Can the cunning country boy run the Texas House?

In the course of political events, it’s a common circumstance: One man’s loss is another man’s gain. Such a situation seemed in the making on the evening of February 8, 1980, as the Associated Press and United Press International news wires tapped out a Los Angeles Times story alleging that the Speaker of the Texas House of Representatives was being investigated by the FBI for accepting a $10,000 bribe. For “Mr. Speaker”- Billy Wayne Clayton, the strong-minded, powerful West Texas farmer-the news signaled doom to a long and distinguished political career. But for Gib Lewis, the “good ol’ boy” Fort Worth legislator with the friendly eyes and boyish grin, the eyebrow-raising news was a carrot dangling in his face.

“It was just about at that time that I had made a decision to either run for Speaker or the Senate, or else go back to devote full time to the business,” Lewis says. “Running for the speakership was not something that I had been striving for all my political life. But I’m somewhat of an opportunist. I’d reached the burnout stage as a legislator, and it was a time I was saying to myself, ’Lewis, you need to figure out what you’re going to do and where you’re going to go.’ I was feeling a challenge to grow.”

With Clayton’s political future in jeopardy, it seemed the perfect time for Lewis to branch out and take a shot at the job of presiding over the Texas House, a position that guarantees a man the status of being one of the state’s most powerful politicians. The next morning, Lewis admitted to an Austin reporter that he was already toying with the idea of running for Speaker in 1983. “But with last night’s development, my phone was ringing off the wall,” Lewis told the reporter. “Members were asking me to put myself in a position to run next session [in 1981].”

Which is precisely what Lewis did. It only took him three days to maneuver behind the scenes to secure pledges from a majority of the House to support him as a backup candidate for Speaker in 1981. But Lewis’ back-room politicking would not become public until June 11. when he stood beside the powerful Speaker at a Capitol news conference and declared himself a “standby” candidate for House Speaker-with Clayton’s support. It was during the news conference that Lewis flashed a list of the names of 92 fellow House members he claimed had pledged to support him if Clayton could not publicly cleanse his name before the next meeting of the Legislature in January 1981. (It takes 76 votes to be elected House Speaker). The next day, the news wires were buzzing again, this time with the dismal news that Clayton had been indicted by a Houston federal grand jury for “aiding and abetting” three other men by accepting a $5,000 bribe to influence the awarding of a multimillion-dollar state employees insurance contract. Clayton’s indictment was but one facet of a massive FBI probe-dubbed “Brilab” for bribery-labor-being conducted in Texas, Louisiana and Oklahoma.

But the entire episode only raised premature hopes for Lewis. As it turned out. Lewis would have to stand patiently on the sidelines until 1983 to take another crack at the speakership. Clayton was acquitted by a federal jury in the fall of 1980, and in 1981, he was re-elected Texas’ only four-term Speaker of the House. Last year. Clayton retired from office to become an Austin lobbyist. Although it must have been a frustrating wait for Lewis, his early efforts established him as heir apparent to the Clayton throne. It also illustrated his popularity with his fellow legislators as he politicked on his own behalf.

His labors were rewarded on January 11, 1983, when a colleague, Rep. Charles Evans (D-Hurst), nominated Lewis for Speaker. “This man is fair and candid with all who come in his presence,” Evans said of Lewis. “You will not find him telling you one thing to your face and something else behind your back. He is an eternal optimist; negativism is not in his vocabulary… He is a man who is in control at all times.”

Apparently, Evans’ colleagues agreed: That day, 144 of 149 of them voted Gibson Donald Lewis the 68th Speaker of the Texas House of Representatives, making him the 60th man to hold the post.

THE 59 MEN who have held the Speaker’s gavel before Lewis have been traditionally characterized as the state’s third most powerful politicians, occupying the box in the Texas government’s organizational chart just beneath the governor and lieutenant governor (who, as president of the Texas Senate, is the Speaker’s legislative counterpart). In reality, some Speakers have been stronger than their governors, while others have been little more than parliamentarians. Some have used the speaker-ship as a springboard to other areas of political pursuit. For instance, Waggoner Carr moved from Speaker to become attorney general in 1962. In 1963, Byron Tunnel was appointed to the Railroad Commission after serving as Speaker, and Ben Barnes was elected lieuten-tant governor after he served as Texas’ 62nd Speaker of the House.

The Speaker is elected by a majority vote of the House for a two-year term. Since the Texas Constitution does not elaborate on the role of the prestigious office, the Speaker draws his primary duties and power from the parliamentary rules of the House. Not only does he appoint all the members of the 45 standing House committees, but he also recognizes legislators in floor debate, interprets rules, refers bills to committees and guides legislation through the House. Although tradition has it that the Speaker must utilize seniority in making some of the committee appointments, he can “stack” certain committees with political allies. Because he also has the parliamentary power to channel any bill to any committee, the fate of a bill can well depend on whether the committee members are hostile or friendly to the Speaker’s legislative wishes.

