy clip.) “If you wanted to do a wire transfer,” he’s saying, “we can do that.” The goal, as he’ll say in a later fundraising call, is clear: “We’ve got to raise $100,000 a day the rest of the way.” There are 40 days till Nov. 2.

Fundraising chief Kathryn McCarter, sitting next to me, says that White still needs to review two new ads today and make suggestions. “He has a good eye,” she says.

So he’s as hands-on with the details of the campaign as people say?

“Oh, yes,” she says, chuckling at the understatement.

I’m sitting in the seat facing White, practically knee-to-knee. His call finished, he sits back, arranging his left pants leg over his boot, and gets ready to answer my questions. But first, White has something to say to me. “Look, I know I’ve read all your stuff, man,” he says, referring to the criticism his campaign has gotten from me and other Observer writers. “From the lack of charisma, the big ears, being soft-spoken, not a good old boy, not exciting the base and all that. But there’s a real appetite today for people who are authentic. People who are not contrived.”

I ask him if it’s a conscious strategy on his part—avoiding scripts and soundbites, looking and sounding like a regular guy to create a contrast with Perry.

“Yes,” he says quickly, then elaborates. “I mean, it’s not so much a conscious strategy as who I am. Perry likes to talk about things and I like to solve problems. He’s a traditional machine politician.

“I’ve been told by reporters that soundbites would be more printable. But people can tell I’m more true to my own voice. And I’ve found something in life, which is that if you know what you’re talking about and believe what you say, you’re less likely to get caught up in the type of stuff that happens to Perry all the time. This is why, for me, town-hall meetings with questions and answers are so important. You’ll see.”

Is that why you’re still within striking distance?

“Yes, and there’s another reason. Good old-fashioned grassroots politics.”

Which means?

“It means people talking to people. People emailing people. It means the reverberation of, right before a speech, writing a Facebook post which 131,000 people get and often they [retweet]. It means going to Brownwood, Texas”—the small city of 18,000 where we’re headed—”40 days before an election. It means town-hall meeting after town-hall meeting. It means a week and a half ago, over 150,000 volunteer telephone calls made.

“With due respect, anybody who says Perry and the Republicans have anything on us with respect to grassroots doesn’t know what they’re talking about. I mean, this is an empowered grassroots organization.”

I ask White about the hot-button political topic of the moment: Estimates from the Legislative Budget Board that Texas faces an $18-$21 billion deficit in the next biennium. The shortfall has been blamed in part on the 2006 “tax swap” engineered by Perry and former Comptroller John Sharp, lowering property taxes in exchange for business margins taxes and other revenue-generators that turned out to be inadequate.

“It was budget malpractice,” White says. “And the worst thing was Rick Perry’s failure to give a clear analysis of the assumptions that were present when he said it was revenue-neutral. He either didn’t know or he didn’t care. He probably said let’s call it revenue-neutral so it’ll pass.”

So how do we deal with it? “Clear priorities,” White says. “Higher education, public education, public safety are the three top priorities. Honestly, I’m going to be straightforward, it means that there are other places within the state budget where there can’t be transformational change at the outset. There will be many unmet needs. But we can do more than you would expect if we engage the employees and if we listen to them and have great leadership. When I was mayor, we didn’t have sharp increases, but we made improvements.”

Asked about his other models for moving the state forward, White points to two Southern states. “North Carolina, not a left-wing state, decided in the early 1960s that they wanted to be a state that made education a priority so that they could attract high-wage jobs. Georgia, then, about a decade ago, had this same debate and decided they liked the North Carolina model more than the Mississippi and Alabama model. And look at the University of Georgia now. It’s taking some top students from Texas, you know.

“In the 1950s and ’60s, Texas—under people who probably did not have a subscription to the Observer, Allan Shivers and John Connally—made a commitment that they did not want to be a traditional Southern state with low-wage jobs; they wanted to be a state that had larger enterprises that could provide for the skills and be a corporate headquarter state.

“Now we need a new consensus. Under Rick Perry, we have been sliding towards the Mississippi and Alabama model.”

It comes down to leadership, he says—the pragmatically progressive kind. “That’s what we’ve been lacking. Rick Perry divides Texans into groups and plays them off against each other in order to get re-elected. And then there’s no consensus when he gets elected, no plan, and people instead of feeling a sense of opportunity and forward movement, there’s winners and losers.”

3 p.m.

First up in Brownwood: an education forum—one of several this week that Gov. Perry declined to attend. It’s the 51st group of educators White’s spoken to since last December. They’ve turned out in force, filling a large, cafeteria-sized room. And though they’ve been waiting for more than a half-hour, they’re excited to see White. Almost everything he says gets vigorous applause here—quite a contrast with the cold reception he got over lunch from the Rotarians in Plano.

