Wooing Bush Country
On Friday, April 23, Houston-based photographer Michael Stravato and New York Times reporter James C. McKinley Jr. spent a whirlwind day with Bill White, the Democratic candidate for governor, as he stumped in Midland-Odessa. Coincidentally, it was the same day that White’s opponent, incumbent Gov. Rick Perry, landed on the cover of Newsweek, hailed as the next Ronald Reagan.
White had other things on his mind. The night before, his small chartered plane had been diverted to Lubbock because of bad weather. “He was stuck on the tarmac till something like one in the morning,” Stravato recalls. “When I met up with him around nine a.m., he’d already had a meeting with oil executives”—at Midland’s Petroleum Club. That was just the start of a nine-hour flurry of events. “I was amazed at how well he was functioning,” Stravato says, “amazed at the stamina he had.”
Then as now, White was trailing in the polls—though within striking distance. Throughout the day, he made the case that would define his campaign: “We need a governor more interested in the state’s future than his political future.”
His strategy was already set: White would crisscross the state relentlessly, preaching a gospel of smart, fiscally prudent governance—and working to win over “soft Republicans” and independents in some of Texas’ most rock-ribbed conservative stretches. On this day, in typical fashion, he went straight from the Petroleum Club to a predominantly black senior center in Midland. Next up: a government class at Midland Senior High, a Mexican restaurant brimming with folks on their lunch hours, and a meet-and-greet in Odessa before flying home to Houston.
In a break between his last two events, White conducted several TV interviews in Spanish. “He’s quite confident in it, even though he has a very strong, Texasy Gringo accent,” Stravato says. “In between the interviews, he’s sitting there doing paperwork, busy all the time, calling back, going over stuff. He’s hands-on with everything. A lot of times you get these CEO-ish guys, and every time you ask them a question, they look at the PR flack first. White’s not like that. He’s the boss.
“He’s got a lot of testosterone, but he hides it pretty well,” says Stravato, who’s photographed White in several settings through the years. “I don’t think I’d want to get in a brawl with him.”
In the six months since, the candidate has kept up his dogged pace. Between July 1 and Sept. 22, his campaign says he visited 73 counties—a vivid contrast to the relatively quiet front-runner’s campaign that Perry has waged. “I’m here on a job interview,” White tells every group he addresses. “And I never forget that.”
On Sept. 23, Observer editor Bob Moser spent a day on the trail with White. Read his account, “Bill White’s Traveling Good-Government Show.”
Photos by Michael Stravato
9:09 a.m. Senior center, Midland. “This was a predominantly black community center, and he had a really good rapport with the people here.”
10:54 a.m. Mexican restaurant, Midland. “It was a mixed crowd, Hispanics and Anglos. White’s a pretty confident guy; he’s never at a loss for words.”
11:42 a.m. Goverment class, Midland High.
4:04 p.m. Odessa. “White’s fun to photograph, because he has those ears and you can get some good stuff. In this shot, you know it’s him, even from behind.” In a small restaurant, White chats up oil-field workers David Chambers, left, and Bill Payton, right. “I’m sure they expected maybe 20 people, but it was so full you couldn’t get everybody in there. White finally went outside, sat down with some guys, and had a bite to eat.”
5:35 p.m. White’s trademark boots–and his son, Will’s–on a six-seater plane back to Houston. “They’re very similar; Will was like a little Politico Jr.” Will White is now a first-year teacher in Houston.