Page 26


2010 PRIMARIES r WHEN THE DEMOCRATS ROAMED… A look back at the 1972 Democratic primary that changed the future of Texas politics. by Robert Greer The primary battle between Gov. Rick Perry, Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison and Debra Medina has exposed deep rifts in the Republican Party. The gritty battle between the state’s ruling elite is reminiscent of one of the most memorable primary battles in Texas historythe 1972 Democratic gubernatorial primary. The primary came on the heels of one of the greatest political scandals in Texas history. During a special legislative session in 1969, House Speaker Gus Mutscher, aided by Representative Tommy Shannon, pushed through passage of new state bank deposit insurance legislation that was designed to aid a Houston businessman named Frank Sharp. The next year, the United States Securities and Exchange Commission filed a suit against Sharp that revealed that many of the state’s top leaders, including Mustscher, Shannon and Gov. Preston Smith, were involved in a highly questionable business relationship with Sharp. Here’s how it worked: The leaders took out loans from Sharp’s bank, bought stocks in his company and then sold them for a profit once the bill passed through the legislature. \(Gov. Smith eventually vetoed the legislation, on the advice of the state’s bank experts, but not until after he had made session, a group of legislators calling themselves the Dirty Thirty pushed for Mutscher to resign and for the legislature to do its own investigation of the SEC allegations. They lost those battles, but managed to make Sharpstown the number one political issue in the state. Three months before the 1972 primaries, Mutscher, Shannon and Mutscher aide Rush McGinty were convicted of conspiracy to accept bribes. The scandal tarnished almost everyone in power, including Lt. Gov. Ben Barnes, who only had tangential connections to Sharp. Barnes was then a young, aggressive and articulate candidate with national potentialmany expected him to be president someday. Barnes blames President Richard Nixon’s administration for targeting Texas Democrats, and especially Barnes himself. He says Nixon tapes show the president telling Attorney General John Mitchell that “if you can’t get Barnes involved in the Sharp deal, get him involved with something. That’s who I want.” If Nixon aimed to tarnish the Texas Democratic establishment, he succeeded. Ben Barnes would run third in the primary, thus losing his bid for Governor and never again run for public office. Gov . Smith ran fourth in the primary, and Speaker Mutscher was replaced by an interim Speaker.More than half of the next Texas House would be new representatives. Ethics and reform legislation became a major campaign theme of the reformers, and was enacted the following session. The Texas Democratic Party took a step to the left, and politics in the Lone Star State would never be the same. Here’s the story of the 1972 Gubernatorial Primary told through people at the center of it: FRANCES “SISSY” FARENTHOLD: Farenthhold was a member of the Dirty Thirty, a progressive candidate who overcame long odds to become a serious candidate. She made it into the runoff against the more conservative Briscoe, who defeated her and was eventually elected governor. BEN BARNES: Then-Lt. Gov . Ben Barnes had the backing of the Democratic establishment and a promising career ahead of him. But he presided over the Senate when it passed the Sharp bills and that was enough to tarnish him and effectively end his political career. MARK WHITE: Mark White would eventually become governor, in 1982. But in 1972 he was an advisor to Dolph Briscoe’s campaign. Gus Mutscher, Preston Smith, Lyndon Johnson, and Ben Barnes, at “Gus Mutscher Day” in Brenham, Texas. PHOTO COURTESY THE TEXAS STATE LIBRARY AND ARCHIVES COMMISSION HEAR THE INTERVIEWS with Barnes, White and Farenthold at READ ABOUT THE CHANGE that diversified the Texas House in 1972 at tx1o.corn/newreps LEARN MORE ABOUT the Sharpstown scandal at FEBRUARY 19, 2010 THE TEXAS OBSERVER 17