Until quite recently, local government an adjunct to small cliques of bankers, lawyers, builders, and oilmen who guided policy, informally but firmly. Public Policy in Texas, the standard text used by political science students at Houston Community College, includes a section on the “Suite 8F Crowd,” a group that met over whisky and cards in a downtown hotel to run the city’s postwar affairs. Much of the city has been built in the years since those men reigned, but their memory abides in the reverent naming of streets, office buildings, and the new opera house. The same textbook bluntly characterizes Houston as “the City of Business Oligarchy.” The Suite 8F Crowd is now the stuff of history and legend, but its imperatives survive in the city’s chambers of commerce, business associations, and the Petroleum Club. As an oilman and former director \(along with Secretary of State James Baker Mosbacher was a leading figure in those potent councils. And although the Mosbacher Energy Corporation’s oil ventures have spanned the globe from the Middle East to the Philippines, it also has interests much closer to home. Exploring for oil means acquiring land, or at least mineral rights, and local real estate has long been a natural sideline for Houston’s oilmen. In the tradition of ‘the company town, the region’s largest development firm is a subsidiary of Exxon Corporation. Like so many of his competitors in oil, Mosbacher, too, wagered on the continuing growth of Houston by investing in land. The problem with this strategy, of course, is that when the oil industry enters a cyclical decline, so does the price of local real estate. As long ago as 1970, Mosbacher speculated that the city would expand far beyond what was then its western limit when he purchased, for less than five million dollars, half of a property called Cinco Ranch. The other half was owned by Josephine Abercrombie, widow of an oilman. Barring the discovery of oil beneath its flat, flood-prone surface, Cinco Ranch even at only a few hundred dollars per acre didn’t seem like much of a bargain. But the new owners had big plans. With Abercrombie as his partner, Mosbacher looked forward to construction of a massive new residential and commercial development on Cinco’s scrubby, barren 5400 acres. Like boosters everywhere, the land barons of Houston tended to believe their own propaganda about the rapid future growth of their region, and such predictions must have encouraged the Cinco Ranch partners. But they faced at least one overwhelming problem shared by other developers in the area: There was, as the saying goes, no way to get there from here. Served by a few farm-to-market roads built during the Depression, the sprawling Cinco Ranch lacked adequate highway access to the center of Houston, some 30 miles away. There were two freeways that ran to the north and south of the ranch, but they were too far from the city for convenient commuting. The only road that could make Cinco’s transformation feasible was still just a dotted line etched on a map: a proposed highway called the Grand Parkway. In 1978, while Mosbacher and Abercrombie pondered the future shape of Cinco Ranch, the Texas highway . department suddenly erased the Grand Parkway from its project list; in planning talk, it was “demapped.” The officials in charge realized then that the parkway wouldn’t be necessary for decades to come, if ever. As Houston’s growth slowed during the recession of the late ’70s and early ’80s, the Cinco partners were forced to sit on their investment. BY 1984, when Virgil Knox began to pay close attention to the wheeling and dealing behind Houston’s political economy, the city’s outlying precincts were again sweltering in a fever of land speculation. Recession seemed like a distant, bad dream as developers laid out ambitious plans for bulldozing cow pastures and rice fields into housing tracts, shopping malls, and office parks. Thousands of commuters would stream between the countryside and the central business district in thousands of automobiles. To keep building the new Houston and turn the developers’ drawings into dollars there would have to be new roads. This need was understood by the officials of Harris County, which encompasses not only Houston proper but hundreds of rural and suburban square miles around it. Their first proposal was the special road assessment tax that Knox and his neighbors simply could not afford. Soon after Knox started asking questions about the new road tax, he discovered that at least one important county figure was cutting himself in on the land speculation. The official in question who happened to own land along the first new road to be built by Harris County was County Commissioner Robert Y. Eckels, also known as “Big Bob.” Eckels was no smalltime rural politician, but, rather, one of the most powerful Republicans in the state. His unstinting efforts to weld GOP county officials around the nation into an electoral machine had earned him the personal friendship \(and private office George Bush. “We didn’t set out to get Eckels,” says Knox, explaining that, in the beginning, he and his friends had merely hoped to repeal the road assessment tax through such mundane means as citizen organizing and legislative lobbying. To that end they incorporated themselves as Individual Landowners and Homeowners, a nonprofit public interest group. But it soon became clear that the imperious Bob Eckels, who tolerated no opposition in his county, would have to go first. To get at the truth about Eckels and his dealings, the group hired a private detective. As his watchdog outfit grew larger and more aggressive, Knox admits that he “became addicted to it.” Consumed with research and meetings, he gave up his insurance business and took a night job with the Postal Service. And as the Eckels case proceeded, Knox spent hours assisting the hired investigator, fascinated with unraveling the mysteries of public corruption. In January 1986, Eckels was finally indicted not once but four times for looting the county treasury, and was subsequently removed from office. A few months later, the road assessment tax was repealed. But in winning these victories, Virgil Knox had gotten his glimpse of Houston’s political underside and, as one friend explains, “he was shocked.” Finding out that the system worked for people with money and influence, while the little folks paid, outraged him. Long before the denouement of the Eckels affair, Knox decided to keep an eye on the government. A new road-building scheme soon emerged. After Bob Eckels, the politician Knox watched most carefully was a young Republican from Houston named Ed Emmett, who had introduced the road assessrritnt law and fought to uphold it in the state legislature. Emmett held an influential position on the House Transportation Committee, and in June 1984 Knox noticed that he was promoting a new idea for financing state highways. Called the Texas Transportation Corporation Act, it was more colorfully described by the media as the “build-your-own-road bill,” a designation that evoked the frontier myth of the Lone Star state. In simple terms, the bill gave local landowners the power to control highway development throughout Texas. The landowners would be empowered to form a “transportation corporation” subject to approval by the state. This outfit would then solicit donations of land for the roads’ rightof-way and private funds for engineering and planning. All the state highway department would have to do is approve the corporation’s plans and pay for the actual road construction. The bill was a prime example of “privatization,” the conservative program ferventlyendorsed by George Bush of turning government functions over to private interests, on the assumption that the private sector can provide any product or service more efficiently, and less corruptly, than the state. In the case of Ed Emmett’s 12 APRIL 28, 1989
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The Texas Rangers are tasked with investigating corruption and crimes by public officials. Those officials are rarely held accountable.