Whiz Kid of Texas Politics

Back in the Jimmy Who? days, John Pouland, the 21-year-old state coordinator for Carter, crisscrossed Texas, circulating petitions and digging up convention delegates. On $75 a week he roamed the state in a yellow Camaro, staying with friends, never at motels.

Pouland can take credit for putting a little-known outsider into a primary originally designed to catapult Lloyd Bentsen into the White House race. It was his vitality and smarts that fueled the crash crusade to gather 25,000 signatures (10,000 more than needed legally) to put Jimmy Carter on the ballot in all senatorial districts across the state. He did it in five weeks.

Looser than old pols would like, the sandy-haired Pouland runs a campaign in his head. He remembers phone numbers and names, doesn’t write them down. His “Up the Organization” approach to politics rankles the record-keepers. Youth and stamina let him work till dawn, although he’s just as notorious for dropping out of sight. But he’s there in the crunch.

Dan Weiser, Oak Cliff liberal Demo-crat, concedes “he’s the best young kid I’ve met in politics.” Former state Democratic executive comitteewoman Pat Pangburn says, “I treat him like a total equal – or maybe a superior. That’s what he is.” Even a Pouland adversary like state Carter co-chairman Calvin Guest squeezed out an admission that “he’s a bright young man, in politics to stay.” Land commissioner Bob Armstrong called him “the best I’ve ever seen for 22. But he’s also just 22” – a flick that Pouland passes off. “That hurt him [Armstrong] more with the young people of the state than it did me.”

A ringleader and hell-raiser, John politicked through his teens. At South Garland High School he put out an underground paper, fielded a slate of candidates for office and challenged existing hair and dress codes. As senior class president, he escaped expulsion but claims to hold the South Garland record for being sent home.

Discovering in the middle of his senior year that he had logged enough credits, Pouland drove to Austin and, two days before spring semester, talked his way into the university. He was then 17. He got involved in Ron Clower’s first Senate race, got a job as assistant sergeant-at-arms in the state capitol, and later joined Clower’s staff. When John Bryant made his winning try to become a state representative, he took the then 19-year-old Pouland to manage his campaign.

Two years later Pouland landed the job as Carter’s head man. Six months later he went over the side. With Carter’s win in Texas, the heavy hitters, who had viewed Carter from the wings, fell over each other climbing on the bandwagon. The whiz kid tumbled off.

Pouland insists he was leaving anyway, and waves a letter of acceptance to law school this fall to prove his point. But Bryant says the line “Pouland needs to go to law school” really translates “Pouland needs to be kicked out of the campaign.”

Pouland marvels at stories he feels enemies floated to shoot him down. He denies he ever “insulted the governor” or “was living and screwing” in the state headquarters. He says he had enough trouble staying on top at 21 without asking for more.

If John has been sacrificed, he doesn’t look it. If he has been slighted, he doesn’t let it show. Like the famous ambushed guerilla leader, his white horse is in the hills – only it’s a Kawasaki 900 and it’s ready to ride. The ’78 elections are not that far away.


Keep me up to date on the latest happenings and all that D Magazine has to offer.