The Early Days of the Texas GOP: Remarks before the R Club


When Jerrod [Forrester] and Jim [McGrath] told me that the R Club wanted to present me with the Jack Steel Award, I was instantly honored, thrilled, and touched. Then I had what could be called a Lloyd Bentsen Moment. I said to myself: “I knew Jack Steel. Jack Steel and I worked together. Jack Steel was a friend of mine. And, Ambassador, you’re no Jack Steel.”

That’s true, but what’s also true is that the R Club is an outstanding organization that has already supplied the Legislature, the bench, and other public offices from the courthouse to the White House with impressive young leadership. To be given any recognition by you is indeed an honor. Whether or not I truly deserve the Jack Steel Award, I flatter myself in thinking of R Club members as colleagues in the same grand cause.

It’s in that spirit that I wish to say a few words tonight.

Joe Martin, the longtime Republican leader of the US House of Representatives and twice its speaker, wrote a book called My First Fifty Years in Politics. I can’t give an accounting quite that long, but I do want to give you a flashback on my first fifteen years in politics, years that passed before I was elected to the Legislature in 1976. They bespeak a wholly different era in Texas, one in which the GOP was the minority party, scoffed at for being so small it could caucus in a phone booth. But the leaders of that time – of which I was not one but whom I knew – had a vision of a revolution in Texas politics, of a total realignment of the parties, with the GOP as the natural majority of a conservative state.

This was not obvious in 1961, when I first got involved in real politics. I had been active in politics of the junior high school variety – not very successfully, I must admit, beaten at the polls by my better-looking and more athletic classmates. If, as they say, politics is Hollywood for ugly people, my ticket to Tinseltown came in the spring of my 9th grade year in the form of a special election to fill Lyndon Johnson’s Senate seat, vacated when he became vice president a few months earlier.

Art Kelly, later the chief aide to State Senator Walter Mengden, was at the time president of the small Spring Branch Young Republican Club. He was recruiting volunteers to work in the campaign of a young political science professor named John Tower. There were some 70 other candidates on the ballot – it only cost $10 in those days to file for the US Senate – but Tower was the unofficial Republican candidate for the seat, having won (to everyone’s surprise) 41% of the vote against LBJ the previous November.

Art organized a group of us to ring doorbells in a precinct in deepest Spring Branch, identifying potential Tower voters, whom we called on Election Day to get to the polls. Tower squeaked through to become the first Republican elected statewide to anything in Texas since Reconstruction and the first Republican to be elected to the Senate from any of the former Confederate states, also since Reconstruction. My role was tiny, but it enabled me to feel part of a truly historic moment in American politics. Such was the minuscule size of the Texas GOP in 1961 that teenagers and homemakers could be valued players, simply because we formed the political workforce. Incidentally, that Spring Branch precinct was later to form part of my state legislative district, and when I rang doorbells again there in 1976, I knew the territory from half a lifetime earlier.

The hope that Tower’s victory would spark a surge by conservatives to the GOP was dashed the following year when John Connally, LBJ’s main man in the state since the 1930’s, was elected governor. Connally was a brilliant political strategist, a visionary state administrator, and the great jehovah of the Texas conservative Democratic establishment. When he switched to the GOP during Watergate, Texas Republicans gave two cheers, for they remembered only too well how Connally retarded the growth of the party for the rest of the 1960’s. Lloyd Bentsen inherited Connally’s role as chief elephant-quasher in Texas, which he performed with lethal elegance right through the last great Democratic landslide in 1982.

From time to time, Republicans would be elected to office, typically in the single-member legislative and congressional districts mandated by the Earl Warren Supreme Court. These included the young congressman, George Bush, and his successor, Bill Archer, elected to the legislature as Democrat but who switched to the GOP in 1967.

