A Governor Campaigns at Blue Bell

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In autumn 1986, Governor Mark White was facing something of a recall of his own when we visited the Blue Bell Creameries in Brenham.

About a year earlier, Saudi Arabia had glutted the world oil market driving crude prices down to the point of crashing the Texas economy. The bust also crashed the state budget, which suddenly had a $3.5 billion hole in revenue. White proposed solving the budget crisis with a combined set of budget cuts and a one-cent increase in the sales tax. Quoting Sam Houston, White told the Legislature to do right and risk the consequences.

“Some say this may cost us our jobs…and it might. I ‘ll accept that challenge, and I’ll accept the consequences,” White said. “This will not be our Alamo. This will be our San Jacinto.”

And if the folks back home wanted to blame someone for higher taxes, White told lawmakers they could “blame me.”

The Legislature eventually passed $582 million in cuts and a temporary increase in the state sales tax rate from 4 1/8 percent to 5 ¼ percent. (Note: that’s a smaller sales tax rate than the House is now proposing in its cuts.) The remaining $2.8 billion deficit was pushed to the 1987 Legislature.

The vote occurred during a special session in September. White had to scramble, with less than two months to go to the general election where he was being challenged by “No-new-taxes” former Governor Bill Clements, a Republican. The Democratic core vote in 1986 remained in the countryside. White and his contingent of aides and traveling political reporters started crisscrossing parts of the state that rarely see a statewide candidate today.

After a meeting with locals at an outdoor rally in Brenham, White offered to take questions from the news media. I’m not sure who started it, but one reporter began a chant of “Blue Bell, Blue Bell, Blue Bell.” We all picked it up, because, at our core, reporters are just dangerous children. White seemed momentarily confused, until one in the pack said something like, “We want to go to the Blue Bell creamery for ice cream.” White paused for a moment and then said that sounded pretty good to him.

So the entire travelling squad moved over to Blue Bell. One of the family member owners greeted White. Politician that he is, White introduced himself and said he’d like his vote. The owner smiled and replied that he and all his family were Republicans but ice cream is nonpartisan. So he welcomed White and invited him in for a tour and a tasting.

That was the last sweet spot of the campaign for Mark White. The voters did blame him for the tax increase that November and sent him back into the private practice of law.

Now that Blue Bell is facing its own public relations crisis by doing right and risking consequences in recalling its products because of the possibility of listeria, let’s hope they fare better than Mark White did that year. Ice cream is nonpartisan, and we should be able to vote with our mouths. 

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