Two for Texas

Why are former Aggie buddies John Sharp and Rick Perry battling so ferociously for the job of lieutenant governor? Because they think George W. Bush could win the White House, and then they'd be number one.

ONE RACE ON THE NOVEMBER BALLOT IS far more important than any other. It could clear the way for George W. Bush to get the Republican presidential nomination in 2000, or thwart his prospects. It could herald a GOP sweep of statewide offices, or lead to a revival of the Texas Democratic party. It could alter political relationships that have been in place so long as to be thought immutable—between legislators and their leaders, between their leaders and the business lobby. The race is not the one for governor between Bush and Democrat Garry Mauro, in which only the size of Bush’s margin is in doubt, but the one for lieutenant governor, between John Sharp, the Democratic state comptroller, and Rick Perry, the Republican commissioner of agriculture. Regardless of how it is identified on the ballot, it is really a second governor’s race: If Bush is elected president, the lieutenant governor will become governor in January 2001.

Yet the battle for lite-guv, as the job is known around the Capitol, has managed to go largely unnoticed by the public. This is hardly surprising. The title “lieutenant governor” sounds as if it ought to describe a banana republic jefe with epaulets on his shoulders. Few Texans know what a lieutenant governor actually does, other than hang around in case a governor is impeached (as James “Pa” Ferguson was in 1917, enabling William P. Hobby to assume the office) or dies (as Beauford Jester did in 1949, opening the way for Allan Shivers). In politics, number two jobs aren’t worth “a pitcher of warm spit,” as Cactus Jack Garner of Uvalde once said of the vice presidency, which he held during Franklin Roosevelt’s first two terms in the White House. (The fourth term would have been better.) Indeed, eight states get along without a lieutenant governor; in many of the rest, about the most exciting day a lieutenant governor has is when he gets to break a tie vote while presiding over the Senate. Texas, however, is different. For as long as anyone in state politics can remember, the lite-guv has been the most important politician in the Capitol. He has life-and-death power over the governor’s legislative program; he makes and breaks the careers of senators; he sets the spending priorities for the state. He has the power but not the glory.

For Sharp and Perry, these stakes are made even higher by their personal relationship, which goes all the way back to their days as students at Texas A&M University in the late sixties and early seventies. They were classmates, squadron mates, and drinking buddies who went on to gain positions of prominence on campus: Sharp as student body president, Perry as yell leader. The political characteristics that differentiate them—Sharp is more substantive, Perry is more gregarious—first emerged in the paths they chose at A&M. For many years they remained close friends, and they may be friends again some day, but for the moment the prospect of wielding power or becoming governor is nothing compared with the allure of beating the other. All spring and summer the two men have engaged in hand-to-hand combat for the endorsement of special-interest groups, battling for individual commitments in an era when votes are won by the hundreds of thousands in media campaigns. This race is part style versus substance and part Republican versus Democrat, but most of all it is really Aggie versus Aggie.

Style Versus Substance

ON A SWELTERING AUGUST AFTERNOON, Rick Perry arrived at the Lincoln Recreation Center in College Station to tout his plan for after-school care at a news conference. It was one of those days that is all too typical for down-ballot candidates, when nothing goes right and no one seems to be interested. Either Perry had arrived early or the school kids who were supposed to be gathered around him were late; in any case, there was nothing for him to do but work the crowd, which didn’t take long because only one camera crew and ten members of the public had turned out. If this bothered Perry, he didn’t show it. He slung his suit coat over his shoulder and traded small talk with center employees.

Finally, about fourteen black children of early elementary school age were led in, and Perry launched into his speech about giving children a place to be after school, preventing crime, and making Texas’ schools the best in America. The words sort of faded into the background, though, because the way he said things was so much more interesting than what he said. Perry is blessed with as lively a face as you will come across in politics. It can be rough and rugged, boyish and impish, earnest and sincere, or various combinations of each. The top half of his face always seems to be smiling, even when the mouth is serious. His speech has its own appealing idiosyncrasies; every now and then he pronounces a word as though he has a mouthful of mashed potatoes—sounding a little like John Connally—so that “dollars” comes out as “dawrlers.” These mannerisms aren’t particularly dramatic in person, but in a television close-up, they reach across a living room and connect with viewers. Rick Perry is the perfect candidate for the media age. The camera loves him.

John Sharp is the opposite type of politician, someone who can make the details of state government sound interesting in a speech but doesn’t have charisma on TV. In person his round face and constant grin make him seem as if he is thoroughly enjoying himself—even in the middle of speaking—but onscreen the grin looks sardonic, while his deep-set eyes give the impression that he is tired, or perhaps just feigning a lack of interest, like a clever card player. When the two candidates have spoken to the same groups, such as the Texas Farm Bureau or the Texas Medical Association, Sharp has gotten the better reviews. He has the knack of turning a speech into a conversation. “I want to talk

More Texas Monthly

Loading, please wait...

Most Read

  • Viewed
  • Past:
  • 1 week