THE FRAMERS OF THE TEXAS Constitution were not trusting souls. They didn’t trust the governor to act with restraint, so they made his office weak. They didn’t trust the Legislature to be prudent with the taxpayers’ money, so they created the comptroller of public accounts to act as an independent watchdog over the state budget. The weak governor has worked out pretty well (especially, some would say, at this moment), but if you took a poll at the Capitol these days, the idea of an independent comptroller would not get rave reviews. I doubt that the authors of the constitution ever envisioned someone quite as independent as Carole Keeton Strayhorn.
Most politicians abide by the ancient wisdom of the profession that “the way to get along is to go along.” They avoid speaking ill of one another. They try not to pick fights gratuitously. They tie down their ambitions so they don’t flap in the wind. They grab a headline when the opportunity presents itself, but not too obviously and not too often. Strayhorn is the antithesis of a go-along politician. For the past four years she has engaged in a high-risk guerrilla strategy of seizing every chance to blast, waylay, and otherwise embarrass the governor, the lieutenant governor, and, occasionally, the Speaker—all of whom, of course, are members of her own Republican party. They retaliated by stripping her office of two high-profile money-saving programs that were her best source of positive headlines. The Capitol has seen nothing like this kind of continual high-stakes feuding in half a century, since the days when U.S. senator Lyndon Johnson, Governor Allan Shivers, and the champion of the liberals, Ralph Yarborough, fought each other for control of the then-dominant Democratic party.
All of this would be merely cause for amusement and speculation if the calendar was not showing late spring of an odd-numbered year, which means that the days left in the legislative session are few and the path ahead is perilous. A lot is at stake—a $140 billion state budget and reforms of the state’s school finance system and tax structure—and all of it must go through Strayhorn. That’s why she is the focal point of attention, the talk of Austin’s steakhouses and watering holes. The comptroller has judge-and-jury power over spending. Her constitutional power dates from a World War II—era provision decreeing that “no bill containing an appropriation shall be considered as passed or be sent to the Governor for consideration until and unless the Comptroller of Public Accounts endorses his certificate thereon showing that the amount appropriated is within the amount estimated to be available…” In other words, the budget has to balance, and Strayhorn is the enforcer. She alone determines how much revenue the state can expect to amass during the next two years, and if, in her opinion, it is not enough, she can refuse to certify the budget. And then it is D-E-A-D dead. Her decision can be overridden by a four-fifths vote of the House and Senate, but who, in this fiscally conservative state, is going to cast a vote for profligacy?
This is the prospect that has the entire Capitol in a tizzy: that she’s tough enough and ornery enough and ambitious enough to bust the budget; that even if the leadership triumvirate of Rick Perry, David Dewhurst, and Tom Craddick can agree on taxes and spending and schools—which is no sure thing, since they, and especially Dewhurst and Craddick, aren’t exactly palsy-walsy either—Strayhorn will render their efforts moot. As paranoid scenarios go (and are there any other kind in politics?), this one is not particularly far-fetched, considering that she initially refused to certify the budget in 2003, and only some frantic last-minute deal making caused her to relent.
What is Strayhorn up to? There are two theories. The rational explanation is that she is positioning herself to challenge Perry in the Republican primary next spring—or, if Kay Bailey Hutchison leaves the U.S. Senate to run for governor, she’ll take the best vacancy available, which could be lieutenant governor if Dewhurst chooses to run for Hutchison’s seat. At the same time, the savants around the Capitol argue that her bomb-throwing tactics have hurt her with Republican primary voters. If so, then the rational theory falls apart, leading to the realm of conjecture: that she is a woman scorned and determined to get her due. She is the successor to two powerful and respected comptrollers—Bob Bullock and John Sharp, both Democrats, who reinvented the office to give it a substantive role in state policy—but her ideas, unlike theirs, have been ignored by the state’s leaders, who, it might be pointed out, happen to be of a different gender. The recurring slights, together with the ideological direction in which the leadership has taken the state, drive her to distraction.
The question, then, comes down to this: Is Carole Keeton Strayhorn crazy like a fox? Or is she just plain crazy?
“BOB BULLOCK TOLD ME, ‘Never trust anybody.’” Strayhorn is sitting at the end of a long table in her office, talking about the two conversations she had had with Bullock before he died, during her first year in office. If Texas comptrollers had a patron saint—and if the obstreperous Bullock had had a single cell that qualified for sainthood—he would be it. It was he who lifted the agency out of the green-eyeshades era by recognizing the power inherent in its constitutional mandate. He foresaw that the Legislature would always arrive at the end of the session desperate for more money to meet the state’s manifold needs and that the comptroller was the person who could give it to them. So he would lowball his revenue estimate, leaving something on the table that he could give the Legislature in its hour of need—for a price, of course. “Do you know how this office got computers?” Strayhorn asks me. “It was the evening of sine die [the last night of the session], and he went to the Capitol to tell the Legislature