He's rich. He's handsome. He ropes. He rides. And he has four years as land commissioner under his belt. So why do so many Republicans (let alone Democrats) hope David Dewhurst is not the next lieutenant governor of Texas?
If you know anything at all about David Dewhurst, the state land commissioner and Republican nominee for lieutenant governor, you probably know that he rides horses. He has carpet bombed the state with televised images that feature him sitting atop a galloping horse, wearing a spotless white hat and perfectly pressed shirt and swinging a rope over his head. The ads aired during his campaign for land commissioner in 1998 and again last summer to discourage would-be Republican rivals from running against him and his nine-figure fortune in the GOP primary for lieutenant governor. Three challengers entered the race at various times, but all eventually dropped out, leaving Dewhurst to face Democrat John Sharp for the job that has traditionally been considered the most powerful position in Texas politics.
The two images of the 56-year-old Dewhurst that appear in the ads—one, a man in a starched shirt and an obviously expensive suit who seems to have just emerged from an hour of hairstyling and makeup; the other, a lasso-swinging cowboy—seem a bit odd (why is that fellow with perfectly groomed hair trying to rope a steer?). But the political iconography is clear enough: He’s selling himself as a successful businessman with the cowboy virtues of courage and self-reliance. In fact, that is not too far removed from his life’s story. Dewhurst grew up in Houston, worked his way through college waiting tables during the school year and doing manual labor and office work in the summers, served in the Air Force and the CIA, made and lost a fortune, and made and kept another. In time he became a breeder of cutting horses and cattle and a valued fundraiser for the Republican party. In 1998 he won more votes at the polls than Rick Perry, John Cornyn, or Carole Keeton Rylander. It’s hard to construct a better bio for a Texas politician: self-made wealth, ranching, patriotism, party loyalty, and a post-September 11 credential as chairman of the Governor’s Task Force on Homeland Security. On paper, David Dewhurst should be the fastest rising star of the Republican party.
Pitted against his idealized version of himself, however, is a vigorous countermyth that goes like this: Dewhurst is a vain, aloof aristocrat who is scorned by his fellow officeholders; a detail-obsessed martinet who is difficult to work for; a candidate so stiff and formal that his public appearances work against him; a politician who proclaims himself to be a “George W. Bush Republican” but actively patronizes the party’s far-right wing; a businessman whose riches are the fruit of dubious business deals; an officeholder who spent the past decade systematically and cynically buying his way in. And then there is the gossip, of which the kindest thing is that he is said to wear makeup—although I saw no evidence of it.
This is not just the idle chatter of partisan Democratic spinmeisters. You hear it from Republicans too. It is the political establishment’s line on a man who is still seen by his colleagues in the corridors of power as someone who doesn’t really fit in—the closest thing to a political pariah. You would think that GOP insiders would be thrilled to have a candidate of Dewhurst’s wealth and stature running for higher office. But the reality is that they recruited state Supreme Court justice Greg Abbott to run against him for lieutenant governor (Abbott later switched to the attorney general’s race) and discouraged Dewhurst from challenging Attorney General John Cornyn in a GOP primary race to succeed Phil Gramm in the U.S. Senate. Outgoing lieutenant governor Bill Ratliff, who abandoned his race for reelection after Dewhurst got in, says, “His personality is the main problem. Compare him to [state comptroller] Carole Rylander. The contrast is stark between the warm, fuzzy grandma and the starched shirt. He is not one of the good old boys.” A reporter for the Washington-based political newspaper Roll Call has described Dewhurst as “a megawealthy businessman whom Texas observers call ‘plastic,’ and even Republicans characterize him in unflattering terms.” Ross Ramsey, the editor of the Austin political newsletter Texas Weekly, says simply, “He is the strangest duck in Texas politics.”
Dewhurst acknowledges that there are people who don’t like him, but he attributes what he calls “negative gossip” to three words he uses more or less interchangeably: “Austin,” “Democrat,” and “partisan.” To him it is all myth and calumny. “The partisan Democrat spin that I stay away from people is malarkey,” he says. “In 1998 I spent more time doing retail campaigning than almost any candidate I know. I did a 103-city tour of Texas in a bus. One of my favorite things to do is to go into little towns and walk in and out of stores and say, ‘Hi, I’m David Dewhurst, and I’m running for office. Would like to talk to you.’ Great fun.”
