You Remember Dolph Briscoe, Don’t You?

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That was the subhead for Griffin Smith Jr.’s February 1976 sorta cover story on the Democratic governor from Uvalde. I say “sorta” because Briscoe was actually on the cover for that year’s Bum Steer awards in a corny but funny shot: the governor waving to the reader while surrounded by cattle with the line: “Find the Bum Steer in This Picture.”

The joke was not lost on Smith. In a biting story, he detailed Briscoe’s inaccessibility from the press, from the public, and from other legislators as well as the shortcomings of an amateur staff that prided itself on being outsiders to the political process. Smith writes:

Somewhere, no doubt, there are other officeholders as reclusive, as secretive as Dolph Briscoe—a comatose ward-captain in the Bronx, perhaps, or a furtive county clerk in the wilds of Idaho. But are there any equal in stature to the chief executive of the third largest state? It was not supposed to be that way. Briscoe, after all, once sought the governorship on a promise to throw open his doors to the public every two weeks, so that “anyone who wants to complain, make suggestions, or just talk to the governor will be welcome.” Try that today. For all practical purposes the Invisible Man of South Texas is unique among the country’s leading political figures. His low profile, and the lengths he has gone to protect it, have made him an enigma to many and a joke to others.

Smith’s evidence is overwhelming—he appears to have talked to everyone in the Capitol on background. Along the way, there are appearances by Price Daniel Jr., Ben Barnes, A.M. Aikin, and perhaps best of all, Orville Drall (one of my favorite anecdotes).

And so is his theory about why Briscoe ran the Governor’s Mansion the way he did. It wasn’t a question of apathy or weakness or personal issues. It was a question about power and how Briscoe chose to wield it. Smith views it as a confrontation between the old Texas that Briscoe represented and the new Texas that was rapidly gaining power:

Briscoe’s behavior ultimately reveals why he wanted to be governor. It is the behavior of a man who had everything which should have conferred the undisputed highest status—vast wealth, award after award, more land than perhaps any other Texan—but who still was not quite part of the inner circle of the Texas political and social establishment.

What has moved Briscoe as governor is, in some atavistic sense rooted deep in two centuries of Texas soil, a rancher’s rejection of this highrise aristocracy and all the other intruders on that cherished myth of the power of the land. By being governor he restores (as he sees it) the proper order to things, an order that without him is untuned; it is a holding action at best, but there is not much more that any governor could do to stop the changes remaking Texas. There are echoes in all this of Giant, reminders of the gulf between what mattered in the old Texas and what matters in the new. Among Briscoe’s potential successors, not one truly belongs to that old Texas where the central myth was constructed from the land.

 

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  • Cyndi Taylor Krier

    We should also remember Dolph Briscoe 2.0. Texas was blessed with his public service long after his years as Governor. San Antonio was blessed by beloved ranch’s proximity and his leadership as an elder statesman and through active civic involvement here with the University of Texas Health Science Center and United Way. In doing so, he bonded rural and urban, historic and modern Texas. The speeches he shied away from giving as Governor he gave in both Austin and San Antonio with rare perspective that left folks talking about them for days. When a “new” issue emerged, Governor Briscoe could almost always frame it with context and wisdom of how it had been addressed before. Those who want to experience Governor Briscoe’s deep Texas roots, as described by Smith and Sweany in this post, can get a good sense of this great Texan by visiting San Antonio’s new Briscoe Western Art Museum in downtown San Antonio http://www.briscoemuseum.org/

  • John Johnson

    Dolph Briscoe accomplished many good things, not only as Governor, but also as a member of the Texas House in the early ’50’s. I can see how those like Ben Barnes did not think much of him as he railed hard on those involved in the Sharpstown scandle. As far as the media and good ‘ol boy political establishment not liking him much, that is understandable. His keeping his door closed to them was his way of thumbing his nose at their pettiness and quesionable practices. He was not into cronyism. The only negative thing I heard said about the Briscoe family in general by a few friends from around Uvalde was the fact that their vast wealth grew greatly through his father’s bank foreclosures during the Great Depression.

    • John Johnson

      I also want to add, Brian, that these looks backwards, while interesting to some, are probably not read by many. If they were, there would be more indication that we learn from our past, and we know that this is not true in any sense of the word.

