The Metamorphosis

Once upon a time, Sugar Land was a fading company town on the banks of the Brazos River and Tom DeLay was a young exterminator in a state dominated by Democratic rule. How did we get from there to here?

May 2004By and Comments

IN 1974 AMERICAN THEATERS WERE briefly graced by a movie called The Sugarland Express. Based on a true story, the film proposed the adventure of a fugitive Texas convict and his spunky harebrained wife. The two hijack a rookie state trooper in a desperate attempt to keep the state from declaring them unfit parents and putting their infant son in a foster home. Along the way, the captors and captive become buddies, and there are all sorts of other action-picture clichés—car chases, wrecks, explosions, a convincingly bewildering gunfight. But the movie stands out because the director had the good sense to slow it down. The old rodeo cowboy and character actor Ben Johnson played a highway patrol captain doing his best to rescue his dumb rookie and keep the hapless outlaws from coming to the unhappy end proposed by Texas Ranger snipers. No Dirty Harry, this guy. “I’ve been on the force eighteen years,” drawls Johnson’s cop. “It’s been my good fortune not to have killed anybody in that time. That’s the way I’d like to keep it.” Eventually, yahoos with a “Register Communists, Not Firearms” bumper sticker intervene and pitch the story into its inevitable dark turn, but most of the movie is a comic foreshadowing of O. J. Simpson and the white Bronco.

The Sugarland Express is a minor classic, the first feature of a young director named Steven Spielberg. The filmmaker seemed to be smitten by the name “Sugarland.” The town where the runaways mean to reclaim their baby is held off-camera, always luring them on, some sweet place where their family can be redeemed. When the fictional Sugarland finally materializes onscreen, it is an ordinary Southern town with broad streets and swings on front porches and a sprawling junk yard on the outskirts. It was, in fact, nothing like the real Sugar Land. Since the time Spielberg was exploring the place as a metaphor, the former company town has transformed its murky bayous into high-spurting fountains, and the malls along the highways make the town look like the world capital of Bed Bath & Beyond. It has dozens of churches, and golf courses are its parks. Middle-class voters with no stake in the Texas ways of old, nor much knowledge of or interest in the town’s curious past, have poured into its massive subdivisions. Large numbers of them aren’t Texans; jobs brought them to Houston. In its suburban rebirth, Sugar Land rapidly shed whatever resemblance to the one Spielberg imagined and became one of the most Republican-dominated towns in the country.

Around the time The Sugarland Express hit theaters, future congressman Tom DeLay started doing business in the real Sugar Land; he later made his home there. The coincidence is noteworthy. The House majority leader is now widely considered the most powerful member of Congress, the orchestrator of Texas’s fierce redistricting battle and a fundraising goliath. But DeLay might have remained just another irked young conservative if not for the sea change in Texas politics over the past three decades, one that shifted power from rural areas to the new suburbs, from single-party Democratic control to overwhelming Republican dominance. The transformation in Texas politics is embedded in the history of Tom DeLay’s Sugar Land.

IN THE 1820’S THE COASTAL PRAIRIE and savannah along the Brazos River lured the first settlers from the United States to the Texas colony of Stephen F. Austin, in what was then a Mexican province. Austin granted the area on Oyster Creek to his secretary in 1828. Some residents of DeLay’s congressional district still proudly claim heritage as descendants of Austin’s Three Hundred, those first families of Texans. The Brazos bottomlands get abundant rain—one legendary flood reached eight miles across—and the heavily silted, dark gumbo soil is extraordinarily fertile. Many of Texas’s first and richest plantations sprawled across the valley in rows of cotton, corn, and sugarcane. A mill that ground cane into sugar opened in 1843; the village of Sugar Land grew around it.

The Civil War and its aftermath killed off most of the plantations, but another thing the countryside nourished was prisons. State penitentiaries were flung out in all directions—a culture of dog boys and horseback-riding guards and convicts in white coveralls marching off into the haze with ten-pound hoes. The convicts were leased as labor to the remaining sugarcane farmers. De facto slavery was alive and well, legal and just as brutal. Prisoners suffered malaria and tuberculosis and yellow fever. They called Sugar Land “the Hell Hole on the Brazos.”

