Jack Martin is an elder statesman of Texas politics whose opinion—and support—still matter to a new generation of elected officials. Currently the global chairman and CEO of Hill+Knowlton Strategies, one of the biggest public relations firms in the world, the 64-year-old Martin says he’s largely out of the political game. But his nearly four decades as an operative give Martin a unique insight into Texas politics. He began his career in 1975, as an aide to Democratic senator Lloyd Bentsen, who came to rely heavily on Martin at a time when Democrats dominated Texas. He witnessed the state’s swing from Democratic control to Republican control and has, over the years, heard plenty of unfulfilled predictions that Texas is ready to swing back. Always the pragmatist, Martin recognizes that the Texas electorate seems satisfied with the state’s general direction. But he worries about our priorities and our political culture.
TEXAS MONTHLY: What’s the mood of politics in Texas?
JACK MARTIN: Overall, people would say that the state is headed in the right direction and the economy is in pretty good shape. I think that what’s not getting enough attention is, there’s a disconnect here between the haves and the have-nots—the people who care, for instance, about public schools and health care. And I don’t think that we can see a well-thought-out future in those areas in terms of the state’s priorities.
TM: Are we in the midst of a swing from right to left?
JM: I’m not sure you could accurately predict where we are. People are generally comfortable with the direction of the state. And so as long as that’s true, it’s hard for me to see any major swing. I think at some point you’re going to have to have a more pronounced feeling on the part of the public that they’re ripe for change.
TM: Did you see a swing when you were involved in the 1978 campaign of John Hill, the first Democrat to lose the Texas governor’s race in more than a century?
JM: We ran in the Democratic primary as insurgents on behalf of Attorney General Hill against the governor, Dolph Briscoe, and we won. But we lost the general election. Along came this fella, [Republican Bill] Clements, with a lot of money and a lot more sophistication in terms of election techniques, and he won by 17,000 votes. I think it was the beginning of something that transformed politics in Texas.
TM: Let’s turn to today. Do you see Democrats taking advantage of the sentiment against Donald Trump?
JM: I think that’s almost all of their strategy. Beto O’Rourke to a lesser extent because, more than the others on the ballot this year, he has transcended the block vote mentality and has developed a personality of his own. It reminds me a little bit of what Mark White was able to do [when he successfully ran for governor, in 1982]. It reminds me of what Ann Richards was able to do in 1990. Every once in a while, somebody comes along who transcends the numbers. And if Beto is successful in this endeavor—and I don’t know if he’s going to be—it will be because he’s one of those people that has gone over the top.
TM: O’Rourke has consistently polled within striking distance of Ted Cruz. Just as consistent has been his low voter identification—lots of people don’t know who he is. Is that something to be concerned about?
JM: I don’t necessarily think that Beto is about to walk on the floor of the United States Senate. There’s a lot of road ahead. And I think Cruz proved in his presidential campaign, and will prove now, that he knows how to run an excellent campaign. If I were Beto, I would be concerned about that low name ID, because you’re making a mistake if you assume that half the voters in Texas that don’t know who Beto is are going to vote for him just because they’re mad at Ted Cruz.
TM: But nonetheless, even with that low name recognition, Beto’s polling pretty well. Does that suggest that there is an anti-Cruz sentiment right now, as opposed to a pro-Beto sentiment?
JM: I think it’s probably a little of both. I think what Beto has done has captured the imagination of a whole lot of people by being unique. The fact that he’s traveled all over the state and has not just stuck to places where it’s only about turnout, it sends a great signal to people. So I don’t think it’s as much about Cruz as it is that they’re grabbing onto something they think is authentic. You saw that in John McCain. I mean, everything you heard about McCain in the days after his death: people talked about how authentic he was. So I think that’s a big part of it.
TM: What about the governor’s race?
JM: Well, should I say diplomatically that it’s an uphill climb for [Lupe Valdez,] the Democratic candidate? I don’t know Governor [Greg] Abbott, never met him. But I think, as a politician and as a candidate, he doesn’t make many mistakes. And I think, as a governor, he appeals to his base and he appeals to his voters. It’s going to be awfully difficult to convince 51 percent of the people of Texas that they want to change that.
TM: Is there anything about our politics that you’d like to see change?
JM: One of the real desires I have is to see a return to civility. We once had an ability to talk in a bipartisan way about important things. Clements and Bill Hobby did a wonderful job for higher education as a governor and lieutenant governor from different parties. George W. Bush and Bob Bullock and [former House Speaker] Pete Laney really did some wonderful things for the state. Richards had a great ability to reach across the aisle. What troubles me is this notion of tribal politics that’s developed. I would like to see us tackle some of these issues together. We’ve got some big challenges ahead, and I don’t think we’re going to solve that with government-by-focus-groups. You talked about the old days. What we miss about those days is that when elections were over, people went back to governing. And they went back to governing for the broadest group of people they possibly could.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.