THE STARK WHITE BUNGALOW BENEATH THE OVERABUNDANT FOLIAGE is a monument to small-town aspirations. We are deep in East Texas, down a forgotten side road; a shaky sign tells us we have arrived at the Adline Study Club, where retired black schoolteachers teach etiquette. At the moment, however, the building has been borrowed for a different cause—Garry Mauro’s thankless, peripheral, almost irrelevant bid for governor. Elsewhere, the George W. Bush reelection locomotive screams along at rail-screeching speeds; here Mauro attempts to generate some creaky momentum of his own. It’s slow going: So far there are only eight people to shake hands with on this weekday morning. Ten more straggle in as Mauro speaks, but that still leaves about half the metal folding chairs empty.
If the fifty-year-old candidate is frustrated by the sparse turnout, he gives no sign. “Think about this!” he roars. “We built a $185 million capitol building, but we can’t spend $100 million on new schools!” Judging from the animated questions that follow, he has successfully engaged the small assembly. But the intimidating reality of the situation is driven home when a Texas Poll is released in mid-June: It shows Bush smearing Mauro, 70 percent to 17. “Quite frankly, we’ve never seen anything like what’s happening in this race,” says poll director Ty Meighan. “The governor is just so popular.”
Mauro immediately attacked the validity of the Texas Poll, issuing a statement that called it “laughable.” A Democratic poll, he said, showed him trailing by only 35 points, not 53. Such are his silver linings these days. “We feel like we are right on target,” Mauro tells me. “You don’t run against an incumbent governor whose father was president and expect to be ahead this far out.” Political upsets have been known to happen. Truman did defeat Dewey. Bush himself unseated Ann Richards, one of the most popular governors in Texas history. But Mauro over Bush boggles the mind. The obvious question is not whether Mauro can win, but why is he running at all? What is driving him to face the almost certain humiliation that awaits him in November?
TO UNDERSTAND ANYTHING ABOUT MAURO, it’s necessary to appreciate how far he has come. The populist themes he favors (standing up for the little guy against HMOs) are straight out of his own background: After emigrating from Sicily, his great-grandfather walked from Galveston to Bryan, where he became a tenant farmer. His grandfather opened a grocery store, and his great-grandmother used to make lunch for 75 on Sunday afternoons, when the extended family would gather. Later, his father, a petroleum engineer with Gulf Oil, took jobs that led the family to move to Abilene, Dallas, Fort Worth, and Waco. In high school Mauro decided to be a lawyer, though his only contact with the profession was reading about it in Newsweek. “Growing up, I didn’t know a single lawyer,” he says. “We didn’t run in those circles.”
Mauro majored in marketing at Texas A&M. “Turns out I’ve been marketing myself ever since,” he says. His taste for politics was whetted when he ran unsuccessfully for student body president at A&M; later, as a UT law student, he organized a statewide student lobbying organization. Former U.S. senator Ralph Yarborough was impressed enough to ask him to work as his travel aide in his last campaign. Mauro went on to manage Bob Krueger’s against-all-odds election to Congress in 1974, a source of his sense that he can engineer victory from sure defeat. Subsequently he worked for Bob Bullock when he was state comptroller and became the executive director of the state Democratic party. The idea of running for office himself didn’t occur to him for a long time. “I wanted to be the workhorse, not the show horse,” he says. At heart Mauro is still more of a behind-the-scenes operator; establishing intimacy with the masses, second nature to a politician like Bill Clinton, has never been his forte. Drawn to office by a wonkish desire to control policy and by his competitive nature, he decided in 1982 to run for commissioner of the General Land Office. Perhaps the most obscure statewide post—the job involves overseeing public lands and comes without a natural constituency—it was a smart choice for an unknown.
When he first announced he was running, his name identification wasn’t even in the double digits. “I would call people up and say, ‘Garry Mauro is coming to town,’” recalls Judith Dale, who now works at the Land Office. “They would say, ‘Who’s that?’” Mauro diligently turned that situation around by driving to 230 of the state’s 254 counties. “Garry just willed himself in,” says Dale. After winning the primary in a runoff against State Senator Pete Snelson of Midland, Mauro benefited from a Democratic sweep in November 1982, led by Senator Lloyd Bentsen, Governor Mark White, and Lieutenant Governor Bill Hobby. He has been reelected three times since. His personal fortunes have not always matched his political fortunes, however; two marriages have foundered, and he went through a personal bankruptcy after overextending himself during the real estate boom. His supporters say these trials have only strengthened his character. Mauro is devoted to his two children, whose sports teams he coaches, and despite his two failed marriages, the slogan for his platform is “Texas Families First,” as if to emphasize that modern families come in all shapes and sizes.
The Democratic party used to help loyal functionaries win important elections despite blemishes in their personal lives. Governors such as Preston Smith, Mark White, and Ann Richards all worked their way up through the party’s farm team. Mauro, too, paid his dues, but just when the state’s political tradition suggested it should be his turn in high office, the tradition itself ceased to exist. Last fall, when it came time to decide whether to enter the race, Mauro found himself alone and beleaguered, almost entirely without allies in the state capitol. He decided to run anyway. Early in 1998 Garry Mauro