All’s Fair in War

Meanwhile, back at the ranch, it’s politics as usual, which for the Democrats means every man for himself.

September 1976By Comments

Fair in War

For a hundred years the Democratic party has been so successful in Texas that to be a Democrat meant very little—you were some version of liberal or conservative, or, most of all, you were for someone; individual politicians built person­al machines, which then used the fairly weak party machinery to their own ends. So, really, you were pro-Pa or anti-Pa, pro-Johnson or anti-Johnson, pro-Connally or anti-Connally. Re­publicans were only gnats to be swatted away, or, like John Tower, convenient weapons to be used to thwart your Democratic enemies. But, today, with the national Dem­ocratic party united like it has not been since FDR. Texas Democrats, in their own splendid obstinacy, seem to be on the verge of making control of the state party, of all things, the subject of fratricidal conflict.

Unless something drastic happens before the September 17-18 state convention in Fort Worth, Dolph Briscoe, the incumbent governor of the third largest state, is in real dan­ger of having the party machinery wrenched from his grasp by forces that love him not. His handpicked choice for chair­man of the Texas Democratic party and the State Democrat­ic Executive Committee (SDEC), Bryan savings and loan executive Calvin Guest, is short on supporters and even shorter on those who defend his activities, or lack of them. (“He’s the sorriest party chairman I’ve ever seen,” says one reluctant Guest supporter who ought to know, since he once held the office himself.)

Things were, to say the least, different under John Connally. For his six years as governor, beginning in January 1963, he was in total control of the state party. With Lyndon Johnson lending his weight from the White House, conserva­tive Democrats were at the apogee of their power; liberals could seldom muster more than 10 of the 62 votes on the SDEC. But Briscoe is in the unenviable position of needing help from the outside—from Jim­my Carter, perhaps, or from organized labor (try to imagine Connally in that position)—to avoid an embarrassing defeat, not from his veteran political rivals, but at the hands of a bunch of political nov­ices, and liberal novices at that. It didn’t use to be this way.

The fact that Texas Democrats are feuding is nothing new, of course; they’ve been go­ing at it with varying degrees of ferocity ever since Lyndon Johnson took the senatorial nomination away from Coke Stevenson back in 1948. That was followed by the Shivercrats v. the Johnson regulars in the fifties; the Ralph Yar­borough liberals v. the Connally conservatives in the sixties; and the Farenthold reformers v. the Sharpstown gang in the early seventies. The intramural warfare was spiced by inci­dents like one at the 1956 Fort Worth state convention, where law officers locked liberals out of the convention while conservatives cemented their control of the party machinery. But most of the past intraparty fights have involved only a small portion of Texas Democrats: the reigning conservative establishment on one side against the more committed liber­als on the other. This one is different. Everyone’s in this one: the governor, all the high-ranking state officials, labor, blacks, browns, career liberals, a congressman or two, the Democratic presidential nominee: This is not just one faction against another; this is an entire political party playing mu­sical chairs.

The object of this very serious game is to elect the state chairman of the Democratic party and its ruling body, the SDEC. (The SDEC consists of two representatives from each of the 31 state senatorial districts, plus two representing youth. About all the SDEC does is certify which candidates have won the party primary—not a diffi­cult task most of the time, but one that made it the climactic battleground in 1948, when Stevenson and Johnson were battling over the Duval County re­turns. Stevenson had unwisely ignored the party machinery while serving as governor; his negligence grew bitter fruit when the SDEC certified Johnson by one vote.) Judging from all the ma­neuvering it’s causing, one might think the chairmanship is one of the hidden repositories of political power in Texas. But it is actually a position with little inherent power. True, the chairman has initial control over state convention ma­chinery, such as appointing committees, but once the convention starts, he’d bet­ter have the votes on the floor to back him up. The chairman is supposed to raise money to keep the state party of­fice in Austin open and functioning, but that’s the whole point: functioning to do what?

