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Bill White’s Traveling Good-Government Show

On the Trail with the Democratic Candidate for Governor, Part One
by Published on
photo by Michael Stravato

Bill White’s campaign for governor had just 40 days to go when I met up with him on Sept. 23 in North Texas. It was the critical final day before the last quarterly fundraising report of the campaign would be filed, but the former Houston mayor did not slow down his relentless pace of travel to make last-minute calls—he made them while driving and flying between far-flung campaign events on a day that would start in McKinney, north of Dallas, and end when his six-seater charter plane touched down in Houston in time for a late dinner. Along the way, White spent nearly 90 minutes answering my questions face-to-face.

In vivid contrast to his opponent, White is running an old-fashioned shoeleather campaign across the state. Since July 1, White has traveled to 73 counties. He’s spoken at 51 education events since December, and held forth for 14 Chambers of Commerce and 17 Rotary Clubs, along with an untold number of fish fries, festivals, BBQs and pachangas.

The core of White’s campaign has been taking his brand of sensible, run-it-right moderation onto heavily Republican turf in small cities and towns. He faces skeptical audiences daily, and White clearly relishes making converts. As the campaign draws to a close, the million-dollar question is: Can he make enough?

Here’s the first of two posts about a day in the life of a Democrat on a bumpy ride through Republican Texas.

10:10 a.m.

When I catch up with Bill White in the spacious green room at Dallas’ WFAA studios, he’s perched at a table surrounded by pacing staffers, smiling volunteers and mobile technology. As he waits to be interviewed for Inside Texas Politics, White is feeling buoyant, still fired up about his first event of the day, a 7:45 Chamber of Commerce breakfast in heavily Republican McKinney. “You should have been there,” he says, keeping one eye on his laptop. “It started out slow. It was arms crossed,” he says, crossing his arms tightly across his chest. “But by the time we left, sixty or seventy yard signs went out the door.”

It’s the kind of conversion moment White lives for. He’s staked his campaign on it. White has been on a 10-month crusade to woo independents and soft Republicans in places like McKinney, Plano and Brownwood—today’s itinerary.

What worked in McKinney? “I can tell you the moment when it happened,” White says. “I said, ‘You run small businesses. Perry says the economy is great; you know better than that.’ I said, ‘We have 1 million people unemployed in Texas for the first time. The governor takes credit for the growth that’s happened in Texas. But we’ve grown more than 48 states for the last 100 years. You can’t take the credit for that. If you do, you’ve been in office too long!’ They cracked up—and that changed it.

“The backseat drivers and consultants say you have to be scripted,” White said. “But I just talk. I think people want somebody to talk straight to them.”

He’s partly talking to me, I know. The Observer has been critical at times of White’s campaign—mainly for its lack of a sharp, central message—and we’ve poked our share of gratuitous fun at White’s dearth of razzle-dazzle. (We’ve also reported on White’s relationship with BJ Services, a natural-gas company that uses an environmentally questionable fracturing technique.) White is a longtime Observer reader, and he doesn’t pretend to have ignored the digs.

White has tried to use his lack of political glitter strategically, presenting himself as the antithesis of a “career politician” and “old-style machine boss,” as he calls Gov. Perry. But the plainspoken, unscripted style is also what comes naturally to him. And one thing that’s immediately clear, when you spend time on the trail with Bill White: He adamantly refuses to be anybody but Bill White, for good or ill.

Two White staffers, fundraising chief Kathryn McCarter and policy specialist Ann Travis, have joined him today, along with two Dallas-area volunteers. His staff rotates travel duties amongst themselves; Travis says it’s the only way they can keep up with the candidate, who is a perpetual-motion machine. Tomorrow, a different set of folks will fly with White to El Paso—for yet another forum that Perry turned down.

With a few minutes left before the taping of Inside Texas Politics begins, White excuses himself to dictate a Facebook post by phone. Speaking more slowly than usual, a few words at a time, he says: “Perry says … the economy is great … but for the last 18 months … for the first time … about 1 million Texans are unemployed, period … Three neighboring states … have lower unemployment rates … and 200,000 Texans … have lost their jobs … in blank months, period. … Many business and families …. are struggling, period. … What do you think about that?

“Take a look and mess with that,” he tells the folks back in Houston. (The post goes out a little later, pretty much as dictated.)

White was known as a hands-on mayor, a stickler for detail. He’s the same as a candidate. As the day goes on, he’s asked to critique two new ad spots; he has to approve everything, down to font size. He checks his phone and I-Pad religiously between events—until later, in a moment of crisis, he realizes he’s left his I-Pad behind. Nothing happens in the campaign without going through him. It’s another way in which he’s the polar opposite of his opponent, with his Reaganesque style of delegation.