The non-penal settlement almost became a ghost town, but in the first decade of the new century, a partnership of investors bought up two of the old plantations and built a sugar-processing plant. They named their enterprise the Imperial Sugar Company after the Imperial Hotel in New York. After the First World War, one of Imperial’s founding partners devoted himself to building Sugar Land as a company town. Imperial greatly enlarged the plant, and ethnic Germans and Czechs moved in and gave the area a stable population. Outside town, the planters’ labor pool and the convicts’ bitterness went unchanged. The company sold one of the sugar plantations to the Texas prison system, which continued to run it like the farmers, for a profit. The pioneering blues singer Leadbelly—better known to wardens in the twenties as the murderer Huddie Ledbetter—composed a classic song called “The Midnight Special” while incarcerated in Sugar Land. The Midnight Special was a train that each night passed by the prison. For the convicts it was a symbol of freedom.

By 1932 Imperial was the last sugar manufacturer in Texas. The company diversified into vinegar and pickles, mattresses and warehousing, and the sprawling plant held on by refining Cuban sugar. After cold war politics eliminated that supply, the refinery endured a long, slow death. The small town it had spawned differed from neighbors only in its unusual origins. Until Spielberg came along, the most fame ever bestowed on Sugar Land was the blessing and curse of a fifties high school running back named Ken Hall. Many of Hall’s records still stand, but his college coach, Bear Bryant, rarely let him off the bench at Texas A&M, and the can’t-miss all-American abruptly quit and wound up back in Sugar Land, pumping gas.

Though Imperial retained its headquarters in Sugar Land, the plant finally closed in May 2003, and a small cluster of dignified homes and tall trees is the last vestige of the Czech and German community. But Sugar Land’s destiny was hardly that of a slowly wasting small town. The coastal plain had lavish mineral wealth—oil, gas, sulfur—and it had highways. U.S. 90, U.S. 59, and Interstate 10 connected the emerging industrial giant along the Gulf Coast with South Texas and West Texas, Mexico and California. Thanks to an OPEC embargo of the United States, Western Europe, and Japan in the late seventies, oil prices soared. Texas enjoyed one of its more obnoxious booms; a popular bumper sticker gloated, “Let the Yankees Freeze in the Dark.” Office towers and balloon-note mortgages shot up; real estate speculators were flipping raw land like burgers. Almost overnight, suburban Houston spilled out onto the highways to Sugar Land, endowing it with fast food, vast shopping centers, and upscale brick subdivisions crowded right up to the fences of the prisons.

Today, Sugar Land’s third personification stands in sharp relief from its neighbor across the Brazos River. Richmond, one of the first communities chartered by the Republic of Texas and the Fort Bend County seat, retains the air and flavor of the kind of Southern small town celebrated in Spielberg’s movie. Except for the broad brown stream dividing them, Sugar Land and Richmond appear to have almost nothing in common. Many lots in the old town have bar ditches that help move the storm runoff (and breed the locale’s notorious mosquitoes), and houses are perched on block foundations. A cattle rancher named Hilmar Moore, a member of a family that was among Austin’s Three Hundred, has been Richmond’s mayor for 54 years. Once a Democrat, he’s now an Independent. He’s often worked with Tom DeLay over the years, but he still seems amazed by the congressman’s rapid rise to power. “Tom had a pest control operation when he first came here,” he reminisced, “but he’s a wealthy man now.” Back then nearly everyone was a Democrat, and DeLay’s choice of party affiliation was a bold one. “Around here in those days,” said Moore, “it was like, ‘Look, there’s a Republican.’ Like a freak in a circus.”

BEFORE THE OIL BOOM gave rise to the suburbs, power in Texas was rooted in a past of rural domination, and that past had long served the interests of the Democratic party. Black flags flew from poles all over the state when Abraham Lincoln was elected president. Most of the 90,000 Texans who served with the Confederate army spent the war in Texas or New Mexico Territory, far from the savage killing fields. But Texas paid dearly for its secession; after the war ended, carpetbaggers and scalawags carried out the policies of Republican radicals. When Reconstruction finally ended, in the 1870’s, Texas enacted one of the most restrictive state constitutions in the nation; its purpose was to ensure that such abuses by government could never recur. Definitions of what constituted a Democrat or a Republican would change vastly, of course. But the effect was that for a century Texas remained a one-party state. Political and factional battles were contested within Democratic primaries. General elections against Republicans were a formality.