Most of the time the only thing the state Democratic party has to do is ful­fill the requirements of Texas election law, which it does merely by existing. The rest of the time, it doesn’t have to do anything, even though the national party would like to see it conduct voter-registration drives and voter-education seminars. In some two-party states, the state party actually anoints candidates and makes campaign contributions, but nothing like that has ever happened in Texas, although the party has sponsored halfhearted voter-registration drives on occasion. Instead, the party headquar­ters has evolved, first under Allan Shiv­ers, then under Connally, into a political arm of the governor’s office. It is virtually his personal political property, the crankshafts and levers of his politi­cal machine. Party chairmen during the Connally era included some of Texas’ top conservative heavies: the late Dal­las lawyer Eugene Locke, later Connally’s handpicked (and unsuccessful) choice for his successor; future Uni­versity of Texas czar and regent, Frank Erwin; future LBJ Postmaster General Marvin Watson; Austin lobbyist Will Davis. Of the four, only Davis, who spearheaded Hubert Humphrey’s 1968 Texas campaign, ever remotely acted as though he represented a party as well as a governor. So totally did the Connally forces regard the state party office their personal fiefdom that liberals weren’t welcome inside the headquarters; their requests for statistical information were often delayed and occasionally rebuffed. Naturally the liberals howled in protest and saw the party machinery as a major goal to be won. Recalling the fights of those days, old Connally hand Larry Temple says, “I often thought it would serve Ralph [Yarborough] and his peo­ple right to get control of it and see what an empty bag it is.”

So why fight about it? For those who have it, of course, there is a fundamen­tal axiom of politics that if your enemy wants something, that is reason enough not to let him have it. To the side out of power, even if the chairmanship isn’t particularly powerful in its own right, attaining it could mean a great deal: it is a potential forum which could give legitimacy and publicity to their position. The chairmanship may be an empty bag, but that still beats no bag at all.

In this curious job, which requires so little of the person holding it, Calvin Guest has managed to make himself un­popular by not doing enough. One labor strategist active in the fight to salvage Guest concedes that the chairman has shown “a total lack of leadership.” A liberal SDEC member close to Attorney General John Hill is more specific: “The party has done nothing for four years,” he says. “The SDEC didn’t even meet for six months after the ’72 and ’74 September conventions.” He continues to catalog the complaints against Guest: there is no organized fund-raising pro­gram; the audit committee never meets so no one knows the true financial con­dition of the party (though everyone knows it’s not good); the June fund­raising dinner in Houston honoring na­tional party chairman Bob Strauss was a fiasco; there is “no semblance of a voter-registration program”; the state party was ordered to reach blacks, browns, women, and youth, but its efforts were “a sham, nothing more than technical compliance with the national party mandate.”

Why then does Briscoe want the chairman to stay on? Not because Guest is adroit at building up the governor’s power base: liberals expect to be in solid control of the SDEC at the September convention. Conservatives complain that Guest and Briscoe are losing control of the party and don’t know it. They grum­ble that the governor and the chairman listen too closely to labor, or that Guest acquiesced in rules changes that helped liberals control the June state conven­tion despite objections from knowledge­able conservative rules experts like John Brunson of Houston. Labor representatives, apologizing for their support of Guest, explain that liberals can accept him because he isn’t capable of rallying conservatives to recapture the party. In­deed, in July there was talk of a con­servative boycott of the Fort Worth convention—which would doom Guest to certain defeat—but by early August conservatives had halfheartedly decided to fight it out on behalf of the chair­man they don’t particularly want.

Democrats on both sides of the battle are convinced that Briscoe is so adamant about pushing Guest precisely because everyone else wants the governor to drop him. Briscoe fights hardest when the prerogatives of his office are threat­ened—and the selection of the party chairman has traditionally been regard­ed in Texas as one of the governor’s prerogatives, so much so that the Sep­tember convention is known among pol­iticians as “the governor’s convention.” Oddly, most liberals do not view the fight over the chairmanship as a chal­lenge to Briscoe. Houston liberal leader Billie Carr says, “This has nothing to do with Briscoe or even with Calvin—I’ve spent most of my lifetime trying to take the chairmanship away from the gover­nor. The Democratic party is not just another state agency that’s part of the governor’s office.”

