POLITICS FRED MEYER

Making the GOP the majority party.

THE LOWER East Dallas house could use a coat of paint, maybe two. The lawn is baked down and tiring in the late summer heat. In the driveway rests a battered turquoise International Scout II with standard equipment: loaded gun rack, Ducks Unlimited sticker, CB antenna.

And there’s something else on the Scout: a bumper sticker for Kay Bailey Hutchison, who lost in last June’s Republican runoff for the 3rd District House of Representatives seat.

Of such humble materials are symbols made. Bumper stickers and yard signs for local Republican candidates are popping up more and more in Dallas’ working-class neighborhoods -areas once considered locked up for the Democrats. It’s true that with the exception of the LBJ landslide in 1964, voting Republican at the top of the ticket has not been unusual in Dallas. Farther down the ballot, however, Republicans traditionally have shown little strength outside their North Dallas and Park Cities enclaves.

All that seems to be changing now, for a number of reasons. One of them is Fred Meyer.

Chances are that the owner of that symbolic household has never heard of Meyer, the energetic professional optimist who has chaired the Dallas County Republican Party since late 1979. Meyer doesn’t hold elected office, so rank-and-file voters are unlikely to connect him with the rise of the local GOP, which, for the first time in history, now claims more local officeholders than the Democrats (65 to 52).

But plenty of party insiders make that connection. They hand Meyer much of the credit for the past few years’ Republican gains (and Democratic defections). Meyer, many say, is exactly the type of chairman the party needs right now.

“Fred Meyer is the unreported story of the first two years of this decade in local politics,” says Steve Bartlett, who defeated Hutchison in the primary and is a virtual shoo-in for the congressional seat being vacated by Jim Collins. “He’s been nothing short of phenomenal. Before Fred Meyer, the county was a pretty even split. Now, we’re on the verge of becoming a Republican stronghold.”

“Fred was always thinking people were ready to vote Republican,” says former city councilman Richard Smith, now legal counsel for the Dallas GOP. “He’s got a general, infectious enthusiasm, and he’s careful which battles he chooses to fight. He knows what can be accomplished and what can’t.”

These days, Meyer is thinking much more about what can be accomplished than about what can’t. His view of Republican chances is much like the view from his spacious Tyler Corporation office on the 31st floor of Southland Center: unlimited.

In person, Fred Meyer looks years younger than he does in the rather stuffy official photograph in the Tyler Corp. annual report. The impression of youth probably comes from his endless energy – the kind you’d need to run six miles a day (more when he’s training for a marathon), climb mountains, help direct a thriving business and oversee the startling progress of the Dallas Republican Party.

Meyer’s reading habits are a good index of his character -he enjoys diversity. He brushes back his shock of red hair (“I think he combs it with a blender,” says one friend) and reaches for David Broder’s The Party’s Over, a book sounding the death knoll of political parties in the United States. How could Meyer accept that thesis? The local Republicans, not the Texas Rangers, deserve that “coming alive” slogan.

And what can a wealthy Republican businessman glean from The Greening of America, that once-trendy tome sharing space on Meyer’s bookshelf with works by Peter Drucker, Kurt Vonnegut and John Updike?

“You don’t learn anything talking with people who already agree with you,” Meyer says. “You’ve got to reach out, get into new areas.”

That describes Meyer’s task as county chairman: He wants to reach out (to knee-jerk Democrats and independents) and get the GOP into new areas (such as South Dallas, Duncanville, Euless). His love of diversity -intellectual and political -may help explain his success as Republican party chairman.

“I’ve marveled at what a well-oiled party structure it is,” says Pat McClung, the 305th District Court judge who, along with a couple of dozen other judges, switched from the Democratic to the Republican party after the 1980 elections. “Meyer can marshal people and keep them going in the same direction, but they’re not in lock step. There are plenty of differing views.”

Meyer’s role in the Dallas GOP, according to former Republican Congressman Alan Steelman, has been a great deal like that of Ray Bliss, who chaired the national Republican party in the years after the Goldwater debacle of 1964. Bliss was scrupulously neutral on explosive issues that were likely to turn Republican against Republican. Likewise, Meyer has his opinions on busing, gun control, school prayer and all the rest, but he keeps them to himself.