So the question is, Who is the real David Dewhurst? And why are people saying such terrible things about him?
It is breakfast time at the snaffle Bit Ranch, David Dewhurst’s lovely 1,800-acre stream-crossed scrap of Hill Country just south of Fredericksburg. The sun is rising over the rolling live-oak pastureland and over the barns, stables, and arenas that house 119 of Texas’ finest quarter horses. Four of us—Dewhurst, his campaign manager, his press secretary, and I—are seated at a spacious oak table near the kitchen in a large, remodeled limestone ranch house. It is a splendid place, a multimillionaire’s dacha, jammed with art and antiques and designer-crafted down to the last curtain tassel and bathroom valance. I have just spent the night in a bedroom the size of my front yard. Breakfast consists of cereal, orange juice, and bagels that Dewhurst personally picked out the night before at the H-E-B in Fredericksburg. While we eat, I am summarizing for Dewhurst, as tactfully as I can, all the reasons I have heard, in two months of reporting, why people do not like him. I have his full attention.
I am here because I asked Dewhurst if I could interview him at his ranch—away from the swirl of his professional and political life in Austin—and he not only agreed but also invited me to spend the night. This came as a surprise since I had heard that he distrusts reporters, who seldom have a good thing to say about him. But he has invited me here nonetheless, at what must have seemed to him considerable risk, and I am getting to see what the state’s biggest political mystery looks like at close range. He is a large, strikingly handsome man, six feet five inches tall, and has the lean, muscled body of someone thirty years younger—the product of frequent weight lifting at Powerhouse Gym in downtown Austin. His hair ranges from dark brown to gray in such perfect gradations that it can appear airbrushed, even from five feet away. His elevated cheekbones, flawlessly translucent pink skin, and faintly retroussé nose make him appear more cinematic than aristocratic, as though he might have been one of Sue Ellen’s lovers from the old prime-time soap opera Dallas.
I mention this because one of the first things you learn about David Dewhurst when you spend time with him is that he is a prisoner of his looks. We all are, to some extent, of course, but he is an extreme case. You can trace many of the unkind things people say about him to his too-perfect appearance. After riding hard in a hot sun, with dirt and sweat on his face, his hair mashed down by his hat, he still looks like someone who just wandered off a movie set. And while it must be nice to be a handsome centimillionaire, his appearance is not well suited to politics. It suggests neither the youthful vigor of a John F. Kennedy nor the ruggedness of Rick Perry. Rather, it seems to bear out what his critics say about him: He’s too concerned about how he looks. Hence those words—“aristocratic,” “vain,” “fussy,” “a bit of a dandy,” “lacking a common touch,” “short on intellectual heft.”
This is some of what people say about him, I tell Dewhurst, but they say worse things too. You do not have spend much time in Austin political circles before you hear the rumor that he is homosexual—notwithstanding his six-year marriage to former model Tammy Jo Hopkins, which ended in divorce last year—or the more finely articulated stories that he is obsessed with having his nails manicured or that he changes his shirt eight times a day or that he sometimes wears makeup for public appearances. Whisper campaigns like this are peculiarly effective. They need not be proven: If you believe a man is obsessive about his fingernails, you will believe a lot of other things about him too. You hear variations of this all over Austin, which is where people care enough to whisper about such things. Underlying all of this is a sense of unease, a sense that, for whatever reason, he just doesn’t belong in politics.
Now he is responding, across the breakfast table, to my catalog of things people don’t like about him. The whisper campaign, which he knows about, he finds “despicable.” “Ninety-five percent of any negative gossip that you hear about David Dewhurst is generated from one or more liberal Democratic partisans and lobbyists in Austin,” he says. The gossip, he says, is deliberately, maliciously false, and he suspects it is at least in part the work of John Sharp and his minions. No evidence to support the rumors has ever surfaced, and Dewhurst built a reputation, both before his marriage and after his divorce, for squiring beautiful women around. “You need,” he says, “to listen to what people outside Austin are saying.”
