On a steamy summer afternoon in Washington, the kind of day when your clothes absorb the humidity from the sodden air, Ben Barnes is exactly where everybody in Texas politics knew he would be someday: in the private Senate dining room at the U.S. Capitol. The tall redhead is instantly recognizable, and even in this inner sanctum of power, he seems to know someone at every table. Here comes Thomas Carper of Delaware across the floor to shake hands. There goes Barnes to press the flesh with John Edwards of North Carolina. On the way out, he exchanges greetings with Dianne Feinstein of California and Charles Schumer of New York. The moment is exactly as it should be, except for two things: It is three decades late, and Barnes is not a senator but a guest.
Life has landed some nasty punches on the onetime golden boy of Texas politics. In the sixties he became Speaker of the House at 26 and lieutenant governor at 30; in 1970 he was touted by Lyndon Johnson as a future president of the United States. But even as LBJ lavished praise on Barnes, forces were already at work that would sweep the prodigy out of office in a matter of months and stamp an indelible taint on his reputation. He turned to real estate development, but in the mid-eighties, the speculative empire that he had built with his onetime mentor, John Connally, came crashing down, throwing both men into personal bankruptcy. In the nineties the revelation of his sensationally lucrative dealings with GTech, the company that won, with Barnes’s help, the right to operate the Texas lottery, set off the shaking of heads and clucking of tongues once again. Yet here he is in the rarefied atmosphere of big power and big-time politics—one of the chief financial and strategic architects of the Democratic resurgence to parity (and subsequently control) in the Senate. Majority leader Tom Daschle has called him “the fifty-first Democratic senator.” At 62 and four times a grandparent, Ben Frank Barnes has fought destiny to a draw.
But the résumé does not even begin to hint at what he is really like. In person he has an overwhelming presence, partly because of his height (six foot three); partly because of his hair, which today is more orange than red; but most of all, because of the immense energy that bursts forth in his body language and his speech.
He is always hurrying somewhere, and he is always selling something—and that something is himself. Not directly; he doesn’t boast. Rather, he believes. Sometimes the words come so fast that you can almost see them tumble over each other as they leave his mouth. Whatever he is trying to tell you—it could be something as simple as who we are going to see today in Washington or as complex as what the Democratic message should be in Texas—he is so forceful, so enthusiastic, so optimistic that you cannot help but believe too that it is totally, obviously, the right thing to do. You go into a conversation with him remembering how controversial he has been, vowing to be on guard, but it doesn’t matter. You come out thinking, “Wow!”
On the day that Barnes had lunch in the Senate dining room, hosted by the chief of staff for Joe Biden of Delaware, I accompanied him as he went from one office to the next. “I’m not really a lobbyist,” he told me. “I don’t represent clients day to day on legislation. I’m more of a crisis manager. I get called when people have a big problem in Washington that they can’t solve by passing a bill.” His client was a Houston company that had been the successful low bidder for a $31 million contract from the Army. That was the good news. The bad news was that two women who were former employees had previously filed a lawsuit alleging discrimination, and they were represented by the politically connected Beaumont firm headed by the redoubtable Walter Umphrey, one of the lawyers who had represented Texas in the megabucks tobacco case. So far, the company was holding its own in the courtroom, but the action had shifted to Washington. Nick Lampson, the Democratic congressman from Beaumont, had written a letter to various committee chairmen asking them to hold hearings about the company’s record of discrimination—which put the contract at risk.
A car appeared at the hotel’s main entrance and took our group—Barnes, me, and two lawyers for the company—to a Senate office building. Our first stop was the office of Carl Levin of Michigan, the chair of the Armed Services committee. “The president of this company arrived in Houston in 1984 with nothing more than a U-Haul truck,” Barnes told one of Levin’s staffers. “He has done a remarkable job of building this company. He has never been involved in politics, never even made a political contribution.” This, I thought, was Barnes’s way of signaling that his client was not a big Republican. “We don’t want a public hearing in the middle of a contract,” he continued.
“We just want to get back to the merits of the lawsuit,” said one of the lawyers.