10:30 a.m.

WFAA’s Brad Watson and Gromer Jeffers, his co-host from The Dallas Morning News, walk White, Travis and myself back to the big, half-dark studio. White chats amiably with the interviewers, exchanging small talk until he’s perched in a tall chair to the left of the co-hosts. Then it’s back to business. “On the intro shot, is it the middle camera?” White asks. His staffers don’t bother to attend to such details; White, they know, will handle it himself.

White is also himself when the cameras light up—deadpan, friendly but occasionally argumentative, quick with policy details, and impatient with the usual political formulas and assumptions. Questioning him about the state’s projected $18 billion budget deficit, Watson asks whether it won’t be necessary to raise revenues to mend the gap. “We’re not gonna raise sales taxes,” White says, spinning into a long, detailed analysis of the impact of sales taxes that Perry raised in the 2006 “tax swap.”

“I don’t want to get down in the weeds,” Watson follows up, “but …”

“That was a tax raise,” White says, a bit too sharply. “This is not a weed.”

As always, White makes a point of emphasizing his “authenticity.” Asked whether public education is “on the table for cuts,” he refuses to take the popular route and declare it—or anything else—untouchable. “Texans want somebody to shoot straight.”

White patiently, deliberately answers—and sometimes skirts—questions about the budget, his opinion of President Obama (spending too much), and BJ Services’ problems with the EPA (“It’s a great company, it’s a fine company … I’m proud of the oil and gas business.”). When given the chance, he takes his digs at Perry: “It hurts business in this state for our governor to talk about seceding from the union. It hurts the image of our state. The governor should be fighting for Texas, not just for his political career.” People, White says—in one of his very own soundbites, repeated everywhere he goes—want “less theater and more results.”

Inside Texas Politics viewers will be the judges of that on Sunday; a couple of hours after White tapes his interview, Perry will have a rare sit-down with Watson and Jeffers, looking and sounding like White’s polar opposite: perfectly windblown head of hair, slickly tailored gray suit, bright red ready-for-TV tie, and his own version of shooting straight: “I’m not gonna raise taxes, because that is the absolute worst thing you can do during a turndown.” He’ll also have to answer one of the questions the White campaign has successfully injected into the campaign, when it publicized records showing Perry working only about  eight hours a week on state business. “I work a bunch,” Perry will say. “I consider everything I do state business.”

Both interviews end with the kind of obligatory softball guaranteed to bring a smile to a politician’s face and a snappy, bright response: Who do you like in the Cowboys-Texans game? But White answers in his usual roundabout way, ruminating over his need to be “neutral” in such regional matters if he’s going to be governor, and finally allowing that he thinks the Cowboys will win the game, but the Texans will go to the playoffs.

Even in matters of professional football, White shoots straight—down the middle.

11:20 a.m.

A few blocks up from WFAA, White climbs into an SUV with Kathryn McCarter, headed for Plano. He’s got to make fundraising calls, I’m told, so Ann Travis and I ride in a second car driven by a young local volunteer, Elizabeth Deleon. We’re headed to Plano for the kind of event that White has done hundreds of times in the blur of the last 10 months. “This will be a very Republican crowd,” Travis says. “Collin County is heavily Republican. He’s spoken to so many Rotatarians, I can’t even count.”

We arrive at the Southfork Hotel in Plano ahead of schedule. How much, exactly? Ask the candidate. “We still have 13 minutes,” White says, checking his watch while perching on a sofa in the lobby and pulling out his phone for another quick fundraising call. Meanwhile, a local TV station wants a quick interview, he’s told, and there’s a DMNphotographer who needs a “quick head shot.” Quick, quick, quick. But White, whether by nature or practice, never seems hurried or harried.

After the stand-up and the photos, White shambles around the corner toward the Plano Rotarians, who are mingling and chatting outside the ballroom. He’s no bigger-than-life political backslapper, but he seems to genuinely enjoy shaking hands and hearing what folks have to say or ask. “Tell me about yourself,” he says, again and again, his bright blue eyes staring straight into those of the business-suited Rotarians. White is big on eye contact.

The candidate doesn’t get to indulge in the Rotary buffet, but I pile up a plate full of green beans, sliced melons and chicken and sit down at a table of younger-looking Rotarians. Shawn Foster, a local financial advisor in a smart pinstripe suit, smiles sheepishly as I ask him whether he’s a White supporter. “No. But I’m trying to listen with an open mind,” he says. “We’re all pretty Republican here.” He’s curious about how White will contrast with Rick Perry, whom he saw at a Chamber of Commerce event about a year ago. “That guy is a pol,” he says. “I mean, he was on fire. I’ve never seen a politician that slick.” Foster stops and wonders if “slick ” is the right word, then decides it is—as long as it’s clear that he means it admiringly.