Then there are the political allegations. Of the charge that he is a poor candidate, he says, “If there was any truth to that, I wouldn’t have been the highest non-judicial vote-getter in 1998 after Bush.” He also bridles at the notion that he represents only the far-right wing of the Republican party. “If there was any truth to that,” he says, “the Texas Federation of Republican Women, who represent the whole smorgasbord of Republican women, from pro-choice to soccer moms to conservatives, wouldn’t consider me one of their best friends. I have to allocate more time whenever I speak to any Republican women’s club so everybody has time to give me a hug.”
By the time our breakfast is over, I have spent a late afternoon, an evening, and a morning with him. My impression is that the David Dewhurst of the Snaffle Bit Ranch (as opposed to the political world) is not aloof and is anything but a lightweight. He is voluble, ebullient, and something of a know-it-all. He has a side of him that is pure policy wonk. He can be alternately charming and overbearing. Occasionally he sits quietly and listens. He has a dry, almost nerdy sense of humor; he thinks it is funny, for example, to tell people that he is five feet seventeen inches tall. “Vertically challenged,” he calls it. He is impassioned and expansive on subjects he likes, such as horses and Spanish culture, and he likes good food and fine wine. At dinner the previous night at the Hilltop Café, outside Fredericksburg, he showed me the many scars on his hands from roping cattle. He is, in short, a big, ambitious, rich Texan. This is not at all what the rumor mill had led me to expect.
My last question is why he thinks he can win. “The state of Texas is two or three points more Republican than it was in 1998,” he says. “Today I am a better candidate than I was in 1998. My opponent is not as good a candidate as he was in 1998. I would not be in this race unless I thought I was uniquely qualified to be lieutenant governor and that I will win.”
David Henry Dewhurst III was born in Houston on August 18, 1945, into modest circumstances. His father, a bomber pilot and a war hero, was killed by a drunk driver when David was three. He grew up on the west side of town in a family with limited means. His mother worked as a legal secretary. David attended Lamar High, where he played on the basketball team. He went to the University of Arizona and played basketball his freshman year as a walk-on. He graduated in 1967 with a major in English, a minor in history, and an ambition to go to law school. Instead, he enlisted in the Air Force.
His idea was to follow in the footsteps of his father and become a pilot. But his eyesight did not meet the minimum standards. Instead of flying fighters or bombers, Dewhurst was shipped north to a Strategic Air Command base in chilly Plattsburgh, New York, a few miles from the Canadian border, where his main duties were to guard nuclear weapons and the B-52 bombers that carried them. There he acquired his obsession for planning and detail. “I learned to schedule decision making and conversations in certain downtimes,” he tells me. “I remember having to make a decision, and so I scheduled it for the two minutes that I was going to walk in formation from the barracks to the mess hall.”
In 1971 he finished his hitch in the Air Force and took a job with the CIA. He was sent to La Paz, Bolivia, a hotbed of leftist ferment where governments were routinely toppled and where guerilla leader Che Guevara had been captured and killed just four years before. Dewhurst’s cover was a State Department job dealing with consular issues—passport and visa problems and the like. “I had a full-time embassy job,” he says. “After hours and on weekends I was tasked by my [CIA] boss in Washington to keep in touch with certain groups and foreign embassies and opinion makers that Washington was interested in.” (He later added that he had the responsibility to “monitor certain terrorist and other foreign targets.”) Two months after he arrived in Bolivia, a bloody coup ousted leftist president J. J. Torres. Dewhurst says that the coup was not assisted by the United States (a claim disputed by some historians) and that he had nothing to do with it. (The CIA confirmed that Dewhurst worked for them from 1971 to 1974 but would provide no further information.) In the CIA Dewhurst acquired fluency in Spanish and a lifelong passion for the cultures of Spanish-speaking countries. He has traveled to Mexico and South America more than a hundred times. Twenty-eight years later you can hear him speaking competent Spanish in radio advertisements in South Texas and El Paso.
After he left the CIA, he returned to Texas, where the oil business was booming. Though Dewhurst had no experience in oil, he decided in late 1978—at the age of 33 and with no capital—to move back to Houston from Washington, D.C. (where he had been attending law school and working as a marketing consultant) to try his hand at it. His plan was to sell drilling rigs to Mexican oil companies. He found a partner and in the summer of 1979 launched an oil-field service company later incorporated as Trans-Gulf Supply.
