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Claytie’s Power Play

by Published on
photo by Peter Silva
Clayton Williams during his 1990 gubernatorial campaign

dispatch from the water wars

They say one vote can make all the difference. For Clayton Williams, one vote could help him make a lot of money.

Williams, the 81-year-old West Texas oilman, has engineered an audacious scheme to pipe groundwater from his farm near Fort Stockton to Midland, about 100 miles away.

A key step in the project took place this month, when one single voter on a barren strip of land near Midland voted to create a water district run by Williams’ cronies. The district, which will have eminent domain power and access to millions of dollars in public bonds, could affect the water supply for thousands of Texans. It’s an insider deal few businessmen could pull off, but Claytie might if he can overcome opposition from citizens of Pecos County.

The plan came together like this: For decades, the Williams family has pumped groundwater on its ranch outside Fort Stockton. Comanche Springs, which once pulsed 42 million gallons a day, has suffered seasonal dry spells since the 1950s, when Williams’ father, Clayton Williams Sr., turned on diesel pumps west of town to water his crops. Now Junior wants to ship that water to Midland for municipal use.

The first challenge for Williams was piping the water to Midland. The answer was a state freshwater supply district, which could finance the pipeline, condemn land, and raise cheap capital through taxpayer-financed bonds.

In 2009, state Rep. Tom Craddick, the former Republican speaker of the House from Midland, tried to pass legislation creating a freshwater district for Williams. Opposition from citizens of Pecos County helped squash the bill.

Not one to lie back and take it, Williams and his attorneys then decided to exploit a little-known portion of the Texas Water Code that allows water districts to be formed by a few landowners. Williams sold 20 acres west of the Midland airport to five of his friends. Then he convinced the Midland County Commissioners Court to put the district’s formation to a vote. (County Judge Mike Bradford declined an interview with the Observer, referring questions to Williams’ attorneys.)

The only eligible voter on the property is Ryan Latham, a 27-year-old Baylor University-educated attorney who claims to live in a trailer on the land. Latham’s father is Paul Latham, a longtime Williams business associate and chief operating officer of Williams Energy Inc. There are three measures on the ballot that Latham approved: The first creates Midland County Fresh Water Supply District No. 1; a second appoints Williams’ five friends to run it; and the third hands them access to $375 million in government bonds.

Once Williams has his personal water district, one barrier will stand in his way—citizens in Fort Stockton and Pecos County. For Williams to divert his groundwater from agricultural use and pipe it to Midland, he needs a permit from the Middle Pecos Groundwater Conservation District, whose board is loath to issue it.

So another fight over water is looming between citizens of Fort Stockton and the Williams family. Next time, Claytie will need more than one voter on his side.

—Forrest Wilder


campaign trail

Bill White U.

On a late afternoon two weeks before election day, Huey Fisher dressed up in a chicken suit with a giant “Rick Perry” name tag and stood around trying to rev up onlookers. “All I’m asking for is four more years—and a bigger mansion,” the college freshman called out. “I need an extension on my pool!” His fellow campus Democrats offered Bill White T-shirts to those who made five calls at the phone banks across the street. Most people were just milling around, waiting for Bill White to appear.

The “Rally to Restore Competence,” sponsored by Longhorn Students for Bill White, began with less of a bang than its organizers hoped—of the 400 who RSVP’d on Facebook, only about 250 actually showed up to hear the Democratic candidate for governor.

“Frankly, I feel like the same energy that animated Democrats in the last two election cycles is animating the other side now,” state Rep. Mark Strama said with a matter-of-fact expression, though he added that there may still be a lot of energy left in the Democratic base.

Then White took the stage and managed to get the small crowd riled up.

“There is a time where every Texan has the equal voice in the direction of the state and that is the days when the polls are open in this state,” he cried out. “In the next thirteen days are you going to be a spectator in that process or are you going to be a participant in this process?”

His speech, bursting with unusual energy, only touched quickly on issues like Gov. Rick Perry’s political appointments, college tuition and the State Board of Education. Instead, White hammered on the need for turnout and the importance of voting itself. “Who shows up to vote will determine the balance of the state for four years,” he almost thundered. “For some people the choice we will make in the next 13 days will determine the rest of their lives.”

When the speech was over, Strama led the attendees to the early voting polling station across the mall. Most of the attendees seemed pleased, and volunteers promised they were hearing plenty of enthusiasm as they canvassed Travis County.

But senior Peter Wassef, who had voted already for White on Monday, was nonetheless disconcerted. “He probably won’t win because he’s a Democrat in Texas, but I still thought there would be more people,” Wassef said. “I mean it’s Bill White. He’s cool.”

—Abby Rapoport


angry candidate dept.

Kathie Glass Steps Up

Libertarian gubernatorial candidate Kathie Glass can sound a lot like a Republican. She’s big on small government, low taxes and securing the border, but don’t expect to see her at any grand old parties. She’s too disillusioned by the mainstream political system, a feeling shared by many voters. Her outsider campaign is attracting enough support to perhaps affect the governor’s race.

Glass says she likes the ideals of the GOP, but argues that Gov. Rick Perry hasn’t lived up to them. “If you want the things that are in the Republican platform,” she says, “you’re not gonna get it within the Republican Party.”

She has positioned herself as a cultural alternative—untainted by a career in politics—for the  disillusioned, disenchanted Texans who nonetheless plan to vote. There aren’t a lot of them—Glass is polling in the low single digits—but she’s got some big names among her supporters.

Former Democrat (and former independent) Kinky Friedman and black sheep Republican Debra Medina have offered praise. Friedman, who ran for governor as an independent in 2006, endorsed Glass as only Kinky can. “Rough edges is what I’m looking for,” he says. “I don’t really know where she stands on this issue or that issue.”

Medina, a Tea Party candidate who challenged Perry in the March GOP primary, has not gone so far as an endorsement. But her spokeswoman, Penny Langford-Freeman, called Glass “the only conservative” in the race, according to the Texas Independent, a five-month-old website that focuses on state politics. If Glass attracts enough disaffected conservative voters, her candidacy could imperil Perry’s re-election prospects in a close race with Democratic challenger Bill White.

The Republican establishment doesn’t seem all that threatened. “You have a nut backing another nut,” says GOP consultant Jordan Berry, who has overseen several Tea Party Republican races in Texas. “I guess only a few nuts will care.”

—Abby Rapoport