For a hundred years the Democratic party has been so successful in Texas that to be a Democrat meant very little—you were some version of liberal or conservative, or, most of all, you were for someone; individual politicians built personal machines, which then used the fairly weak party machinery to their own ends. So, really, you were pro-Pa or anti-Pa, pro-Johnson or anti-Johnson, pro-Connally or anti-Connally. Republicans were only gnats to be swatted away, or, like John Tower, convenient weapons to be used to thwart your Democratic enemies. But, today, with the national Democratic party united like it has not been since FDR. Texas Democrats, in their own splendid obstinacy, seem to be on the verge of making control of the state party, of all things, the subject of fratricidal conflict.
Unless something drastic happens before the September 17-18 state convention in Fort Worth, Dolph Briscoe, the incumbent governor of the third largest state, is in real danger of having the party machinery wrenched from his grasp by forces that love him not. His handpicked choice for chairman of the Texas Democratic party and the State Democratic Executive Committee (SDEC), Bryan savings and loan executive Calvin Guest, is short on supporters and even shorter on those who defend his activities, or lack of them. (“He’s the sorriest party chairman I’ve ever seen,” says one reluctant Guest supporter who ought to know, since he once held the office himself.)
Things were, to say the least, different under John Connally. For his six years as governor, beginning in January 1963, he was in total control of the state party. With Lyndon Johnson lending his weight from the White House, conservative Democrats were at the apogee of their power; liberals could seldom muster more than 10 of the 62 votes on the SDEC. But Briscoe is in the unenviable position of needing help from the outside—from Jimmy Carter, perhaps, or from organized labor (try to imagine Connally in that position)—to avoid an embarrassing defeat, not from his veteran political rivals, but at the hands of a bunch of political novices, and liberal novices at that. It didn’t use to be this way.
The fact that Texas Democrats are feuding is nothing new, of course; they’ve been going at it with varying degrees of ferocity ever since Lyndon Johnson took the senatorial nomination away from Coke Stevenson back in 1948. That was followed by the Shivercrats v. the Johnson regulars in the fifties; the Ralph Yarborough liberals v. the Connally conservatives in the sixties; and the Farenthold reformers v. the Sharpstown gang in the early seventies. The intramural warfare was spiced by incidents like one at the 1956 Fort Worth state convention, where law officers locked liberals out of the convention while conservatives cemented their control of the party machinery. But most of the past intraparty fights have involved only a small portion of Texas Democrats: the reigning conservative establishment on one side against the more committed liberals on the other. This one is different. Everyone’s in this one: the governor, all the high-ranking state officials, labor, blacks, browns, career liberals, a congressman or two, the Democratic presidential nominee: This is not just one faction against another; this is an entire political party playing musical chairs.
The object of this very serious game is to elect the state chairman of the Democratic party and its ruling body, the SDEC. (The SDEC consists of two representatives from each of the 31 state senatorial districts, plus two representing youth. About all the SDEC does is certify which candidates have won the party primary—not a difficult task most of the time, but one that made it the climactic battleground in 1948, when Stevenson and Johnson were battling over the Duval County returns. Stevenson had unwisely ignored the party machinery while serving as governor; his negligence grew bitter fruit when the SDEC certified Johnson by one vote.) Judging from all the maneuvering it’s causing, one might think the chairmanship is one of the hidden repositories of political power in Texas. But it is actually a position with little inherent power. True, the chairman has initial control over state convention machinery, such as appointing committees, but once the convention starts, he’d better have the votes on the floor to back him up. The chairman is supposed to raise money to keep the state party office in Austin open and functioning, but that’s the whole point: functioning to do what?
Most of the time the only thing the state Democratic party has to do is fulfill the requirements of Texas election law, which it does merely by existing. The rest of the time, it doesn’t have to do anything, even though the national party would like to see it conduct voter-registration drives and voter-education seminars. In some two-party states, the state party actually anoints candidates and makes campaign contributions, but nothing like that has ever happened in Texas, although the party has sponsored halfhearted voter-registration drives on occasion. Instead, the party headquarters has evolved, first under Allan Shivers, then under Connally, into a political arm of the governor’s office. It is virtually his personal political property, the crankshafts and levers of his political machine. Party chairmen during the Connally era included some of Texas’ top conservative heavies: the late Dallas lawyer Eugene Locke, later Connally’s handpicked (and unsuccessful) choice for his successor; future University of Texas czar and regent, Frank Erwin; future LBJ Postmaster General Marvin Watson; Austin lobbyist Will Davis. Of the four, only Davis, who spearheaded Hubert Humphrey’s 1968 Texas campaign, ever remotely acted as though he represented a party as well as a governor. So totally did the Connally forces regard the state party office their personal fiefdom that liberals weren’t welcome inside the headquarters; their requests for statistical information were often delayed and occasionally rebuffed. Naturally the liberals howled in protest and saw the party machinery as a major goal to be won. Recalling the fights of those days, old Connally hand Larry Temple says, “I often thought it would serve Ralph [Yarborough] and his people right to get control of it and see what an empty bag it is.”