“He’s a technician rather than a philosopher,” Steelman says. “He has philosophical depth, but with the wisdom not to share that depth with everyone he meets in his role as chairman. He lets candidates of whatever stripe take their place in a healthy party. It’s up to him to see that the machinery is in place.”

Right now, Meyer is fine-tuning the party machine. With staccato bursts of data, he details the Republican rise to near-dominance as he thumps a multicolored precinct map of the 1980 presidential election. The yellow blotches, which to Democrats must resemble the spread of an epidemic, reveal Republican strength almost everywhere in the county.

Meyer is in full flight now. He slams District Attorney Henry Wade, a prime target for Republicans in the November election. Meyer claims that in last spring’s primary, Wade’s endorsement of some Democrats was enough to give them a narrow victory. Meyer says it won’t happen again.

“Henry will be running for reelection himself this time, and he can’t endorse 59 candidates. In fact, it won’t be very effective for him to endorse even one. He’s on the ballot as a Democrat, and he’d pick up some enemies.”

But isn’t it too much to hope that the GOP can unseat Wade, a Democratic institution? In the minds of two generations of Dallas voters, Henry Wade is the law in Dallas. But Meyer’s got it figured out….

“Jim Collins and Governor Clements have an excellent chance of getting between 60 and 65 percent of the vote in this county,” he says. “If more than 20 percent of the people that vote in the district attorney’s race split their ballot, he [Henry Wade] won’t be elected.”

That’s one face of Fred Meyer. The strategist. Let the others define party purity and fight over the cruise missile; Fred Meyer is looking at the bottom line: How many Republicans can be elected? It’s no surprise that opinions of Meyer differ according to party and ideology. Steve Bart-lett: “He’s the antithesis of the country-club Republican.” Alan Steelman: “He’s a disciplined thinker with boundless energy.” Bob Greenburg, chairman of the Dallas County Democratic Party: “He’s a member of the radical right, the guys who embraced NCPAC [National Conservative Political Action Committee].” Ray Van Buskirk, founder of the conservative Dallas County Republican Assembly: “He’s got good business sense and he’s mild-mannered. He’s nowhere near the radical right. That’s hogwash.”

Others are talking about Fred Meyer, too. The Washington Post recently dispatched a man to the hinterlands to find out just how Meyer does it. Waxing philosophical, the Post singled out Meyer’s Dallas GOP as evidence of a “historically significant turnabout” in Southern politics. For the first time since Reconstruction, Republicans have a chance to capture some county courthouses in the South and Southwest. Dallas, the article concluded, may be the first place where the GOP flexes its new muscle.

Some idealists deny that there is such a thing as “Democratic” or “Republican” justice and argue that judges should be above the political brawl. Closer to earth, the reality is that Texas judges are elected and have been elected as Democrats for most of a century. Many of those judges have not been philosophical soulmates of Franklin Roosevelt, Lyndon Johnson or Jimmy Carter, but the issue was survival: Win as a Democrat or lose as a Republican.

In 1974, the average Republican judicial candidate garnered only 39 percent of the vote. In 1976, the figure crept to 42 percent. In 1978, it was up to 48 percent. Then, to the joy of Meyer and other long-suffering Republicans, the tables turned in 1980, the year of the Reagan revolution. Republicans won in 11 of 13 contested county judgeships. The message was clear: A judge could win as a Republican, perhaps only as a Republican. Judges began deserting the Democrats in droves. Now, 45 of the county’s judges are Republicans; 27 are Democrats. In the November elections, 43 of the 59 judicial races will feature incumbent Republicans. Roll over, Lyndon Johnson, and tell Sam Ray-burn the news.

“Democratic judges tend to want to extend the law, interpret it as broadly as possible,” says Meyer, who also favors the election of federal judges. “Republican judges tend to be strict constructionists. And that’s the way our constitution was framed. If we’re going to change the laws, we shouldn’t do it in the courts.” Meyer realizes that many people cast their votes for local judges without knowing much about the judges’ records, but he still thinks the voters should decide. “I’d rather have the people make the decisions than a ’select committee’ from anyplace. I believe in democracy.”

Even though the winds of political change are blowing strongly in the Republican direction, Meyer sounds sincere. He believes deeply in the political process and worries that too many people have lost faith in the system, which has had unhealthy results for America. He sounds as if he means it when he says he’d rather have people vote for Democrats than not vote at all. “I believe in democracy, the two-party system and the Republican Party, in that order,” he says. But, speaking of the century of Democratic rule in this area, he quotes Lord Acton: “Power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.”

