Tuesday, April 16, 2024 Apr 16, 2024
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Our roughest politician wants a promotion

SOME THINGS in politics cannot be debated rationally or considered neutrally. Abortion is such an issue. So is supply-side economics. And so is Jim Mattox, the Dallas-area Congressman who faces John Hannah in the Democratic runoff election for attorney general.

Like Pig Pen, the filthy little urchin in the Peanuts comic strip, Mattox carries with him a cloud of controversy, a haze of emotion, perhaps a scent of decaying scruples. He may create the cloud or may merely be followed by it, but it is inseparable from him. You have to love him or hate him, and you have to take him in his bewildering totality.

He is an honest-to-goodness self-made man who has pulled himself from poverty to near-millionaire status in his 38 years in Dallas.

He is a congressman proclaiming “common man” leanings, but WFAA reporter Robert Riggs found that he used his influence to help a local developer avoid a stiff settlement with federal authorities, which did nothing for the developer’s “common man” customers. It did, perhaps coincidentally, result in Mattox receiving a $2,000 campaign contribution.

He is a one-time target of ABSCAM who managed to turn potentially fatal publicity about his dealings with the con men into political brownie points.

He is a street tough from East Dallas who put his brother through college and his political opponents through a meat grinder, fighting through some of the dirtiest campaigns in this state’s political history.

He is a masterful organizer, a shrewd tactician and a diligent worker. But he also can be abrasive and clumsily egotistical. When his friends and associates think back on his worst enemies, they often rank James Albon Mattox number one.

He looks a little bit like Buddy Hackett. When he shouts, which is often, his voice cracks.

His passions are politics, movies and Blue Bell ice cream. He is a man of huge appetites and ambitions and very few inhibitions.

He very much wants to be attorney general. Some of his friends say he also would like to be governor. Soon. He says he can wait.

A lot of people don’t trust Jim Mattox, but they don’t know exactly why. Maybe they just don’t like him. “We tried to write a story that would say, ’This is how Jim Mattox went from being a busboy to a millionaire, and how he used his office to do it,’” says a reporter for The Dallas Morning News. “We found that we couldn’t prove that he had used his office or that he was a millionaire.”

“Jim Mattox,” says another reporter, “has a persecution complex. And for a very good reason.”

As a boy, Jim Mattox was the sort of child from whom not much was expected. He grew up, he recalls, “lower, lower middle class,” not missing any meals but having precious little extra money, despite the fact that his mother worked two shifts a day as a waitress at Campisi’s, Brownie’s and the Circle Grill.

His father left home when Jim was 13. Jim and his boyhood friends fought for a good many more years and some of them wound up in prison; Jim had no trouble with the law, but plenty of trouble in school. He graduated from high school in the bottom half of his class; his guidance counselor advised him not to bother with college. He went anyway, thanks to a family friend with influence at Baylor, and eventually got an academic scholarship to Baylor’s business school to supplement his summer work on the freight-loading docks. He graduated first in his business school class, then 10th in the 1968 law class at SMU and scored third in the state on that year’s bar exam.

Along the way, he changed his goals from the ministry to politics, joined the Young Democrats at SMU and became a well-known political operative in East Dallas while he worked as an assistant prosecutor for District Attorney Henry Wade. In 1970, he went into private practice with Don Crowder, an SMU colleague. By 1972, he felt that he had paid his dues working for other politicians. He wanted to be elected to something himself.

His timing was perfect. The state power structure was still reeling from the Sharps-town banking scandal that would lead to the conviction of House Speaker Gus Mutscher and the forced retirement of half the Legislature. And, thanks to a law-suit Mattox helped file, the 1972 state House races would be run in single-mem-ber districts.The smaller districts made time and shoe leather more important than money, and Mattox seized the opportunity. He knocked twice on virtually every door in his district and won handily as a reform candidate, even though his opponent had had nothing to do with Sharpstown.Once the 1973 session of the Legislature convened, Mattox started reforming things with a vengeance. He organized and was chairman of the new House Study Group, which pooled the assets of 60-odd representatives to analyze and report on pending bills. “We killed off a lot of spe-cial-interest legislation,” he recalls. He also helped reduce the penalties for carry-ing small amounts of marijuana, aided in the reform of the state’s penal code and helped change the way Texas regulated utilities. He was named one of Texas Monthly’s top 10 legislators.

“Mattox,” says one experienced reporter, “was one of the few people down there who could look at a bill and understand what was in it. And therefore he was in a perfect position to raise hell if there was anything bad. Of course, this irritated the hell out of the House leadership; this was the day when the speaker and various lobbyists ran the House.”