“Why should the governor control the party?” asks Gary Mauro, one of a growing collection of political activists that Bob Bullock has herded together in the Comptroller’s Office. “This isn’t an anti-Briscoe campaign; it’s a pro-Democratic party campaign.”

But Briscoe has made it personal, per­haps unwisely. Liberals and conserva­tives agree on two points: first, that unless things have changed drastically since the June convention, Briscoe doesn’t have the votes on the floor; sec­ond, that he could save face by aban­doning Guest and choosing a compro­mise candidate—ABC, Anyone But Cal­vin—who could be elected with no dif­ficulty. At press time, though, he showed no signs of backing down, though many liberals were convinced that he would do so eventually. Instead, the governor has mounted a hubristic campaign to involve Jimmy Carter in the fight for the Texas chairmanship, arguing that Texas needs a unified Dem­ocratic party for the presidential race. Why there will be unity if Guest wins but not if he loses is something that so far has proved difficult to explain, but at press time Briscoe was still trying. In late July he took his campaign to Plains, Georgia, where he, Guest, Land Com­missioner Bob Armstrong, Agriculture Commissioner John White, wily Beau­mont Congressman Jack Brooks, and Briscoe’s omnipresent wife Janey met with Carter over a lunch of quail, chick­en, and fresh vegetables. For days there­after the rumors flew: Carter’s going to write a letter to all his delegates in Texas urging them to support Guest; Carter’s sick of Briscoe; Carter’s going to show up at the convention; Briscoe’s cut a deal with Carter insider Charles Kirbo; Jody Powell promised Carter would stay out of it. Everyone was talk­ing about what “Atlanta” would do, a reference which greatly amused one Carter aide. “All this talk about ‘Atlan­ta’ is a joke,” he said. “ ‘Atlanta’ is a young guy named Tim Kraft who is choosing all fifty state coordinators. We’ll send someone into Texas in the middle of August, and he’ll send back a recommendation. No one’s going to do anything before then. But I will say this. There is great affection here for Bob Armstrong. What he says will carry a lot of weight.”

And that is exactly what Bob Arm­strong has been afraid of from the be­ginning. Armstrong was picked to head Carter’s Texas team in March (“Atlan­ta” recently named Guest co-chairman at Briscoe’s insistence.) As nominal leader of the Carter forces, Armstrong is assailed by his own troops, who are clamoring for him to lead the assault against Guest—or at the very least, in­fluence Jimmy Carter to stay out of the internecine warfare. As a state official, he is under intense pressure from Dolph Briscoe—a man who signs his legisla­tion and approves his appropriations—to intercede on Guest’s behalf with the Carter delegates or the candidate him­self.’ This may be the political moment of truth for Armstrong, the inevitable test that Texas political observers have been waiting for. The book on Arm­strong is that he doesn’t have the stom­ach for political infighting, but liberals have always had faith in Armstrong’s instincts. In the crunch, they predicted, he would be with them. And this, they are now saying, is the crunch. For the first time in memory, they have a con­servative governor on the ropes and are on the verge of taking over the party. Many of them were early Jimmy Carter supporters who feel they, not Dolph Briscoe, deserve the spoils of victory. Will Armstrong sell them out?

“I’m caught in the middle,” he said in early June. “All I want to do is carry the state for Jimmy Carter.” Armstrong has since made it clear that he wished none of this had happened; that he be­lieves Jimmy Carter would be better served if there were no big intraparty fight. But that begs the question, of course, of who is responsible for the fight; the Briscoe forces, who have the chairman and the tradition, or the Cart­er liberals, who have the votes.

