Democratic Convention: Bill White Delivers (Oooh-La-La!)


Update: The “zippy ad-lib” that I credit Bill White for in this post—the one about Rick Perry and Sam Houston—turns out to have a mortal flaw: It’s wrong. As the Dallas Morning News’ fact-checking “Heat Index” has reported, Houston was only governor for a fraction of Perry’s term (so far).

It’s fair to say that Bill White gave the speech of his life in accepting the Democratic nomination in Corpus Christi on Friday night. Now, ye cynics might say that’s not the highest standard in the annals of political rhetoric—and you’d be right. But, hand to God, it was a fine piece of oratory—and one that suited the moment to a T, drawing a razor-sharp contrast between White and incumbent Gov. Rick Perry. And while it was not delivered with preacherly fury or Obamaesque eloquence, it was the right kind of speech for White to inhabit comfortably: a little funny, a little sarcastic, a little uplifting, and appropriately plainspoken.

Forty-five minutes ahead of schedule, White grinned his way onto the stage to the Rolling Stones’ “Start Me Up” and soaked in cheers from delegates who’d been encouraged, rock-concert style, to surround the stage, sway and whoop and wave their Bill White signs. It was history’s most unlikely Mick Jagger moment, but White—far more comfortable at the podium than he’s looked and sounded in the past—seemed to soak it up before launching into a speech that hit pretty much every note the Democratic candidate needs to hit between now and November.

Of course, nothing could make wonky White feel more at ease than walking into a convention that’s running ahead of schedule. “You know that Democrats are ready when our convention runs 45 minutes early,” White quipped as he began—one of his frequent variations from the written text that you can read below in full.

If there were any doubt that White was feeling right at home with his message, it would have been dispelled the moment he delivered one of his indictments of Perry—“We learn that Perry charges taxpayers for a $10,000 a month rented mansion, larger than anything used by prior governors, with chefs and a subscription to Food & Wine magazine.”—and then added, with a sly grin, “Oooh-la-la!”

I don’t know about you, but I never thought of Bill White as an “Oooh-la-la” sort of fellow.

White pledged to live a different lifestyle as governor—referring to “the double-wide trailer Andrea and I will live in while the mansion is rebuilt.” His central message was captured at the end of a catalog of Rick Perry’s excesses and failings: “Though Rick Perry is in it for Rick Perry, I will always be in it for Texas.” It wasn’t poetry, but like White tonight, it got the message across.

Perhaps the best Perry zinger: “Now it appears that he spots another opening—national leader of the far right wing. He’s auditioning for that role now. The opening was created when Ms. Palin cashed in. Are we surprised? No: Rick Perry is in it for himself.”

The speech was long on Rick Perry and short on policy specifics. White laid out a “five-point plan for education” that was really no more than a basic set of goals. But he did veer from his prepared text to make what came close to a concrete promise: “All our children ought to be eligible for pre-K programs that work.”

Summing up his case, White offered a series of contrasts that brought the audience back to life, leading with a direct challenge to Perry’s claim to embody “Texas values”:  “Rick Perry will claim he represents Texas values. But Perry’s Texas is different than our Texas.”

After hitting Perry on insurance and utility rates and the Board of Education’s ideological bent, White made his only bobble of the speech, stepping on one of his guaranteed applause lines: “In Rick Perry’s Texas the governor threatens to secede from the greatest country in the union.” (Say what?) But then he inserted a zippy ad-lib into the prepared text: “Rick Perry has been governor longer than any governor of Texas but Sam Houston. Sam Houston and Rick Perry are both going to be defeated on the same issue: seccession. The difference is that Sam Houston was against it, and Rick Perry is for it.”

White’s challenge at this convention was to give the Democratic activists who made the trip to Corpus reasons to believe that he could actually pull this thing off. And there was only one way: to make it more about Rick Perry than about Bill White. White had to show he could hit Perry hard, and relish doing it.

He did just that. Asking the assembled Dems to spread the word, he closed by framing the election again as a referendum on Perry: “Tell them that we face a simple choice in this next election. It’s not about Washington, it’s about putting Texas first. But it’s about something even more basic than that: It’s about the fact that Rick Perry is in it for himself.”

It was the end of a first convention day that couldn’t have been more different from the quarrelsome chaos of the Republican Convention in Dallas earlier this month. As the delegates left the hall, nearly an hour early for a night of partying down in Sin City, the ahead-of-schedule, friction-free Day One had many of them marveling. Did Bill White really just give a witty, damn-near-rousing speech? Can this actually be the Texas Democratic Party?

Ah, but there’s always tomorrow.

And for the sickest of political junkies out there, here’s the official text of White’s speech in full:

Below, White’s prepared remarks:

Democratic Convention Speech
Corpus Christi, Texas
June 25, 2010

We come from the endless horizons of the high plains to the shaded forests of East Texas, from the bustling morning traffic of our great cities to the calm sunsets along our coasts. Texas is home to proud people. We come from all backgrounds, but we share so much:

We all believe that Texans need more jobs with real futures.

We all understand that Texans work hard to create a better life for our children.

And we all know that Texans are ready for a new governor!