      • bsweany

        Thanks, John. I appreciate the comments, as always. I’ve loved these stories since I started here as an intern 100 years ago, and I thought that sharing one each Friday would be a good way to spotlight some of these signature pieces from TM’s archives and show that politicians and state government are wrestling with many of the same problems, regardless of the era. That idea showed up in the Ann Richards piece, and in Briscoe’s administration there was an emphasis on limited government and holding the line on revenue (along with an amazing prediction about the rise of a tea party-like movement). And, of course, there are moments in which the writing is flat-out amazing.

        • John Johnson

          I agree. I have copies of old TM magazines I’ve kept. One with a wolf on the cover and a piece by Skip Hollandsworth titled Why We Hate Lawyers was one of my all time favorites (June 1996). I have several old pieces of correspondence between Gregory Curtis and myself from years ago. My point is that most people don’t care. They didn’t read it then, and certainly aren’t going to now. This is why we suffer from
          self-induced ignorance and how the stinky and unqualified keep getting into office.

        • vietvet3

          Brian, I’ve been in Texas since ’68. I love these old stories. Keep ’em comin’…..

        • Blue Dogs

          Brian, I believe that he was the last conservative Democrat to occupy the TX Governor’s Mansion.

        • Blue Dogs

          Sweany, can you also do one on former Lieutenant Governors Bob Bullock and Bill Hobby, Jr., ?

    • Blue Dogs

      Briscoe could have been governor for life if he wanted to, had he not lost the Dem primary in 1978 to Hill.

  • http://www.fortbendconservative.org/ John Bernard Books

    I always admired Dolph Briscoe, he reminded me of Coke Stevenson, greatest governor of Texas.

    • WUSRPH

      You had to be there to really appreciate the Briscoe years:

      This missing governor; (“It’s 10 o’clock, do you know where your governor is?”)
      Dolph swaying in his cowboy boots while telling a press conference that he was not crazy;
      Janey with the black-black-black hair watching it all and “taking names”;
      Appointing a dead man to a state board;
      Janey jokes (Gov. Briscoe and her husband Dolph”)
      The great political button put out by the teachers in response to Dolph’s greater concerns with highways than schools: “Dump Dolph on his As..phalt”;
      A legislature passing campaign spending reporting and open records and open meetings laws to open government to public scrutiny;
      The failed attempt to pass a new state constitution (which Dolph eventually opposed after declining to tell the Convention what he wanted);
      “Briscoe Red” naugahyde furniture in the governor’s reception room and accessories everywhere;
      Single-member districts in the Texas House opening the door to Blacks, Hispanics and women (and Republicans, too);
      Men in leisure suits with long(er) hair;
      Women in mini-skirts and mesh stockings;
      The shock of the Voting Rights Act being applied to Texas;
      The “blacked out ” Capitol and grounds (Arab oil boycott);
      The 55 mph speed limit;
      Attempts to repeal Texas ratification of the Equal Rights Amendment;
      Full-out production of oil and rising prices bringing money, money, money to spend;
      Bob Bullock’s “Raiders”;
      Reducing the penalties for marijuana possession;
      The “lunch box” campaign fund raiser;
      and on and on..

      In many years Briscoe was like Jimmy Carter in that he was a much better ex-Governor than a Governor who went on to do many more good things over the years after he left public office than he did as governor as former State Sen. Krier suggests.

      • John Johnson

        One man’s recollections….yours. He was no Ben Barnes; no Bob Bullock; no scandal’s; no shady deals. At ten O’clock he was in Texas, not California, or Missouri, or Switzerland. Were you one of the career politicians he didn’t have much time for?

        • WUSRPH

          Actually, if he you check the records you will find he was out of state fairly often…Spent a good deal of time in Austria one year for his daughter’s debut ball…..There was no real scandals or shady deals, true….No one ever said he wasn’t an honest man…but no one also said that he was involved in state government even thou as governor one would expect him to be. It was a period when the Legislature ran the government because the governor wasn’t home….It was the Legislative leadership that pushed open government, open records, campaign disclosure laws, speaker race contributions reporting and controls on the speaker’s race. The governor paid no real role in any of what even you might see as “reforms” adopted during that period. He was a nice, pleasant non-entity whose solution to the school funding crises (and total lack of equity) , for example, was to call for spending an extra $40 million on aid to the poorest districts. The problem was not that he did not have time for “career politicians”. He had almost no time for almost anyone else as well. The problem was that he would not expend the time required to do his job. Most of us expect more from our leaders than he was willing to provide. It would have been much better for the state if the Dolph Briscoe of later years had been around during his six years in office. The public came to understand that and that’s why he was soundly defeated (without a runoff being necessary) when he ran for re-election in 1978. What made it all strange was that this was not the Dolph Briscoe people remembered from his prior service in the Texas House of Representatives where he played the leading role in the adoption of the Farm-to-Market Road system. This made him even more of an enigma.

