Open Forum

The Wizard of Os


Two hundred forty-seven down, seven to go. That was the achievement of David Van Os, the Democratic nominee for attorney general of Texas, as of Friday, October 6. He was speaking to voters who had assembled to meet and hear him at the 247th courthouse—out of the 254 counties of this huge state—where he has campaigned this year. He was on track to stump at the courthouses of the five biggest counties during the week of October 16, shaking hands and declaiming in Travis County, his 254th courthouse, in Austin on October 20.

Not only is the stocky, bearded Van Os the first leading Texas politician since Ralph Yarborough to take his campaign passionately to the small towns and lost little counties all over the state. He is also the first leading political figure in the state since Jim Hightower to run an all-out populist campaign. As his campaign literature says, “David has proven day-in, day-out, that he stands for the people of this great state, not its corporations.”

Consider the phenomenal commitment and personal energy Van Os is laying down every week of his campaign. In just four days in late September, for instance, he spoke at the county courthouses in Brownfield, Plains, Morton, Levelland, Littlefield, Muleshoe, Farwell, Dimmitt, Tulia, Plainview, Silverton, Memphis, Childress, Quanah, Crowell, Paducah, Matador, Floydada, Crosbyton, and Lubbock. People are startled in many of these little places to actually see and hear, again or for the first time, a walking, talking statewide Democratic candidate.

Van Os charges that the five big-city Texas dailies all but ignore him, and he predicts they will continue to do so for the rest of the election. (He concedes that the Houston Chronicle has run one so-so story on his candidacy. In early October the Austin American-Statesman followed with another one.)

Weeklies and small-city dailies, though, have welcomed his uncompromising, anti-big-corporate message, as scores of news reports attest. Win or lose, he is what the late Senator Yarborough most missed in Texas politics in his later years, candidates who run hard for what they believe in, holding forth, especially to the young, the image and reality of someone saying boldly what he actually believes needs to be said and done.

This is a journal of the historical record, among other things, so before the election occurs, let it be recorded here that in 2004 Van Os, a labor lawyer from San Antonio, won 41 percent of the Texas vote for the state Supreme Court, finishing two and a half points better than the 38 percent margin of John Kerry in Texas. Van Os is running this year on a platform that, if carried out, would not only profoundly change the state, but could also change, and more profoundly, the nation.

Van Os said one self-identified Republican rancher told him over lunch in Brady, “You know why we stopped votin’ for the Democrats, don’t you? They lost their kick-ass. We like you because you’ve got some kick-ass.” And that he does.

“The people of Texas are under attack today,” he said in August, “from a reign of greed, corruption, and arrogance at the hands of the corporate monopoly robber barons and the crooked politicians who are their water boys. The rich lawyers and the ivory tower consultants who are telling Democrats not to try to carry Texas this year are giving the robber barons and their incumbent Republican stooges exactly what they want. In effect, those lawyers and their consultants are doing nothing less than protecting the silk-stocking Republican social clique that runs Texas government as if it were a private club.”

In a deliberate affront to routinely lying politicians, Van Os is making some of his promises under oath. In every courthouse he has visited recently, he files an “Affidavit for Public Record” pledging his personal honor to certain commitments. “I am placing written oaths in the public records,” he says, because “I mean what I say. Under oath I promise that I will use every legal means available to me by that office to protect Texans and their property from the unconstitutional attack on the integrity of our land and property known as the Trans-Texas Corridor. I will enforce and uphold the Texas Constitutional promise that runaway corporate monopolies will not be allowed to devour democracy and free enterprise. I will defend the people of Texas from big oil and the insurance jackals …. The office of attorney general will belong to the people and I will be the people’s lawyer.”

You may wish to keep in mind, my fellow Texans, that this is the official nominee of the Texas Democratic Party for the highest law-enforcement position in the state. He has been endorsed by both Jim Hightower and the Texas AFL-CIO.

Calling attention to Exxon Mobil Corp.’s inconceivable net profit of $10.7 billion in the first quarter of this year, Van Os says: “In Texas we have always stood against monopoly power. Our Texas Constitution declares … that monopolies are contrary to the genius of free government and shall never be allowed. We were the second political jurisdiction in the world to enact an antitrust statute—in the 1880s, a decade before the U.S. Congress passed federal antitrust legislation. That first Texas antitrust law was drafted by then-Attorney General James Stephen Hogg, one of the great people’s lawyers to occupy the office.”