The company was an instant success. Less than two years later, thanks to steadily rising oil prices that supported an enormous demand for drilling rigs, Trans-Gulf had revenues of around $70 million a year, with annual earnings of more than $3 million. Then all hell broke loose. “As of December 31, 1981, when our audited financials were prepared, I was a thirty-six-year-old millionaire,” says Dewhurst. “Six months later, when the price of oil fell, only one of those two facts was true.” Like many Texas companies in those years, Trans-Gulf crashed just as quickly as it had risen. Bankruptcy followed. The company that had once employed 150 people employed only Dewhurst himself at the end. Documents from the U.S. Bankruptcy Court show that at the time of its bankruptcy, Trans-Gulf owed more than $8 million.
While Trans-Gulf was in bankruptcy, Dewhurst had another idea: He would build a type of electricity-producing facility known as a cogeneration plant. It would burn gas, partly from wells he owned through a drilling-and-exploration company called Falcon Seaboard, to produce steam and generate electricity. The electricity would be sold to a utility, the steam to an adjacent refinery. Without capital of his own, Dewhurst persuaded banks to lend him $110 million and by 1988 had built a successful cogeneration plant in Big Spring. It was the foundation of his fortune. Over the next three years, he built two more plants—in his old stomping grounds of Plattsburgh, New York, and in North East, Pennsylvania—and sold them in 1996 for $226 million. He is now worth more than $200 million.
But along the way, especially in the months immediately preceding the closing of the Big Spring deal, he was desperate for money and secured loans any way he could. To get one $200,000 loan, he promised equity in the cogeneration plant to one of his oldest childhood friends, Jay Golding, and a partner. Dewhurst also got a six-figure loan from a Louisiana bank, and to get another $250,000, he got a personal loan from the bank’s chairman, for which he had to promise a six-figure commission linked to the cogeneration deal.
Some of the wheeling and dealing got Dewhurst into trouble. He lost $150,000 in a short-term deal. In 1990 he was sued by Golding and his partner, who claimed that Dewhurst had cheated them out of equity in his cogeneration plants. In 1991 Dewhurst agreed to pay them what he terms a “substantial” amount of money—roughly a 30 percent stake in his Big Spring plant. (Golding and Dewhurst are once again close friends, and both say they regret the lawsuit; in February of this year Golding contributed $10,000 to Dewhurst’s campaign.) This and other business deals would later haunt him. They became an issue in his 1998 race for land commissioner and have resurfaced in his race for lieutenant governor.
Dewhurst spent twelve years in the cogeneration business. Friends describe him in those years as a solitary, driven figure who worked almost all the time and who seemed to care little for the trappings that his wealth could bring. (Even today, he buys his own groceries and washes his own clothes.) “He lived in a little townhouse,” says Ashley Smith, the president and CEO of the Institute for Rehabilitation and Research, a Houston hospital, who has known Dewhurst since high school. “All he did was work. You couldn’t outwork him. He was married to his business.”
Dewhurst had also begun to buy his way into the world of politics. In the late eighties he started spreading political money around. In 1991 he became the finance chairman of the Texas Republican party and one of Phil Gramm’s principal fundraisers. Dewhurst quickly became known around the state as a wealthy man with a ready checkbook. Between 1994 and 1997 he gave $105,000 to George W. Bush’s two gubernatorial campaigns. From 1990 to 2002 he personally contributed more than $500,000 to GOP federal candidates and the Republican party.
In the mid-nineties two events happened that would radically alter Dewhurst’s life. One was his 1995 marriage, at the age of 50, to 32-year-old Tammy Jo Hopkins, a Nebraska-born, New York-based model. The other, coming less than a year after his marriage, was the sudden, stunning windfall from the sale of his cogeneration plants. The two events together completely changed the way Dewhurst lived and how he spent his money. He and Tammy went on a spending spree, indulging in the sort of material acquisitions in which he had never before shown any interest. In 1995 they bought the ranch in Fredericksburg. In 1997 they bought the late John Mecom’s 13,000-square-foot French chteau-style mansion on Lazy Lane in River Oaks. They added a Mediterranean-style mansion in the Pemberton Heights section of Austin and a condominium in Santa Fe. They bought art and furniture. “To some extent, he lived her life instead of his own,” says John Lyle, a lawyer and former congressman who is a close friend of Dewhurst’s. They were involved in the opera and the symphony and lavished money on local charities. Tammy was named one of the Houston Chronicle’s best-dressed women. The Dewhursts were conspicuous for their good looks, their huge fortune, and what everyone by now said were David’s political ambitions. “He was going to become a candidate,” says Austin political consultant Bill Miller. “There was no doubt about that.”