          • John Johnson

            I didn’t say he was not ever out of the state; my jab was at our current Gov, who has been missing for the most part of the last four or five years. What is it we have gotten out of Perry? Name me something significant and profound; name me something that benefits all Texans, not just the eltie.

            Name me a state commission that has done something that greatly enhanced the quality of life for all Texans.

            Sometimes it is best to sit back and watch, but not when you have unqualifed appointees running the show. Perry has penciled in some terrrible ones who keep looking back at the Gov’s office for prompts. We have suffered because of them.

            My father once told me that the defintion of a good executive was someone who delgates well to well qualified people. If the Legislature is getting the job done, what would you have had Briscoe do? Stand up and take credit for it? Your definition of good and bad and mine are somewhat different. I like mine better.

            Granted, Dolph Briscoe was plain vanilla, but then again, I like plain vanilla.

          • WUSRPH

            I don’t think you have ever seen me say anything nice about Perry….however, there are a couple of minor things he did that I approved of…..The point is that a governor is supposed to be a leader…That is what he is elected to do….Perry has failed in that role, but even he has been much more active in the process than Briscoe.

          • http://www.fortbendconservative.org/ John Bernard Books

            Dems never get it, the chief exe’s job isn’t to interfere in the legislative process.

          • WUSRPH

            You are right that he is not expected to write the bills…but he is expected to give direction and leadership in his role as the representative of the entire state.

          • Blue Dogs

            Lieutenant Governor and Speaker are the most powerful folks in the State Capitol.

          • WUSRPH

            Most of the time BUT a governor with a strong personality and the willingness to “take it to the people”, etc. can dominate the Legislature as Jim Hogg, Alan Shivers and John Connally, among others, more than adequately demonstrated. Briscoe was just not that kind of man.

          • Johann

            …but the comptroller controls it all!!

          • Blue Dogs

            Explains why they’ve got cartoons of Bullock putting the fear of god in Briscoe and White.

          • SpeakTruth

            So how do you rationalize Perry’s over-reliance on the veto pen?

          • WUSRPH

            Since he did little to shape the bills before he reached him, the veto was his way of showing his desires and/or vengeance. I believe O.B. Colquitt, a better governor than Coke Stevenson, still holds the record for vetoes. He vetoed literally HALF of the bills passed by the Leg. during his first session as governor. He was a WET(pro booze) engaged in a fierce battle with the DRYs or prohibitionists.

          • Blue Dogs

            Or VETO Stamp?

          • Blue Dogs

            Perry the GOP version of Briscoe?
            At least he WON reelection to a 3rd consecutive term unlike Briscoe in 1978.

          • John Johnson

            Where did you get that? They are exact opposites.

          • Blue Dogs

            WUSRPH mentioned that Briscoe and Perry were out of state for long periods of time.

            However, Perry LOVED the governorship and the press attention as well as press conferences. Briscoe closed himself off from virtually everyone including his lifelong friends.

          • Blue Dogs

            Here’s a question, what if Briscoe had ran for President instead of Carter in 1976 ?

          • WUSRPH

            He would have been badly beaten…..He was too nice and too reserved almost a recluse to have had any chance.

          • Blue Dogs

            In other words, Ford would have crushed Briscoe in 1976 despite the backlash over Nixon and Watergate.

          • WUSRPH

            Briscoe would not have gotten that far…He would not have been able to get the nomination.

          • http://www.fortbendconservative.org/ John Bernard Books

            the guv’s job description isn’t to legislate. That’s a dem myth.

        • Blue Dogs

          Kind of like the Missing President, It’s 10pm, do you know where your President Is?

        • Blue Dogs

          Briscoe wasn’t perfect, but he was honest enough to tell the Legislature that he wasn’t gonna play their political games and he didn’t.

