Cleburne Times-Review Column for February 19, 2006
“A greedy man brings trouble to his family, but he who hates bribes will live.”
Let us return once again to those thrilling days of yore, millions of years ago when men were men and giants walked the Earth and Texas was ruled by now mythical creatures known as Democrats. Then, as now, Texas was a corrupt, repressive one-party dictatorship. Of course, not even the names were different, as many of the most reactionary, self-aggrandizing old frauds stepped over to the Republican Party later without missing a beat. In 1971, Texas had a spineless Governor (Preston Smith), a ruthless and corrupt Speaker of the House (Gus Mutscher, Jr.), and a reputation as the kind of state where an “honest politician” was a politician who, once bought, stayed bought. Stop me if any of this sounds familiar. And then came Sharpstown. Frank Sharp, a millionaire wheeler-dealer from Houston, rewarded his pet politicians for favors by loaning them $600,000 from his bank, which they then used to buy National Bankers Life stock (another Sharp holding), which was then sold at inflated prices, with a big profit for all. And they likely would’ve gotten away with it, too, despite the foul stench of corruption wafting from the capitol dome in Austin, but for the now-legendary “Dirty Thirty,” a reform-minded gang of Democratic and Republican legislators that demanded an investigation of Sharpstown. Taking their name from an insult by a lobbyist who referred to them as “those thirty dirty (colloquial expression for a person born outside wedlock which we do not repeat in a family newspaper),” the Thirty kept the scandal in the news (despite serious threats and retaliation from the powers-that-be through redistricting) and ultimately led to the conviction of Mutscher and the end of the political careers of Preston Smith and Lieutenant Governor Ben Barnes.
And now that Texas is again ruled by a corrupt cabal, the Dirty Thirty (like the Magnificent Seven) are back, at least some of them. Bob Gammage, who later served in Congress and on the Texas Supreme Court, is running for governor, having lost none of the fire he showed as a young legislator thirty-five years ago, referring in a recent interview to Republican education “reform” proposals as, “crap, crap and crap,” and making the theme of his campaign a battle against the Republican “culture of corruption and cronyism” in Austin. Running for Lieutenant Governor is Ben Z. Grant, another Dirty Thirty Alumnus who once rode his horse 286 miles to Austin to draw attention to a constitutional convention called to reform the bloated, antiquated Texas constitution. And Fred Head of Athens is running for State Comptroller.
Of course, just riding in like the cavalry is no guarantee of success. Yes, Texas is burdened with a clueless, ineffectual buffoon of a governor with no legislative respect or clout, despite overwhelming partisan control. The notion that he might become the longest serving governor in state history is surely enough to make Sam Houston spin in his grave. Yes, the Texas House is run by Tom Craddick, a feckless, petty dictator who is propped up by craven lickspittles like our own Rob Orr. Yes, the official state lobbyist is apparently laundering taxpayer money for Tom DeLay. Yes, the junta in charge of the Republican Party plutocracy is hard at work punishing its own members for failing to sufficiently kowtow to wealthy Right-Wing contributors like Dr. James Leininger. But there are some brutal realities for those of us who still believe in democracy: this is a big state and it takes a lot of money to run for office. Assuming all three of these warhorses are nominated, there are few sources of big campaign donations left for Democrats. One of those sources, the trial lawyers, already show signs of drifting towards Democrat turned Republican turned Independent Republican turned Independent Carol Keeton Strayhorn. In order for the good guys to win, in order to repudiate a style of government that seems more at home in Zimbabwe than America, Democrats have to nominate strong candidates, candidates who know how to mine for money as well as votes, and then put aside their usual fratricidal bloodletting to unite behind their candidates. Moreover, liberals in the party need to get over their tendency to attack potential allies for a lack of political purity and comprehend the basic unalterable fact that unless people who have been voting Republican in recent years can be convinced to “come home,” then the Democratic Party while be doomed to perpetually irrelevancy.
P.S. If you would like to learn more about the Dirty Thirty, I highly recommend Shadow on the Alamo by Harvey Katz. It may be out of print, but copies can still be found on the internets.