Armstrong was a leader of the progressive Democrats of Austin who came into their own in the 1970s amid a conservative one-party Democratic state and held sway through the end of Governor Ann Richard’s tenure in 1995. Theirs was the kind of liberalism dreamed about in Billy Brammer’s The Gay Place.
A seven-year member of the Texas House, Armstrong first won election as state land commissioner in 1970 and served until he made an unsuccessful run for governor in the 1982 Democratic primary, losing to then-Attorney General Mark White.
As land commissioner, Armstrong took charge of land management for Permanent School Fund lands and served as the chairman of the Board for Lease of the Permanent University Fund. When he took office, the school fund had produced less than $1 billion in income, but during his tenure, the fund grew by $2 billion. He also oversaw increases in royalty payments to the university fund and fended off federal attempts to collect $300 million in windfall profits tax on university lands.
Armstrong received an appointment to the Texas Parks and Wildlife Commission in 1985, where he completed 17 years of work with the state’s purchase of 212,000 acres of West Texas land to create Big Bend State Park. That single acquisition doubled the amount of park land owned by the state.
For many of the old-school Democrats, one of the highlights of the year was the annual picnic at Armstrong’s ranch north of Liberty Hill. State Sen. Kirk Watson, D-Austin, said this year’s event was set for this past weekend but was postponed because of the weather. Watson said Armstrong on Friday talked about resetting the event for this upcoming weekend.
The Texas Senate adjourned Monday in Armstrong’s honor.
(Bob Armstrong/Photo by Bob Daemmrich)