Most politicians would relish being in Armstrong’s position; he has real power. He is the sole person in the state with contacts in Jimmy Carter’s inner circle, strong ties to conservatives, and influ­ence with Carter delegates. It is the per feet opportunity to collect chits, to build a power base, to pave the way for one’s future ambitions. He can save the day for the governor or deliver the coup de grace. What a Lyndon Johnson or a John Connally could do with that: they’d be leaping at the chance, weigh­ing the odds, calculating, scheming. Armstrong hates it. Relaxed and per­sonable, Armstrong is the first to admit he’s untutored in the dark skills of con­vention politics. Indeed, in the six years since he rescued the Land Office from the lethargy of Jerry Sadler, Armstrong has become far more interested in the art of administration than in the glamor of electoral politics. If, as liberals like to believe, he is quietly fighting their fights, he is doing it on paper, with charts and pamphlets and grant re­quests, and in meetings, persuasively selling a new program or a new admin­istrative technique. It is a world far re­moved from the political arena, and it is apparently the world Armstrong pre­fers. He is sometimes mentioned as a potential Carter Secretary of Interior; it would likely be a more congenial prospect for him than, say, the gover­norship of Texas.

There are others, though—notably Attorney General John Hill and Comp­troller Bob Bullock—who are almost certain to challenge Dolph Briscoe in 1978. Obviously it would serve their purposes for Briscoe to be publicly hu­miliated at the convention and lose con­trol of the party. So they are naturally in the thick of the pre-convention ma­neuvering, looking for any way they can to pull the rug from under Calvin Guest, right?

Wrong. In the case of John Hill, at least, very wrong. Although Hill is committed to the governor’s race in 1978, Briscoe or no Briscoe, he hasn’t made a move to topple the governor’s chairman. Rather, he has made it dear to all callers that he intends to sit this one out—a course of action that has not improved the wishy-washy image Hill carries in. some quarters. “I’m be­ginning to have my doubts about him,” says Billie Carr. “If he were a political animal with the right instincts he could never sit on the sidelines while something like this is going on.”

There are a number of possible rea­sons why Hill is staying out of it, the least convincing of which is Hill’s own: that both Guest and his foremost chal­lenger—John Henry Tatum of Lufkin—are his personal friends. Friendship is a useful shield in politics, but one that is routinely penetrated by ambition. A bet­ter explanation is that Hill, like Arm­strong, has little experience in conven­tion politics; he doesn’t want to risk a skirmish on a battleground that is for­eign to him. Besides, as Hill well knows, convention politicians make enemies, not friends. Finally, a lawyer who served in the Attorney General’s Office under Hill’s predecessor Crawford Mar­tin recalls that Martin had planned to retire quietly, until Hill announced for the office and came out swinging against the incumbent in early 1972. Martin promptly changed his mind and Hill had to beat him head-on. If Hill behaves himself, the theory goes, Briscoe might retire peacefully to Uvalde and leave the field to Hill.

Unlike Hill, Bullock professes no fondness for Calvin Guest. Two years ago Bullock almost challenged the gov­ernor’s man for the chairmanship, but he backed down in the final weeks. (In­stead, Houston city controller Leonel Castillo made the race against Guest, getting 42 per cent of the vote; Castillo was going to try again this year until he became the center of some quarrel­ing between blacks and browns that ended his chances.) The official Bullock line is that he is staying out of the battle this year. Sure. But who was that at the Democratic Na­tional Convention in New York, telling everyone in sight that he was backing John Henry Tatum? And those Young Turks pushing Tatum—Gary Mauro and Tom Henderson—don’t they work for, let’s see, Bob Bullock? And isn’t that the same Bob Bullock who makes it a matter of pride to know what all his employees are doing, even how many letters the lowliest secretary in the word-processing department has typed? Can it be that he doesn’t know or doesn’t care what two of his top assistants are doing?