Mattox even messed up the time-honored budget game, in which the 6-inch budget bill was dumped out of the appropriations committee minutes before the end of the legislative session, just in time for the full house to approve it without knowing what it contained. “Mattox found out what was in the bill by doing a lot of hard work, and some of the stuff could have been illegal,” the reporter says. “He was the one who was jumping up and down in the last few minutes of the session calling for points of order to try to get that bill broken down.”

During his two House terms, his friends viewed Mattox as a bulwark against bad legislation; his opponents thought of him as “anti-everything.” Everyone agreed he could be a pain in the neck, shrieking and sweating and raising hell in the back of the room.

Even when he was right -which was often -one moderate observer says he “lacked the grace and diplomacy to handle things in a quiet, dignified manner. He did it kind of street-scrapper style.” During a heated debate on the state constitution, Mattox’s colleagues were amazed to see him seize the microphone and yell “Liar!” at his ally, Speaker of the House Price Daniel. It was a gross breach of decorum, but Mattox dismisses the incident by saying, “Well, of course it was true. He was lying.” Daniel, he laments, just didn’t respond correctly to the reminder.

There seemed to be a schism in Mattox’s personality, between his brilliant analysis and sometimes clumsy execution; his cool tactical planning and his apparently hotheaded expressions of disdain or contempt for his colleagues. It was an interesting phenomenon, one that would grow more pronounced in coming campaigns.

By 1976, Mattox was restless. He wanted either to run for Congress or to become Speaker of the House, a job Billy Clayton’s friends were not going to grant him. Congress it was, and Wes Wise, the popular mayor of Dallas, was Mattox’s primary opponent. Before the bewildered mayor could officially declare his candidacy, Mattox had him on the ropes. Wise was bankrupt, Mattox charged. That was the issue. “Any congressional candidate who pledges to help balance the federal budget must at least be able to balance his own budget.” Mattox won by a 2-1 margin and faced Republican Nancy Judy (currently a county commissioner) in the general election.

Judy is a motherly, well-spoken, well-informed woman and was a member of the Dallas Independent School District Board. Mattox acted like he was not afraid of her, but he knew from his own pollsters that just being female made her more of a threat to him. And she decided to run a reasonably aggressive campaign, based on his heavy support from organized labor groups outside the state. He received $59,931 in labor donations, which Common Cause said was more than any other candidate for the House received. She decided to call a press conference on the subject, and of course Mattox heard of her plans. He called Ron Calhoun, political editor at the Dallas Times Herald, and asked whether Calhoun knew what she was going to say. “I think I do know what she’ll say,” he told Mattox. “I think I have some inside information.”

Mattox took the bait. What would she say?

I think that she has developed some information to tie you to a homosexual group,” Calhoun said. “I think she is going to say that you have a black boyfriend.” Mattox, Calhoun later told friends, “went out of his gourd.” Perhaps he later realized that he’d been had; perhaps not. At any rate, he showed up at the press conference, glowering at Judy from behind the assembled reporters, and after Judy had finished her presentation – before she finished, some say-he held his own press conference, angrily responding to her remarks about union donations. For the rest of the campaign, he was on the warpath. He spoke on the same platform as Judy at various Kiwanis and Rotary Club meetings and, shaking a forefinger at his mild-mannered opponent, called her “a vicious woman.” One night on Channel 13’s Newsroom, he announced, “This district is not going to elect a lady, and I’m not even sure that she is a lady.” He won the election, 68,000 votes to 58,000 votes. But he also solidified his reputation as a “dirty campaigner.”

Mattox’s battles against Republican conservative Tom Pauken in 1978 and 1980 are generally agreed to be two of the bloodiest and muddiest in recent memory. After they were over, Pauken said, “I have never seen anyone like him in public office.” Mattox said Pauken carried out “one of the most vicious mudslinging campaigns of deceit and deception that I have seen in a long while.” And John Bryant, a Democratic friend of Mattox’s who hopes to inherit his U.S. House seat this fall, sort of compromises, with a slight tilt toward Mattox. “Pauken ran an extremely mean anti-Mattox campaign, and naturally Jim retaliated in good form, like he always does, by dropping the atom bomb on him,” Bryant says.

