One Ticked-off Grandma

Comptroller Carole Keeton Strayhorn says Governor Rick Perry is messing with her. Better him than us.

IF YOU DROVE NEAR THE CAPITOL COMPLEX in Austin in mid-October, you couldn't miss the small white signs that read "Cheer Up." A Tommy Lee Jones movie of that name was filming nearby, and the signs were placed strategically to tell the crew the location of the day's shoot, but they could have also been taken as a plea to Texas politicians. This has not been a happy time at the Legislature, where work began in January against the backdrop of a $10 billion budget shortfall and ended nine months later after three special sessions, two quorum-busting walkouts, and a redistricting bill that only Tom DeLay could love. The House and Senate were at war. Democrats and Republicans were barely speaking. Republican leaders were fighting among themselves. And everyone, it seemed, had a bone to pick with Carole Keeton Strayhorn.

By all rights, this should have been a banner year for the comptroller of public accounts. She had dropped more than one hundred pounds and married for the third time, and her "One Tough Grandma" shtick had earned her more votes than any candidate of either party on last November's statewide ballot, as well as the most votes of any woman running for office anywhere in America. Two of her sons, Scott McClellan and Mark McClellan, had been named White House press secretary and commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration, respectively. A potentially embarrassing book by her first husband alleging that LBJ killed JFK earned her sympathy from women who had had their own marital misadventures. Even the budget shortfall had a silver lining for Strayhorn, whose role as the state's chief financial officer suddenly took on more significance. Her every utterance on the budget really mattered, or at least was supposed to. The 64-year-old with considerable and very public ambitions was finally a player.

Perhaps because of those ambitions, however, she was also a target. When she announced her pre-session estimate of how much revenue the Legislature could spend, Republicans and Democrats accused her of exaggerating the state's dire straits as a way of shining a light on herself. When she initially refused to certify that the budget was balanced at the end of the session, in June, the Republican leadership joined forces in attacking her as disloyal; then, 48 hours later, when she certified it after all, they snickered that she looked weak and amateurish. At the end of the third special session, relations between Strayhorn and Governor Rick Perry in particular were so frayed that the Legislature passed a government reorganization bill openly described as "Get Carole," stripping the comptroller's office of various powers.

Well, it did get Carole . . . angry, as I learned when I interviewed her in her office on October 16. Unbloodied by the fights of the past year, she insisted that she acted only in the best interest of Texas, and she dropped anvil-size hints about launching a "Get Rick" effort, a challenge to the governor's likely reelection bid in a campaign of her own for the state's top job. Republicans may not be looking forward to intraparty warfare in 2006, but for those of us who enjoy good political theater, things are getting interesting. Cheer up.

Think back to November 2002, when you were the highest vote-getter on the ballot. Could you have imagined that your situation would be so contentious a year later?

I don't believe you ever make decisions by taking a show of hands. You do in your gut what you know is right. So that wasn't even on my radar screen. I was humbled and honored to have been the top vote-getter, but what I was really pleased about was the fact that I got 64 percent of the vote. To do that you've got to have broad bipartisan support. I've always prided myself on having bipartisan support; I don't label anybody. I don't like labels.

But you do consider yourself a Republican?

Oh, yes!

Once upon a time you were a Democrat. Any plans to become one in the future? Because that's one thing out there in the rumor mill: that you're going to switch parties again. Any intention of running as anything other than a Republican?

Absolutely none.

Okay. Let me go back to 2002 again for a second. When Rick Perry, David Dewhurst, and Tom Craddick were candidates for office, were you all on good terms?

I was always on good terms with everybody. I learned long ago, during my mayoring days in Austin, that you can disagree on philosophy or issues, but you charge ahead in the friendship area.

What happened at the start of the session, when you announced the revenue estimate? Your fellow Republicans weren't happy.

My constitutional responsibility is to the people of Texas, whether it's giving a revenue estimate or certifying the budget. I do it precisely, and I tell it like it is. I gather the facts, and I listen to people whether they agree with me or not. And then I act independently. I didn't consult with any of those folks before the revenue estimate. Which was very accurate, by the way—within three tenths of one percent.

During the session, you were asked to be part of the weekly breakfast between the governor, the lieutenant governor, and the Speaker. Was the tone of those breakfasts friendly?

It depends on where we were in the session and who was upset with whom. We had some very deliberate discussions. I think that if they had me back for breakfast, I'd take a taster.

Did the breakfasts stop at a certain point?

No, they went on all through the regular session. But they got a little less productive. For instance, one member wasn't quite as prompt as the others. The breakfasts were supposed to take place at eight o'clock. You may have heard of one week when three of us waited for a good while and then decided that we had things to do and waited no longer.

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