The ideological tilt of Texas politics was distinctly rightward, but the state was always swayed by national trends. The Depression—and the blame for it that Democrats successfully placed on Herbert Hoover—strengthened the party’s grip in Texas. The aristocratic New Yorker Franklin D. Roosevelt was popular here (in large part for choosing Uvalde’s John Nance Garner as his running mate), and in the thirties a number of Texas politicians won high office voicing their commitment to carry out the New Deal. A combative state attorney general named Jimmy Allred moved up to become the most progressive governor Texas ever had. Roosevelt mentored several young Texans in Congress, among them the tall, rawboned, and ambitious ex-schoolteacher from the Hill Country, Lyndon Johnson.

During his rise to Senate power, Johnson had performed a nimble high-wire act over the liberal and the conservative camps in Texas. The Great Society legislation that he bullied through Congress as president was more a fulfillment of Roosevelt’s vision than John F. Kennedy’s. Johnson’s career proved to be both the apotheosis and the end of the Democrats’ hegemony in Texas. The one-party rulership had a rotten spine—a long tradition of financial corruption, electoral fraud, and racial prejudice and exclusion. The contradictions of LBJ were captured in the glory and gloom that accompanied his engineering and signature of the U.S. Voting Rights Act, in 1965. In rebuking his segregationist past he knew his finest hour, his greatest act of conscience. Yet he confided to an aide that he feared he’d just signed over the South to the Republicans for a generation. That may have been a typically egocentric interpretation of cause and effect, but Johnson’s vision of the future was accurate. The Democrats had already let the genie out of the bottle in Texas. In early 1961 Governor John Connally appointed William Blakely to a Senate seat when Johnson became the vice president. Blakely became the party’s nominee that spring, and liberals stayed home from the polls in protest, allowing Republican John Tower to grab the seat. Later, in national politics, Richard Nixon would chart a Southern strategy that would capitalize on white resentment and turn conservative Democrats into Republicans.

George Herbert Walker Bush, a war hero and scion of a Connecticut political clan, who had made a fortune as a West Texas wildcatter, won election to Congress in Houston in 1966 and was projected to follow Tower as the next champion of the Republican takeover of Texas. It didn’t work out that way. Bush lost two races for the U.S. Senate and had to look to Washington and the largesse of the national Republican party to extend his political career. The coup de grace to the Johnson-Connally machine was applied by a cranky oilman from Dallas named Bill Clements. Incumbent Texas governor Dolph Briscoe—a rancher and a descendant of Austin’s Three Hundred—had taken advantage of a banking scandal to carry the conservatives and had withstood kamikaze charges by the liberals, but in office he had inspired no one. In a 1978 reelection bid, Briscoe was upset in the Democratic primary by a business-oriented attorney general named John Hill. Everyone thought the old ways would hold; the election of the next governor had been decided.

But national politics was again a factor. The reputation of Jimmy Carter, who had carried Texas as a Southerner in the post-Watergate presidential election of 1976, was going downhill fast. Clements, who favored garish plaid sport coats and swore like a roughneck, kicked off the general election campaign by flinging a rubber chicken across a banquet table at the astonished Hill and telling him he was going to hang Carter around Hill’s neck in the way that country people cured chicken-killing dogs. And he lived up to his crude boast. Clements attracted a cadre of ideologically charged and self-assured young Republicans that included one Karl Rove. They used direct mail and phone banks in ways that were brand-new to Texas politics. Clements won the election in the last days and hours and rescued John Tower from defeat in his closest call.

It was only the beginning of the Republican revolution. Except for governor, the Democrats still held every statewide office. They controlled the Legislature; in the 150-member House of Representatives, the GOP claimed just 22. Still, with that election, a century of one-party rule in Texas crumbled like the loose banks of a flooding Brazos River.