    • Blue Dogs

      Where would you rank Briscoe in Top 6 Best Governors of Texas?

      • WUSRPH

        He would not fit in that rank. Closer to the middle and below than the top.

  • WestTexas

    Dolph Briscoe was a good and decent man who served ably during a transitional time for Texas. He could have done better but others did demonstrably worse. He was honest and straightforward and for the most part, if you wanted to know what he was thinking or what he planned to do, ask him and you’d find out. We could do much worse.

    • Blue Dogs

      West Texas, if Briscoe had beaten Hill in the Dem primary and Clements in the general in 1978, it would have impacted the landscape like this:
      1982: White elected governor, succeeding Briscoe.
      1986: Clements defeats White.
      1990: Richards wins against Williams.
      1994: Bush, Jr., beats Richards .
      1998: Bush, Jr., crushes Mauro
      2000: Bush, Jr., elected President and resigns; LG Perry succeeds him.
      2002: Perry blows out Sanchez.
      2006: Perry wins over Bell, Strayhorn and Friedman.
      2010: Perry wins reelection with 55%-42% margin over Bill White.
      2014: Does not seek reelection; Abbott defeats Davis.

      • AlmostNormalTexan

        I doubt Bill Clements would have run again in 1986 if he hadn’t been elected in ’78. He only ran the first time after much pleading and prodding from Texas Republicans and to a lesser extent the national party.

        • Blue Dogs

          When you think of it, makes sense.

          I heard that Briscoe’s kids voted for Clements just to stick it to Hill.

          • WUSRPH

            They certainly did. Dolph kept silent about what he would do. No endorsement. No nothing…but that was standard for him.

          • Blue Dogs

            It’s also well known that both Briscoe and Hill HATED each other’s guts personally and politically.
            The same John Hill back in 1972 got impatient and defeated 3-term incumbent State AG Crawford Martin (D) in the primary, Martin died several days before leaving office. Martin’s family personally held it against Hill too and also voted for Clements in 1978.

          • WUSRPH

            The Sharpstown Scandal had something to do with the outcome of that race. Martin was NOT INVOLVED in the scandal, but was criticized for not talking action. A lot of people were defeated that year and personal hate was not involved. We wound up with 76 new members in the Texas House (out of 150), 16 new State Senators out of 31,and a new governor, lt. governor, speaker of the house and attorney general. A thorough house cleaning from the fallout of a scandal that involved less than 10 people in total.

  • http://www.fortbendconservative.org/ John Bernard Books

    You political junkies might ax the “journalists at TM” why there are a thousand books written about LBJ and -0- zero zip nada written about Coke Stevenson, our greatest gov. Hell most here never heard of him. Your answer, no one could fleece the American taxpayer like LBJ, a trait only a dem can admire.

    • WUSRPH

      Why this Coke fixation? He ranks far below Shivers and even Connally.

      • http://www.fortbendconservative.org/ John Bernard Books

        He was our greatest gov, when the democrat legislature had run the cart into the financial ditch they would go to Coke’s ranch and plead “come get us out”, not once but twice. The last time he told them to go to hell, he even refused to put a bridge across the creek to keep the dems away. I realize you know little about Texas history and you won’t learn it here.

        • WUSRPH

          Two things: At least while he held public office in Texas, Stevenson was a Democrat. Not a New Deal Democrat by any means, but still at least nominally a Democrat. The best description of him I have ever seen was that “he was a man of his times.” And I know quite a bit about Texas history….as I have demonstrated here more than once……I almost have to assume you are his relative based on your hero worship of him. Today, unfortunately, all he is remembered for is his quip when he refused to let Texas give in to the federal govt’s request that the states reduce their speed limits to 35 mph to save gas and rubber during WWII. He is quoted as saying: “But you’d never get anywhere (in Texas)” if we had a 35 mph limit.

          • Blue Dogs

            The same Coke Stevenson, who said Blacks do things to provoke Whites during a lynching ?

          • WUSRPH

            Yep….That’s one story about him….He was considered not totally racist, just somewhat.

      • Blue Dogs

        Coke never recovered from losing to LBJ in the 1948 U.S. Senate race.

        • http://www.fortbendconservative.org/ John Bernard Books

          actually he didn’t lose to LBJ. LBJ took great pride in stealing that election as dems are prone to do.

