The Man in the Black Hat, Part Two

Can a rancher in South Texas take on the third-largest oil company in the world and win? He can if his name is Clinton Manges and he has made it his business to have friends in high places.

Spring is the best of seasons in Duval County. The dust that hangs in the South Texas air for the rest of the year has returned for the moment to the pebbly soil, tamped down by the rains that accompany the dying thrusts of winter. The huisache is in bloom, and for once the brush seems almost benign. Spring is the most welcome time in Duval County for another reason. It is the season for politics, an activity that has attained the status of a sport in the land the patróns once ruled. In towns like Benavides and Realitos and San Diego, the county seat, not a telephone pole escapes the placards of the candidates. If one is so inclined, he can dine almost every night on beans and barbecue at a rally somewhere in the county.

Early in the spring of 1982, several hundred people gathered for such a rally on a large ranch west of Freer. In many ways it was typical. The food tables were loaded with mesquite-smoked brisket and short ribs, pinto beans and jalapenos, tortillas and white bread, sliced onions and pickles. Set up outside, the tables were illuminated with lights strung on temporary poles. In a nearby building, a country-and-western band sawed away while a solitary couple danced. One of the hostesses wore a brown double-knit pantsuit, house slippers, and enormous diamond earrings.

But this was no ordinary rally. Few local candidates were present. Instead the grounds were overrun with supplicants for statewide office, for the state senate, for judgeships. State comptroller Bob Bullock was there. So was Jim Mattox, now the attorney general; Garry Mauro, now the land commissioner; Jim Hightower, now the agriculture commissioner; Ann Richards, now the state treasurer; Bill Kilgarlin, now a Texas Supreme Court justice. The dance hall was actually an airplane hangar, and an adjacent landing strip, complete with night lights, remained busy throughout the evening as candidates and guests flew in and out while guards directed traffic with flashlights. This was Clinton Manges’ coming-out party. The owner of the 100,000-acre Duval County Ranch was making his move to expand his political influence beyond the brush country. In the next few weeks Manges would invest more than $1 million in political contributions and would transform himself from a regional power broker into a statewide front-page figure.

•••••

THE LESSON OF CLINTON MAGES

His allies end up fighting him.
His enemies get ensnared in fights that never end.
One of his politicians is under indictment.
When Clinton Manges is involved, nothing is ever smooth or simple.

•••••

Late in the evening the guests assembled in the hangar to hear speeches. The oratory was as unusual as the rally. Most of it was directed not at self-promotion but at Manges: he was a loyal Democrat; he sided with the little man; he helped the underdog. Finally Bob Bullock, the only candidate whose friendship with Manges predated his quest for public office, got up to speak. “I am a Clinton Manges man,” Bullock told the crowd. “If you don’t like Clinton Manges, don’t vote for me.”

There seem to be more and more Clinton Manges men in Texas politics these days. Manges is unquestionably in the top rank of Texans with political influence, a rank that includes names like Perry Bass of Fort Worth and Walter Mischer of Houston. Moreover, he has done something that none of his peers have attempted: he has enriched himself directly—and enormously—as a result of that influence. Their empires are not dependent on the rulings of government. Clinton Manges’ empire is. He has used state agencies to pursue wealth; he has used state courts to enhance wealth and to defend it from others. Not since George and Herman Brown’s friendship with Lyndon Johnson has a Texas financial empire been so dependent on political influence.

Early this year the influence Clinton Manges began to accumulate with that 1982 rally paid off in a big way. To settle a major lawsuit brought by Manges and the State of Texas, Mobil Oil gave up its oil and gas lease covering 64,000 acres of the Duval County Ranch. The press portrayed the outcome as a $100 million windfall for the state treasury and gave Manges most of the credit. The Mobil case is indeed one of the major stories of contemporary Texas politics, but not one of the major reasons that have appeared in the papers. It is important because it shows how the state and the press were taken for a ride by Clinton Manges. It is important because it represents the apotheosis of political influence. It is important, most of all, because it shows what it can mean to be a Clinton Manges man.

THE LAST CHANCE

“Don’t worry about the state,” said Clinton Manges. “I can take care of that.”

The statement took Tom McDade, a Houston lawyer for Mobil, by surprise. He was in McAllen taking Manges’ deposition, when the talk turned to settlement of Manges’ $1.5 billion lawsuit. But there was a problem. The State of Texas had jumped into the lawsuit on Manges’ side, but no one from the state was at the meeting. That was when Manges informed McDade that he had the power to bargain for the state.

Everything Manges had been working toward for years was symbolized by the scene inside that room. There was wealth, represented by the money Manges hoped to get from Mobil. There was power, represented by Mobil’s very presence: Mobil, his enemy through eleven years of court battles; Mobil, which had sworn never to negotiate with him, to fight him to the last lawyer; Mobil, which had insisted from the beginning that Manges didn’t deserve a dime. And there was influence, represented by Manges’ assertion that he could handle attorney general Jim Mattox and land commissioner Garry Mauro. Both Mattox and Mauro had benefitted from tens of thousands of dollars in campaign contributions from Manges a year earlier; now they had in effect given Manges the

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