THOUGH IT WAS LITTLE NOTED at the time, one of the politicians who caught a ride on that wave was an exterminator named Tom DeLay. DeLay, who was born in Laredo and spent much of his early life in Venezuela, where his father worked in the oil and gas industry, graduated from the University of Houston with a degree in biology in 1970. Soon thereafter, he and his wife, Christine, a teacher, settled in the area while he went to work for Redwood Chemical, a company that sold pesticides to exterminators. The two had a daughter, Danielle, in 1972. After a couple of years of working for wages, the new father believed he saw enough opportunity to go into business for himself. The warm and muggy lowlands always have a surfeit of pest insects. He christened his start-up enterprise Environmental Services. Months later he bought a larger and more established service, Albo Pest Control. In the boom climate he picked up clients in west Houston and suburban Stafford, Missouri City, and Sugar Land.

In 1978 the successful businessman surfaced in public life looking much different than he does today. Then 31, he had a full head of black hair, sideburns to his earlobes, and a thick mustache; in some photos he resembled actor Cliff Robertson. He and his wife and daughter had been living in Simonton, a bedroom community near Sugar Land. One night DeLay went to a Republican precinct meeting in Fort Bend County and came away elected their chairman. A Democrat was vacating the House seat that embraced Fort Bend and parts of Harris and Brazoria counties. He read a how-to book on running campaigns and paid his filing fee for the GOP unopposed. Two young attorneys and an optometrist fought it out gently in the Democratic primary. A Houston Post reporter watched the candidates together at a political rally and wrote a story headlined “Four ‘Nice Guys’ in the Running.” Really. The reporter, who seemed charmed by DeLay, ended his piece: “‘Give me your support,’ [DeLay] urged the crowd. ‘Give me your money,’ he added with a smile. ‘Give me your vote.'” Ah, yes, money. He was out front on that from the very start.

In his speeches, DeLay delivered standard bland clichés: “It’s time the common citizens get involved in our government.” “We need a state representative who will ask us what we want instead of telling us what we need.” But he had a message that resonated among Sugar Land’s new residents. They were white suburbanites who paid high taxes and suffered long commutes to live jammed together in gated-entry homes that seemed so far, so secure from the intimidating ethnicities and crime of Houston. DeLay made it clear that what people needed from Austin was less. “Government has been a monster,” he proclaimed. “Texas government is becoming too big and too powerful.” The Texas monster always ranked near the bottom in teacher salaries, overall spending for education, and social services, ranking first or second only in toxic pollution, Louisiana its rival for that honor. But thanks to the oil boom, state government was operating with a billion-dollar surplus. DeLay advocated giving that surplus back by repealing the state sales tax and reforming property taxes, especially estate taxes. He had only one spending priority: relieving suburban Houston from its clogged highways. DeLay promised he would take on transportation bureaucrats from the counties to Washington, D.C. To him, transportation meant only cars and trucks, not public transit. “I want to make the highway dollar worth a dollar,” he shouted.

In content, his campaign was unexceptional, but he subscribed to ideas that were beginning to work for Republicans. He sent out 26,000 well-aimed “legislative questionnaires”—direct-mail pleas for contributions and turnout. DeLay was lucky; he benefited largely from that unprecedented swell at the top of the ballot in 1978. But he’d also tapped into a new constituency. Many of his supporters were not only suburban but also women. After the traffic jams let go of their husbands and the kids were fed, they worked phone banks and walked blocks for Clements, Tower, and DeLay. The folksy Democratic optometrist had turned back his lawyer opponents and was in the general election. But the Republican vote in the suburbs came in strong, and DeLay won the House race handily, 13,012 to 10,905, garnering 54 percent.

After the election, a phrase in political news coverage became a cliché in Texas: “the first Republican _____ since Reconstruction.” It wasn’t just a governor and a senator—you could fill in the blank. And so it was with Tom DeLay. Riding the new Sugar Land express, he became the first Republican from Fort Bend County elected to the Legislature since Reconstruction.

From The Hammer, by Lou Dubose and Jan Reid. Copyright (c) 2004. Reprinted by arrangement with PublicAffairs, of the Perseus Books Group. All rights reserved. Available in bookstores this summer.

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