In Lufkin last June, Van Os said, “I’ve got a message to big oil companies. You’d better spend every penny of your billions to help defeat me because when I get sworn in January, I’m coming after you.” Monopolies don’t create jobs, he said, they downsize. “For example,” he said, “over 9,000 jobs were lost when Exxon and Mobil merged… Already at least two state attorneys general, in Connecticut and California, are initiating challenges to the big oil companies under their states’ antitrust and consumer protection laws… One of my first actions after being sworn in… will be to initiate antitrust investigations of the big oil barons.”

Van Os has a strategy for victory. Whether he’ll win or not, he thinks he has it figured: The Democratic parties in the five major cities regularly win about 47 to 48 percent of the vote for statewide candidates, so to carry the state, he calculates, he needs to swing over to voting for him one in 12 who voted Republican last election. That is why he has spent almost all his time in the boondocks.

The San Antonian, who is of Dutch extraction, regards the Democrats’ down-ticket candidates this year as the most populist in decades—he specifies Maria Luisa Alvarado, running for lieutenant governor, Hank Gilbert, for agriculture commissioner, and Fred Head, for comptroller. The official state Democratic Party embodied in the State Democratic Executive Committee has attracted Van Os’ special wrath. “On Saturday, August 26, at the Radisson Hotel in Austin,” he charged, “members of the SDEC attended a private luncheon to which Democratic candidates were not invited. At this luncheon, the members of the SDEC learned that a small group of moneyed lawyers and their consultants are now providing the funding for the Texas Democratic Party’s operations and will do so for the next four years.” Van Os is convinced that the state party is ignoring him and the other populist candidates because their winning would upset the aspirations of all the tippie-toe Democrats, such as ex-Rep. Martin Frost of Dallas, who are scheming to win office in the state After Bush (A.B.).

And what of the United States? We Texans are, after all, a part of it. Democrats hope to win a majority of the U.S. House and have a fair chance to take back the Senate, too. There are only two ways the Bush administration can be properly investigated, while still in office, for its many crimes, especially for its war of aggression in Iraq that has killed 2,700 Americans and wounded more than 20,000 of our people, at a cost to the taxpayers of almost $2 billion a month, while also killing or wounding some hundreds of thousands of Iraqis. If the House goes Democratic, impeachment charges can be initiated against President Bush by Congressman John Conyers Jr. from Michigan, who will then be chairman of the Judiciary Committee, which has charge of impeachments. But if the Republicans keep control of the entire Congress, the only chances left to hold this administration accountable while still in office abide right here in Texas.

In February Van Os said, “The argument that George Bush’s puppet Alberto Gonzales uses to defend illegal wiretapping … boils down to the outrageous assertion that neither the Congress nor the courts have any authority to place limits on whatever the president decides the Constitution means or an act of Congress means … As far as they are concerned, there are no checks and balances, and they are the law. This is a trait of dictatorship, not democracy.

“The Constitution and the Bill of Rights belong to Texans just as much as to other Americans,” Van Os continued. “Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott took an oath to uphold the Constitution when he accepted the office. Where is his voice in this crisis? Why has he not spoken up on behalf of the constitutional rights of his clients, the people of Texas?”

Van Os, the Democratic nominee for the highest law-enforcement office in the state, promised this on February 8:

“As your new attorney general, I will file the lawsuits against the federal government and federal officials, including the president and attorney general, which individual Texans do not have the means to file on their own, to stop this headlong rush to trash our Constitution.”

Knowing Van Os personally as I do, in my opinion, if the Democrats do not win the U.S. House but Van Os is elected, George W. Bush will be called to account, to a serious extent, in his home state, for the high crimes and misdemeanors, including his war of aggression in violation of the United Nations Charter, which he has committed as President.

How much of any of this, I wonder, have our readers in the big cities learned from their newspapers and television and radio stations? Damn little, if any. Well, you have learned it here.

Ronnie Dugger, founding editor and then publisher of The Texas Observer, is the author of several books, including biographies of Lyndon Johnson and Ronald Reagan. He now lives and works in the Boston area. His e-mail is [email protected].