Texas’ Steady Hand: Dolph Briscoe, 1923-2010
Former Gov. Dolph Briscoe, who died on Sunday at 87, was first and foremost a decent and honorable man, qualities that seem in short supply these days. He was elected during a tumultuous time in Texas politics and restored calm, order and decency to the highest echelons of the state government. Briscoe was also the largest individual landowner in the state of Texas, and a reliable supporter of Democratic candidates through the years.
Briscoe came from a world removed from the urban Texas of today. His home place in Uvalde, Texas, deep in the South Texas brush country, was also that of Cactus Jack Garner, F.D.R.’s first vice president, who famously said that the vice-presidency wasn’t worth a cup of warm piss. Briscoe’s early political career was as a member of the Texas Legislature during the 1950s. There he was known as a champion of improved farm-to-market roads, a staple for rural Texas. Briscoe left politics and returned to ranch life. He became a leader of the Texas Cattlemen’s Association, and became most noted for spearheading the successful fight to eradicate the screwworm from Texas cattle herds—another issue that did not exactly electrify city-dwellers.
Briscoe successfully returned to politics in 1972, a most significant year in Texas politics. Like most Texas liberals I always supported Briscoe’s Democratic primary opponents, Sissy Farenthold in 1972 and 1974 and John Hill in 1978. However, 1972 was the showdown year. It was the “student vote year,” the McGovern year, and the Farenthold year. It was also the year of modest reform in the Texas Legislature. The Sharpstown scandal had brought down House Speaker Gus Mutscher, and its spillover had damaged Lt. Gov. Ben Barnes, who had been considered the odds-on favorite for governor.
The gubernatorial primary was a barnburner. Farenthold was perceived as the liberal champion and Briscoe as the promise of a return to normalcy. Barnes was squeezed out between the two in the primary, and Briscoe went on to defeat Farenthold in a spirited runoff.
The general election that year had its own overtones. Ramsey Muniz drew 6 percent of the vote as the La Raza Unida candidate, and a slightly goofy Republican by the name of Hank Grover nearly defeated Briscoe.
Briscoe went on to serve six years as Governor with no taint of scandal and damn little excitement. The phrase “steady hand” seemed invented for him. What I remember most gratefully from his tenure may seem somewhat strange today. The Texas drug laws of that era were draconian. Possession of an insignificant amount of marijuana could result in lengthy prison time. The Legislature in 1973 amended the Penal Code, reducing to a misdemeanor possession of small amounts of grass. Briscoe ended up commuting the sentences of many of those who had been convicted of felonies for such trivial offenses. One of the beneficiaries of his humanity was a onetime client of mine, Stoney Burns. Stoney had angered the Dallas establishment as the publisher of an underground newspaper. He was caught with a joint, probably framed, and given 10 years in prison by a Dallas jury. Briscoe’s actions spared him.
Sometime during Briscoe’s governorship, a group of us took off to Big Bend to do some river running. Outbound, we camped at Garner State Park just north of Uvalde. The next morning we decided to breakfast at the Kincade Hotel in downtown Uvalde. Prominently displayed at the dining-room entrance were the badges of the local Kiwanians to be worn at their weekly luncheon. Among the badges was that of Gov. Briscoe, a decent man who embodied small-town Texas.
Dave Richards is a civil rights attorney and contributing writer for The Observer.