Remembering Bill Clements
Mon May 30, 2011 2:34 pm

Clements will always hold an honored place in the Republican Pantheon as the first GOP governor of Texas since Reconstruction. He was elected in 1978 thanks to a split in the Democratic party. Attorney General John Hill had defeated incumbent governor Dolph Briscoe in the Democratic primary and was favored to beat Clements. But conservative Democrats--most of whom had supported Briscoe in the primary--sided with Clements against Hill.

Clements was a self-made megamillionaire, the founder of an offshore oilfield services firm called SEDCO. He benefited greatly from Jimmy Carter's unpopularity in Texas and vowed to hang Carter around Hill's neck "like a rubber chicken"--and made good his vow. When his firm was responsible for the biggest oil spill in history to that time, Clements harrumphed that it was "much ado about nothing." Such comments were typical of Clements; he was gruff and outspoken, and, as he put it, "Texan to his toenails." Most of his comments complemented his irascible personality--such as when he referred to a Mexican scholar who disagreed with U.S. immigration policy as "just another Mexican with an opinion"--but one offhand comment turned into a self-inflicted fatal wound, when he said, during his 1982 race for reelection, that "no housewife was qualified to sit on the Public Utility Commission." That cost him the race.

Clements had to deal with legislatures that were overwhelmingly Democratic, and consequently he did not have a lot of policy initiatives. His strength was his appointments to state boards and commissions, which rivaled George W. Bush's as the best of any governor during my years of covering the Legislature. His appointees reformed the Texas Department of Corrections and the Parks & Wildlife department, which, during Clements' tenure in office, became as concerned about parks as it had was about hunting.

Clements never got over his 1982 defeat by attorney general Mark White. He decided to challenge White in 1986, which turned out to be a good year for Republicans. White had to deal with the worst slump in oil prices in memory, which touched off a statewide recession. Reagan was still in the White House, and Texas was moving inexorably toward the Republican column. What hurt White the most was the popular Perot education reforms of 1984--popular with the public, that is, but not among educators. The reforms included teacher competency tests and the no-pass, no-play rule, which were anathema to teachers and coaches.

Clements had a tumultuous second term that cost him dearly in his personal reputation and political influence. He had hardly gotten back into the governor's office when a major scandal broke in which he was implicated. As chairman of the board of governors of Southern Methodist University, Clements had agreed to pay football players a stipend, which was illegal under the rules of the National Collegiate Athletics Association, the governing body of college sports. The NCAA assessed SMU with the "death penalty" -- the school could not field a football team for two years. SMU had been a national power (thanks to the illegal payments), but its program was ruined, along with the school's reputation--and Clements's. Had the revelations about the payments come out before the election instead of just after, it is doubtful that Clements could have won reelection.

The last two years of his term were marked by two major policy battles. One was over the 1987 budget. Clements and his top aides refused to accept the Legislative Budget Board's numbers, and were just as adamant about not raising taxes. The fight between Clements and Lieutenant Governor Bill Hobby lasted through most of the session. Finally, a leading Republican and Clements ally named Peter O'Donnell came to see Clements and told him he needed to agree to raise taxes. Clements signed a $5.7 billion tax increase, the largest in Texas history. In later years, he embraced it as the right thing to have done. The other fight was over workers' compensation, the first time a Republican governor had taken on the trial lawyers. Clements called one special session after another, keeping lawmakers in Austin until several Democratic senators finally gave in.

Aside from the embarrassment over the revelations at SMU, Clements was a very successful governor--with one other exception. He is the last governor to have a veto overridden. As I recall the issue, it was innocuous. A lawmaker from New Braunfels passed a local bill to define the season for hunting turkey in Comal County. Clements vetoed it because he believed that hunting and fishing should be regulated by Parks & Wildlife, not by the whims of individual legislators. He thought he was right--he always did--and I think he was right. The Legislature overrode him, but I don't think there has been a local bill since then that attempted to regulate hunting or fishing. Whether you liked him or not (and I was ambivalent), Bill Clements was what he said he was: "Texan to his toenails."

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