Meyer’s beginnings might have produced a die-hard Democrat rather than a Republican. A child of the Depression, he was born 54 years ago in Highland Park, Illinois, a city having little in common with its wealthy Dallas counterpart. The oldest of five children, Meyer still likes to joke about the length of a minute depending on which side of the bathroom door you’re on. Meyer’s father, Raymond, owned a gas station that he opened at seven in the morning and closed at 10 p.m., seven days a week. By the age of 8, Fred Meyer had his first job, caddying at a local golf course.

Around the country, millions of people in similar economic straits were awaiting the salvation of the New Deal; the Democrats’ great coalition was forming. But Lake County, north of Chicago, had never elected a Democrat to any public office. FDR’s fireside chats threw little warmth into Raymond Meyer’s heart. “I grew up thinking there were a couple of other words in front of Roosevelt’s name,” Meyer recalls with a chuckle. And he doesn’t mean Franklin Delano.

To this day, Fred Meyer remains suspicious of many New Deal-style social welfare programs, which he believes extract a heavy price from recipients. “They’ve sold their souls,” Meyer says. “There’s no pride, if you’re physically and mentally able, in going down to get a welfare check. It’s a little bit like being hooked on a form of dope.”

Meyer was already sold on the Puritan work ethic when he entered Purdue University in 1945. Though he held as many as three jobs at once, he graduated at the top of his class. After marriage (to the former Barbara Spreuer) and several years with General Electric, he entered Harvard Graduate School to work on a master’s in business administration; he got it, with highest honors, in 1958. While at Harvard, Meyer made $247 a month from various jobs and saved half of it, paying $6 a week for a room with a shared bath and $12 a week for meals at a boarding house.

Today, Meyer is executive vice president and director of the Tyler Corp., a Dallas-based conglomerate ranked 335th on the Fortune 500 list. His salary is approximately $200,000 a year-proof that there is a meritocracy of sorts in the United States. With no family power base and no network of influential friends, Meyer’s keen mind and hunger for work took him to the top. “He’s like a raging fire around the office,” says a Tyler associate. “He gets more done in 10 minutes than most people do in half a day. With his success record and his intellectual quality, he could be a pain to deal with, but he’s not. He’s got the common touch.”

That common touch has been a Midas touch for Meyer as Republican county chairman, say Republican activists. With roots in genuine economic hardship, Meyer seems ideally situated to help Republicans shed their “country-club” stigma. “I’ve seen him relate perfectly to some of the biggest people on Wall Street,” says one business associate. “But at a rally with blacks and blue-collar people, he gets along just as well.”

If anyone knows Meyer, it should be Alan Steelman. Meyer chaired Steelman’s successful congressional campaigns in 1972 and ’74, then signed on again for Steelman’s losing bid for the Senate (against Lloyd Bentsen) in 1978. “He’s got great sensitivity and empathy with people,” says Steelman, now a Virginia businessman. “One criticism of past Republican chairmen has been that they tend to be comfortable in moneyed circles but don’t do well among the foot soldiers out in the suburbs. Fred’s casting a wide net to build a consensus. He’s trying for a wide range of working people whom we’ve not made an appeal to in the past.”

Steve Bartlett calls Meyer “an umbrella Republican,” but some people doubt that the Republican umbrella in ’82 and ’84 will cover many minority voters. The lack of minority support for the GOP has bothered Meyer for years.

“At one point, we had all the minority representation,” Meyer says. “Remember, Abe Lincoln was a Republican. But the Republican Party blew it, and it’s wrong. 1 don’t want parties divided on the basis of race, creed or color. That’s how you get a Northern Ireland or a Lebanon.” Meyer believes that Gov. Bill Clements has set a “wonderful example” by appointing more minorities to office than any previous governor. “He had over a thousand blacks at the reception at the Anatole,” Meyer says. “That speaks volumes.”

So, Meyer hopes, does his own courtship of black and brown voters in the re-districting squabble after the 1980 elections. The Democrats, traditionally the party of the minorities, did not want to create a new Dallas district for minorities. Such a district would have posed a threat to Democratic incumbents Martin Frost and Jim Mattox. Meyer didn’t need all his brainpower to see that the Democrats were between a rock and a hard place.

