Remembering Jim Mattox

Mon December 1, 2008 6:00 am

In 1982, during Ronald Reagan’s first mid-term election, a Democratic wave swept the state. Republicans had mounted a major challenge to the D’s control of most statewide offices (governor excepted), and U.S. senator Lloyd Bentsen and lieutenant governor Bill Hobby used their muscle to build the best Democratic organization Texas had seen since Lyndon Johnson’s heyday. The price of oil was falling, and the threat of a recession hung over the state and the nation. With the Bentsen/Hobby organization behind him, Mark White knocked off Republican governor Bill Clements; Bentsen and Hobby handily won reelection, and a group of downballot candidates benefited from the coattails.

One of them was Mattox, the newly elected attorney general. Another was Ann Richards, who was elected treasurer, a position that since has been merged with the comptroller. Garry Mauro was the new land commissioner. And Jim Hightower was agriculture commissioner. (Bob Bullock had been comptroller since 1974.) The liberal wing of the party was ecstatic; the downballot foursome were the first liberal Democrats elected statewide since Ralph W. Yarborough won reelection to the U.S. Senate in 1964.

Mattox served in the Legislature in the mid-seventies and was a floor leader for the liberal Democrats and a daily critic of Billy Clayton, the conservative Democratic speaker. He was an unabashed and unrestrained populist. In 1978 he won a congressional seat in Dallas, but 1981 was a congressional redistricting year, and his enemies in Austin (including Clayton and Governor Clements) drew him an unfavorable district in an attempt to get rid of him.

They thought that they had killed him off; instead, he ran for AG and won. He quickly earned a reputation as a hardball fundraiser and a bit of a knave when it came to ethics. One memorable story is that banking interests had asked for an attorney general’s opinion regarding, as I recall, branch banking, but when it was released, it was too ambiguous to be useful. Mattox sent word that he would clarify it if the banking interests would arrange for another request. The word came back (according to the story I heard at the time): “We can’t afford another opinion right now.”

Mattox always seemed to be involved in some sort of scrape. The Aggies had a rule that women could not play in the band, which was thrown out by a Houston federal court. Mattox refused to appeal the case, infuriating the Aggies. The regents sought to file their own appeal, and Mattox blocked them, saying that only he could represent a state agency in court. He made it stick. In a similar case, Mattox chose not to defend the constitutionality of the state’s sodomy statute after a Dallas court had declared it unconstitutional.

Mattox relished fights with the remnants of the old conservative power structure he had battled when he was a legislator. He styled himself “The People’s Lawyer.” He appeared to be indifferent to crossing ethical and legal lines. When he seemed to threaten the bond business of Fulbright and Jaworski (the AG has some regulatory authority over bond issues), Travis County DA Ronnie Earle indicted Mattox on the obscure charge of commercial bribery. He was acquitted. Another incident rife with impropriety was his alliance with South Texas power broker Clinton Manges, who was trying to have an old oil and gas lease on his ranch declared void; Manges was a major contributor to Mattox and the AG joined Manges’s side of the case, against Mobil Oil.

He was the kind of fighter who, when he drew his sword, threw away the scabbard. In 1990 he and former governor White (who had been defeated by Clements’ comeback in 1986) were in a three-way race with Ann Richards. Mattox accused Richards of using illegal drugs, and the issue came up during a televised Democratic primary debate for which I was a panel member. One of my co-panelists put the question to Richards. The tension in the small studio was unbelievable. I could feel it. Richards did not answer the question.

Ann looked into the camera and said something like, “I want to say something to all of you who may have made a mistake in your life. You can leave it behind you. You can take charge of your life.” She put her heart into that answer, as only Ann Richards could. She never did answer the question. Then it was White’s and Mattox’s turn to speak. Each gave the identical answer in the crackling silence: “I have never used illegal drugs.” Great drama.

Mattox led Richards going into the runoff, but Richards rallied to win the Democratic nomination. I think that the reason he lost was that his campaign was over-the-top mean about Richards’ personal life, including the drug allegations. Richards ran a memorable TV spot of a cartoon figure throwing mud. Thereafter he ran for the U.S. Senate in 1994 and for AG again in 1998. By that time it was too late; George W. Bush was governor and Texas was a Republican state.

Of the Democratic farm team of 1982, the only one with a political future, as it turned out, was Ann Richards. Mauro served four terms as land commissioner and ran a quixotic race for governor against Bush in 1998. Hightower served two terms as agriculture commissioner, then lost to Rick Perry in 1990.

Jim Mattox crossed a lot of lines, some personal, some ethical, some legal, in his political career. He was not a nice guy. He should not be remembered as a hero. But he did represent a type of politician who, two decades later, has all but disappeared from Texas politics: the true populist who sees the world as divided into good guys and bad guys and fights for the good guys without restraint. Ann Richards’ former husband, Dave Richards, writes in his memoir, Once Upon a Time in Texas: A Liberal in the Lone Star State, that Mattox was the first AG since James Allred (1931-35) to be a champion of the people. The politician who bears the most

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