Filling the Shoes

Where are Texas politics headed? Right, where you’d think.

The 1998 campaign for governor of Texas began where its likely winner may end up—on Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington, D.C. But the place wasn’t the White House, and the prospective candidate wasn’t George W. Bush. On a warm day in late June the elegant Willard hotel complex, with its beaux-arts tower and office suites, was home to a reception for Garry Mauro, land commissioner of Texas, possible Democratic challenger to Bush, and recently published autobiographer. On a tent-covered private balcony outside the local law offices of Houston-based Vinson and Elkins, Mauro signed copies of his book, Beaches, Bureaucrats, and Big Oil, while visitors, including Bill Clinton and Al Gore, enjoyed a panorama of Washington’s most famous landmarks. The book-signing party was followed by a fundraising dinner (among the guests: Hillary Rodham Clinton) that reportedly brought in $200,000 for Mauro.

Clinton and Gore didn’t come to the Willard only out of friendship for Mauro. The 1998 election in Texas will be a national event that could go a long way in determining whether Bush can eventually fill the presidential shoes once worn by his father. The governor, of course, is a heavy favorite to win reelection. But Mauro, if he decides to enter the race, would have aims in addition to the long-shot chance of winning. As a veteran Democratic and Clinton operative, he would be trying to inflict scars that will make Bush a less attractive presidential candidate in the year 2000.

More than presidential politics will be at stake next year in Texas, however. The election season has been transformed by the unexpected decision of Lieutenant Governor Bob Bullock to call it quits and the subsequent scramble for advancement of lower-ranking officeholders. The stakes are huge. With Bush showing no drop-off in popularity from the failure of his proposal to reduce school property taxes and shift some to business, Texas Republicans will be going for the kill: control of every statewide elected office and both houses of the Legislature. The Democrats will make their stand with a strong lineup: State comptroller John Sharp is seeking to replace Bullock; incumbent attorney general Dan Morales is running for his third term; and Houston lawyer Paul Hobby, following in the footsteps of a grandfather who was governor and a father who was lieutenant governor, is going for the comptroller’s job. What the party lacks is a credible challenger to Bush. (Mauro, while devoting much of his book to his laudable efforts to clean up the coastal environment, owns up to filing for personal bankruptcy, committing minor ethics violations, and being investigated—and eventually cleared—by the FBI.) Surveying the situation, Democratic political consultant George Shipley said, “We need somebody who is well liked, cares about education, and wants to tax the rich. Hey, let’s nominate George W. Bush.”

Here are the questions that the pros will be asking as the campaign season approaches—and some answers.

Is Bush running for president? Of course. To be precise, he’s not not-running. “There’s interest there. I readily concede that,” he told me in an interview after the session. “There’s a lot of interest, evidently—a guy’s running first in the polls without trying really.” Maybe, I suggested, they think it’s your father. Bush leaned forward. “No,” he said emphatically. “They don’t think it’s my father. Bob Teeter [President Bush’s onetime pollster] checked it on his own, and they know it’s me.” When I asked Bush how he will answer the question that did so much damage to California governor Pete Wilson’s presidential bid—whether he would give up his state office to run for president, to which Wilson unwisely answered no—Bush corrected my question: “It will be, Do you pledge to Texans that you won’t run for president in the year 2000? And there will be so many hands up we’ll have to hold a lottery to see who gets to ask it.” Okay, I said, I’ll ask it. His response: “I will have an answer at the appropriate time.” Oh, well. I tried.

Is Bush well situated to make the race? Yes and no. He has all the credentials: looks, a likable personality, star quality, fundraising ability, intelligence, the ability to lead, a talent for one-on-one political salesmanship, and a good record in office, though not as good as he had hoped for. So what’s the problem? Bush’s greatest asset—his name—also happens to be his greatest liability. George Bush the elder broke his pledge of “Read my lips: No new taxes,” and elements of the Republican right will never forgive or forget. “I have all of Dad’s enemies and half his friends,” the governor has been known to lament. Now, after the battle over property-tax relief, the sins of the father are being imputed to the son. “Why is it that whenever somebody named Bush gets a 70 percent approval rating, they want to raise taxes?” was a wisecrack heard around the Capitol. Bush’s plan actually called for a $1 billion excess of tax cuts over increases, but that didn’t stop the Wall Street Journal, National Review, and the state chairman of Bush’s own party, Tom Pauken, from taking shots at him. A Houston taxpayers’ advocate, in a release headed “Read My Lips Part Two,” said that Bush broke his anti—income tax pledge to her by supporting a franchise tax on partnerships. Taxes aren’t the only area of suspected apostasy: Donna Ballard, the fringe-right conservative on the State Board of Education, wrote an op-ed piece in the Houston Chronicle in early July blasting the governor for supporting curriculum standards she opposed. “Contrary to his campaign promises,” she wrote, “he has embraced the education establishment.” The danger for Bush is that these accusations, while trivial in themselves, may gain weight in the aggregate and become the conventional wisdom among hard-line conservatives.

Will Bush move to the right in his 1998 campaign for reelection? Move? On most social issues he’s already there. Bush’s moderate image comes from his style rather than his substance. Bush is not an exclusionary politician; he is not anti-immigrant, anti-gay, anti—welfare recipient,

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