“It’s just a single contract,” the staffer said. “Typically we don’t investigate something like that.” This was followed by a moment of silence. “I don’t think I’ve helped you very much,” the staffer said.
It was time to close the deal. “Just tell us that letter is going to stay on your desk,” said Barnes.
“All we would do is get a third party to look at it, and since Lampson wrote the Secretary of the Army, that’s already been done,” said the staffer.
Barnes stood up. “We’re delighted you’re in the majority,” he said. “It’s good for the country.”
It is also very good for Ben Barnes.
He grew up on a peanut farm near De Leon in Comanche County, north of the Hill Country. He played high school football, married his high school sweetheart when he was 18 and she was 17, and eventually found his way to Austin and the University of Texas. To make ends meet, he worked afternoons at the state health department, where he caught the political bug, and evenings selling vacuum cleaners door-to-door. In 1960 he ran for a vacant Legislative seat back home at the age of 22 and beat a city councilman from Brownwood, the biggest town in the district.
The Ben Barnes who came to the Capitol in 1961 was a gangly farm boy, unsophisticated in dress and social niceties. But he had acquired a mature understanding of human nature from knocking on the doors of total strangers. By his second term, which began in 1963, he was clearly on the rise, aligned with Connally, who had just been elected governor, and the new Speaker, an East Texan named Byron Tunnell. Barnes began accumulating pledges of support from colleagues to succeed Tunnell if the Speaker decided not to seek a third term in 1967.
He didn’t have to wait that long. Just before the 1965 session, a vacancy occurred on the Railroad Commission and Connally came up with the clever idea of appointing Tunnell, who was only a lukewarm supporter of Connally’s activist legislative program, to fill the seat. Barnes had advance notice of the maneuver, so when Connally announced Tunnell’s appointment, Barnes had already set up a war room in the Driskill Hotel. He started calling members to make good the pledges he had collected. Potential rivals never had a chance.
With the governor and the business lobby and all but a handful of House members behind him, Barnes was an instant powerhouse. The press latched on to the story of the young man with a limitless future. The headlines tell the tale: “Ben Barnes—Man Going Places,” “Boy Wonder of Texas Politics,” “Big Crowd Hears LBJ Predict White House for Ben Barnes.” In his 1968 race for lieutenant governor he carried all 254 counties in both the primary and the general elections; in the latter he won more votes than any candidate had polled up to that time in the history of Texas.
In retrospect, success came to him too soon in life, before he was able to understand how fickle it could be. He reveled in press speculation about his future instead of discouraging it. He advocated policies that were far ahead of his time: making Spanish a required course for every high school student, reducing the penalty for possession of marijuana, raising taxes to address the problems of urban Texas. The unsophisticated farm boy had been replaced by a young man in a hurry.
Barnes suffered some setbacks during his four years as lieutenant governor—a divorce, questions about his personal finances, and a unanimous rejection by the House of a plan he supported to extend the sales tax to food—but he drove the agenda in the Legislature and remained a heavy favorite to move up to the office of his choosing in 1972, which turned out to be governor rather than senator. But then the Securities and Exchange Commission filed suit against Houston banker and real estate developer Frank Sharp, alleging that Sharp had manipulated the price of his bank’s stock. The stock happened to be owned by some prominent Texas political figures, including Governor Preston Smith, and at Smith’s request, the Legislature had passed two bills that would have eased Sharp’s problems with bank regulators. (Ironically, Smith had vetoed the bills when other bankers protested.) Barnes owned no stock and had no dealings with Sharp that anyone could find. The entire legislative session of 1971 went by without a suggestion that he was involved. But that summer, Sharp was seeking a plea bargain to avoid a trial and prison time, and he told federal investigators that his political operative had told him, “Ben is smarter than those other politicians—he only takes cash.” The operative denied having made the comment, and to this day there has never been any evidence to link Barnes to the Sharpstown scandal. But his meteoric career worked against him; who knew what such an ambitious young man might have done?