We gather in Corpus today because we share common values:
We believe in freedom and diversity, but we understand that real leadership unites us.
We take pride in our state’s heritage, but we understand that we have come a long way in breaking down barriers and our greatest days can be ahead of us.
I am honored by your support, and especially by the love and fighting spirit of my family. I am inspired by the friendship of so many present today.

We gather with a sense of excitement, preparing for this great test of Texas’ future.

In Rick Perry’s Texas it is “every man for himself.” You see, Rick Perry and his friends put special interests above the public interest.

And in promotion of self-interest, it is fair to say Rick Perry leads by example.

So we find that Perry this year has drawn a full state salary but scheduled only seven hours per week for state work. How can you explain this to state teachers, troopers and so many others are asked to do more with less? Simple: part-time Perry is in it for himself.

We learn that Perry charges taxpayers for a $10,000 a month rented mansion, larger than anything used by prior governors, with chefs and a subscription to Food & Wine magazine. How can you explain this to taxpayers when our state faces an $18 billion budget crisis because it is living beyond its means? Simple: part-time Perry is in it for himself.

We know that Rick Perry accepted more federal stimulus dollars than any Governor except those in California and New York. In fact, federal dollars have been the fastest growing source of state funding since he has been governor. Yet now we hear that he is writing a book on state’s rights, called “Fed Up.” How does he have time to write a book when he hasn’t even written a state budget that adds up? Simple: part-time Perry is in it for himself.

Many may remember that Rick Perry was the statewide chairman for Al Gore’s first presidential race, then immediately switched parties when he saw an opening to move up. Now it appears that he spots another opening—national leader of the far right wing. The opening was created when Ms. Palin cashed in. Are we surprised? No: Part time Perry is in it for himself.

Look, I may not have all the practice and polish of a career politician. Perry’s been on the public payroll so long that his state pension is higher than the salaries of most Texans. But I can assure you of one thing: Though Rick Perry is in it for Rick Perry, I will always be in it for Texas.

I learned the value of service from my parents, life-long educators. My dad held down two jobs for most of the time I was growing up. My brother and I learned hard work, faith, and the value of education. En San Antonio creemos que todos merecen respecto. We were taught that life is about what you give, not what you take; it’s about preparing for the future– leaving our community, our state, our nation, better than we found it.

I used this background to build great businesses, to create jobs, to balance budgets and meet payrolls.

These values and skills served me well as mayor of our largest city. We cut crime rates, expanded parks and health clinics, cleaned the air, brought dropouts back to school, and improved services for veterans. We did so while building surpluses and cutting property tax rates for five straight years.

Because I’m in it for Texas we’ll do the hard work Rick Perry has never done: we’ll prepare Texas for a better future. That means moving forward—not standing still—on education and job training.

First, we will expand pre-K programs that work.

Second, we will work with school districts, community colleges, and employers to improve career and technical education.

Third, we will cut drop out rates, by treating it as an emergency when students do not return to school.

Fourth, we will let educators teach writing, reasoning, and problem-solving skills rather than teaching how to make a minimum score on an annual high-stakes multiple choice test.

Fifth, we will make college education more affordable for more Texans.

Moving forward in education and job training will produce a better long run economy, more jobs. After all, people with more skills earn more, spend more, invest more, and that helps the whole economy.

Of course this campaign won’t be easy. They will try to scare rather than to inspire. And Rick Perry is a career professional, who will say anything to hold on to power.

Perry will take credit for all that has always been good in Texas, though that attitude alone is proof he has been in office too long.

He will make false attacks, including attacks on our state’s largest city. No wonder his handlers don’t want him to debate.

Rick Perry will claim he represents Texas values. But Perry’s Texas is different than our Texas.

In Rick Perry’s Texas insurance and utility rates rise faster than in other states. In our Texas wages will go up faster because we invest in people.

In Rick Perry’s Texas we import nurses and welders and other skilled workers from abroad. In our Texas we will train more Texans to do those jobs.

In Rick Perry’s Texas the State Board of Education injects political ideology into classrooms. In our Texas we’ll put more computers in our classrooms.

In Rick Perry’s Texas state boards and agencies are pressured from the top to serve those who help the Governor’s re-election. In our Texas government will be the servant, not the master, and our customers will be ordinary Texans.

In Rick Perry’s Texas the governor threatens to leave the world’s greatest country. He is content allow our state to compete with Mississippi for lack of social progress. In our Texas other states will follow Texas because we will be the leader.

In Rick Perry’s Texas citizens are stuck in traffic in big cities because the Texas Department of Transportation was doing the bidding of a foreign company promoting the land grab known as the Trans-Texas Corridor. In our Texas we will work across party lines for a new mobility plan, assisting commuters to get from home to work and all communities to get their goods to market.

In Rick Perry’s Texas the best days may be behind us. In our Texas our best days are ahead of us.

Let us go from this convention, staffing phone banks, knocking on doors, and sending emails. Lift up all who share our values, from the courthouse to the statehouse to the double-wide trailer Andrea and I will live in while the Mansion is rebuilt. Describe to friends and neighbors, from both parties, the simple choice we face in the governor’s race.

Rick Perry is in it for Rick Perry. By the grace of God and with your help, I’m it for Texas, for you.