State Politics • Dan Morales

Taking on the tobacco industry and other foes, Texas’ attorney general is smokin’—at last.

September 1996By Comments

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. A recent statewide survey concluded that Morales is “not that well defined”: 13 percent described him as conservative, 36 percent as moderate, 16 percent as liberal, and fully 35 percent weren’t sure how to describe him. (The fact that many voters in the 1996 Democratic primary for U.S. senator would apparently confuse candidate Victor Morales with Dan Morales might suggest that both men, not just Victor, are politically amorphous.) It has not helped that Morales is a poor fit with Texas political stereotypes. Despite his boots-and-jeans office attire, he is the closest a Texas state official can be to Mister Rogers: He lacks Bush’s swagger and Bullock’s gruffness, and unlike the stogie-chewing Sharp, Morales says he has never smoked—“No kinds of cigarettes,” he hastily adds, as if someone out there might imagine Morales as a pothead. His undergraduate years were spent not at the University of Texas or Texas A&M but at elite Trinity University in San Antonio; he earned his law degree at Harvard. A number of his Harvard buddies are on the attorney general’s payroll, about which Morales points out, only half jokingly, “We’ve got more UT guys than Harvard guys here, and I can prove that if you want.”

The political stereotype that Morales has especially resisted is that of the Hispanic liberal firebrand. Though he is the first Hispanic ever elected to head a state agency in Texas history, he does not wear the distinction comfortably. Morales possesses neither the inspiration of Cisneros nor the ideological passion of Congressman Henry B. Gonzalez. Asked if his race worked to his advantage when Harvard Law School considered accepting him, Morales replies, “I certainly would have to assume so.” But being the beneficiary of affirmative action (which, fifteen years after his graduation, Morales now opposes) did not dispose Morales to a liberal career track. The young lawyer landed his first postgraduate job at the Houston corporate law firm Bracewell and Patterson in 1981 and the following year joined the Bexar County district attorney’s office. After an eighteen-month stint of prosecuting minor drug cases, the 28-year-old Morales ran successfully for the Texas House of Representatives. In 1990 the earnest but obscure three-term San Antonio legislator announced his candidacy for attorney general. Though his professional history suggested no particular dedication to minority issues, Hispanics turned out for Morales in droves, enabling him to eke out a victory over Republican Buster Brown.

Today, Morales’ murky image has enabled detractors to paint him as a cipher. Yet his ideology is there for anyone who wishes to see it. His sense of right and wrong is of the bland but genuine sort, shaped not so much by racist evils committed against him as by the do-gooding example set by his schoolteacher parents. He says that while toiling as a Bexar County prosecutor, “the exposure to the system and seeing victims get the shaft impressed upon me that changes needed to be made.” Those changes, Morales came to learn, were best addressed at the legislative level, so he felt compelled to run in 1984 against incumbent legislator and defense attorney Joe Hernandez. The young candidate excoriated Hernandez for, as Morales puts it today, “abusing the legislative continuance statute to delay the trials of rapists, murderers, and drug dealers he was representing.”

Prosecutor Morales defeated defense lawyer Hernandez. Six years later, he would succeed another politician with a background in defense law, Jim Mattox. Though Morales and his bombastic predecessor are most often compared by their temperamental differences, how each has run the attorney general’s office is primarily informed by their respective legal background. By way of highlighting his prosecutorial experience, Morales selected Drew Durham, a former president of the statewide district attorney’s association, to lead his newly formed criminal litigation division. (To this day, the loose-lipped good ol’ boy Durham shows an equal talent for interfacing with sheriffs and county prosecutors and for regularly offending the liberal holdovers at the attorney general’s office.) At the same time, Morales the former corporate lawyer sought to soften the agency’s posture toward big business—a posture that, under Mattox, says Morales, “saw a necessity in riding herd all the time on the greedy corporate entities.” Out, then, went the upper-echelon staffers affiliated with the Sierra Club and minority rights groups; in came lieutenants who had previously represented large corporate entities.

Similarly, the new attorney general purged the office’s consumer protection division of a dozen or so excellent attorneys who nonetheless, Morales believed, had been groomed by Mattox to attack big business. Today Morales pleads guilty to running a business-friendly agency but suggests he has found holier crusades for his office to pursue. “You know, suing Volvo and Quaker Oats [as Mattox did] gets you public relations,” he says. “And those are legitimate lawsuits, but you have to prioritize. It’s one thing to go after those entities where the middle and upper classes will be the beneficiary. It’s another to focus our limited resources upon efforts that will benefit those who need it most.”

Morales has a point: After one dispenses with rhetoric and focuses upon their records, Morales’ seems far more attentive to the needs of the poor, the elderly, and the infirm than Mattox’s. Though Morales’ aggressive legal action against unscrupulous border developers has not improved the Third World living conditions of the 350,000 inhabitants of colonias, 1996 marks the first year in decades that such developments have seen no net growth. Morales has been similarly vigilant in his pursuit of crooked nursing home operators and of the $40 billion telemarketing industry that targets senior citizens. The sympathy he felt as a young prosecutor for victims who “get the shaft” resounds throughout his tenure as attorney general—extending logically, if more sensationally, to his indignant claim in the original complaint of The State of Texas v. The American Tobacco Co. et al. that “the tobacco industry has been successful in planning, implementing and executing the largest and most destructive campaign of corporate misinformation in U.S. business history.”

Those who have perceived Dan Morales as being limp in spirit have him all wrong. If anything, the attorney general has been overly forceful in using his office to reposition Texas toward the “reasoned middle” that Morales calls his ideological home. When the U.S. Supreme Court invalidated three Texas congressional districts this past June, Morales broke ranks from fellow Democrats Bullock and House Speaker Pete Laney, who pledged to do whatever they could to preserve the ethnic makeup of the districts being redrawn. Morales, no fan of governmentally induced minority representation, sent out a press release calling for a nonpartisan committee to handle the redistricting—a sensible suggestion, perhaps, but not what one would term a legal interpretation. More egregious was the manner in which Morales personally undercut the state’s position in the Hopwood affirmative action case (see “The Texas Twenty: Cheryl Hopwood,” page 113). Though the state appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court in hopes of getting Hopwood reversed and thus allowing the University of Texas law school to continue practicing affirmative action, Morales himself declared publicly that “admissions decisions should not be based upon race or ethnicity”—a quote that Cheryl Hopwood’s attorneys gleefully inserted into their brief to the Supreme Court. When the high court refused to hear the case, Morales abruptly announced, “The Supreme Court has spoken,” and went on to interpret the nonruling as a call for “race-neutral” methods of selecting students. The impudence of his role in the Hopwood saga was vintage Jim Mattox, but the politics was all Dan Morales.

The attorney general makes no apology for his belief system. “If Texans want to go back to the other way, then they can bring in a new officeholder, because I believe strongly in the way we’re doing it,” he proclaims defiantly. Morales knows he has little to worry about: He has never lost an election in five tries and in 1994 clobbered his Republican opponent by ten points despite the anti-Democrat sentiment of that campaign season. He will in all likelihood run for a third term in 1998, which, if he completes it, will make him the longest-serving attorney general in state history.

And after that? Morales says he has no interest in national elective office. He admits it’s the governor’s job that most appeals to him, though he has no plans to run in 1998. For almost any other state politician, 2002 seems an eternity away. But by then, Dan Morales will be all of 46, a middle-of-the-roader not content with middling dreams.

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