Dewhurst considered running for lieutenant governor in 1994, a job then held by the formidable Democrat Bob Bullock, and again in 1998 against Sharp, but decided instead on an easier prize: land commissioner. The Republican primary against state senator Jerry Patterson, of Pasadena, turned out to be a tough, negative campaign in which Patterson accused Dewhurst of trying to bribe him to quit the race. In the general election, state representative Richard Raymond, of Benavides, accused him of embezzlement, among other things. Dewhurst was not a great candidate. He was a pedantic, undisciplined stump speaker who was not yet comfortable in public. But he diligently traveled the state, spent $8 million (half of which was his own money) to Raymond’s $1 million, and won the election going away. He put his fortune into a blind trust and turned his full attention to politics. Last fall he agonized over whether he should run for the Senate seat that Phil Gramm is giving up. Despite a clear financial advantage over his rival for the Republican nomination, John Cornyn, Dewhurst chose to run for lieutenant governor instead.
DURING MY VISIT TO THE SNAFFLE bit Ranch—named after a type of bit that looks like two D’s back to back—Dewhurst gave me a tour of the ranch house. It is the sort of weekend place you might see in a design magazine, full of heavy wooden furniture and Native American and Oriental rugs. There are sky-high ceilings and large picture windows, Western paintings by Melvin Warren and spacious Ralph Lauren chairs. As he showed me the house, it seemed in some ways more of a tour through his marriage. He was wistful when describing individual pieces of furniture—a large armoire he and his wife had bought in France or a table they’d gotten in Mexico.
Friends say Dewhurst was devastated by the failure of his marriage. “He had always been able to work harder to make things happen,” says a friend of the couple. “But he couldn’t do that in this case.” In July 1999 Tammy was arrested for drunken driving after her Mercedes-Benz collided with an oncoming car near the ranch at one-twenty in the afternoon. After she pleaded no-contest to the charges, Dewhurst issued a press release: “My wife’s car accident in July was a wake-up call which caused Tammy to completely give up drinking and enroll herself in a clinic full-time. Today she is in the best health of her life.” The couple split up a year later. Though the Dewhursts are constrained by a confidentiality agreement from commenting on their marriage and divorce, Tammy’s lawyer says the divorce was “amicable.” Dewhurst says simply, “Tammy is a special person. I care about her, and we remain friends.” She currently lives in Houston.
Outside the ranch house, around the stables and cattle pens and riding arenas, Dewhurst feels more at home. He is a commercial—as opposed to recreational—cattle rancher and horse breeder. His company, Falcon Seaboard, breeds cattle on leased land in Sutton and Edwards counties (near Sonora) and in western Colorado. He has the third-largest registered Black Angus herd in Texas. At Fredericksburg he breeds mostly cutting, roping, and reining horses for sale and for competition. One of his reining horses is ranked fifth nationally in career earnings, and in 2000 one of his cutting horses won tenth place in the American Quarterhorse Association’s World Show.
The sport that is featured in Dewhurst’s political ads is called team roping, in which two riders, a “header” and a “heeler,” pursue a running steer inside an arena. At full gallop, the header ropes the steer’s horns; riding behind, the heeler then ropes its hind legs. Dewhurst is a header. I watched as he backed a large quarter horse named Jerry into a chute off the arena. When the steer was released, Jerry hit 35 miles per hour in a step and a half. It was a violent, exciting moment. I couldn’t imagine how he stayed on the horse. Dewhurst managed to rope the steer’s horns two out of four times.