As always, White uses his connections to his audience—this time not his business experience, which he often invoked in McKinney and Plano this morning, but his schoolteacher parents and his son, Will, who’s now a first-year teacher in Houston.

“We need a governor who will respect educators, who will listen to educators. We will never be the state that we could be if we’re 49th in the percentage of our adults with a high-school diploma,” White says; it’s a line he uses everywhere he goes. But here, the rest of the script is a bit different. “We’ll never be as good as we can be if we don’t respect that God made us with different talents and different gifts,” he says.

“I may not be perfect. When I first ran for mayor of my city, they said my ears were too big for TV. But I respect hard work,” he says, and works hard himself. “The job of a public servant is about accountability. Accountability is about making eye contact with people, and listening to them. I didn’t get 87 and 91 percent of the vote when I ran for reelection because my jokes were good,” White says. “I got it because I have a servant’s heart.”

The educators relish White’s digs at the State Board of Education, the overemphasis on standardized testing, and the governor’s recent budget cuts for education programs. He’s rewarded with a standing ovation when he’s done. As the candidate chats happily with his fans, I talk with Beth Haffner, who says she’s “a Republican, though I have not supported Gov. Perry. I liked what I heard.” What, in particular? “That standardized tests are not the be-all and end-all. That parents are an important part of the team.”  She was looking for a candidate to support, she says. “I think I found it.”

As we talk, White walks up, leading another retired teacher, Frances Taylor, by the arm. “You should listen to her story,” he tells me. Taylor, like Haffner, had been volunteer-tutoring students in the state’s Extended Hours after-school program. But then, out of the blue, Perry announced in July that the program would be eliminated. “Don’t you cut 100 percent out of the least-valuable programs?” Taylor says. “This program was working.” It had served 200 to 300 kids in Brownwood schools, Taylor says, helping them pass state tests and turning the local high school into one of TEA’s models of improvement. “But we knew something was coming. We kept waiting for it to happen. Finally our principal called and said, ‘It’s gone.’ One week before school started!”

That‘s a story for you,” White says as we head out to the next destination, Brownwood High School.

3:55 p.m.

The group assembled for White’s talk, scattered around a large, airy atrium at the high school, is almost embarrassingly small. Aside from a Rick Perry staffer who’s been hired to videotape White on the campaign trail, looking for embarrassing footage to use in an ad, they’re predominantly elderly folks like Holly Childers, another retired teacher who says, “There’s just not enough Democrats here. The Republicans have more money and money is it. But Gov. Perry has been there long enough. He needs to move on.

I just don’t think educators can stand four more years of Perry.”

White, after joking about the size of the crowd, delivers a sharp attack on the governor—as always, emphasizing both his stylistic and policy differences. “I don’t know all the tricks of a partisan politician,” he says. “I’ve run businesses, I’ve run a city.” Perry, on the other hand, runs on the “politics of fear.”

White criticizes Perry for turning down stimulus money for education, and points to other states—again, North Carolina and Georgia—who’ve used it to “plug their budget deficits” and keep education budgets from being slashed.

He winds this talk down faster than usual. When he invites questions, the first one comes from a woman standing just behind him.

“Why is this man filming you?” she asks, pointing to the Perry guy.

“I was taught personal responsibility by my parents,” White says, walking toward the camera and pointing at his “stalker,” as the campaign calls him. “I was taught to look people in the eye and listen to them and answer their questions. So let’s ask him: Why are you here filming me?”

Perry’s guy stands stone-faced, less than 10 feet from where the candidate was pointing at him.

“That’s Rick Perry’s response to you,” White says.

5:30 p.m.

White’s campaign schedule, which began at 7:45 a.m. in McKinney, is done for the day. But as we climb into the small plane, headed for Houston, a minor crisis has broken out: Somewhere along the way, White has lost his I-Pad.

“I think we’ll find it,” says Ann Travis. “Because if we left it in the news station, it’s still there. Or it’s in Jonathan’s car.”

“I think it’s in Jonathan’s car,” White says. “But I’m afraid I might have left it a restroom or something. Probably the car, though. Because sometimes I pull that out, and then you lay it on the floorboard, and then it blends in.”

“You need to get one of those florescent foam covers for it,” says Travis, who’s on the phone trying to locate the thing.

White focuses back on me. “Well, did you get what you need?” he asks.

Pretty much, I say. Just a few more questions. And in fact, he’ll be answering my questions on the entire hour-long flight to Houston. Since that adds up to about 5,000 words, transcribed, I’ll excerpt the highlights below in Q&A format:

You’ve talked about how you managed to get a lot of bipartisan support to move Houston forward. It’s been a while since we saw any serious bipartisanship on the state level. How will you do it?