          • WUSRPH

            The best estimate I have seen by objective observers is that LBJ’s side just turned out to be better at cheating than Stevenson’s…..Sort of like the old stories from Illinois where the “downstate” Republicans would wait to turn in their results until after the “upstate” Democrats so they would know how many they had to add to overcome those added by the Democrats. In short, both sides did it….The fact that either side would do it is regretful and wrong…but that is the way they sometimes did things in those days…..It still happens a bit in isolated cases, but no where near as often as in the “good ole days.”
            (PS….Coke Stevenson was at least a nominal Democrat, too. Remember that when you libel ALL Democrats as you tend to do.)

          • http://www.fortbendconservative.org/ John Bernard Books

            We’re making progress, at least you admit democrats cheat, next we’ll work on the lying and stealing part.

          • WUSRPH

            Four words: Richard Nixon Teapot Dome

            Does “Democrats cheat” include Coke?

          • http://www.fortbendconservative.org/ John Bernard Books

            Just because dems say Nixon was crooked doesn’t make it true. However you raise an interesting point, which prominent dem stole evidence pertaining to Nixon and hid the files denying Nixon his due process causing her to later be fired from her first job. If you guessed Hillary “I don’t recall” Clinton you’d be right.

          • Blue Dogs

            Nixon was the last President to record his conversations on tape and play them over for his personal, sick perverted fantasy.

          • http://www.fortbendconservative.org/ John Bernard Books

            speaking of sick perverts, how about when LBJ called and hit on Jackie Kennedy after JFK mysteriously died. Who could more sick than that?

          • WUSRPH

            You have this habit of making ex cathedra statements calling someone a crook, a liar, etc, etc., etweaslecetra. BUT you are not willing to offer any evidence when challenged. I am sorry to have to tell you that you are not the Pope and you are not infallible altho you clearly think you are. Your pronouncements from your throne are subject to challenge. If you want to be believed, you have to be willing to offer evidence….Of course, you only care about making the charge and can care less if it is true or not.

          • http://www.fortbendconservative.org/ John Bernard Books

            You freely admitted LBJ cheated…read your post

          • WUSRPH

            I am sorry, Your Holiness, but I said that objective observers believe there was vote fraud on BOTH SIDEs….I did not justify it by either party…..But the US Supreme Court refused to intervene (as it did in Florida in 2000 in Bush’s favor) and LBJ was declared the winner. I care that any election has fraud involved, but that was long ago. And, in the end, the country did much better with LBJ in the Senate and in the presidency than it would have with a Coke Stevenson even considering the horrible mistake of Vietnam–for which both Democratic and Republican Presidents share the blame. (It started under Eisenhower, continued under Kennedy as was inherited by LJB who tried to end the war in 1968….But Nixon’s folks got the South Vietnamese to screw up that chance and it took Nixon another 4 years to arrange a “dignified exit” leaving South Vietnam sure to fall in time. Look up Mrs. Anna Chen Chennault it you want details on how Nixon’s campaign sabotaged the chance of negotiations until after Nixon was elected. Some people have said that she was also U.S. Sen. __________ ‘s mistress; but unlike you, since I can not prove it, I would never say anything like that.)

            P.S. Since you did not challenge it, I must assume that you agree that O.B. Colquitt was a better governor than Stevenson. So was Dan Moody, by the way. I will, however, put Coke ahead of Ma & Pa, Pappy Lee, Preston Smith and Price Daniel.

            P.S.P.S. And I know you just KNOW that Karl Rove and Company never, never, never did anything wrong. After all, they are Republicans and as you keep telling us all Republicans are God-fearing Saints.

          • http://www.fortbendconservative.org/ John Bernard Books

            I never challenge stupidity, I let it twist in the wind…

          • WUSRPH

            Then you must do a lot of twisting, Your Holiness.

          • WUSRPH

            P.S. Oscar Branch Colquitt was a better governor than Coke Stevenson. But then you’ll have to look him up…..Me, I have his campaign button in my collection.

          • http://www.fortbendconservative.org/ John Bernard Books

            The fact you dems do not care that LBJ stole the 1948 election, admits what I’ve always said dems loves them some crooks.

          • WUSRPH

            See above.

