Sunday, July 3, 2022 Jul 3, 2022
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The Making of a Governor, 1979

George Steffes has the most important job in Texas politics-turning a Republican victory into a Republican administration.
By Jim Atkinson |

History will record that Bill Clements’s honeymoon with Texas politics lasted precisely 24 days. Not surprisingly, it was Lt. Governor Bill Hobby who decided it was time someone reminded the governor-elect that he is, after all, the state’s first Republican governor in 105 years, and that if he thinks the next four years are going to be any easier than his campaign battle, he’s got another think coming. Hobby, whom the new governor had courted heavily in a series of one-hour visits since November 7, fired the warning shots of partisan battles to come in early December by publicly snubbing Clements’s most precious campaign vow-to slice $2 billion from the 1979 state budget and return it to the taxpayers in the form of tax relief.

While Clements’s staff was claiming cozy relations with the Lt. Governor, Hobby was apparently singing a different tune before the powerful Legislative Budget Board. Clements’s proposed $2 billion slash was brought up and discussed, but when the dust had cleared, Hobby had reinstated more than 50 per-cent of it to the $14 billion budget. The move was symbolic: Both Clements and Hobby knew that a billion dollars one way or the other wasn’t going to send tremors through the body politic. But they also knew that some important political territory had to be staked out during the first few months of Clements’s historic tenure. Since Clements’s election, both Republicans and Democrats have given a lot of lip service to the relative unimportance of the new governor’s party affiliation; issues, not labels, are what count, they say. But Hobby’s action spoke much louder than their words. Clements is an outsider in the state capital; the Democrats, who have dominated it for more than a century, intend to remind him of that fact as often as possible.

Clements is a political neophyte, but he knows a cold shoulder when he sees one. He knows his rite of passage will be at least as difficult as his 12-month, seven-million-dollar campaign. In the past, the “transition” from one governor to another in Texas has been mostly ceremony. Since it has always been a matter of one Democrat succeeding another, the mantle of power was passed on almost blithely. Most things were understood. (When Dolph Briscoe took over from Preston Smith in 1973, he even retained a good portion of the former governor’s staff.) Politics is, more than anything else, tribal: In Texas, as long as a new governor was a Democrat from a rural county, few in state government worried about eccentricities or wild campaign promises to change the way things were done. It was assumed that, in practice, the new governor would respect the legacies of his predecessors.

Bill Clements is not a member of the tribe. Not only is he a Republican, he is a Republican from Dallas. That has sent waves of paranoia rippling through the Austin bureaucracy. In addition to his tax-relief proposal, he has vowed to trim the 169,000-employee state payroll by 15 percent over the next four years-a proposal that has not gone over well with state bureaucrats. He has pledged to analyze, reorganize, perhaps reduce the state’s labyrinth of separately funded agencies, commissions, and boards, arousing the fear of many of the appointees who fill the posts, and angering many of the legislators who secured their appointments. Bill Clements-brash, brusque, and blustery-already has the State Capitol at Congress and 12th in Austin buzzing with rumors.

To his credit, Clements has not underestimated the importance of the two-month transition phase. The day after the election, he retained California lobbyist and transition specialist George Steffes to coordinate the effort. Steffes, who managed Ronald Reagan’s transition in California in 1966, is generally recognized as an expert in the unique problems of a Republican taking over a Democrat-dominated government.

The task facing Steffes and his 27-member staff is Herculean: In less than 60 days, the staff must give the new governor a working grasp of one of the most unwieldy state governments in the nation. There are mountains of correspondence to answer; 180 legislators to meet and get to know; a $14-billion budget to assess; legislative priorities to draw into bills. No wonder Steffes says, without a trace of apology, “We’re basically feeling our way along. The object is to provide the governor with the proper tools to hit the ground running January 16 in an orderly and business-like way. But we only have two months to do it.” Adding to Steffes’s woes is the fact that Texas, unlike most other states, does not provide state funding for political transitions. “This will cost about $100,000 a month,” he says wearily. “The problem with that is that we have to take time from the business at hand to raise the money.”

Steffes’s tack is to make the transition an extension of the campaign. Clements beat John Hill because he portrayed himself as a non-politician, a self-made businessman who simply wanted to offer his business acumen to state government. Throughout his campaign, he stressed personal contact, presenting himself as a man unreluctant to shake a hand or to face criticism. Despite his blunt manner and his tendency to corniness, it was a strategy that worked. Clements’s “openness,” which was drilled into the state’s voters with millions of dollars’ worth of media exposure, made Hill appear arrogant. By his willingness to gladhand, Bill Clements made his challenger look as if he were taking the electorate for granted.

Steffes and his transition committee know that if the new governor is to have any chance of controlling a government composed largely of partisan foes, he must continue to emphasize his personal style during the transition. Hence, each of the 100 or so congratulatory letters, telegrams, and job applications that pour into the transition office daily is answered, often the same day. Applications that look promising are set aside and filed in the committee’s personnel office. From these applications, and the committee’s own recruitment, the governor will fill roughly 300 posts on his personal staff. At the same time, the committee is responding to and collating inquiries concerning board and commission appointments. On personnel director Linda Howell’s desk sits a stack of forms at least a foot and a half high-one-page briefings on every member of a state board, commission, or agency. During the next four years, Clements will make an estimated 4000 executive appointments-as many as one fourth of them in 1979. The briefings will eventually be reduced to a kind of handbook, which will describe the function of each position, how long the present appointee has been in office, and other information on which the governor can base a decision for reappointment or replacement.