So why fight about it? For those who have it, of course, there is a fundamental axiom of politics that if your enemy wants something, that is reason enough not to let him have it. To the side out of power, even if the chairmanship isn’t particularly powerful in its own right, attaining it could mean a great deal: it is a potential forum which could give legitimacy and publicity to their position. The chairmanship may be an empty bag, but that still beats no bag at all.
In this curious job, which requires so little of the person holding it, Calvin Guest has managed to make himself unpopular by not doing enough. One labor strategist active in the fight to salvage Guest concedes that the chairman has shown “a total lack of leadership.” A liberal SDEC member close to Attorney General John Hill is more specific: “The party has done nothing for four years,” he says. “The SDEC didn’t even meet for six months after the ’72 and ’74 September conventions.” He continues to catalog the complaints against Guest: there is no organized fund-raising program; the audit committee never meets so no one knows the true financial condition of the party (though everyone knows it’s not good); the June fundraising dinner in Houston honoring national party chairman Bob Strauss was a fiasco; there is “no semblance of a voter-registration program”; the state party was ordered to reach blacks, browns, women, and youth, but its efforts were “a sham, nothing more than technical compliance with the national party mandate.”
Why then does Briscoe want the chairman to stay on? Not because Guest is adroit at building up the governor’s power base: liberals expect to be in solid control of the SDEC at the September convention. Conservatives complain that Guest and Briscoe are losing control of the party and don’t know it. They grumble that the governor and the chairman listen too closely to labor, or that Guest acquiesced in rules changes that helped liberals control the June state convention despite objections from knowledgeable conservative rules experts like John Brunson of Houston. Labor representatives, apologizing for their support of Guest, explain that liberals can accept him because he isn’t capable of rallying conservatives to recapture the party. Indeed, in July there was talk of a conservative boycott of the Fort Worth convention—which would doom Guest to certain defeat—but by early August conservatives had halfheartedly decided to fight it out on behalf of the chairman they don’t particularly want.
Democrats on both sides of the battle are convinced that Briscoe is so adamant about pushing Guest precisely because everyone else wants the governor to drop him. Briscoe fights hardest when the prerogatives of his office are threatened—and the selection of the party chairman has traditionally been regarded in Texas as one of the governor’s prerogatives, so much so that the September convention is known among politicians as “the governor’s convention.” Oddly, most liberals do not view the fight over the chairmanship as a challenge to Briscoe. Houston liberal leader Billie Carr says, “This has nothing to do with Briscoe or even with Calvin—I’ve spent most of my lifetime trying to take the chairmanship away from the governor. The Democratic party is not just another state agency that’s part of the governor’s office.”
“Why should the governor control the party?” asks Gary Mauro, one of a growing collection of political activists that Bob Bullock has herded together in the Comptroller’s Office. “This isn’t an anti-Briscoe campaign; it’s a pro-Democratic party campaign.”
But Briscoe has made it personal, perhaps unwisely. Liberals and conservatives agree on two points: first, that unless things have changed drastically since the June convention, Briscoe doesn’t have the votes on the floor; second, that he could save face by abandoning Guest and choosing a compromise candidate—ABC, Anyone But Calvin—who could be elected with no difficulty. At press time, though, he showed no signs of backing down, though many liberals were convinced that he would do so eventually. Instead, the governor has mounted a hubristic campaign to involve Jimmy Carter in the fight for the Texas chairmanship, arguing that Texas needs a unified Democratic party for the presidential race. Why there will be unity if Guest wins but not if he loses is something that so far has proved difficult to explain, but at press time Briscoe was still trying. In late July he took his campaign to Plains, Georgia, where he, Guest, Land Commissioner Bob Armstrong, Agriculture Commissioner John White, wily Beaumont Congressman Jack Brooks, and Briscoe’s omnipresent wife Janey met with Carter over a lunch of quail, chicken, and fresh vegetables. For days thereafter the rumors flew: Carter’s going to write a letter to all his delegates in Texas urging them to support Guest; Carter’s sick of Briscoe; Carter’s going to show up at the convention; Briscoe’s cut a deal with Carter insider Charles Kirbo; Jody Powell promised Carter would stay out of it. Everyone was talking about what “Atlanta” would do, a reference which greatly amused one Carter aide. “All this talk about ‘Atlanta’ is a joke,” he said. “ ‘Atlanta’ is a young guy named Tim Kraft who is choosing all fifty state coordinators. We’ll send someone into Texas in the middle of August, and he’ll send back a recommendation. No one’s going to do anything before then. But I will say this. There is great affection here for Bob Armstrong. What he says will carry a lot of weight.”