          • http://www.fortbendconservative.org/ John Bernard Books

            I prefer getting my Texas history from the experts and not from campaign buttons from low information bored ex-state workers on Burka blog.

          • Blue Dogs

            Ma Ferguson was really her husband’s 3rd and 4th terms if you look at it just like Lurleen Wallace of AL was her husband’s 5th.

          • Blue Dogs

            I remembered some news stations played audio tapes of LBJ talking to Jackie about how beautiful she looked in that black dress at JFK’s funeral.

          • SpeakTruth

            JFK “mysteriously” died? There was no mystery — he was shot and killed in Dallas. Someone dies “mysteriously” when you don’t know the cause — we all know what the cause was. How about some basic respect for a murdered president?

          • http://www.fortbendconservative.org/ John Bernard Books

            and yet the mystery remains….

          • http://www.fortbendconservative.org/ John Bernard Books
          • WUSRPH

            I am more than surprised that anyone EVEN YOU, other than his one daughter, would continue to defend Nixon. He broke the law…it is in his own tapes….He used the govt. to persecute his “enemies”. His campaign used an extensive series of “dirty tricks” to attempt to sabotage other campaigns; they committed burglary several times; they illegally washed money; they paid hush money; he lied and lied and lied, again. And you defend him? While I guess being Your Holiness gives you special insight into these kinds of things the rest of us do hot have.

          • http://www.fortbendconservative.org/ John Bernard Books

            What was Richard M Nixon convicted of, you dems are all the same.

          • WUSRPH

            He could NOT be convicted of anything because he was PARDONED of any and all crimes against the U.S. To be pardoned one is required to ACCEPT GUILT, which he did by accepting it.

          • http://www.fortbendconservative.org/ John Bernard Books

            There you go, of course you’re still denying Clinton was impeached….

          • WUSRPH

            As RR would say: They you go again….No one ever said Clinton was not impeached….He was, however, not convicted. No PARDON was needed in his case. Nixon, of course, was also impeached but cut and ran before the trial….Clinton stood and fought…which was more in the “Texas Tradition” than running for the trees as Nixon did.

          • WUSRPH

            See above…duplicate

            PS I have much better things to do then deal with your ex cathedra proclamations….So I am going to go do them…..If the weather allows I will be planting tomatoes tomorrow.

          • http://www.fortbendconservative.org/ John Bernard Books

            He was a democrat. But one of the better ones who bailed them out several times then was rewarded by a “cheating” LBJ. I know you either don’t know history or wish to change it but facts are facts. From a liberal newspaper http://www.nytimes.com/1990/02/11/us/how-johnson-won-election-he-d-lost.html

          • WUSRPH

            Have you heard anyone say the 1948 election was not stolen…It was just that LBJ’s side was better at stealing than Stevenson’s, which I guess is something in his behalf. Pappy Lee had stolen the 1940 election and LBJ was not going to let that happen again.

          • http://www.fortbendconservative.org/ John Bernard Books

            I admit it dems are better at stealing

          • WUSRPH

            The GOP is pretty good at it too, ala Karl Rove….but in this case it was one group was better than it than the other….which you do not deny.

            P.S. In the future I am just going to let your Ex Cathedra Pronouncements or totally made up comments pass. It isn’t worth the effort even if it may allow you to pass some of your …. off as being true. So, good bye.

          • http://www.fortbendconservative.org/ John Bernard Books

            I don’t think you are smart enough to do that….

  • Jorge

    Remember ! Of course, I’d say very fond memories. He deserves a high ranking amound modern Governors. First and foremost, he was honest and fair—-not a bad bone in his body. And he loved our state. I wish there was a Dolph Briscoe around today—-especially on the Democrat side; he would make a difference. I saw the talk about what he did and didn’t do in supporting Hill after he was defeated. However Briscoe supported and voted for democrats until the end of his life. The criticism in the article is misplaced when we look back at events; he was a competent Governor by any standards, then or now. His appointments were excellent—-entirely free from scandals. Briscoe was independent ; he could govern and operate without favors and deals and scandals. Briscoe wrote a book about his life and time in government; it is a great story and worth remembering. We haven’t seen the likes of Dolph Briscoe in a long time.

    • Blue Dogs

      Jorge, Briscoe also appointed a large number of women and minorities to office during his administration.

  • Wilson James

    Compared to what we have today, he was a prince.