Ironically, Mattox-who had felt compelled to play rough in 1976 -started his 1978 campaign by taking the high road. But Pauken hammered away at Mattox as Mattox had attacked Wise and Judy. Mattox wanted to torpedo American defenses, Pauken said, and was in bed with the labor bosses. And why was Mattox, alone among the 15 lawyers in the Texas delegation, still actively practicing law? Why had he earned more legal fees in 1977 than all but one other congressman? Had he grown rich by being in government?

Mattox couldn’t even pretend to be a poor boy any more. His estimated net worth, which was negative when he graduated from law school in 1968, had reached $466,000 by 1977 and was still rising, due primarily to his law practice and to some real estate investments. “I don’t have a family, so I had a lot of money to invest,” he says. By 1981 his congressional financial disclosure form yielded an estimated net worth of $800,000 to $900,000.

For his atom bomb, then, the former busboy and dockworker accused Pauken of poverty. Later, he would expand on that theme and insist that Pauken never, in his entire life, had done a job right, and had left a White House post “in disgrace.”

As evidence, he displayed a copy of a memo in which Pauken’s supervisor had criticized him for “disloyalty” and immaturity for writing a magazine article without first getting clearance. Pauken produced the memo’s author, who accused Mattox of distorting and exaggerating the situation, and endorsed Pauken’s candidacy. Indeed, Pauken’s former White House supervisors praised his work for them, and said he left Washington only to attend SMU law school.

Mattox has always done well in minority precincts, and 1978 was no exception. But Mattox says he was worried about his Hispanic support because Pauken was boasting of his plans to “use” his wife, who is Hispanic, to campaign in Mexican-American neighborhoods. (For some reason, Mattox thought using Mrs. Pauken would be a dirty trick.) His concern spawned one of the campaign’s most embarrassing episodes for him.

In order to determine whether he would have to work harder if Mrs. Pauken hit the campaign trail, Mattox says, he asked that an objective, scientific survey be taken of some 500 5th District voters, asking whether they would be affected by the ethnic or racial background of a candidate or his spouse.

Pauken, Mattox says, was threatening to make an issue out of the fact that Mattox attended two churches -his Baptist church and a black Methodist church for which he was the attorney. Being extra-religious never hurt a Dallas candidate for as long as elections have been recorded, but Mattox says he just wanted to be sure, so he asked that the survey also include questions about attitudes toward candidates of various religions.

Pauken’s camp caught wind of that survey, and Pauken was incensed. He thought Mattox was preparing to make his wife “an issue,” and told the congressman that he would “punch him in the mouth” if Mattox brought his family into the campaign. Pauken is Catholic, and noticed that another question asked voters if they would be prejudiced against a Catholic. He thought Mattox was preparing to stir up anti-Catholic feeling.

Mattox says the poll itself never mentioned Pauken or singled out any particular religious or ethnic group-“we asked about everyone, even Vietnamese” – and that he never planned to make race or religion an issue, but only “to ascertain how the community felt about me and him at the time.” If Mattox is telling the truth, and there is no good reason to think that he is not, the resulting cries of racism and religious bigotry were unfair to Mattox, who is proud of his civil rights background.

But it all balances out, because he completely escaped public censure for one of the dirtiest things that he did during any of his campaigns. Rita Flynn, who at the time was a reporter for WFAA-TV, covered the “poll story” for her station. She and Mattox knew each other reasonably well because he had been one of her sources for a story on a drug case. Mattox was perturbed by her coverage of the poll, and according to several sources he made a point of telling mutual associates that she was too harsh toward him, primarily because he had spurned her as a lover. Mattox denies ever making such statements, but a Democratic party official who knows both Mattox and Flynn quite well, says that his denial “is just a damn big lie.” Flynn was so upset by Mattox’s remarks that she considered suing him for slander, the mutual friend says, adding that there was no foundation to Mattox’s allegation. “He was just trying to explain away the story,” the official says. Flynn now works for CBS News in Washington. She quit covering Mattox after the poll story was aired.

Mattox won the 1978 election, though by fewer than 900 votes, and vowed that never again would he start a campaign as Mr. Nice Guy. He was as good as his word.

In 1980’s race, he and Pauken repeated their old litany of charges, with Mattox basing his entire media campaign on attacks against Pauken. He mailed tabloid newsprint circulars to the elderly, to women and to other target groups, warning of the dire deeds Pauken planned to perpetrate against them. Some of the circulars looked a lot like Mattox’s official Congressional newsletter, mailed at taxpayers’ expense.

