What Makes Sissy Run?

It’s kamikaze time again for Texas liberals as Farenthold takes on an entrenched Governor Briscoe.

One Farenthold doth not a year of revolution make.

Sissy is back, running for governor, giving speeches in her usual populist rhetoric with low-key appeals to turn around a century of Texas politics. The woman, the rhetoric and the formula for change are still there, but that’s about all there is to connect 1974 with the now-nostalgic and historic year of 1972.

How exciting it was even to be brushed by Texas politics that year! Incensed by the Sharpstown disclosures, the whole state seemed to rise up, and in the Democratic primary and runoff defeated a governor, lieutenant governor, attorney general, two speakers of the House, half the Legislature, and uncounted numbers of county commissioners and sheriffs. It was a time when the “new politics” acquired a real meaning for Texans, giving them a feeling they controlled their state government after all—the voters, not the lobbyists, the board room moguls or their brush country friends occupying committee chairmanships in the Capitol at Austin.

Farenthold symbolized that spring-time of Texas political purgation. The reformists honored her not only because she had led the Dirty Thirty in the state House of Representatives against Speaker Gus Mutscher and his men but also because she had been the one to come forward and run for governor and give the reform cause an insistent voice when the only nonestablishmentarian then in the running was Dolph Briscoe.

She lost, of course, but it was chiefly because the basically conservative Texas voter felt he could get a safer version of reform from Briscoe than from someone who was liberal, female, Catholic and associated with all those freaky kids, blacks and Chicanos. And many did not consider her loss of the gubernatorial nomination to be a defeat at all since she had helped to end the hitherto meteoric career of Lieutenant Governor Ben Barnes, the conservative establishment’s hope for the next generation of political control.

Precisely because 1972 was such a year of political catharsis in Texas, 1974 stands as a year of political calm. It is as if the state’s voters, having had their fling at sending the pols to Dame Guillotine, are content this year to let the new crowd linger a little longer?and maybe a lot longer. The all-important Zeitgeist of 1972 that bred political overturn is missing this year, and without it there is little that anyone—even a Farenthold—can do to create an outcry for change.

The state’s highest officeholders fed this mood themselves by preferring to stay put politically this year rather than disturb the peace by opposing each other. At first this seemed unlikely, for the offices to be filled in 1974 would be for new four-year terms, presumably irresistible to Mansion-hungry politicos. Throughout 1973, Lieutenant Governor Bill Hobby, Attorney General John Hill and House Speaker Price Daniel, Jr., watched nervously to see if Governor Briscoe would run again in 1974 or would be content just to serve out the two-year term he won in 1972, afterward retiring back to Uvalde, having satisfied his ambition to be The Governor. If Briscoe retired, then (as Navy admirals phrase it) the daisy chain would really begin to move, with Hill and Hobby probably fighting for the gubernatorial nomination, Daniel going for either lieutenant governor or attorney general, and perhaps a whole legislatureful of others springing up to contest the remains.

But Briscoe decided to seek reelection (making the unsurprising announcement at his mammoth appreciation dinner last October 19), and Hill and Hobby rather unhappily decided to do the same, delaying their confrontation until 1978. With Daniel content to serve as president of the constitutional convention and with Comptroller Robert Calvert’s decision to retire (leaving that race to onetime state secretary of state and full-time funnyman Bob Bullock), 1974 settled into being one of the dullest years in recent Texas experience—exactly as the mutually-de-escalatory politicians willed it.

Then along came Sissy and Crusade II. In the ho-hum atmosphere of Texas politics last fall and winter, her intentions were the only thing that titillated the state’s political observers. Sissy for state treasurer? Sissy for railroad commissioner? Sissy for Congress? Ms. Farenthold herself was interested in only one thing all along, the job with the visible power, the governorship. When she did speculate on what she might do in 1974, she spoke with her trademark despair about how we can’t let ourselves forget that we’re electing a governor for four years this time. Or: the message needs to be put across, but you know it takes so much money to run for governor.

When she finally did announce for the top job February 4 in the closing hours before the filing deadline, the reaction from even her 1972 adherents tended to be more one of astonishment than jubilation. They said, yes, it’s wonderful we have a choice after all this year, but my God does she know what she’s getting into? Many of the same people who welcomed her into the race two years ago, knowing from the outset she would lose but not caring about that, now worried aloud that a loss to Briscoe in 1974 would be a merciless blow to her long-range political hopes and to the short-range liberal effort in Texas. (A few weeks earlier, state liberal Democratic leaders had gotten Briscoe to back a plan for guaranteed election of minority—meaning mostly liberal—delegates to this year’s various state conventions and to the national party’s “miniconvention” at Kansas City in December. What reportedly convinced the governor was a liberal threat to run a strong candidate against him in the primary. These same liberals feared the conservatives would accuse them of doublecrossing Briscoe even though they maintain they have no control over what Sissy Farenthold does.)

Few Texas politico-watchers credit her with much of a chance to pull the rabbit out of Briscoe’s Stetson. Again, the mood of the times is not right for it. In 1972 she had going for her some identifiable villains, some clear-cut (and inexpensive) reform issues to expound, and the fresh memory of an appalling scandal to fuel the

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