The paperwork is mind-boggling: Linda Howell estimates that her department responded to more than a thousand pieces of correspondence during the week after the election. And the demands that such “personalization” make on the governor-elect’s time border on the absurd. Clem-ents’s objective is to meet personally with each of the state’s 180 legislators and senators, and as many of the board and commission heads as possible, before his January 16 inauguration. Unfortunately, Governor Briscoe’s staff never bothered to find out how many boards and commissions exist-the top estimate I’ve heard is 256, the low estimate, 180. That means the new governor will shake between 360 and 436 hands in a matter of 60 days.

Clements’s scheduling director, Bill Keener, shakes his head in bewilderment at the task. “There’s probably no way we’ll get to all of them, but at least we’ll contact them with an invitation or something. We’re working roughly on a priority of seniority in the legislature, and on the basis of importance or size in the boards and commissions.” Keener’s best estimate is that the governor-elect is averaging eight “formal” appointments a day, in addition to another five to eight staff meetings and conferences. “And that,” he says with resignation,”doesn’t really include the 75 requests for interviews we have from the press or the 400 or so requests for speeches and personal appearances he has.”

The flesh-pressing approach to the transition will likely alleviate a lot of hostility in the capital. After all, the business of politics, when stripped of the theory of political science, is a business based on personal trust (or lack of it): how firm a man’s handshake is, whether he looks you in the eye, whether he returns your phone calls quickly. After six years of a governor who did none of those things very well-indeed, who apparently felt the state could be run from a ranch in Uvalde-most state legislators and bureaucrats may be inclined to give the outsider Clements a chance, if only because he is approachable.

All the backslapping in the world, however, will not solve the new governor’s other problem in taking over a capital dominated by Democrats: that is, simply understanding the monster he is dealing with. New governors in most other states, whether political outsiders or not, can grab hold of their bureaucracies rather easily through patronage. You fire all of the previous governor’s cronies and replace them with your own loyalists. Texas government does not work that way: It is a “weak governor” system. Aside from his small personal staff and limited veto power, the governor is really pretty much at the mercy of the legislature and the “fifth estate”-the Byzantine morass of agencies, boards and commissions. Each of those entities operates under statutory authority and relies upon the legislature, not the governor, for its funding; it serves under the mandate of the constitution, not at the pleasure of the governor. The governor’s only influence over these boards and commissions comes from his power to appoint their members. At that, since the appointments are all six-year terms, a new governor like Clements must wait almost four years-the length of his term-to make significant penetration into the bureaucracy.

To be anything more than a figurehead, Clements will need to line up support in the bureaucracy, as well as in the House and the Senate. During the transition phase, this will largely involve acquiring some understanding of each state agency, board, and commission-function, funding, principal players, importance to executive actions. If that sounds like a big job, that’s because it is. David Howell, the governor-elect’s head of state government relations, and the man saddled with the job of briefing Clements on the bureaucracy, spends a lot of time staring at a chart of Texas state government in his office and shaking his head. “You’ve got everything from the Texas Education Agency to the Battleship, Texas Commission, and all of them are basically independent,” he says. “But you have to figure that a lot of the day-to-day business of government goes through this bureaucracy, not through the legislature. It’s important that the governor understand who and what he’s dealing with.” He pauses. “Now if we could only figure out how many of them there are.”

Howell dispatches interviewers daily to question members of various agencies on their functions and workload; the interviews, plus budgetary information, are being collated into a booklet of precis. “The object is to establish liaison,” Howell says. “In Texas government, so much of the governor’s effectiveness depends on personal persuasion.”

For the time being, Clements’s art of persuasion will have to remain gentle. Despite the magnitude of the task, and the lack of time in which to accomplish it, the transition team knows that the new governor cannot come off like a bull in a china shop. There are courtesies to be paid, worries to be allayed, loyalties to be built. The object of the transition is not only to prepare Clements to be a functioning governor by January 16, but also to avoid making a lot of enemies. Recruitment and hiring of the core staff is a top priority, but it cannot be handled like a purge. Hence, all of the former governor’s employees have been asked if they wish to remain in their posts; if so, they have been assured they will be considered equally with other applicants. At least one Briscoe staffer, general counsel David Dean, has already been rehired by Clements to fill the same post in his administration. This approach minimizes alienation amongst the state’s employees and appointed officials, and it has practical political value as well: Since Clements will be, by definition, running a bipartisan administration, it is probably important for him to keep certain key Democrats in his bureaucracy. One of the new governor’s strengths is that while he has few friends in the capital, he has no real foes.

How soon the new governor, will have to exercise that other art of persuasion- strong-arming-is anyone’s guess. But the Hobby affair suggests that Clements may have his work cut out for him. Aside from tax relief, Clements has vowed to press for initiative and referendum rights for Texas voters, to eliminate the vestiges of the state ad valorem tax, to make yet another stab at solving the public education funding mess. Those are the kinds of issues that will undoubtedly draw opposition. Even after the transition workers have packed their bags and returned to their jobs, the transition will not be complete. The real transition will come the first time Clements’s muscle is required on the floor of the legislature, or in the boardroom of the highway department.