“I don’t delve deep enough into politics to be real opinionated about it,” Foster says, wishing out loud that I’d talk to some of his lunchmates instead, but too polite to send me away. “From what I see, Perry’s doing a pretty decent job. And some of the issues White’s talking about, like homeowners’ insurance rates? They don’t seem …” Foster trails off. He wants to hear about immigration, he says, and about the budget. But mostly, he wants to see whether this guy would be a Perry-caliber salesman for the state.

After an invocation, Pledge of Allegiance and Rotary announcements—”The Balloon Festival was a great success”—White is introduced by an elderly local Democrat whose voice, even with a microphone, is too weak to carry across the room. Bless her heart, but it’s not exactly the introduction you’d want when you’re stepping up in front of a crowd of Shawn Fosters.

White speaks in front of a podium playfully decorated, in front, with a Jackalope’s head. He doesn’t mention the Jackalope. Instead, he starts out with his voice low and slow, competing not altogether successfully with the clinks of knives and forks and ice in tea glasses. “Good afternoon, Rotary. …  I think this has been some 40-odd Rotary Clubs that I’ve spoken to across the state.” White mentions, as always, that the San Antonio Rotarians gave him a $500 scholarship that helped him go to college. “Gosh, Rotary was international before international was cool,” he says. It’s his stab at a joke. And it’s what happens when you don’t have somebody writing them for you.

“The more we can have non-profit organizations and people in public life who emphasize what we have in common rather than what divides us, the more likely we will be to bring people together to get things done,” White says.

White caters to his audiences—but he does not pander. In front of a business crowd like this one, he always emphasizes his oil and gas background, and plays up his desire to bring a CEO’s mentality to the governor’s office. But he also challenges folks in his low-key way. White is an evangelist of sorts for a style of politics and governance that Texas hasn’t seen in a while: government that not only works, but inspires.

“We should try to run government like a well-run, efficient organization,” he says, “not like a political patronage machine. People told me I was naive when I said that, when I was running for mayor of Houston … But I see your fire chief here: I never have heard somebody on a 911 call say whether they wanted a Republican or a Demo EMS unit. I never have anybody waved out and say they didn’t want an EMS unit or a fire unit come to their house because it’s run by the government.

“I used my experience in the oil and gas service industry in government, to squeeze value out of every dollar,” White continues. Houston, he notes, was “the first city in the United States of America to … reform employee pensions. That’s how we were able to cut the property tax rate five straight years, raise the tenure exemption five straight years, build up surpluses, provide more services, cut the crime rate to its lowest level in decades, increase the parks and green space and public libraries that increase the values of our neighborhoods. We did it because people came together across party lines.

“Imagine what it could be like if, as a test of public service, instead of asking whether somebody gave a good soundbite or made a slick commercial, or gave a running commentary on what somebody else should have done at some level of government, we had somebody running and finding what we could do together.”

The Rotarians listen quietly—too quietly. You sense that White could announce that he’s worked a deal to move Microsoft headquarters to Plano and he wouldn’t get a rise out of this crowd. But he plugs away, watching the reaction, poking around from subject to subject, trying to find a way to connect like he did in McKinney this morning. He notes that Plano’s mayor and mayor pro-tem are in the house. “Local elected officials know what accountability means. My wife and I, six years that I was mayor, were listed in the phone book. We knew how to report to people and we knew how to bring people together to get things done. Isn’t that more of what we need in politics today? Accountability, and servant leadership.”

For such a careful, meticulous fellow, it’s surprising how much White wings it on the stump. It’s bound to be hit or miss, and 20 minutes into his latest Rotary speech, he’s missing. He even steps on the line that worked wonders this morning: “When Rick Perry, our current governor, has commercials taking credit for everything good in Texas and our growth, you know he’s been governor too long. Because we’ve been a growing community, and we’ve been a growing state for generation after ge
eration because of the values we share.” White pauses briefly for a reaction and, hearing none, presses on: “I don’t want Texas to secede,” he tells the Rotarians. “I want to become the leading state in the nation. I want us to have the state where we not only have a culture of opportunity, but where we train workers to compete in the global economy.”

He also expands on what he means by “servant leadership”—a concept that’s also central to his campaign, and to making his differences with flashy Rick Perry sharper: “When Hurricane Katrina hit, a reporter asked me the day after what our policy would be concerning the about 200,000 fellow Americans who came into our community. It didn’t take me long to answer. I said I’ll tell you what our policy will be: We’re going to treat our neighbors the way we’d like to be treated if this happened to us.”