But the Speaker also has informal powers, carried out in the privacy of his office, that are perhaps better indicators of his leadership style. In the past, it has been common practice for a Speaker to call groups of legislators into his office when things were stalemated or weren’t going as planned on the House floor. Depending on his style, the Speaker would then either attempt to impose his legislative will on his colleagues or inspire them to gain a compromise.

If Lewis’ power were judged to date, he would likely be considered a weak Speaker. To put it bluntly: He is no Billy Wayne Clayton. But apparently, that’s the way Lewis wants it- his philosophy of the speakership contrasts sharply with Clayton’s. “I perceive the Speaker as being more of a presiding officer,” he says. “I don’t like-and I don’t want to be-perceived as a dictator. I want to be fair. You can’t be fair if you absorb too much power. To me, it’s an honor to be a Speaker. You’re elected by your peers, and I believe you have an obligation back to those who elected you.” His is a style and philosophy reminiscent of Price Daniel Jr.

THESE DAYS, things appear to be going well for Lewis, the 47-year-old Fort Worth Jay-cee president-turned-city-councilman-turned legislator. The one-time B-52 tailgunner says he feels at home on the Speaker’s platform and that the machinery of the House side of Texas government that seemed rusty to him last January is now well-oiled. Not only does Lewis believe that the 68th House legislative session earlier this year was a productive one, but he also is rejoicing that the media is off his back, that the governor is no longer intimidating him and that he is very popular among the House membership. “The last 60 days were smooth,” Lewis said of the session. “It felt good. I got that sucker running the way I wanted it.”

But it was a trying session for Lewis. As Speaker, he had an awkward beginning, but he learned fast. The rugged outdoorsman says he was “scared to death” when he first took the House reins. In fact, he compares his first 45 days as Speaker to the turbulent first five years he spent building his Fort Worth labeling-product business back in 1964. “It was a frightening experience,” Lewis said of his early days as Speaker. “It’s a heck of a job for a new kid on the block. It was kind of like climbing Mount Everest: Once you get on top, you realize, ’My goodness, this bugger is big.’ The magnitude just overwhelms you. Not to mention the fact that it’s a job you can’t really prepare for. It’s not like being elected president or governor, where you get a transition period.”

It is probably not an accident of history that Lewis has the distinct honor of being the first Speaker in 36 years to come from a large urban area (the last was W.O. Reed of Dallas in 1947). The choice of the House seems more logical than meets the eye. He’s a country boy who came to the big city, much like the Legislature he runs; it’s a body likewise in the process of moving from rural to urban in nature. In fact, his fellow legislators claim that because of his “good ol’ boy” image, he still could easily be mistaken for a country boy. After all, he was born and raised in rural Limestone County in East Central Texas. He graduated from Cleveland High School in 1955 and attended college, but he doesn’t hold a degree.

After several years of civic service and a stint on the Fort Worth City Council, Lewis was bitten by the state politics bug in 1971 and decided to run for the Legislature. He claims that his defeat of then-incumbent Dist. 89 Representative Bob Burnett the next year was a “fluke.” “He was much better-qualified than I was then,” Lewis says. Lewis has run successfully for his House seat every two years since. In 1973, only in his second term, he was named to chair the House Natural Resources Committee, and in 1977 he took the reins of one of the House’s most prestigious committees: the Intergovernmental Affairs Committee. For the past four years, he has also headed the Tarrant County delegation of the House.

Politically, Lewis calls himself a moderate-conservative Democrat who is perhaps a bit more liberal than his conservative colleagues when it comes to social issues. Even though he quoted former vice president Hubert Humphrey in his Speaker’s acceptance speech, Lewis claims he models his style after no politician. “I’ve never been much of a hero worshipper.” he says.

He’s a handshaking black-slapper whose broad grin has become a trademark. His open friendliness has resulted in his being portrayed by the media in terms ranging from “as friendly as all outdoors” to “the classic snake-oil salesman.” Of course, some of his affability comes with the political territory, but even those who admire him are sometimes bothered by his obsession never to offend a soul, not even his enemies. A good example has been his treatment of Carlyle Smith (D-Grand Prairie), a vocal critic of Lewis and one of only two House members to vote against Lewis as Speaker. Smith says he still feels good about his vote, but admits he likes Lewis as a person. Although Smith didn’t get the choice committee assignment he requested (the Appropriations Committee), Lewis did name him to the important House State Affairs Committee, traditionally known as the Speaker’s committee, the place where the House leader can usually count on working his will.

As a Speaker, Lewis has gained a reputation as being a very democratic leader, for the most part letting House members impose their majority will. Yet legislators say that on the few occasions when he has asserted himself and used the raw power at his grasp, Lewis largely got what he wanted. He flexed his muscles successfully to kill efforts to get a major trucking deregulation bill passed and used his influence to encourage several conservative legislators to walk out of the House chambers, permitting the narrow passage of legislation establishing a state human-rights commission.

What has impressed many legislators about the freshman Speaker has been his unassuming manner, a sharp contrast to the ways of Bill Clayton. “Gib’s biggest strength was that he let his people work,” incumbent Rep. David Cain (D-Dallas) says. “As a committee chairman this session, I was very surprised because I’ve always heard about the iron hand of the Speaker. It just never happened this session.”

