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Who Runs Texas?

by Published on
photo by Senate Media courtesy UT Press
Ann Richards and Bob Bullock

A long standing argument is that the lieutenant governor of Texas is more powerful than the governor. It’s that way by design. During the Reconstruction period after the Civil War, Texas had to endure the concentration of power in the governor: who removed local, elected officials that had been part of the Confederacy; appointed district judges, district attorneys, county treasurers, mayors and aldermen; and imposed martial law on counties. After Reconstruction, writers of the new Texas Constitution vowed to disperse power among the lieutenant governor, the speaker and the governor. The revised constitution also made numerous other positions elected instead of appointed by the governor. Several other former Confederate states did likewise.

This means the most visible politician in the state can have trouble moving an agenda. “When you couldn’t dominate the Legislature,” observed Mary Beth Rogers, who was chief of staff to the late Democratic Gov. Ann Richards, “you were limited in your ability to get anything done. That became a problem. It’s a structural flaw in Texas government.”

Her statement is in former state Rep. Brian McCall’s book, The Power of the Texas Governor: Connally to Bush. McCall, a Plano Republican who is now chancellor of the Texas State University System, combines meticulous historical research with knowledge gleaned from almost 20 years in the House. This book, like another recent title on the history of the speaker of the House, The House Will Come to Order, shows how individuals have the potential to shape these positions. Over time there have been powerful Texas governors and weak Texas governors, depending on their persuasive abilities. And over the past 50 years, the speaker of the House has become a power center as speakers have learned to control the state’s budget.

As The Power of the Texas Governor lays out, Richards’ tenure proved how limiting the governor’s position can be if you don’t have an ally in the lieutenant governor. Richards had the misfortune of being elected governor at the same time 16-year State Comptroller Bob Bullock was elected lieutenant governor. Though they had been hearty drinking buddies before they both went to what Bullock called “drunk school,” to say Richards’ relationship with the cantankerous, dominating Senate presiding officer was rocky is a vast understatement.

Bullock wanted information about everything: policy, politics, personal gossip. He demanded it in frequently nasty terms. He’d wanted to be governor and tried to relegate Richards to clipping ribbons and making speeches. Richards, a former county commissioner and state treasurer, was detail-oriented, and had her own ideas about how things should run. She and her staff were determined not to cater to Bullock’s hostile demands, which added fuel to the fire. Bullock called Richards’ staff “hairy-legged lesbians” and made Richards’ lone, four-year term as governor hell.

Richards lost re-election to Republican presidential son George W. Bush in 1994. Though Bush was from the opposing party, he was just what Bullock was looking for. Bush had a limited agenda and was content to let Bullock and House Speaker Pete Laney, a Democrat, run things. Meanwhile, Bush’s political guru Karl Rove greased the skids for Bush’s 2000 presidential run. Bush fed Bullock all the information he wanted. Democrat Bullock developed a deep affection for Republican Bush, and wound up endorsing him for re-election as governor in 1998 over Land Commissioner Garry Mauro—a Bullock protégé, a fellow Democrat and a former deputy comptroller under Bullock, who was the godfather to two of Mauro’s kids. Then Bullock endorsed Bush for president. A different relationship, indeed.

The governor can run this state if he’s savvy enough and has legislative leaders who will go along. Possibly the most successful governor at achieving far-sighted goals and wielding power and influence was John Connally (1963-1969), a longtime aide and ally of Lyndon Johnson. A Democrat at the time (he switched parties after leaving the governorship), Connally had served as secretary of the Navy during the administrations of Democrats John F. Kennedy and Johnson. From that vantage, he watched other states surpass Texas in attracting research grants. “Unless our nation produces more and better brainpower, our system of democratic government, our personal liberties, will soon perish,” Connally warned in his first State of the State address.

McCall quotes longtime Texas Monthly political writer Paul Burka’s description of Connally as “the greatest Texas governor of the century” because, Burka said, Connally “saw the dark side of the Texas stereotype—a self-satisfaction, a narrowness, a confusion of size with greatness, and an obsession with myth that kept the State from realizing its full potential. What’s more, he said so. He made Texans see that they weren’t as good as they thought they were.”

Connally engineered the election of ally Ben Barnes as House speaker in 1965 by appointing the previous speaker, Byron Tunnell, who had diluted Connally’s efforts, to a vacant seat on the Texas Railroad Commission. While Connally was governor, Barnes developed the speaker’s office into a political showcase—having weekly meetings with members of the Capitol press and making the speaker a more aggressive official in setting policy. It didn’t hurt that his mentor was the sitting governor.