Meyer came up with a map of a potential black-Hispanic district and presented his plan to the Coalition for Minority Representation, who saw to it that the Democrats got plenty of negative publicity. A new minority district was carved out with Frost as the incumbent. Mattox’s new district was a Republican stronghold, not the sort of place likely to send him back to Congress.

The plan was finally rejected in the federal courts. But for perhaps the first time, Dallas blacks saw help coming to them from the Republican Party. Then, last March, former City Councilwoman Lucy Patterson announced that she would run -as a Republican -against Martin Frost. Patterson claimed that area Democrats were supporting the Voting Rights Act in Washington while effectively ignoring it at home.

Patterson may not succeed in becoming one of the nation’s few black Republican congresswomen, but Republican standing in the minority community can only be enhanced by Meyer’s initiative.

Obviously, historic shifts in political power are not wrought by any one man, however energetic or talented. A host of reasons can be advanced to explain the growing popularity of the Republicans at the county level – Meyer himself mentions the defection of John Connally to the Republicans almost 10 years ago, Bill Clements’ victory in the 1978 gubernatorial race and the increasing liberalism of national Democratic leaders such as Jerry Brown and Edward Kennedy.

The reasons for the Republican gains are no doubt many, but Meyer counts as one of them. “He hasn’t just been in the right place at the right time,” says one observer. “He’s been active. He’s taken advantage of the circumstances.”

Meyer disagrees with only one popular explanation of GOP growth over recent years: the “snowbird” theory that says that the continuing influx of Northerners is helping swell Republican ranks.

“The snowbirds are more conservative after they get here than before coming,” Meyer says. “Really, it’s the values of the [Texas] society. It’s very conservative, very self-reliant. They’re proud of their achievements. They’re still confident, too. They haven’t been beaten around the head and shoulders and taken a lot of defeats like people in Detroit or Cleveland or Chicago.”

According to Meyer, Texans – particularly in Dallas County -are winners, largely because the free market has been allowed to operate freely in Texas. Meyer is an unabashed believer in the economic system. “In the short term, there are injustices, but in the long run it maximizes efficiency and increases the total pie,” he says. Like many Republicans, he believes that government should play a minimum role in managing the economy, letting the invisible hand of the marketplace slice that larger pie.

“1 believe economics works,” Meyer says. “If a job pays better than another job, the social status being equal, you’ll soon find the best people in the higher paying jobs. When we released price controls on oil, we had a lot of people putting money into that field, and the supply quickly caught up.” Still, Meyer is quick to admit that laissez-faire economics has its dangers. “We can’t have the kind of unstructured competition for business that we had 50 years ago,” he says. “It’s too complex. It’s too powerful. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t have the maximum freedom to succeed and to fail.”



FRED MEYER got his start in Dallas business 15 years ago with L.T. Industries, a Tyler subsidiary that, to put it mildly, had its problems. The company made military supplies, specializing in 750-pound bombs and cluster-bomb containers and was the government’s only U.S. supplier of those materials. The year was 1967, near the height of the Vietnam War, yet L.T. Industries was losing a quarter of a million dollars each month. The company was so far behind on contract deliveries and so far above costs that the government would have terminated L.T.’s contract had another supplier been available.

Enter Fred Meyer, who already had a reputation as a turnaround man from his days at Alladin Enterprises, back when he was just out of Harvard. After six months with Meyer at the helm, L.T. Industries was making a quarter of a million a month. “We had a terrible location, terrible safety record, terrible everything,” Meyer recalls. “We just had to pull it up by its bootstraps. And, of course, we were using the dregs of the labor market.

“A turnaround is tough because you’ve Rot to win every game,” says Meyer, who might be thinking of his political career as well. “If you fail once, you’re through. It’s a one-strike ballgame, but it’s very exciting.”

The sporting metaphor comes naturally to Meyer, who delights in pitting himself against stubborn obstacles both natural and man-made. He has conquered the heights of Mt. Rainier and the distance of the Boston Marathon. Neither may be as formidable as the Dallas county tradition of “pulling the big lever” for the Democrats.

Meyer will keep plugging, though. Apparently, he wouldn’t know how to stop.”I’m very mentally tough and disciplined,”he says. “I love challenges. Of course,politics is the greatest game in the world.It’s the only thing that’s more exciting andchallenging than business because it’s ab-solutely winner-take-all. There is no second place, only first.”

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