As 1972 began, he had a big lead over his most serious opponent in the gubernatorial primary, Uvalde rancher Dolph Briscoe. But as the vote drew near, House Speaker Gus Mutscher was convicted of conspiracy to accept a bribe in the form of bank stock. And lieutenant governor candidate Bill Hobby had billboards that read “Bill Hobby will make a good lieutenant governor … honestly.” Ouch. “We could see the polls dropping in the final weeks,” Barnes told me. “I went from over fifty percent to the forties, to the thirties.” In the end, he didn’t even get twenty.
The highly publicized end of the Barnes-Connally real estate partnership appeared to foil his attempt to regain power and influence. “I didn’t have anything but my father’s red pickup truck,” he told me. So he returned to politics—not as a candidate, but as a lobbyist. “Somebody who knew me needed a favor in state government,” he said. “He called a friend of mine to see if I could help him in Austin. I had always tried to help friends whenever I could, but I never took money for it. My friend told him, ‘Ben’s broke. You have to pay him now.’” He landed the two biggest lobbying jobs that the Capitol has ever seen: the bullet train and the lottery. His first big client was a French group competing with a German rival for the right to build a high-speed rail line in Texas. As Barnes tells it, the bill authorizing a study for the train was languishing in the Legislature with three weeks left in the session when he was hired. Barnes went to see Bob Lanier, the chairman of the Highway Commission, who was the chief opponent of the bill but also a former political ally. Barnes didn’t waste time on facts and figures. “Bob, I got to pass this bill,” he told his old friend. Lanier withdrew his opposition. As Barnes remembers it, “He told people, ‘Barnes is such a scoundrel, I just got to help him.’”
The French client won the right to build the train, but even Barnes couldn’t squeeze financial assistance out of the Legislature. In the meantime, Gtech had hired him to help pass the lottery. The Basses of Fort Worth were early investors in GTech, and their lawyer, a longtime Barnes supporter named Dee Kelly, recommended him. In frantic maneuvering at the end of the 1991 legislative session, Barnes had three hours to get three votes in the Senate, which he did. “It was harder than anything I had to do as Speaker or lieutenant governor,” he says. Years later, the details of his relationship with GTech came out during an investigation of the company by the Texas Lottery Commission. In addition to his lobbying contract of $25,000 a month, Barnes and a partner received 3.5 cents from every lottery ticket sold, or more than $3 million a year. Under pressure from the commission, the company severed its dealings with Barnes—for a buyout price of $23 million.
Now he had the money to get back into politics—only this time it was national politics. He had attended a Democratic senatorial fundraiser on Nantucket in 1990 and struck up a friendship with Tom Daschle. Today Barnes organizes fundraising events. “Every Democratic senator who is running for reelection has been to Texas for a fundraiser,” he told me. “We’ve got one coming up for Tim Johnson [of South Dakota].”
“Is Walter Umphrey invited?” I asked, referring to his client’s adversary in the Army contract battle, who also happens to be a major Democratic contributor.
Barnes grinned. “Of course.”
Two things have eluded Barnes in his life. One is high office, and the other is vindication. The Sharpstown damage is permanent, if unjust, and there have been other scrapes since then. But Barnes has reached the point where he can laugh at his own shortcomings. He tells the story of going to Arkansas to a Methodist conference when Bill Clinton was governor and taking a group of ministers to meet him. “I may have to switch religions,” Clinton told the ministers. “If you all will take a sinner like Barnes, you might take me.” The hand that fate dealt him has not played out so badly. He has been married to his third wife, Melanie, since 1989. They have adopted two girls, who are ten and seven. He is opening a Washington office and has a home in Austin and another in Nantucket, where his grandchildren from his first marriage come to visit.
And he is once again a force to be reckoned with, not only because of money but also because of his ideas. In April 2000 he made a speech at the LBJ Library and Museum that he has since repeated elsewhere around the state. “Texas today is drifting toward mediocrity just when it should be striving for greatness,” he said. “We are neglecting our public infrastructure and shortchanging our future… . Let me make my position very clear on this: No twentieth-century state ever became great by cutting taxes and no twenty-first century state is going to become great by cutting taxes either.” Barnes fired up the audience, just like the old days, but then former Democratic congressman Jake Pickle brought everyone back to reality during the question-and-answer period that followed. “I think you’ve made one of the greatest speeches of your life,” Pickle said, “now that you’re not running for reelection.”