You gotta focus on the big things people have in common. I’ll give you an example, in the last event in Brownwood a doctor came up, said he’s politically conservative, but he wanted to make sure the state didn’t try to artificially impede the eligibility for CHIP, because a lot of people are employed but with low wages and they didn’t have group health insurance. And the kids needed some way to get access to health care.

I think you’ll see surveys show that most Texans want this. You can’t tell a 5-year-old with bronchitis, “Go take care of yourself.”

When you talk about approaching the job with a servant’s heart, as you did in both Plano and Brownwood, what does that mean to you?

It means that you never forget that you work for every single citizen. You give a voice to the people who don’t have lobbyists. You don’t take credit for the work of others. And you always remember when you’re dealing with public funds, you’re dealing with money that’s been coerced from other people.

Coerced?

I mean, tax money is not paid voluntarily. And so if you are coercing money from somebody else, you have a deep duty to make sure it’s spent as efficiently as you can. And in our tax system in Texas, much of the money is coerced from people who have salaries far lower than the governor or many state employees.

What would be a fairer tax system for Texas?

Oh, I don’t know. I usually don’t go along too many hypothetical roads unless they’re apt to lead somewhere. Some of the old arguments don’t go anywhere. But there’s some new ones. … Basically a perfect tax system should be as broadly based and low as possible with good services.

Practically everyone agrees the school finance system is broken, with $1,000 disparities per pupil from district to district. What is to be done about that, so that we don’t have such incredible inequities?

First of all, the unique role of the governor can be to link the dots for Texans and do it constantly, that everybody is better off when you have more people who are making more money and able to spend more money, and to do that you need more education and job training. If you do that, then you’ll find you have public support for things you wouldn’t imagine.

Look, the state of Texas back in the ’50s was not exactly left-wing. But you had higher severance taxes back then than you do now on oil and gas. Because people understood that if we wanted to take this state up from what had traditionally been poorer-than-average, then you had to invest in infrastructure and universities and those kind of things.

The competitiveness of this campaign is running counter to what’s happening across the country, and it’s surprising some people because it’s happening in Texas. Why is a Democrat running unexpectedly well in a year like this in Texas?

If you look at why somebody who’s a Texas Democrat who won 91 and 86 percent re-election in Houston, you’d find the answer. People want somebody who is more interested in results. People want somebody who shoots straight. People are interested in somebody who will make work government work better in a way they can see with their own eyes.

So you don’t accept the idea that Texans are anti-government?

I’d say that Texans are skeptical about whether government works efficiently and can deliver outcomes predictable of high quality with low costs. And so am I. I think it’s often because we have people in public office who don’t know the difference between giving a speech and getting a result.

For a long time, Democrats in Texas have been waiting for population demographics to translate into votes, but the Latino vote is still very low. Why do you think that is, and what are you doing about it in this campaign?

Well, it is growing. When I first started registering voters on the South side of San Antonio with Willie Valasquez 40 years ago, I mean, it was tiny. I think we’ll see it somewhere between 15 and 20 percent this year. So we’v
come a ways. Many young people participate in the political process, and many who are over 50. The young people question whether or not a politician can make a difference. And as with all young people, there’s some impatience. I can tell you, when I go into high schools, they question why President Obama didn’t change everything immediately. I had one high school student ask me why his high school was still run down, and the president had been in office for a year and a half.

What people need is to see results. If we see more and better technical and vocational education programs, we’ll see more votes. If we see the Valley get more light manufacturing because at long last it’s linked to the interstate highway system, we’ll see more votes. If people see there’s some funding mechanism for infrastructure in unincorporated areas, where the needs are great but there’s no need for financing them at all, then you’ll get more votes.

Running a city like Houston, you can have outcomes that are tangible. It’s a little harder with state government on a scale like Texas. What are some examples of improvements people would see if you were governor?

They would see an increased morale among our educators. I think you would see, almost immediately, an increased sense of purpose among many state employees. I think you would see a focus on how we catch narco-traffickers and people who put human beings in the back of 18-wheelers and treat them like animals. When you see that this is not some PR exercise, but we’re serious about making sure those kind of folks do not get across the border—that we’re really going to try to do it.

I think you would see a sense of possibility among legislators in both parties on issues such as long-term transportation funding. I think you’d see that quickly. I think you’d see mayors and county judges and others feel as though they have somebody who could stick up for them in Austin, where the legislature and governor have wanted to backseat drive. And finally, I think you’d see a real feeling by many people that they were at the table when decisions were made.