It is intriguing—and revealing—to compare the strategies of Hill and Bul­lock, Briscoe’s likely 1978 challengers (although anyone with as much money and potential power as Lieutenant Gov­ernor Bill Hobby cannot be written off entirely, despite his lackluster perform­ance in office). Their very different roles mirror their separate political histories and personalities: Hill’s re­sounding defeat in the 1968 guber­natorial primary (he finished a poor sixth) left him careful, cautious, someone who plays his cards close to his chest. Bullock, on the other hand, has made the transition from hatchet man for conservative Governor Preston Smith to an activist role that most of the time puts him in the liberal camp. His 1972 appointment to the State Board of Insurance was rejected by the Texas Senate, yet he has come back to be more powerful than any senator—and you can bet he hasn’t forgotten how anyone voted on his confirmation. He is, in short, a sly and cagey man with a fierce survival instinct.

There is one other factor that dis­tinguishes Hill from Bullock in the cur­rent maneuvering. Hill chose the wrong horse in the presidential primary; he went along with the phalanx of state of­ficials for favorite son Lloyd Bentsen. Armstrong, of course, did not, and nei­ther did Bullock, who is the archetypal maverick. Hill has some ties to the lib­eral delegates who went to the first con­vention as uncommitted, but almost none to the Carter delegates. Bullock is in much better shape there: Mauro and Henderson have been Carter sup­porters since 1974 (!), and it is the Carter delegates who will hold the bal­ance of power in September.

And so the rough Democratic beast goes slouching toward Fort Worth. What will happen there is still anyone’s guess. Labor continues to make frantic efforts to save Guest in the name of party unity; the state AFL-CIO has sponsored two meetings between the Democratic National Committee mem­bers from Texas and Guest. At press time, neither had been successful, and the second one saw Guest told that his offers were very nice, thank you, but you’re going to lose. Cynical liberals think that labor just might be more in­terested in cementing its influence with the governor—there is a legislative ses­sion coming up, don’t forget, not to mention all those appointments—than in unifying the party behind Jimmy Carter (a superfluous goal in any event, since everyone is already united be­hind Carter).

As for the rest of the liberals, their motivations are almost as diverse as their numbers. A few, but only a few, want to embarrass the governor. Others, especially the original Carter people, have no quarrel with Briscoe, but they won the primary, they have the dele­gates, and they want the chairmanship. They don’t want to be dictated to by someone who backed Lloyd Bentsen (John White, Guest, Briscoe) or any­body else in Austin, including Arm­strong. They know how politics works, and it’s their turn now.

There are old soldiers like Billie Carr, who have been fighting these battles for a long time and just want to win one. And there are young activists like Gary Mauro and Tom Henderson, who see the chairmanship as the first step in building a complete party apparatus—a liberal establishment that will control the future of Texas politics the way the unofficial conservative establishment has in the past. Then there are the mi­norities, blacks and browns, each with their roles to play.

How much simpler it was a decade ago, when a few phone calls could set­tle everything. But the old heavyweights are out of the picture now: Connally has defected; Erwin is settled in as a UT lobbyist; Will Davis and Ed Clark and Joe Kilgore are looking after their legal business. The national party has elimi­nated the winner-take-all unit rule, and the Texas Legislature, not anticipating Jimmy Carter, bowed to Lloyd Bentsen and authorized convention delegates to be selected largely through a winner-take-all presidential primary. This un­likely combination—the reforms of the national Democrats and the old-fashioned power play of the Texas Legisla­ture—paved the way for a liberal take­over; and a woefully weak governor, who has done little to cultivate political support among conservatives, has made it possible.

Still, to say that it is probable is to ignore some obvious political realities. With the convention rapidly approach­ing, labor was already in Briscoe’s camp, minority representatives were looking for excuses to throw in with the gover­nor, and the most progressive set of secondary state officials in memory was keeping out of the way. The Democrats may be at each other’s throats, but for once they don’t seem to be going for the jugular. Rather than lusting for the fight and scenting vic­tory, many liberals seem to be hoping that Briscoe will compromise. They still see that as a victory, when in reality, given their strength, it would probably be a defeat, another failure in a quarter-century of failures. Small wonder that Billie Carr surveyed the situation and worried that another defeat lurked ahead: “We’re so capable of losing when we ought to win.”

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