His success rate is not as good in politics. Set aside the rumors and the gossip, and you find that David Dewhurst’s real problem is that he does not yet have fully developed political instincts. As a result, he has gotten into tight political situations from which he has been unable to extricate himself without alienating other politicians, including Republicans. The best example of this was his participation last fall on a five-member redistricting board whose job it was to redraw the electoral map of the state House and Senate based on the 2000 census. Dewhurst came up with a Senate map that 30 of 31 incumbent senators said they would support. But Cornyn, who was also on the board, had his own map, favored by big Republican donors, and he had the vote of a fellow Republican, Carole Keeton Rylander, the state comptroller. Speaker of the House Pete Laney, a Democrat, and Lieutenant Governor Ratliff, a Republican, sided with the incumbents. Dewhurst was in the middle. A skilled politician would have tried to cut a deal with Laney and Ratliff, asking for a few concessions to keep the money people happy. Instead, he voted with Cornyn and Rylander. Angry senators who ended up with districts not to their liking blamed Dewhurst, not Cornyn. Two of them, Republicans Robert Duncan, of Lubbock and Jeff Wentworth, of San Antonio, criticized Dewhurst by name in the press. Wentworth—who had been the chairman of the Senate redistricting panel—even suggested that a Republican-controlled Senate would strip Dewhurst of the traditional powers that body has granted to the lieutenant governor. Ratliff, who will return in 2003 as a senator, says, “What he did was heavy-handed, and it is a perfect example of what bothers senators about him. The members’ opinions were not given the kind of weight that a presiding officer would have given them.”
Dewhurst defends his action, arguing that if he had abstained from voting—the only other choice as he saw it—he would have thrown redistricting into the courts. Apparently acting as a broker never occurred to him. He has tried to make amends, speaking with all sixteen Republican senators and most Democrats to try to explain himself. He believes he has healed the wounds. “I think that all these Republican senators know where my heart was,” he says. But Wentworth, for one, still feels aggrieved: “He tried to defend what he did, and I still disagree with him.”
Another problem for Dewhurst is that he has left himself vulnerable to being portrayed as an ultraconservative Republican, as opposed to a mainstream conservative. In March he got caught in a controversy involving the right-wing group FreePAC (short for Free Market Political Action Committee). In a mailing to GOP primary voters, FreePAC claimed that six GOP legislators (including Ratliff and Wentworth) supported policies favored by “radical homosexuals” and Dr. Jack Kevorkian. The mailing included photographs of two men kissing. Led by Ratliff, GOP state officials and many legislators condemned the mailing, as did Dewhurst. But it turned out that Dewhurst had been a major donor to FreePAC in the nineties, in the amount of $84,500. He stopped giving to the group in 1999, the year it began targeting incumbent Republicans it considered insufficiently pure. But that information got lost in the larger news story, the gist of which was: Dewhurst Funds Fanatical Right-Wing Group.
The FreePAC controversy is not likely to be remembered by voters in November. Among insiders, however, it has the effect of making Dewhurst seem even quirkier, more mysterious than he already is. Without any coaching from Dewhurst’s opponents, a reasonable person might well conclude from this episode that he really is a right-wing ideologue who doesn’t fit with the mainstream of his party. You don’t have to talk to him for long before you realize that he is very much a creature of the mainstream. But that is not how John Sharp will describe him.
The general election is still five months away, but the signs are that Dewhurst and Sharp will soon be blasting away at each other’s records as officeholders, saying how poorly the other did in managing his state agency. In a year when the state faces a possible $5 billion hole in the budget, both men are selling their abilities as managers—Sharp as a former state comptroller and Dewhurst as a businessman and state agency budget-cutter.
They have already clashed over Dewhurst’s Land Office budget cuts. In advertisements, Dewhurst claimed that he had cut his agency’s budget by 25 percent. Sharp disputed that, saying that Dewhurst had made cuts of only 4 percent—a position supported by newspaper stories and editorials. Who is right? Dewhurst justifies his claim with two numbers: the $53.5 million annual budget he inherited from his predecessor, Garry Mauro, for fiscal year 1999 and the $40.56 million in expenditures reported officially by the General Land Office for 2000, the first year Dewhurst had full control of his budget—a drop of 24.2 percent, not quite 25 percent but, as they say, close enough for government work. Sharp bases his claim on the $48.5 million the General Land Office spent in 1999, the fiscal year Mauro and Dewhurst split as land commissioners, and the $46.6 million he says Dewhurst’s GLO spent in 2000, citing a Legislative Budget Board analysis. Both sides’ numbers are questionable. By the time Dewhurst took office, Mauro himself had previously recommended, and legislative budget writers had accepted, a $6 million reduction for 2000, which Dewhurst subsequently reduced even more. Dewhurst shouldn’t be able to take credit for the Mauro reduction; his portion of the budget cut amounts to 15 percent—not 25 percent, but still substantial. Sharp’s $46.6 million figure for GLO spending in 2000 was way off: it was only a Land Office estimate (not a budget board analysis), which turned out to be $6 million higher than what Dewhurst, correctly, had said he spent. As with all budgeting disputes, this one may seem pretty arcane, but it is important because Dewhurst, who achieved most of his savings by firing 103 people in his first week on the job, plans to attack Sharp for expanding the comptroller’s budget during eight years in office. In any case, Dewhurst is not alone in believing he ran a tight ship. “I don’t mind saying that David has done a good job running that agency,” says House Appropriations Committee chairman Rob Junell, a Democrat who is supporting Sharp. Still, the skirmish is classic Dewhurst: When Sharp attacked, Dewhurst was unable to explain his numbers to the media and wound up losing round one of the public relations battle.
