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Trailing the Campaigners With Mark White By Nina Butts on the road in Central Texas Mark White wishes that a lot of things were the way they used to be. He talks wistfully of the time when houses were prettier, interest rates lower, neighbors friendlier, and schoolchildren better disciplined. Recently he told a gathering of barbecue eaters in La Grange: “I’d like to see us get back to the notion that used to be there when I was a kid that when you got a spanking at school you got one at home, too.” The listeners beamed. I spent a day in early April travelling with White to six Central Texas towns. He made extemporaneous talks about crime, high taxes, high utility bills, and troubled schools, and I watched his small audiences nod with approval. His message was basic and appealing, his delivery skillful. The polls show White ahead in the Democratic governor race, and he is confident. White is a tall man. His hair is salt and pepper colors, his eyes are pale bluegrey, and his face is wider than it was when he became attorney general three years ago. The day I was with him, he wore a dark blue suit with a tiny Texas flag on the lapel. He drove his own dark blue Buick with one “Mark White for Governor” bumper sticker on its back window. Next to him in the front seat was a very young, well-scrubbed, and rather nervous campaign aide; I sat in the back with another reporter. White kept only one hand on the steering wheel and talked easily, turning often to look at us in the back seat. The inside of the car was cool and velvety. Outside wildflowers were blooming and the spring grass shone in the sun. Lockhart was the first stop. The Lockhart State Bank has a revolving plastic sign out front and orange carpet inside. About 30 people came to meet White in the bank’s community room. He shook hands and used first names: “How you doing, Ada? . . . Hi, Big Ben, glad to see you again . . . You with the school system, Ken?” White’s voice is deep and easy. The people wore knit polyester; a few were in uniforms of the police and fire departments. The women had hairdos and the men had cowboy boots. The room was warm with small-town talk. There were a guest book to sign and a table of donuts, coffee, and orange juice. “I need your help,” White said to a young black minister who was looking in another direction. “Listen to him, Sylvester, he’s talking to you,” a white Lockhart man insisted. When White began to make a little speech, the people sat on black plastic chairs or leaned against the wall. “I’m just delighted to have you come out on this fine Monday morning. I know there’s a lot of other things you can do on Monday morning besides talk about politics.” He stood comfortably in the center of the room with no podium or microphone, no notes. He talked about schools. “Teachers need sufficient salaries, and we need to attract new teachers to the profession . . . There is a breakdown in dicipline. So long as you can keep family unity and communities together you can help that. We need a discipline code by law, to train children to understand that they have to obey the rules and that there is some punishment for breaking the rules.” He related education to crime, saying that young people can learn the importance of obeying the law by learning the importance of obeying school rules. Most of the listeners looked at White; a few eyed their shoes or the floor. His eyes moved around to each person in the room, and he wove allusions to Lockhart into his talk. “A lot of these people are working real hard in Houston now and they’re just doing that so they can move to Lockhart. I don’t blame them.” He did not talk about what he has done as attorney general. He closed: “I want to invite each of you up to the capitol in January. They’ve put a big lock on the front gate of the governor’s mansion. After the election we’ll go over there together and cut that lock off and open that front gate up to the people.” Afterwards the black minister, 29year-old Sylvester Chase, told me that White’s talk lacked substance. “He wants to reduce crime with better discipline in schools,” Chase said. “What about unemployment and the influx of people to Texas? People will steal or sell drugs to get what they need. Nobody’s gonna go hungry.” We left Lockhart and headed for San Marcos. “I really believe what I said in there about the business of discipline in the schools,” White said as he drove. “A lot of teachers are paralyzed by fear that anything they do will bring litigation or that the administration will get mad at them. We’ve got to remove that fear and bring discipline back into the schools . . . I support corporal punishment and think it’s a good idea.” He talked about his campaign budget: “We’re funded to the point where you know they’re cutting back on the amount of television they’ll sell you we’ve bought everything we can.” We drove into San Marcos. “There’s a great little school in this city,” White remarked. We turned down a shady street and stopped before a two-story house bearing an historical marker. The lawn was carefully cut and edged. A woman in high-heeled red sandals, blue gaucho pants, and a frilly blouse came out to greet White: “Hi, General!” The inside of the house was straight out of the pages of Architectural Digest. There were polished wood floors, expensive antiques, lilies in a huge glass vase on the grand piano. The men wore gray or blue suits, and the women wore what my mother calls “good dresses.” The only black people were in the kitchen in white uniforms. “Have some coffee and strawberries,” the host said. The guests talked in loud, excited tones: “Now I can put Exxon in my car and it won’t ping, but I can put Texas super-unleaded in it and it doesn’t run so well.” “Isn’t that cute?” “Oh, that is cute.” Edward Longcope, the host, called everyone into the sun porch \(decorated and announced, “Mark wants to make a comment.” White focused on the economy: “The government makes a difference in how business prospers and how people prosper. . . . Businesses aren’t relocating into Texas because they can’t afford the utility bills.” The men watched White, the women looked at the floor. After the talk a woman asked White about teacher retirement pay. “My mother was 32 years teaching,” he told her. “She said she couldn’t retire because she couldn’t afford to. I support teacher retirement.” The woman thanked him and then spotted me with my pen and pad. She huried over. “Did you get what he said about teacher retirement? He’s gonna support it. I pinned him down on that.” Smiling guests were leaving carrying Mark White yard signs and bumper stickers. THE TEXAS OBSERVER 5