Pauken got a windfall of sorts when newspaper columnist Jack Anderson wrote that Mattox at one point had been a target of the ABSCAM investigation, but Mattox stole the march by announcing that he had rejected the con men’s advances. That left Pauken wondering aloud, “Why did the FBI target Mr. Mattox as an approachable congressman in the first place?” The voters must have considered it to be an honest mistake; they returned Mattox to office, 51 percent to 49 percent.

As a congressman, Mattox did not accomplish much. But then few individual congressmen do. What made Mattox a little unusual was his fast start -he was a leader of his freshman caucus and won a seat on the powerful House Budget Committee as a freshman-and his apparent slide as he gained seniority. In his second term, he lost a bid to be put on the House Rules Committee as the Texas representative; freshman Martin Frost got the seat instead. And while Mattox through the years has built a strong reputation as a hard worker and a fair judge of compli-cated budget and banking matters, he has not sponsored much significant legislation or found himself among the leaders of any faction in Congress.

He attributes part of the problem to the House’s rigid seniority system and says he is not prepared to wait 20 years to assume a leadership position. That, he and his friends say, is one reason that he became disenchanted with the House early in his congressional career.

Mattox also lost influence because his election battles were so close; the leadership could not count on his having a long political life. But Mattox’s independent streak also cost him influence within the party. “The leadership just got tired of having to go to him for his vote on every issue; he wasn’t dependable enough,” one veteran Capitol Hill observer says. Indeed, Mattox has consistently been listed in the middle of just about everyone’s rating charts. His 1977 rating by the liberal Americans for Democratic Action was 60 (out of 100); it fell to a more conservative 40 in 1978, a change some analysts have attributed to the right-wing threat from Pauken. Mattox says he made no “conscious” shift in his voting patterns, which he describes as fiscally conservative and socially liberal.

By staying in the middle of the spectrum, Mattox argues, his influence is increased because he becomes more of a swing vote. But that voting pattern is anathema to the Congressional system of “party discipline,” and Mattox sometimes seemed to squander whatever influence he might have had with the leadership on insignificant matters. House Majority Leader Jim Wright dressed him down several years ago for what Wright called a “demagogic” vote with Republican members of the budget committee over Panama Canal funding. And Mattox got a tongue-lashing by Speaker Tip O’Neill after he insisted on entering the House floor without a coat or tie, contrary to the Congressional dress code. Mattox says he was trying to stand up for energy conservation and to make a symbolic protest against hidebound customs. “I’ve always said there is a thin line between being courageous and being a fool,” he said after surrendering to O’Neill. Some thought he’d stepped across the line a day or two earlier. On the other hand, Mattox could be considered courageous in his votes; he stood against strong pressure from the House leadership to uphold former President Carter’s veto of public works projects that were popular in much of the West but that he viewed as “boondoggles.”

Ironically, Mattox probably could have stayed in Congress forever, as far as his colleagues there were concerned. It was the Texas politicians in the Legislature- the same ones he antagonized in the early Seventies – who cost him his seat, by reap-portioning his district so that it would be primarily Republican. That plan, later overturned by the courts, encouraged Mattox to do something that he’s considered for years: quit Congress. His decision may have been due partly to the fact that the “anti-Mattox” reapportionment plan may well be resurrected in time for the 1984 election; after an embarrassing loss trying to prevent the 1981 evisceration of his political base, he may have seen the handwriting on the wall. But mostly he and his friends say he became impatient. “I didn’t want to stand in the seniority line,” Mattox says.

Oscar Mauzy believes Mattox would like to be governor of Texas one day. Traditionally, the attorney general’s job has been a proper springboard for those with gubernatorial ambitions.

Does Mattox deserve the job? His friends think so, citing his intelligence, energy and courage. He has those traits, but like many a Shakespearean hero he also has his tragic flaws: a hypersensitive habit of taking all criticism personally and a deep vein of ambition that can drive him to ruthlessness.

At the same time, Mattox always has projected a disarming, even charming, lack of grace and polish. He has spoken his mind bluntly, no matter how little his audience wanted to hear him. And when he spoke rudely, calling Nancy Judy “vicious” or Tom Pauken “a deadbeat,” there was a temptation to smile and think, “Well, that’s just Jim.” Everyone loses his temper; Mattox wasn’t being deliberately cruel, he was just acting like the warmblooded, impulsive human being that he is. Right?

“I can’t recall the last time I really lost my temper,” Mattox says. “I have been a professional trial lawyer. I think you learn in jury trials to control your emotions – to make a tear come to your eye at the right time.

“I just tell the truth,” he says. “A lot ofcandidates don’t want to hear it.”

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