The Man in the Black Hat

By mastering the mysterious ways of South Texas, Clinton Manges has built an empire, amassed political influence, declared war on the state establishment—and left bitter enemies in his wake.

Editor’s note: You could be forgiven for not immediately recognizing the name Clinton Manges when news broke of his death in a San Antonio nursing home on September 23, 2010. Some readers may have remembered that he was the owner of the short-lived San Antonio Gunslingers, which were part of the now-defunct USFL and featured a young Rick Neuheisel at quarterback. But what Paul Burka revealed in his massive, two-part profile of Manges in the June and July 1984 issues, which earned him a National Magazine Award for reporting, was a man both intimately connected with the state’s power structure—yet fully at war with it. Manges rubbed shoulders with some of the most powerful people in Texas at the time, the Bentsens and the Wyatts and the Parrs. He mastered the path to power as well as the dark arts that its attainment often required. Therefore, we are proud to offer this story from our archives, not only because it revealed the inner motivations of a complex individual but because it also explained an aspect of Texas that readers may have been aware of but didn’t fully understand.

Part One

South of the Nueces River lies a strange and opaque Texas. Nature designed it as part of Mexico, and for a time so did man; the Nueces, not the Rio Grande, was the border under Mexican sovereignty. To cross the Nueces is to enter a land that does not easily yield its secrets. Drive through any other part of Texas, and you can see at once how the land is being used: farming, ranching, timber speculation, rural settlement, oil. In South Texas nothing is obvious. There is only the brush, mesquite and catclaw and huisache, that closes over the land like a ground fog. A few feet above it, from the top of a rise, one can see everything—but one can see nothing. The brush obscures roads, houses, cattle, pump jacks, everything but the horizon and the ocean of brush. South Texas is a land of not two but three cultures, Anglo and Mexican and hybrid, where a man can thrive only if he understands the imperatives of all three. This is a land of high fences and locked gates and few roads, where a man can disappear when he wants to and reemerge when he wants to. This is a land of empires, a land where the few have always dominated the many, a land where a man can live by rules that apply nowhere else. A man like Clinton Manges.

That’s the ball game,” said Clinton Manges as the football spun toward the ground, its journey through the goalposts complete. Even though the San Antonio Gunslingers, Manges’ franchise in the United States Football League, had just clinched an all-too-rare victory, his tone was analytical rather than celebratory. If there is anything Clinton Manges’ life demonstrates it is that his time is better spent planning for the next battle than savoring the last victory. He had watched the first half of the game from the sideline, the bald spot in the middle of his hair exposed to the sun that was shining with one-hundred-degree ferocity. Although the Gunslingers scored three times, Manges spent the entire time engrossed in conversation, seldom looking at the field and never unfolding his arms for so much as a single clap.

The San Antonio Gunslingers are the most visible element of one of Texas’ least visible empires. Clinton Manges owns more than 150,000 acres deep in the South Texas brush country, but his most important holdings are beyond the capacity of man to see: mineral rights in the depths of the earth and fealties in the souls of Texas politicians. His mystique and money have combined to make him the most powerful—and most controversial—behind-the-scenes figure in current Texas politics.

No one else has so much influence. The attorney general, Jim Mattox, comes to hunt at Manges’ ranch. So does the land commissioner, Garry Mauro. The comptroller, Bob Bullock, is an old friend who last year allowed his official license plates to bedeck Manges’ car.

No one else is so brazen about acquiring that influence. In 1982 Manges spent more than $1 million on political contributions, much of which went to candidates for offices directly concerned with the fate of his empire. It is no accident that the ascendancy of Clinton Manges has paralleled the ascendancy of the liberal wing of the Texas Democratic party. Manges has helped fund that rise with large contributions to Mattox, Mauro, Bullock, agriculture commissioner Jim Hightower, and assorted judges and legislators.

No one else has benefited so much from influence. Last year the Texas Supreme Court took Manges’ side in a long-running dispute with the Guerra family of Starr County—and the decisive vote was cast by a newly elected justice who had received more than $100,000 in contributions from a group funded almost entirely by Manges. That might have been a record for the most money ever contributed to a Texas Supreme Court candidate by a litigant, except that twice as much Manges money went to another candidate, who lost.

No one else has chosen such ambitious targets for his influence. Recently Manges took on the third-largest company in America, suing Mobil Oil for $1 billion in a highly publicized lawsuit. Early this year, after the intervention of Jim Mattox forced Mobil to bargain with Manges, the giant oil company relinquished its lease on 64,000 acres of Manges’ land.

But it is more than influence that makes Clinton Manges important. It is the kind of man who has this influence. This is a man who, when questioned by a lawyer about why he wanted a particular property interest, answered, “Why do you want your car?” (think, now, why do you want your car?) and then continued, “Because, by God, it’s an asset.” This is a man who has achieved power and influence despite compiling a dossier that would make pariahs of others.

Here is why Clinton Manges belongs in a black hat:
He is a convicted felon.
He

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