On May 16, the day after a grand jury indictment led to the resignation of the youngest mayor in the history of Gun Barrel City, 22-year-old Tye Thomas looked remarkably calm. Relieved, even. He sipped coffee and curled up in a reddish-pink bathrobe in his two-tone pink home office that was decorated with photographs of politicians and a pastel of Elton John. On his first day out of public life, he opened a file on his desk and read aloud from encouraging letters he had received after winning the mayoral election almost exactly a year before, as if to trace what had gone wrong and find a way to revive the good feelings. Tye remembered a cool morning back in November 1999. After he had graduated with a marketing degree from Rhode Island’s Johnson and Wales University, he drove his Lexus to this small town southeast of Dallas that is just miles from his hometown of Mabank. Within a year, Tye had founded two newspapers, the Henderson County News and the Lakeside News, and bought six residential and commercial properties. He was not born rich, but he had an instinct for business. In high school, for instance, he sold lottery tickets for profit and founded a newspaper that he later sold to an ad agency. Tye’s success led him to believe that he could do a better job as mayor than his predecessor, Joe Agnes, who called people “turkey” in meetings and once kicked in the door to the city manager’s office.
At first, the young Republican was a better leader than Agnes: He successfully pushed for a pay raise for the city’s police officers and served as the youngest member of the state’s delegation to the electoral college. In October, however, Tye was shocked to find out that the county was investigating him on two counts: that he had falsified his residence to be eligible to run for office and that he had used city labor and equipment to smooth over a few gravel mounds in front of the Lakeside News. The charges sounded so official: perjury! misuse of city equipment! “Piddley,” Tye thought. Sometimes he did use the office to help out his friends a little bit, sure. That’s how small-town politics work. But he didn’t intentionally mislead anybody, he reasoned. Still, discouragement and depression from the accusations climaxed on the night of April 24, when the young mayor chased a few Xanax pills with some vodka and demanded that the police arrest him for public intoxication. The next morning, as he awoke in a cell, he realized the end of his career was near. So when the county attorney later offered to drop all of the charges if Tye would resign, he reluctantly complied.
The following day, though, as he kicked back and eyed the ten-inch-long model of Air Force One on the corner of his desk, perhaps he was the very essence of Gun Barrel City, a name given to the town as if it were begging for an exclamation mark of controversy. “We shoot straight with you” was the town’s motto. And like the town, Tye was trying to think positively. He looked back at the year and counted his close, true friends. One was Billie Sol Estes, the legendary Texas swindler and convicted felon. The pair have talked on the phone almost every other day since Tye’s indictment. Estes had given him comfort during the past few months, telling the youngster, “Notoriety will open doors for you that you never knew existed.” Perhaps it makes a crazy kind of sense, then, that before stopping by the Lakeside News, even before putting on his pants, Tye dialed Estes on speakerphone on this, the breaking dawn of his ex-mayorship.
Estes picked up around the tenth ring. Without identifying himself, Tye shouted, “Mornin’, sir! How are you doin’ this mornin’?”
“Aw, jus’ fine, there Tye, how you?” Estes replied. Tye scrunched up his small nose and grinned, silently mouthing the words, “Isn’t he great?”
Then Tye introduced me, and Estes said, “I think the law would be on his side if it went to court. They arrested him because of his youth. But nothing’s going to happen. He’s going to be the next governor of Texas! People who are older have a hard time with change. He’s an unusual young man—you talk to him.”
Tye pulled his bathrobe back over his chest hair and bounced his calf over his opposite knee. Then addressing Tye, Estes said, “People think they can become great by bringing people down. Tye, you just be kind to those people down there, because whatever they’ve done to you, they’ve done in good faith. You’ve got an extra spark about you—people like me won’t be here too long.
“There’s a time to reap and a time to sow, Tye. Now is your time to sow!”
The following Monday the city council would appoint a new mayor, crossing its fingers as it dived into the next chapter of its history. And what would happen to Tye? He had pondered the past. But as he left the house at eleven that May morning, clad in a festive Hawaiian shirt, he began thinking he’d move to the Caribbean and start all over again. Or maybe he’d just lie low for a while and see if notoriety would begin to open doors. Out in the unforgiving heat, Tye cranked up the air conditioning in his Lexus, popped in a Tammy Wynette tape, and drove off, his diamond rings twinkling in the sunlight.