A wide spot in my imagination.

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Ten (and a Half) Texas Politicians You Need to Know

So, Rick Perry’s decided to quit his presidential hunt, leaving quirky Ron Paul to be the man from Texas on the campaign trail. And George W. Bush’s time in the White House hasn’t quite faded from our national memory.

But believe it or not, Perry, Paul and Bush aren’t the only brand of Texas politicians. Along the way, Texans have elected – dare I say it? – a few liberals. Gulp! Maybe they called themselves moderates, progressives, or populists. Maybe they simply saw themselves acting with integrity or decency. Maybe their whole records aren’t perfect. Or maybe they just accidentally did a few good things.

But in the interest of fairness to my fellow Texans, here are ten Texas politicians you need to know:

1. Mirabeau B. Lamar. As second president of the Republic of Texas, he set aside land for each county to set up schools and for the support of two universities, later the University of Texas and Texas A&M University. Lamar supported education and had the good sense to say, “A cultivated mind is the guardian genius of democracy.”

2. Elisha M. Pease. As governor in the 1850s, Pease created the Permanent School Fund, a big chunk of money that helps Texas schools keep their head above water today (despite efforts to take away their flotation devices.) Pease also gladly used state dollars (read that, taxes) to build institutions for orphans, the mentally ill, and deaf and blind Texans. And, he paid off the state’s debt at the same time.

3. Miriam Ferguson. Okay, Miriam “Ma” Ferguson left a trail of corruption and scandal in her wake, and she was pretty much the pawn of her husband. But she’s worth knowing. In part because she was a woman, elected governor in 1924. And in part because Ma took on the Ku Klux Klan (a group that made the tea party look like amateurs). She stood up to bullies.

4. Dan Moody. As governor Dan Moody reorganized the state’s prisons. He redid the state highway system to make roads connect, which meant he cut highway costs in half and meant he stood up to the road-builders and their lobbyists. He had the state started auditing its accounts.

5. Maury Maverick. Maverick served only four years in Congress, representing San Antonio, but his work is monumental. During the Great Depression, Maverick lived with African-Americans, Mexican-Americans and poor whites to see their plight first hand. He brought to Washington the memories of those tragic places. He also brought an ACLU membership card, an opposition to lynching, and loathing of the poll tax. Maverick objected to the House Un-American Activities Committee, went so far as to oppose all war in principle (though he earned a Purple Heart in World War I), and gave the world the word, “gobbledygook.”

6. Lyndon Johnson. Yep, he swaggered like Bush and Perry. Yep, he governed like a bully sometimes. And yep the Vietnam War was a horror. But dag-nab-it, the Civil Rights Acts were remarkable pieces of legislation. Federal funds for education, Medicare, Medicaid, highway beautification, environmental conservation, an all-out assault on poverty, Head Start – those things were real and powerful and needed.

7. Barbara Jordan. She sounded like God and used her voice on behalf of others. She passed a workers’ compensation bill that helped injured workers, and she broadened the Voting Rights Act to make sure that Mexican Americans were covered.

8. Ann Richards. Funny, flawed and fearless. She supported a woman’s right to choose, she appointed openly gay and lesbian Texans to offices, and championed the rights of Latinos and women. To paraphrase Texas Senator Lloyd Bentsen’s broadside against Dan Quayle, “I lived in Texas when Ann Richards was governor, and Rick Perry is no Ann Richards.” (That probably makes them both happy.)

9. William Wayne Justice. As a federal judge, his ruling about prisoners’ rights led to a complete overhaul of the Texas penal system. And his 1970 ruling led Texas schools be desegregated. Longtime Texas Lieutenant Governor Bill Hobby said of the Judge Justice, he “dragged Texas into the 20th century. God bless him. He was very unpopular, but he was doing the right thing.”

10. My Uncle George. Okay, he was actually my great-uncle. He served as County Judge of Delta County for one term. While in office, my great-uncle George Bolger got crossed up with the county sheriff Benny Fisher over the bonds to fund the jail. The sheriff wanted more money, my uncle wanted less. In the midst of haggling out the details, a weekend rolled around. While everybody was away, the sheriff moved Uncle George’s office furniture move to the courthouse men’s. I don’t know who won the bonds debate, and my serious uncle was mortified by this entire episode. But that’s why he’s on the list – he was a politician who cared about the details of a budget and the dignity of public office.

10 ½. Benny Fisher. See #10. The Delta County Sheriff makes the list as an honorable mention for having a tremendous sense of humor.


  1. Love it Tim! Great post! You provide a very good account of some colorful players in Texas history. Although Ann Richards was a very funny lady and a charismatic governor, she appointed a lot of people (yes, some were gay, lesbian, and other minorities, etc.) to public positions who were simply unqualified to serve in those positions. I know, because my husband worked for the State during those dark days . . .

  2. Oh my...if every history book were written in this fashion, maybe we wouldn't have to repeat our past mistakes over and over because we'd KNOW MORE. We'd be informed.

    Good job, Reverend!

  3. Karen: Yep, one commonality of Texas governors (left, right, center, long past, recent present) is bad appointments. That's one of the few powers of the state executive. And we've had some "doozies." Mostly because those appointees are sometimes based on political favors or favoritism, rather than experience or ability.