And that is exactly what Bob Armstrong has been afraid of from the beginning. Armstrong was picked to head Carter’s Texas team in March (“Atlanta” recently named Guest co-chairman at Briscoe’s insistence.) As nominal leader of the Carter forces, Armstrong is assailed by his own troops, who are clamoring for him to lead the assault against Guest—or at the very least, influence Jimmy Carter to stay out of the internecine warfare. As a state official, he is under intense pressure from Dolph Briscoe—a man who signs his legislation and approves his appropriations—to intercede on Guest’s behalf with the Carter delegates or the candidate himself.’ This may be the political moment of truth for Armstrong, the inevitable test that Texas political observers have been waiting for. The book on Armstrong is that he doesn’t have the stomach for political infighting, but liberals have always had faith in Armstrong’s instincts. In the crunch, they predicted, he would be with them. And this, they are now saying, is the crunch. For the first time in memory, they have a conservative governor on the ropes and are on the verge of taking over the party. Many of them were early Jimmy Carter supporters who feel they, not Dolph Briscoe, deserve the spoils of victory. Will Armstrong sell them out?
“I’m caught in the middle,” he said in early June. “All I want to do is carry the state for Jimmy Carter.” Armstrong has since made it clear that he wished none of this had happened; that he believes Jimmy Carter would be better served if there were no big intraparty fight. But that begs the question, of course, of who is responsible for the fight; the Briscoe forces, who have the chairman and the tradition, or the Carter liberals, who have the votes.
Most politicians would relish being in Armstrong’s position; he has real power. He is the sole person in the state with contacts in Jimmy Carter’s inner circle, strong ties to conservatives, and influence with Carter delegates. It is the per feet opportunity to collect chits, to build a power base, to pave the way for one’s future ambitions. He can save the day for the governor or deliver the coup de grace. What a Lyndon Johnson or a John Connally could do with that: they’d be leaping at the chance, weighing the odds, calculating, scheming. Armstrong hates it. Relaxed and personable, Armstrong is the first to admit he’s untutored in the dark skills of convention politics. Indeed, in the six years since he rescued the Land Office from the lethargy of Jerry Sadler, Armstrong has become far more interested in the art of administration than in the glamor of electoral politics. If, as liberals like to believe, he is quietly fighting their fights, he is doing it on paper, with charts and pamphlets and grant requests, and in meetings, persuasively selling a new program or a new administrative technique. It is a world far removed from the political arena, and it is apparently the world Armstrong prefers. He is sometimes mentioned as a potential Carter Secretary of Interior; it would likely be a more congenial prospect for him than, say, the governorship of Texas.
There are others, though—notably Attorney General John Hill and Comptroller Bob Bullock—who are almost certain to challenge Dolph Briscoe in 1978. Obviously it would serve their purposes for Briscoe to be publicly humiliated at the convention and lose control of the party. So they are naturally in the thick of the pre-convention maneuvering, looking for any way they can to pull the rug from under Calvin Guest, right?
Wrong. In the case of John Hill, at least, very wrong. Although Hill is committed to the governor’s race in 1978, Briscoe or no Briscoe, he hasn’t made a move to topple the governor’s chairman. Rather, he has made it dear to all callers that he intends to sit this one out—a course of action that has not improved the wishy-washy image Hill carries in. some quarters. “I’m beginning to have my doubts about him,” says Billie Carr. “If he were a political animal with the right instincts he could never sit on the sidelines while something like this is going on.”
There are a number of possible reasons why Hill is staying out of it, the least convincing of which is Hill’s own: that both Guest and his foremost challenger—John Henry Tatum of Lufkin—are his personal friends. Friendship is a useful shield in politics, but one that is routinely penetrated by ambition. A better explanation is that Hill, like Armstrong, has little experience in convention politics; he doesn’t want to risk a skirmish on a battleground that is foreign to him. Besides, as Hill well knows, convention politicians make enemies, not friends. Finally, a lawyer who served in the Attorney General’s Office under Hill’s predecessor Crawford Martin recalls that Martin had planned to retire quietly, until Hill announced for the office and came out swinging against the incumbent in early 1972. Martin promptly changed his mind and Hill had to beat him head-on. If Hill behaves himself, the theory goes, Briscoe might retire peacefully to Uvalde and leave the field to Hill.
