Lonesome Cowboy

He's rich. He's handsome. He ropes. He rides. And he has four years as land commissioner under his belt. So why do so many Republicans (let alone Democrats) hope David Dewhurst is not the next lieutenant governor of Texas?
A handsome schoolboy.

If you know anything at all about David Dewhurst, the state land commissioner and Republican nominee for lieutenant governor, you probably know that he rides horses. He has carpet bombed the state with televised images that feature him sitting atop a galloping horse, wearing a spotless white hat and perfectly pressed shirt and swinging a rope over his head. The ads aired during his campaign for land commissioner in 1998 and again last summer to discourage would-be Republican rivals from running against him and his nine-figure fortune in the GOP primary for lieutenant governor. Three challengers entered the race at various times, but all eventually dropped out, leaving Dewhurst to face Democrat John Sharp for the job that has traditionally been considered the most powerful position in Texas politics.

The two images of the 56-year-old Dewhurst that appear in the ads—one, a man in a starched shirt and an obviously expensive suit who seems to have just emerged from an hour of hairstyling and makeup; the other, a lasso-swinging cowboy—seem a bit odd (why is that fellow with perfectly groomed hair trying to rope a steer?). But the political iconography is clear enough: He’s selling himself as a successful businessman with the cowboy virtues of courage and self-reliance. In fact, that is not too far removed from his life’s story. Dewhurst grew up in Houston, worked his way through college waiting tables during the school year and doing manual labor and office work in the summers, served in the Air Force and the CIA, made and lost a fortune, and made and kept another. In time he became a breeder of cutting horses and cattle and a valued fundraiser for the Republican party. In 1998 he won more votes at the polls than Rick Perry, John Cornyn, or Carole Keeton Rylander. It’s hard to construct a better bio for a Texas politician: self-made wealth, ranching, patriotism, party loyalty, and a post-September 11 credential as chairman of the Governor’s Task Force on Homeland Security. On paper, David Dewhurst should be the fastest rising star of the Republican party.

Pitted against his idealized version of himself, however, is a vigorous countermyth that goes like this: Dewhurst is a vain, aloof aristocrat who is scorned by his fellow officeholders; a detail-obsessed martinet who is difficult to work for; a candidate so stiff and formal that his public appearances work against him; a politician who proclaims himself to be a “George W. Bush Republican” but actively patronizes the party’s far-right wing; a businessman whose riches are the fruit of dubious business deals; an officeholder who spent the past decade systematically and cynically buying his way in. And then there is the gossip, of which the kindest thing is that he is said to wear makeup—although I saw no evidence of it.

This is not just the idle chatter of partisan Democratic spinmeisters. You hear it from Republicans too. It is the political establishment’s line on a man who is still seen by his colleagues in the corridors of power as someone who doesn’t really fit in—the closest thing to a political pariah. You would think that GOP insiders would be thrilled to have a candidate of Dewhurst’s wealth and stature running for higher office. But the reality is that they recruited state Supreme Court justice Greg Abbott to run against him for lieutenant governor (Abbott later switched to the attorney general’s race) and discouraged Dewhurst from challenging Attorney General John Cornyn in a GOP primary race to succeed Phil Gramm in the U.S. Senate. Outgoing lieutenant governor Bill Ratliff, who abandoned his race for reelection after Dewhurst got in, says, “His personality is the main problem. Compare him to [state comptroller] Carole Rylander. The contrast is stark between the warm, fuzzy grandma and the starched shirt. He is not one of the good old boys.” A reporter for the Washington-based political newspaper Roll Call has described Dewhurst as “a megawealthy businessman whom Texas observers call ‘plastic,’ and even Republicans characterize him in unflattering terms.” Ross Ramsey, the editor of the Austin political newsletter Texas Weekly, says simply, “He is the strangest duck in Texas politics.”

Dewhurst acknowledges that there are people who don’t like him, but he attributes what he calls “negative gossip” to three words he uses more or less interchangeably: “Austin,” “Democrat,” and “partisan.” To him it is all myth and calumny. “The partisan Democrat spin that I stay away from people is malarkey,” he says. “In 1998 I spent more time doing retail campaigning than almost any candidate I know. I did a 103-city tour of Texas in a bus. One of my favorite things to do is to go into little towns and walk in and out of stores and say, ‘Hi, I’m David Dewhurst, and I’m running for office. Would like to talk to you.’ Great fun.”

So the question is, Who is the real David Dewhurst? And why are people saying such terrible things about him?

It is breakfast time at the snaffle Bit Ranch, David Dewhurst’s lovely 1,800-acre stream-crossed scrap of Hill Country just south of Fredericksburg. The sun is rising over the rolling live-oak pastureland and over the barns, stables, and arenas that house 119 of Texas’ finest quarter horses. Four of us—Dewhurst, his campaign manager, his press secretary, and I—are seated at a spacious oak table near the kitchen in a large, remodeled limestone ranch house. It is a splendid place, a multimillionaire’s dacha, jammed with art and antiques and designer-crafted down to the last curtain tassel and bathroom valance. I have just spent the night in a bedroom the size of my front yard. Breakfast consists of cereal, orange juice, and bagels that Dewhurst personally picked out the night before at the H-E-B in Fredericksburg. While we eat, I am summarizing for Dewhurst, as tactfully as I can, all the reasons I have heard, in two months of reporting, why people do not like him. I have his full attention.

I am here because

Tags: POLITICS

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