When the Democrats Roamed…

A look back at the 1972 Democratic primary that changed the future of Texas politics.


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 history—the 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 a profit on the stocks.) During the 1971 legislative 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 potential—many 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.

Barnes: The thing just all worked out perfect—for Briscoe to have the money to spend on his campaign, Farenthold came along, and she was a woman, first woman since Ma Ferguson, she was a member of the Dirty Thirty—she’d never passed a bill—but it was unique and people were mad as hell. People just said “by God, they’re all corrupt, let’s get rid of all of ’em.” Dolph Briscoe said “I’m gonna wear my boots to Austin, because I’m gonna kick those crooks out of that Capitol,” and Farenthold said “I’ll make you an honest Governor.” The bottom started falling out of [my lead in] the polls.

Farenthold: You’d have to look back at the situation in the ’71 legislative session, where we had started, I felt, the beginning of a reform movement in Texas. Some of us that were part of the Dirty Thirty would meet and talk about running a slate. A mosaic—a rainbow, whatever—long before the term was used. I was receiving letters—they were not like things from the National Rifle Association, where you get all the postcards that look the same—these were letters that were written, sometimes painfully, on paper that had lines on it, saying that this was a time for change in Texas. I knew that, on some level, there was an opportunity to develop what we’d started during the session.

It seemed to me that someone should be running for governor under those circumstances, and there was no one who was willing to take it on. I don’t think they were as naïve as I was. They understood: They’d all been in the Legislature longer; they understood what a massive undertaking it was.

White: Gov. Briscoe had been a leader in the agricultural industry in Texas for all of his life, and he was well known throughout the rural parts of Texas. I think a lot of us who live in Houston and in the urban areas don’t realize that it’s almost impossible to be elected governor of Texas without carrying, or at least breaking even, in the counties of rural Texas. You could call that his base, and there was just a general frustration with state government, rising out of Sharpstown. I think there was some arrogance on that part of our leadership—they kind of played an inside game—their way or no way, and if you weren’t on the first team, you didn’t get to play.

Farenthold: It was such a different place. I had no consultant; I had people that had worked in politics, and were familiar with it, whose advice I took seriously, but I didn’t attempt to cultivate the business community. We ran that race a little under a million dollars. You’d be laughed out today with that kind of money.

White: Barnes had money running out of his ears, because he had a lot of big-business financial supporters, who had been traditionally conservative Democratic supporters. He had the bulk of them because he’d known them and because they thought he was going to win. [But] three or four weeks out, people sitting around in the coffee shops in little towns all over Texas are saying “Well, I don’t believe I’m gonna be able to vote for so-and-so. I like ol’ Dolph Briscoe, he’s a good man, we’ve known him for a long time—he’s gonna take care of things down there.”

Barnes: Here’s what [President Lyndon B. Johnson] and [Texas Gov. John Connally] told me: You’ve got to keep the business community involved in the Democratic Party, because if the businessmen ever leave the Democratic Party, then, Texas is going to go Republican and its going to stay Republican for the next 20 or 30 years. Gov. Briscoe was a popular guy. But Briscoe didn’t continue to build, he didn’t continue to try and bring people and business leaders into the party, and they made a hasty exit out of the Democratic Party and into the Republican Party. I think we saw a turning point in the Democratic Party moving to the left—not with Gov. Briscoe’s blessings, but it just happened. It happened because we weren’t doing the things to keep the businesspeople in there.

Farenthold: If you look at the records, my announcement was on the twenty-sixth page of the women’s section of The Dallas Morning News. The perception of it certainly changed over time. I believed in what I was doing, let me put it at that. I remember, we started using a bumpersticker from what a cab driver said in Dallas: “I’m voting for that woman.” You have to remember that 1972, as far as acceptance of women in politics, was a far cry from what it is in 2010. At the time, I was the only woman in the Texas House, and [Barbara] Jordan was the only woman in the Senate, and as slow as it’s been in Texas, you can see the change all up and down the political list.

Barnes: The only time I really get mad is when I see someone get on television and talk about how great we are in Texas. Texas is a great state, with great people, but we can do so much better than what we’re doing. I don’t ever sit on the edge of my seat and say, “I’m gonna jump into the arena again,” but sometimes I may sit up erect and say, “I tell you, I’m so sorry this happened.” If things had happened a little differently, if the winds had blown a little differently—maybe it’s false vanity on my part—but I think we could have made a difference.

Robert Green is an Observer intern.