DAN MORALES NEEDED A SLAP IN THE FACE, and Bob Bullock was just the guy to give it to him. It was 1991, Morales’ first year on the job as Texas’ attorney general, and few would have characterized the then-35-year-old San Antonio native as an overnight sensation. His fellow Democrats didn’t bother to conceal their distrust of Morales, whose conservative views were almost indistinguishable from those of the Republican he had beaten in the 1990 general election, Buster Brown. His subordinates in the attorney general’s office, zealously loyal to his crusading liberal predecessor, Jim Mattox, saw their new boss as an uninspired Milquetoast. And although he had spent the previous six years as a state legislator, the new attorney general did not get the family treatment during the 1991 legislative session when, in the heat of an argument over redistricting, Lieutenant Governor Bullock expressed his annoyance at Morales by whacking him on the cheek.
Five years after the fracas with Bullock, the attorney general is nobody’s whipping boy. Despite continuing squabbles over legislative issues, lawmakers have shown their grudging respect for Morales by vesting his office with unprecedented statutory authority in criminal as well as civil matters. State Democrats have reluctantly accepted the fact that Morales won’t change for them. So have his six hundred or so subordinate attorneys, whose undying loyalty Morales will probably never command, but who nevertheless have learned from periodic head-rollings who is in charge. Today, a truer measure of his political evolution is that his detractors are those he has earned by standing firm rather than by being someone who just looks like he needs a good slapping.
Without a doubt, 1996 has been the year in which Dan Morales has hit his stride, emerging from the demon shadows of Mattox and Hispanic archetype Henry Cisneros. In launching a $4 billion lawsuit against the tobacco companies this past March, the ordinarily Clark Kentish attorney general talked like a man spoiling for a fight, assailing the industry as being among “the worst of civilization’s evil empires” and declaring that he would, for the first time in his five-year tenure, make the opening arguments at trial. The lawsuit, which attempts to recoup monies the state has spent on tobacco-related illnesses for medicaid patients since 1980, has received lukewarm-at-best support from Governor George W. Bush and was flatly opposed by two thirds of those questioned in a Harte-Hanks poll of Texans this past June. Still, Morales insists that it’s “the right thing to do,” whether anyone agrees with him or not, and vows that, at least with respect to the tobacco lawsuit, “I’m not going to spend a whole lot of time thinking about polls or what the public will or won’t support.”
In the meantime, Morales has dominated this year’s headlines as Bush did last year and comptroller John Sharp did the year before. His adversaries would suggest that Morales has merely taken this long to master the art of grandstanding, and even his supporters see a grain of truth in this; as Democratic political consultant George Christian says, “He’s got a much better political organization than before—his office has gotten more skillful at projecting itself out to the public.” Yet much of his power is derived from his office’s performance, which includes an impressive and diverse string of credits: the settling of the Ruiz lawsuit over prison conditions, the tightening of NAFTA regulations to minimize the number of unsafe vehicles crossing into Texas, the forging of alliances with county and federal law enforcement officials who hadn’t been especially cozy with Mattox, the near elimination of Houston’s “ giro houses” (foreign-exchange shops set up to launder drug money), and significant—if not completely triumphant—efforts to clean up the state’s colonias and nursing homes.
Of course, such accomplishments would pale in comparison to a court victory over the tobacco industry, which has never lost a product liability lawsuit. As to the bleak odds, Morales says, “I recognize that this defendant is probably the biggest and baddest that there is. But I think it’s a righteous fight.” It is also one that will keep his name in the news for a good year. Still, calculated or not, winnable or not, the lawsuit is a bold assertion of Morales’ authority and an indication as well of his mild but persistent ideals—which, by the way, he would put up against Jim Mattox’s any day: “I would not concede for one minute,” says Dan Morales, “that the prior administration did more good for the state than we’re doing.”
There is a notable defensiveness to such remarks made by the attorney general. Nearly six years after taking office, Dan Morales still feels the need to prove himself to an electorate that remains in the dark about who he is and what he stands for.