Later, he somehow managed to lose the endorsement of the state’s biggest business association. In February the Texas Association of Business and Chambers of Commerce, which is supporting Republicans in every other race and of which Dewhurst is a former officer, threw its support to Sharp. The setback resulted from a combination of his failure to anticipate Sharp’s challenge of his numbers—Dewhurst admits that he did little advance work—and being outperformed by Sharp when the two made a joint appearance at a TABCC luncheon.
On Dewhurst’s side is his money, which he will use mainly to buy television and radio advertisements, and a built-in six- to eight-point tilt among Texas voters toward Republicans. Sharp has a distinguished record in Texas politics—he has served as a House member, a senator, and a railroad commissioner and as comptroller for eight years, and he narrowly lost the lieutenant governor’s race to Rick Perry in 1998. He has substantial Republican support; Hall of Fame pitcher Nolan Ryan heads Republicans and Independents for Sharp. He also stands to benefit from the presence of gubernatorial candidate Tony Sanchez and U.S. Senate candidate Ron Kirk on the Democratic ticket this year. If Hispanic and black voters turn out in large numbers, Sharp will get a huge lift. Look for Sharp to paint Dewhurst as an extremist, a far-right-winger who contributes to groups like FreePAC—even though Dewhurst’s pet issues are shared by many Republicans: He wants to raise education standards and give teachers more money, improve access to higher education, and streamline the health-care system.
No matter what the big issues turn out to be, the 2002 campaign for lieutenant governor may well come down to money. Sharp and Dewhurst are like the fox and the hedgehog in the old fable. The fox, you’ll recall, knows many things. The hedgehog knows one big thing. Sharp is the fox, a wily veteran politician with a lot of allies and friends and a vast store of knowledge about state government. Dewhurst, the hedgehog, knows that he can afford to drop $25 million on this campaign compared to Sharp’s $8 million to $10 million. And that is a big thing indeed.
If David Dewhurst has a natural constituency, it is probably women. This is no doubt partly because he is tall and good-looking. But there is something else too, and it is obvious when you see him in public. Women like him, and he likes them. He is at ease around them, something that isn’t true when he is in the male-dominated world of the Capitol, where he seems stiff, formal, wary, and a little out of place. At the monthly dinner of the Austin Young Women’s Alliance in April, his comfort level is obvious. The event takes place in the banquet room at Truluck’s restaurant. He circulates, leaning down from his six feet five inches to talk to his hosts. One of the women is from the complex where he has an apartment, called the Gables on Town Lake, in Austin. They know each other. They are telling me, jointly, a story about roping.”I drove in one night and saw the strangest thing,” the woman says with a laugh. “There was a man practicing roping out in the parking lot. Then I saw who it was.”
“You’re kidding,” I say to her, looking at him.
“Unfortunately she isn’t,” he says.
“He had this little toy sort of cow, and he was throwing the rope at it.”
“But in the parking lot?” I ask, still not convinced that Dewhurst was actually doing this. The small crowd around us is laughing now.
“Well, you see,” he says, grinning, “I had some roping events coming up, and I needed to practice. I have this roping steer made out of metal. So sometimes I practice. In the parking lot.” More laughter.
“A couple of drunk guys showed up and tried it,” says the woman.
“That was pretty funny,” he says.
I can’t imagine another politician who would be standing in the parking lot of an apartment complex roping a metal cow. Who is the real David Dewhurst? He’s the Republican party’s lonesome cowboy.