Unlike Hill, Bullock professes no fondness for Calvin Guest. Two years ago Bullock almost challenged the governor’s man for the chairmanship, but he backed down in the final weeks. (Instead, Houston city controller Leonel Castillo made the race against Guest, getting 42 per cent of the vote; Castillo was going to try again this year until he became the center of some quarreling between blacks and browns that ended his chances.) The official Bullock line is that he is staying out of the battle this year. Sure. But who was that at the Democratic National Convention in New York, telling everyone in sight that he was backing John Henry Tatum? And those Young Turks pushing Tatum—Gary Mauro and Tom Henderson—don’t they work for, let’s see, Bob Bullock? And isn’t that the same Bob Bullock who makes it a matter of pride to know what all his employees are doing, even how many letters the lowliest secretary in the word-processing department has typed? Can it be that he doesn’t know or doesn’t care what two of his top assistants are doing?
It is intriguing—and revealing—to compare the strategies of Hill and Bullock, Briscoe’s likely 1978 challengers (although anyone with as much money and potential power as Lieutenant Governor Bill Hobby cannot be written off entirely, despite his lackluster performance in office). Their very different roles mirror their separate political histories and personalities: Hill’s resounding defeat in the 1968 gubernatorial primary (he finished a poor sixth) left him careful, cautious, someone who plays his cards close to his chest. Bullock, on the other hand, has made the transition from hatchet man for conservative Governor Preston Smith to an activist role that most of the time puts him in the liberal camp. His 1972 appointment to the State Board of Insurance was rejected by the Texas Senate, yet he has come back to be more powerful than any senator—and you can bet he hasn’t forgotten how anyone voted on his confirmation. He is, in short, a sly and cagey man with a fierce survival instinct.
There is one other factor that distinguishes Hill from Bullock in the current maneuvering. Hill chose the wrong horse in the presidential primary; he went along with the phalanx of state officials for favorite son Lloyd Bentsen. Armstrong, of course, did not, and neither did Bullock, who is the archetypal maverick. Hill has some ties to the liberal delegates who went to the first convention as uncommitted, but almost none to the Carter delegates. Bullock is in much better shape there: Mauro and Henderson have been Carter supporters since 1974 (!), and it is the Carter delegates who will hold the balance of power in September.
And so the rough Democratic beast goes slouching toward Fort Worth. What will happen there is still anyone’s guess. Labor continues to make frantic efforts to save Guest in the name of party unity; the state AFL-CIO has sponsored two meetings between the Democratic National Committee members from Texas and Guest. At press time, neither had been successful, and the second one saw Guest told that his offers were very nice, thank you, but you’re going to lose. Cynical liberals think that labor just might be more interested in cementing its influence with the governor—there is a legislative session coming up, don’t forget, not to mention all those appointments—than in unifying the party behind Jimmy Carter (a superfluous goal in any event, since everyone is already united behind Carter).
As for the rest of the liberals, their motivations are almost as diverse as their numbers. A few, but only a few, want to embarrass the governor. Others, especially the original Carter people, have no quarrel with Briscoe, but they won the primary, they have the delegates, and they want the chairmanship. They don’t want to be dictated to by someone who backed Lloyd Bentsen (John White, Guest, Briscoe) or anybody else in Austin, including Armstrong. They know how politics works, and it’s their turn now.
There are old soldiers like Billie Carr, who have been fighting these battles for a long time and just want to win one. And there are young activists like Gary Mauro and Tom Henderson, who see the chairmanship as the first step in building a complete party apparatus—a liberal establishment that will control the future of Texas politics the way the unofficial conservative establishment has in the past. Then there are the minorities, blacks and browns, each with their roles to play.
How much simpler it was a decade ago, when a few phone calls could settle everything. But the old heavyweights are out of the picture now: Connally has defected; Erwin is settled in as a UT lobbyist; Will Davis and Ed Clark and Joe Kilgore are looking after their legal business. The national party has eliminated the winner-take-all unit rule, and the Texas Legislature, not anticipating Jimmy Carter, bowed to Lloyd Bentsen and authorized convention delegates to be selected largely through a winner-take-all presidential primary. This unlikely combination—the reforms of the national Democrats and the old-fashioned power play of the Texas Legislature—paved the way for a liberal takeover; and a woefully weak governor, who has done little to cultivate political support among conservatives, has made it possible.
Still, to say that it is probable is to ignore some obvious political realities. With the convention rapidly approaching, labor was already in Briscoe’s camp, minority representatives were looking for excuses to throw in with the governor, and the most progressive set of secondary state officials in memory was keeping out of the way. The Democrats may be at each other’s throats, but for once they don’t seem to be going for the jugular. Rather than lusting for the fight and scenting victory, many liberals seem to be hoping that Briscoe will compromise. They still see that as a victory, when in reality, given their strength, it would probably be a defeat, another failure in a quarter-century of failures. Small wonder that Billie Carr surveyed the situation and worried that another defeat lurked ahead: “We’re so capable of losing when we ought to win.”