After a long, rambly anecdote about a couple of A&M graduates in suburban Houston who can’t afford to send their kids to their alma mater, he wraps up. And not a moment too soon: The plates are empty, the Rotarians are drinking coffee and checking the time.

“Leadership does not mean dividing this state into groups, red teams and blue teams and no teams at all, and playing people off against each other and emphasizing our differences in order that a professional politician could get re-elected for being an advocate rather than a leader. Real leadership is finding common ground.”

It’s powerful stuff, even delivered in White’s quiet, hands-in-pockets manner. But the only real round of applause he gets is when he winds up his 25-minute oration.

When the brief Q&A begins, however, a different White materializes. The man might not love to speechify, but he clearly likes to mix it up—another reason, perhaps, that Gov. Perry has avoided facing him in a debate.

A stapping fellow stands up, near the front, and challenges White on his refusal to meet Gov. Perry’s demands to release his tax forms from the mid-’90s as a condition for debating. “Both of you are men of principle,” he says, “but the ones who are really suffering are the citizens because we don’t get to see a debate.”

“Absolutely,” White agrees.

“So why don’t you take the high road and do whatever’s necessary so we can have this debate? Somebody’s got to give, and I think you’re the one to do it.”

White leans over the podium, stares intently at his questioner. “My opponent thinks debates are a favor to his opponent. And I have accepted al invitations to debate. Period. OK? And in order to throw people off the scent, says, well, it’s a moving target. Well, I’ve had more thorough financial disclosures than Rick Perry ever had. Here’s the principle, sir: Do you believe it’s right for one candidate to impose conditions on  the other candidate  on whether they’ll appear to debate? I do not. I will show up at any debate.”

Next question!

This one’s also familiar: about border security. And it inspires White to deliver his best zinger of the day, after outlining his policy to put 1,000 new deputy sheriffs and police along the border with 250 state troopers:

“I’m tired of people using our border as a photo op. Let me speak for the citizens of El Paso, Texas, right across the border from Juarez, Mexico. They’re tired of having people from Washington or Austin having press conferences … There’s a Chamber of Commerce president here. Imagine how you’d have felt when the governor of your state goes on national TV and says there’s bombs going off in El Paso. Well, the El Paso homicide rate is a fraction of what it is in Dallas, let me start with that. There’s bombs going off in Juarez, but not El Paso. We need a governor who knows that Juarez is in Mexico and El Paso is in Texas.”

That gets a big laugh from the Rotarians. Finally.

1 p.m.

A small cluster of Democratic-leaning folks crowds around the front of the Southfork ballroom, chatting with White as the Republican Rotarians file out. White’s approach is a “breath of fresh air,” says Rick Kasmiskie. Like his friend Boyd Craig, Kasmiskie liked what White said about being a “servant” of the people. “When you think about state government, the governor should be on the bottom, with the people on the top,” Kasmiskie says. Perry, he says, doesn’t “listen to the people who are out here.”

But these guys were already White supporters. In the hallway among the milling Rotarians, I ask a sharp-dressed Republican real-estate agent (who requested anonymity) what she thought. “Well, there’s no doubt the man is sincere. And smart.” Did he win her over? “I wouldn’t mind as much if he won, I guess.”

As Travis gently tries to nudge him out of the ballroom, White spends 15 minutes chatting with folks about the budget deficit, Plano’s transportation needs, and Perry’s evil-doings. “We need to go,” she says gently, persistently. “We need to go. We need to go.”

When White finally emerges into the blinding sunshine poking through today’s big, floaty clouds, he turns to Travis: “How are we on time?” he asks.

“Wheels up now,” she says evenly. The plane is supposed to be leaving Plano Regional Airport at 1:20.

“Now?” White says, surprised.

“1:20,” she says. It’s 1:19 as we clamber into the two volunteers’ vehicles.

White is clearly unphased by the Rotarians’ subdued response to his pitch. “I don’t think there were a lot of Observersubscribers in that room,” he tells me, grinning.

Travis calls the pilot as we speed away. “Can we make up any time in the air? No?”

She hangs up. “Well, I tried.” Then gets back on the phone with White campaign HQ: “Can you download the two new spots so he can see them on the plane?” she asks. But White, who will spend his two plane rides patiently answering all my questions, won’t look at the ads till nighttime.

Next week: Face-to-face and knee-to-knee with the candidate. Plus: a faceoff in Brownwood with the Perry campaign’s hired stalker.