Much more often, good Republican candidates would go down to defeat simply due to straight-lever-pulling by the Democratic majority. One of these was a wonderful person – and eminent past recipient of the Jack Steel Award – Marjorie Arsht, in whose campaign for the Texas House of Representatives I worked in 1962. Marjorie was vastly superior to her Democratic opponent, now forgotten, but candidates for the Legislature in those days had to run countywide, and Harris County voted Democratic below the presidential line.

It’s useful to remember what constituted the powerful, built-in Democratic majority that GOP leaders like the great county chairman Nancy Palm had to contend with in that era. Of course there was overwhelming support for the Democrats from blacks and browns, led by charismatic figures like Barbara Jordan in Houston and Henry B. Gonzalez in San Antonio. This was despite the fact that Democrats enacted the Jim Crow laws in Texas and that Governor Connally and other top state elected officials refused to receive Valley farmworkers when they marched on Austin in 1966.

But blue-collar whites also voted Democratic, responding to the rousing oratory of the bowtie- and sombrero-wearing labor lawyer Bob Eckhardt, who represented the then-staunchly Democratic bastions of Pasadena and Baytown in the Texas House and later the Congress. So did Bible-believing middle-income whites in places like Spring Branch, chiefly because their families had always voted Democratic. Still ringing in my head from many a doorstep conversation in the Tower campaign of ’61 were the words of people who’d say, “I like what Tower stands for, but my grandpappy would rise from his grave if he knew I voted for a Republican!”

And, not to forget, many upper-income people in places like River Oaks were also Democrats. They may have voted Republican for President, for they liked Ike and sort of liked Nixon. But they voted in the Democratic primary and supported the likely winner (meaning the Democrat) in local and state contests in the fall. These were also people who idolized John Connally and Lloyd Bentsen, probably since student days at UT. When asked why they still adhered to the party of Bobby Kennedy and Hubert Humphrey, whom they loathed, these folks would rationalize that, “In Texas, you’ve got to vote in the Democratic primary if you want a choice for sheriff or county commissioner.” And when told by Republican campaigners that politics in Texas would be healthier with two parties contending for control, they would say, almost by rote, that Texas already had two parties: The conservative Democrats and the liberal Democrats.

Because they were both the “outs”, Republicans often found themselves in odd alliance with liberal Democrats. The libs voted for John Tower in his early races, as much as anything to sting their mortal enemies in the conservative establishment. In the Texas House, the illustrious Dirty Thirty – that is, the 30 state reps who opposed the tyrannical rule of Speaker Gus Mutscher in the 1971 session – were an ad hoc coalition of reformers that defied ideology, containing people from Sissy Farenthold on the left to Tom Craddick on the right. The Dirty Thirty demanded openness and fair dealing in government. These cardinal principles apply just as much nowadays, when Republicans run the Legislature and so much else, as they did in the grim, dark days of the past.

The great turnover in Lone Star politics finally began in the late 1970’s, when the state realized its error in voting for Jimmy Carter, the last Democrat to carry Texas for president. Carter’s policies and fumbles gave momentum to the seismic shift of conservatives out of the Democratic Party and into the GOP. This led to the victories in 1978 of Bill Clements as our first Republican governor and of a youngster from Kingwood named Ed Emmett, who also made history that day by beating an incumbent Democratic state legislator.

By then, I was a Republican state rep myself, elected from a district originally drawn by conservative Democrats to produce one of their own but which transitioned during the 1970’s into solid GOP turf. My election in 1976 was made possible by the valiant struggle over many years by people like Bob Mosbacher, Marjorie Arsht, George Strake, Nancy Palm, George Bush, Jon Lindsay, and our real honoree tonight, Jack Steel. In their time, they were ridiculed by those who couldn’t understand someone who would sacrifice the prospect of power for principle.

Today, they are our heroes, not just of our party but of the cause of conservative government and honest politics. The R Club continues this noble tradition. May you always do so, and as you do, I can see Jack Steel’s map-of-Ireland face winking at you in gratitude and delight.


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