Courtesy Frances Tarlton Farenthold Papers, The Dolph Briscoe Center for American History, The University of Texas at Austin

Reformer Sissy Farenthold Is Still Watching

The former state representative led a revolt against corruption in 1972—and is calling for action now.

by

Frances “Sissy” Farenthold sits at a table in a stately Houston dining room adorned with a pair of carved crosses atop an ornate altar. Wearing an elegant white shirt and with impeccably coiffed hair, she eats like a bird, tucking pieces of cornbread into her mouth. The window before her offers a stunning view of Houston’s leafy West Kirby district. A Corpus Christi native, Farenthold hired a South Texas artist to redesign the home to honor her respect for history and her commitment to challenging it. From this isolated aerie, the 94-year-old has a keen eye for political scandals and corruption, both past and present. She trains her sharp gaze on Texas politics with the agility of a hawk. 

A legendary former state legislator, Farenthold earned her place in Texas history as a fearless reformer—a “melancholy rebel,” in the words of Molly Ivins; “Texas’ Joan of Arc,” in the words of a University of North Texas graduate student. 

Farenthold is elated that there’s finally a woman in the White House serving as vice president, nearly five decades after the native Texan narrowly lost her own bid to become the Democratic Party’s VP in 1972 under nominee George McGovern, back when VPs were elected at the convention. (She finished second in the field of nominees; all others were men.) “Judging from what my experience had been, I felt it was going to be much longer in coming—a change would come much later,” she says.

Farenthold was a born rebel. A 1946 graduate of Vassar College, she once showed up for a Corpus Christi society gala in bare feet, earning the nickname the “Barefoot Debutante.” As an attorney with Nueces County Legal Aid, she attended protests and filed lawsuits mostly on behalf of Hispanic Texans and women who’d been discriminated against. Farenthold ran for the Legislature to bolster Texans’ civil rights and improve schools. But her welcome was not warm. At a legislative forum in Fort Worth, she was directed to sit with beauty pageant contestants rather than with candidates. Even as an elected representative, Capitol police repeatedly questioned her credentials to use the legislators’ parking lot. 

Imagine the rose-tinted Texas Capitol as Sissy Farenthold found it in 1968 as a newly elected state representative from Corpus Christi. At the time, the mother of five was the only female House member and an idealistic political rookie. 

In her first session in 1969, she confronted one prominent state leader accused of using his office for personal gain and misleading legislators about gold discovered in a shipwreck. Jerry Sadler, commissioner of the General Land Office, testified that gold doubloons recovered from a Spanish wreck in Texas waters had mysteriously been shipped out of state. Farenthold was sitting beside a prosecutor who whispered: “He’s lying.”

Farenthold championed a resolution that condemned Sadler’s misbehavior, and Sadler later lost his seat—one of the few times the Legislature has publicly sanctioned any statewide officeholder. She also helped pass legislation clarifying the state’s rights over shipwrecked treasure.

By her second session, a scandal erupted involving Houston financier Frank Sharp, a swindler who was friendly with state leaders. Sharp and state leaders made a tidy profit in a bank fraud scheme Sharp concocted. As buzz over the Sharpstown scandal grew, sharp-eyed Farenthold noticed that House Speaker Gus Mutscher Jr., who was implicated in the scheme, kept pushing bills to benefit Sharp.

Farenthold strategized with staff about how to confront Mutscher and his allies. She met with a handful of progressive legislators to alert them that a young law student had found a way to press for an investigation. Soon, the petite, well-dressed woman stood on the House floor and demanded that Mutscher leave the floor as she introduced a resolution that called for a formal investigation of the speaker and others tied to the Sharpstown scandal. Mutscher stared her down, saying, “Sit down, Mrs. Farenthold.” But Farenthold stood firm. Years later, she remembered the feeling of being surrounded by angry legislators. “The word that comes to me is ‘loneliness.’ I felt very alone,” she says.

She forced an attention-getting floor vote that called for a formal investigation of the speaker and others tied to the Sharpstown scandal. The resolution won 30 votes, short of a majority but enough to get statewide media attention. From a balcony filled with spectators, a lobbyist shouted out that her supporters were “30 dirty bastards.”

Texas history buffs view this moment as historic. Mutscher lost power and was convicted of conspiring to accept a bribe. Others were convicted or forced out of office. Farenthold kept on working with other reformers, who borrowed the lobbyist’s insult as a badge of honor. “We later dropped the bastards part,” she recalls with a wry smile. “But we kept the Dirty Thirty.”

Though Farenthold’s own legislative career was short, the actions of the Dirty Thirty enabled historic reforms in the next session, including the founding of the Texas Ethics Commission; the passage of the Texas Public Information Act, the Texas Deceptive Trade Practices Act, and the Texas Open Meetings Act; and the establishment of other cornerstone transparency measures. “Those were halcyon days because we knew we had one legislative session to do what we were going to do and that was going to be it,” recalls Joe Longley, who wrote some of this legislation after he was named assistant attorney general in 1973. 

While Farenthold’s efforts could be seen as a model for today’s ethics-minded lawmakers, they don’t appear to be following her example, despite a recent wave of scandals that Farenthold finds similar to those of the 1970s. Attorney General Ken Paxton is under indictment on securities fraud charges and has faced criminal charges for the entirety of his five-year tenure. Meanwhile, Governor Greg Abbott is being questioned about why appointees he picked to oversee the Texas electric grid badly bungled the state’s response to a severe winter storm, resulting in 4.5 million people losing power and the deaths of more than 150. “These people were all hand-picked by the governor. And thousands of people who were put in uncomfortable conditions, to put it mildly,” Farenthold says. 

In the most recent legislative session this year, legislators posed questions during hearings. But they should be pushing to formally sanction one or both of those leaders and launching formal investigations, Farenthold says. She and others who have studied her legacy wonder why they aren’t. “We’ve been thinking about that,” says Thomas Cohen, a history professor who’s writing a biography of Farenthold. “Sissy was willing to take risks that people today are not taking. She was willing to say things that people didn’t want to hear.”

From her dining room in Houston, Farenthold is watching. “It’s a different set of facts, but for me, it’s the same. It’s an abuse of our system,” she says.