Last spring General Robert McDermott, chairman of USAA Insurance in San Antonio, decided to get involved in the battle over the state budget. He sent letters to a number of legislators, urging them to raise taxes to pay for education. This intervention by one of the state’s most influential businessmen had an effect, all right, but not the one he intended. An option before the Legislature was a tax on insurance premiums. When insurance industry lobbyists swarmed into a House Ways and Means Committee hearing to protest, chairman Stan Schlueter of Killeen was waiting for them. “You said you wanted higher taxes,” Schlueter said, waving McDermott’s letter in the air. “Fine. You can pay for them.”
About the same time, another leading Texas businessman was engaged in negotiations with state highway officials, who wanted to put a freeway interchange on his property north of Dallas. H. R. “Bum” Bright, whose financial empire includes trucking, oil, and real estate interests, a savings and loan chain, and the Dallas Cowboys, had insisted that the state pay him for taking his land. Highway officials had insisted that he donate it, since the freeway would greatly increase the value of Bright’s remaining land—and when Bright refused, they began looking at alternate routes. The issue remains unsolved.
Meanwhile, Robert Bass’s term on the State Highway Commission had expired. Bass wanted the governor to reappoint him. There was a slight hitch—he had supported Mark White instead of Bill Clements—but it’s understood that job-holders usually go with the incumbent, and besides, he is one of the Bass brothers, and . . . so sorry, better luck next time.
McDermott humiliated, Bright denied, Bass rebuffed: a trilogy that would not, could not, have happened a decade ago. What has happened to power in Texas?
In 1979 a UT-Arlington government professor named George Norris Green wrote a book called The Establishment in Texas Politics. He dated the rise of the establishment—“a loosely knit plutocracy comprised mostly of Anglo businessmen, oilmen, bankers, and lawyers”—from 1938, when “conservative, corporate interests took over the state, once and for all, perhaps permanently.”
Those words seem as alien to our time as Hohenzollern Germany. No one in the business and political leadership of Texas even mentions the establishment anymore. It doesn’t exist. It has been replaced by a small group of movers and shakers who have been able to influence public policy not because of their wealth and position alone, the way the establishment did, but because they have something to say about the future of Texas. In the wreckage of the eighties, ideas are a coin more precious than gold.
To be eligible for the list of most powerful Texans, a person has to meet three criteria. First, he has to exercise his influence in the state. T. Boone Pickens qualifies: Treasury Secretary James A. Baker does not, though both operate on a national scale. Second, he has to focus his influence on public affairs. Dominique de Menil can bend the art world to her will, but that is not the form of power being measured here. Third, he must be an instigator of events, not merely an expediter. Very few politicians are instigators; consequently few of their tribe qualify for the list. One politician who is conspicuously missing is Governor Bill Clements. His leading role in the SMU scandal and his attempt to cut spending for education have destroyed his credibility. The governor does have power, of course, but it is only the politician’s power to promote his friends and punish his enemies, not the greater power to persuade.
What about money? If not a prerequisite for power, it is at least a frequent companion—especially in Texas, where political organizations such as parties, unions, and special-interest groups are much weaker than those in the boss-run Northeast. Because political candidates can’t count on institutions for votes, they have to reach the electorate on their own. That requires money—a lot of money. The people who provide it in effect have purchased an option on influence. As with any option, what happens next depends upon whether, and how, the owner exercises it. Without doubt the reliance on big donors and fundraisers carries the potential for corruption, but then so does the boss system. Like it or not, money is to politicians what gasoline is to the internal combustion engine—you can’t run without it. Money is also the principal reason why the power list is, for now, exclusively the province of men. Some of the nation’s richest and most powerful women live in Texas, but they use their money to exert power over culture, not public policy.
Here are the ten most powerful Texans, ranked in order of their importance.
1. H. Ross Perot, 57, investor, Dallas.
Did he bring down Wall Street? In the weeks before the crash, news of Perot’s decision to get entirely out of the market swept through political circles, and . . . well, if you knew that Perot had lost faith in the stock market, what would you do? Sets the standard for the new Texas power figure: influence arises from his ideas, from willingness to put his money ($2.9 billion, according to the Forbes list of the four hundred richest Americans) behind them, and from shrewd knowledge of politics, which enables him to spend his money wisely. Education reforms that he conceived in 1984 rank as Texas’ most important public policy accomplishment in a generation, yet they would not have become law had Perot simply proposed them and left the execution to politicians. Entrusted education fight to his key operative, Dallas lawyer Tom Luce, and a top team of top Austin lobbyists, following his long-established habit of picking top-notch people and delegating authority. Proved last summer his clout hadn’t diminished by getting referendum for appointed (rather than elected) state education board on November ballot, despite opposition from education groups and powerful legislators. (Alas, the appointed board lost.) Unlike many rich types, doesn’t socialize or hunt with politicos.