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Power is the ability to make things happen.
The political system is so unwieldy, so rife with nuance, so studded with procedural obstacles, so vulnerable to popular whim, that power brokers are essential to the process. The 25 people on our list of the Texans with the most political clout at the state level owe their status to some combination of four assets that translate into power: money, institutional knowledge, relationships, and ideas.
This is the third such list that TEXAS MONTHLY has compiled in our 32-year history, but it bears little relation to the other two. The nature of political power has changed radically since our first compilation of power brokers, in 1976. At that time, power was almost exclusively the preserve of big business (banking, oil, Texas-based corporations and the law firms that served them) and big cities (nineteen of the twenty names on the list called Houston or Dallas home). The first list is replete with Texas icons: Leon Jaworski, the Watergate prosecutor; George R. Brown, the pipeline and construction magnate and LBJ benefactor; former governor John Connally, LBJ’s protégé; Robert Strauss, the lawyer and political kingmaker. By the time we compiled our second list, in 1987, advancing age and declining energy prices had wiped out the old guard, leaving a power vacuum that money and clout alone could not fill. The new prototypes of Texas power were Ross Perot and Henry Cisneros, whose strength was not just riches and political influence but also ideas. Perot spearheaded the 1984 reform of the state’s public education system, which included the radical notion that passing in school was more important than passing in football, while Cisneros, as mayor of San Antonio, built a statewide following by stimulating the local economy and proving the truth of the old adage that a rising tide lifts all boats.
Today, political power is largely the province of operatives, not principals. The 1976 list was full of elder statesmen; the new list has none. Both of the previous lists were packed with household names; the new list has just one, Kay Bailey Hutchison, and she’s a special case: Her importance depends on whether she runs for governor and, if she is to make the list in future years, whether she wins. Not a single corporate leader appears on our list. The amateur kingmakers of yesterday have been replaced by the political professionals of today. With Republicans in charge at the Capitol, business has more clout than it had in the nineties, but it’s too diverse to speak with a single voice, and its primary concerns are in Washington, not Austin. When companies’ interests are at risk, they hire operatives, just like everybody else. No can-do entrepreneurs walk the halls of the Capitol, as Perot once did. The members of today’s power club no longer call Houston and Dallas home. Most live and work in Austin.
The current power list does have one thing in common with its predecessors: It’s overwhelmingly white and male. Only two women and two African Americans made the list—and, surprisingly, no Hispanics. Or maybe it isn’t so surprising: Hispanics have traditionally been Democrats, and the Democrats are out of power. The most prominent Texas Hispanics in politics today are two George W. Bush loyalists who aren’t even in Texas: Alberto Gonzales, who awaits confirmation as the next U.S. attorney general, and Tony Garza, the U.S. ambassador to Mexico. Like it or not—and we don’t like it, because it’s not good for the political vitality of the state in the long run—power politics in the Capitol is still a white guy’s world.
This list is a snapshot of a moment in time. A year ago it might have been different; a year from now it surely will be. In recognition that politics is never static, we offer two other lists, one identifying people who might have been on a power list in the past but didn’t make it this time and one identifying people who didn’t make this list but may make the next one. To come up with all of our names, we drew on years of experience of covering Texas politics, plus interviews with politicians, reporters, and operatives. We were looking for three kinds of folks: those with the ability to get things done, those with the ability to keep things from getting done, and those who inspire fear and admiration, who can’t be ignored, who are too big to mess with—the proverbial eight-hundred-pound gorillas.
We knew that lists like this one already exist in people’s heads; politicos can scent power. Our final choices represent a consensus but not universal agreement. The biggest point of contention was our stipulation that power cannot be based on one’s position alone. Power is inherent in offices like governor, lieutenant governor, Speaker, and state senator; for the purposes of this list, the issue is, how much added value does the officeholder contribute with his unique personality and popularity? Rick Perry is powerful because he is governor, not because he is Rick Perry. David Dewhurst is powerful because he is lieutenant governor, not because he is David Dewhurst. Compare them with their forerunners George W. Bush and Bob Bullock, who compounded the power of their offices with the force of their personalities, and you see the significance of added value. Tom Craddick, on the other hand, is powerful not only because he is Speaker of the House but also because in his 36-year career he has packaged the institutional knowledge, friendships with lobbyists, and relationships with the state’s most influential Republicans that enable him to bend recalcitrant GOP legislators—and even some Democrats—to his will.
A final word about power: Some people, both in and out of politics, find the very idea of a power list distasteful. That attitude is understandable. Power is the dark side of politics. It involves the successful use of leverage to influence the course of democratic decision making. Leverage takes many forms, some relatively benign (friendship), some less so (money, threats, favors). The big picture is that the era of the kingmaker is over in Texas politics. The Capitol will always be subject to outside influences—most recently, Tom DeLay’s demand for congressional redistricting—but the day when a handful of men in Houston and Dallas could decide the fate of legislative races and greatly influence the direction of state policy is over. Power is dispersed rather than centralized; the Republican primary voter has more say over public policy than any power broker. No matter what you’ve heard, Texas politics is far more democratic—small d, at least—than it used to be.