This article is part of Texas Monthly’s special fiftieth-anniversary issue. Read about the other icons that have defined Texas since 1973.

Texas politics has always felt national. That’s partly because so many of our politicians go on to run for president. But mostly, it’s because our political landscape feels as big and complicated as what’s happening in Washington, D.C. There’s ambition, intrigue, corruption, and power grabs. Oh, and characters.

The Presidential Hopeful

John Connally

The late governor was known for his proximity to presidents: as JFK’s motorcade companion, LBJ’s back-home crony, Nixon’s Treasury secretary. A 1980 bid for the White House taught him that proximity was all he’d ever get. 

Ted Cruz

A strong contender for the GOP nomination in 2016, he lost to a man who accused Cruz’s father of associating with Lee Harvey Oswald. He’s seemed a bit wounded ever since—and in 2018 nearly lost his senate seat.

The Presidential Impeacher

Barbara Jordan

Texas’s first Black congresswoman’s 1974 speech affirming her belief in the Constitution—which had only recently come to see her as a full-fledged American—was a landmark moment in political oratory.

Sylvia Garcia

As a manager of Donald Trump’s 2019 impeachment, Garcia—one of Texas’s first two Latina congresswomen—put her legal experience to work. During his 2021 impeachment, she was more succinct: “Esta loco, el hombre.”

The Governor

Dolph Briscoe

Many suspected this magnificently sideburned Uvalde native wanted to be governor just for the prestige. In office, he was the state’s Gerald Ford, a caretaker offering calm in the wake of the Sharpstown corruption scandal. 

Greg Abbott

Our forty-eighth governor enjoyed a nearly frictionless glide path to power, prompting haters to suspect he’d be as directionless as Briscoe. But he’s turned into a leader more powerful than most of his predecessors.

The Civil Rights Advocate

Willie Velásquez

The son of a San Antonio butcher, Velásquez was inspired by his work in the Chicano movement to found the Southwest Voter Registration Education Project, a group that blazed a path for generations of community organizers in Texas.

Lee Merritt

The Dallas lawyer’s 2020 run for attorney general came up short, but he has put the heat on police officers in high-profile instances of misconduct, among them the murders of Botham Jean and Ahmaud Arbery.

The Activist Lawyer

Sarah Weddington

When this Abilene native was in law school at UT-Austin, she had to travel to Mexico to get an illegal abortion. After graduation, she took Roe v. Wade to the U.S. Supreme Court and made sure other women faced better choices.

Jonathan F. Mitchell

As part of a half-century effort to undo what Weddington wrought, the state’s former solicitor general invented the legal framework of 2021’s Senate Bill 8, which allows private citizens to sue anyone who facilitates an abortion.

The Power Behind the Scenes

George R. Brown

Brown’s Houston-based business empire, which grew out of the legendary contractor Brown & Root, was supported by a vast patronage network that underpinned generations of Texas politicians, including LBJ.

Tim Dunn

The pious Midland oilman uses his money to wage war on the “Austin establishment” and renewable energy by supporting pro-petroleum, right-wing Christian candidates in Republican primaries.

The Fallen Star

Ben Barnes

With powerful backers such as LBJ, Barnes became Speaker of the Texas House in 1965 and lieutenant governor in 1969 and was considered presidential material, until a corruption scandal engulfed many key Democrats. 

Wendy Davis

As a member of the Texas Senate, Davis became famous for her 2013 abortion filibuster and seemed bound for greater things. Then she ran for governor and got crushed—and ran for Congress and got crushed again.

The Great Liberal Hope

Sissy Farenthold

This Corpus Christi native represented Texas liberals’ dreams in 1972, when she ran unsuccessfully for governor as a reformer. That same year, she placed second in the contest to be George McGovern’s running mate.

Lina Hidalgo

Young, charismatic, and Latina, the Harris County judge checks the boxes that Democrats might want in a rising star. A close 2022 reelection campaign might give pause, but Hidalgo has four years to consolidate support.

This article originally appeared in the February 2023 issue of Texas Monthly with the headline “Icons, Then and Now.” Subscribe today.

Image credits: Connally: Keystone/Getty; Cruz: Phil Long/AP; Jordan: Earlie Hudnall Jr./University of North Texas Libraries/The Portal to Texas History; Garcia: AP; Briscoe: University of North Texas Libraries/The Portal to Texas History; Abbott: Eric Gay/AP; Velásquez: ZUMA Press/Alamy; Merritt: Tony Gutierrez/AP; Weddington: Lyn Alweis/Getty; Mitchell: Courtesy of Subject; Brown: Courtesy of Woodson Research Center Fondren Library, Rice University; Dunn: Patrick Michels; Barnes: Rick McFarland/AP; Davis: Bob Daemmrich/Getty; Farenthold: Guy DeLort/WWD/Penske Media/Getty; Hidalgo: Mark Mulligan/Houston Chronicle/Getty