Barnes, like Connally, was an activist. He wanted to make things happen. As Patrick L. Cox and Michael Phillips point out in The House Will Come to Order, Barnes sought to put the speaker and the House on more equal footing with the lieutenant governor and the Senate. “We are not going to come down this trail but one time,” Barnes said he told his troops in the House. “Let’s get out there. Let’s not just sit over here and react. Let’s go act. The Senate gets all the credit for what good legislation passes. The House has always kind of been a second place to the governor and the Senate. So let’s change it. Let’s get out there and be proactive. Let’s make some changes.”

Barnes took advantage of national policy changes. While LBJ was U.S. Senate majority leader in the 1950s, and later when he was president, he used federal matching money to get states to do things he thought they should have already been doing in education, health care and other areas. State agencies were expanded to distribute the money. The Texas House weighed in on directing that money, and speakers began to realize the job no longer was just a stepping-stone to something else, but its own power center.
The speaker’s office holds particular appeal because speakers exercise statewide power, but don’t have to face a statewide electorate like the governor and lieutenant governor. He—there has yet to be a she—only has to face voters in one of the state’s 150 House districts, and then keep at least 75 of his 149 House colleagues happy (or scared) enough to re-elect him every two years.

The gold standard for recent speakers was moderate-conservative Democrat Pete Laney, who ran the House from 1993 to 2003. The House Will Come to Order shows that his management style helped extend his longevity. He allowed members to vote in the interests of their districts even if it contradicted what his party wanted. His tenure looked even more golden after a few years of his successor. Republican Tom Craddick of Midland helped engineer Republican redistricting coups that reshaped the House’s districts to unseat long-serving Democrats in the Texas and U.S. Houses, and produced the first GOP House majority since just after the Civil War.

Craddick was so autocratic that he alienated some Republican as well as Democratic members. Now we’ve returned to a more moderate presence in charge, Joe Straus, a Republican from San Antonio. Straus, evenhanded like Laney in dealing with members of the other party during his first term, began courting more conservative Republican members after the Legislature adjourned. He realized that while the Democrats were responsible for his election, they would dump him for a Democrat if they won a majority. That put him in the ironic position of needing to maintain a Republican House majority—but not too large for fear of a coup from the right—to continue as speaker. It remains to be seen whether he can walk that tightrope.

The Power of the Texas Governor does not include Rick Perry, who has become arguably the most powerful Texas governor ever, mostly as a result of his longevity. He has not only appointed every member of every state board and commission, but also reappointed many—as long as they stayed committed to his political future. He has stacked several agencies with former employees. He has appointed a considerable number of state judges to vacancies, including two-thirds of the Texas Supreme Court.
Perry has used his power to shrink the government. Facing a $10 billion budget shortfall in 2003, Perry announced he wanted the budget balanced without new taxes. With Republican majorities in the House and Senate for the first time in more than a century, few legislators wanted to vote for a tax hike they presumed would never become law. To pinch pennies, legislators deregulated college tuition (it has since skyrocketed), kicked hundreds of thousands of children off the state’s health care program, and forced state departments and agencies to cut corners. Whether those results are good or bad depends on one’s point of view, but there is no doubt that Perry has left his mark on Texas politics.

How will upcoming elections shuffle the power dynamics at the Capitol? Conventional wisdom is that Texas is such a red state that Perry is on a slick track to re-election. His political team’s theory has been that after winning the Republican primary, he’s a cinch to win the general election. If they are right, Perry will add almost 1,500 days to the almost 3,700 he will have logged by the January inauguration.

The results of the 2010 elections, and how the big three positions are affected, could have a huge impact on legislative redistricting and budget battles in the 2011 legislative session that begins in January—and could shape the state for at least the next decade.

As The House Will Come to Order and The Power of the Governor show, the powers of the speaker and the governor grow partly through longevity and allies in other power positions. If Perry and Republican legislators continue to dominate, they will increasingly be able to assert their policy agenda—a departure from the intent of the writers of the Constitution to limit the governor’s power. This election could have a huge effect on whether Texas is headed for bitter, winner-take-all partisanship or solution-oriented bipartisan cooperation.

 

 

Longtime Texas political columnist Dave McNeely, who retired from the Austin American-Statesman in 2004, writes a weekly column on Texas politics for two dozen Texas newspapers. With longtime Dallas journalist and author Jim Henderson, McNeely is the author of Bob Bullock: God Bless Texas.

Dave McNeely, former columnist for the Austin American-Statesman, writes a weekly political column for more than two dozen newspapers.