You’ve been highly critical of Perry’s use of the Texas Enterprise Fund, designed to provide incentives for job-creation, to reward his campaign contributors. Would you get rid of it?

I don’t know whether you rename it, start all over, or scrap it. I would be inclined to push economic development funds out to regional economic-development organizations. They understand better than people in Austin what is necessary—and whether to give an incentive to somebody who may compete with a local firm.

Perry has done a pretty good job of proselytizing about the supposedly wonderful Texas economy. Do you people are starting to catch up with the fact that it’s not so rosy?

Rick Perry was a yell leader in college. He’s like the cheerleader who’s cheering when the team is winning and taking credit for the touchdowns. Then he doesn’t know what to do when the team starts losing. We had a strong economy in Texas for many reasons, including oil and gas prices, the expansion of Fort Bliss and Fort Hood, and a large number of young workers, including many first-generation Americans. He’s claimed credit for the population growth in Texas, which is mostly Latinos, and I don’t think a lot of Latinos are aware that their families were expanding because of Rick Perry. I think most of them thought they were having children because they wanted to.

You’re a realist. What is a secure border to you?

A secure border is where you don’t have people heavily armed in human convoys off beaten paths taking drugs across the ranches. It’s a border where there’s good sharing of intelligence against cartel and gang members, so we can trace their movements. It’s a border where, to a greater extent than today, we are targeting through intelligence and information-gathering the routes from which cash is going south of the border through drug sales.

You’ve said that as governor, you want to expand the Secure Communities program that’s been in place in Houston. There’s been criticism of that program, including law enforcement officials who say that it inhibits community policing because immigrants fear deportation if they report crimes.

I have some strong views. I went into largely Hispanic neighborhoods in our community. I listened in English, I listened in Spanish. I went there with Adrian Garcia, our mayor pro-tem and now our sheriff. Look, people want safe neighborhoods, and most Hispanic people are law-abiding. They work hard. And they want the gang members, people who sell narcotics, out of their neighborhoods. That’s what they want.

The most basic civil right of all is the freedom from being victimized by crime, to be free in your person and your property. That’s a very basic civil right. We need ways to identify people who are non-citizens who commit serious drug crimes, serious property crimes, and violent crimes. I wish they could deport a few citizens who did that, and so do most Texans. I really do.

But many of the deportations resulting from Secure Communities are for folks with misdemeanors, like traffic violations. In Travis County, 84 percent of deportations stemmed from minor crimes. Is that worth doing?

I believe that Secure Communities should be used to identify people who are deportable felons as a result of serious drug crimes, serious property crimes, and violent crimes. The program was conceived, and certainly implemented by us in our community, not to look for routine civil violations.

What is the key for Democrats to come back in this state?

[Long pause, staring out the window.] This state wants political leadership that is common sense, that gets results, and has the right balance between preparing for the future and making sure that today’s needs—including the need for working families to hold onto some of their dollars—are met. The political party that they feel best satisfies that need will be able to grow in Texas.

We will expand the number of people who are struggling to get by who go to the polls. Not because of fiery polemics, not because of campaign promises, not because we have non-traditional candidates. We’ve had all of those before. We will increase turnout when we elect somebody who will get results. [Looks out the window and points to the city of Houston, stretching out beneath us as we approach Hobby Airport.] That’s why the neighborhoods you see, neighborhoods in this city that are Latino and African-American, will get out voting for me; they’ve seen results in their neighborhoods.

The easy way to get results is to lower somebody’s taxes without lowering spending, because that simply defers the taxes later on. It gives the illusion of a tax decrease. The harder way to get results is to spend money wisely.

6:30 p.m.

“Did you get enough?” White asks me, after we clamber down onto the tarmac at the Enterprise Jet Center, adjacent to Hobby Airport. “Seriously: Thanks for visiting.”

“This was kind of an easy day, actually,” Ann Travis says. But it’s not done for the candidate. As soon as he gets into the car, he’s scheduled to do a five-minute radio interview about Hurricane Ike. Then more fundraising calls. A scheduling meeting. A thick folder of papers to work through. Ads to review. And tomorrow morning, it’ll be off to El Paso for another education forum that Rick Perry turned down.

But White’s still feeling chatty. As folks get organized and check their phones in the airport lounge, White talks to me about why he supports the Observer‘s “independent voice” in spite of our criticisms of his campaign, about the challenges of journalism these days, about the future of politics.

“It’s an interesting time for progressive politics,” he says. “I think there’s this new progressivism coming … but what is it? It’s not just that the government gets bigger, it’s that the government gets better, it’s who the government serves.”