“He’s a process-oriented person rather than a substantive-oriented person,” says Rep. Lee Jackson (R-Dallas). Jackson says that Lewis’ leadership style fits that of a moderator, rather than a quarterback.

Even opponent Carlyle Smith concedes that Lewis’ style is democratic. “Billy Clayton always seemed to have Billy Clayton’s program,” Smith says. “He would, in effect, say to us, ’Here’s what I want, and here’s what the lobby wants. What’s left over is what you guys can have.’ Gib, on the other hand, is the type of guy who will say, ’Go work it out and come back in and show me what you can agree on.’ He doesn’t want to be a part of the mediation process himself, and he doesn’t want to be a part of the compromise.”

Rep. Bill Blanton (R-Farmers Branch) is one of a number of legislators who learned the lawmaking process during the Clayton era. “I’ve never known anything other than Clayton,” Blanton says. “I think Gib tried very hard not to emulate Clayton. In the beginning, I feel he didn’t show the leadership a Speaker needs. But that might have been due to the newness of the office. I think Gib came on real strong in the end. I was pleasantly surprised with him from March on.” Rep. Paul Ragsdale (D-Dallas), another legislator who knew only the Clayton style, claims that Lewis’ style was more open and relaxed than Clayton’s, which was very “heavy-handed.” “Clayton ruthlessly used his powers,” Ragsdale says. “I think Lewis turned out to be a fair Speaker, much more so than the previous Speaker. I got fair treatment from him, and I know I passed more legislation this session than any previous session.”

“Many people complained that it was a ho-hum session,” Lewis says. “They say nobody was fighting and there wasn’t good floor debate. The reason it was a ho-hum session is because we all respected each other and so much of the work was done in committee.”

“I think it was one of the most productive sessions in a long time,” says Lt. Gov. Bill Hobby, presiding officer of the Senate, “particularly in the area of prison and educational legislation. I think Gib did a fine job.” Although Hobby agrees that Clayton was a more heavy-handed Speaker than Lewis, he says that “any presiding officer his first term might be a little different.”

IN EARLY MARCH, the calm of the 68th Legislative session was shattered when The Dallas Morning News broke the story that Lewis had failed to include a number of his business relationships and investments on his 1981 financial disclosure statement.

After waffling in his explanations of why the business dealings weren’t reported, Lewis filed an addendum to the original statement, making roughly 100 changes and additions he claimed to have “forgotten” to include on the original statement. A few of the oversights were potentially significant, since two major areas of possible legislation being considered during the session included horse racing and stronger DWI laws. One business partner Lewis had neglected to mention was L. Dean Cobb, a former House member who, at the time, was a lobbyist for horse-race betting. The two were partners in Lewis and Cobb Ltd., which owned an Austin condominium (where Lewis lived) and a 460-acre ranch near Bertram in Central Texas. The other major area of omission on Lewis’ part was his failure to acknowledge business dealings with three Fort Worth liquor company executives. Lewis was a co-founder of Lake Worth National Bank along with Fort Worth Coors beer distributor John McMillan and James Leggett, co-owner of Majestic Liquors. Lewis also formed an aircraft charter firm, LL&M Aviation, with the two men and with Tom Leggett, also of Majestic Liquors. Lewis denies that the associations influenced his service as Speaker and says that none of the three “would so much as ask me to drive them downtown.”

Even though Lewis, who fevors horse racing in Texas, funneled the horse-racing bill to a committee chaired by an appointee of his who also favored horse-race wagering, it barely got out of committee. And the open-container bill, which would have made it illegal to drink while driving, was reported out of committee, but it never saw the light of day on the House floor.

Lewis’ oversight was a serious mistake that could have resulted in censure by his colleagues, but he survived, probably because they believed it was an “honest, dumb mistake.” On May 27, Lewis filed a complaint against himself and pleaded no contest to misdemeanor charges, paying an $860 fine. On June 19, the House Ethics Committee publicly announced that it had voted not to investigate the matter any further.

Although most House members say that Lewis survived because they believed his story, Ragsdale disagrees. “Most of us are afraid to challenge the Speaker. For that reason, he didn’t get much heat from the Legislature. Most of us are cowards when it comes to standing up to the Speaker for fear of retaliation, which has happened. It’s a herd mentality. There are very few of us with enough backbone to square off with the Speaker.”

The entire debacle left a bad taste in Lewis’ mouth where the media was concerned. He still doesn’t understand why his goof got so much ink. “I made a dumb mistake,” he says. “I didn’t do it intentionally. Why did I do it? I don’t know. It’s one of those things that if you knew why you did it, you never would have done it in the first place. But I think-no, I know-it was overplayed by the media.

“For some reason, I didn’t have a good relationship with the media, especially the Dallas and Fort Worth media. Every day I scratch my head and ask myself why.” But his colleagues point out that the answer is simple: Gib just doesn’t think very well on his feet. He seems destined to say the wrong thing at the wrong time. An incident last February emphasized what most legislators claim was his most glaring weakness as Speaker: Lewis was standing in front of the hot television camera lights, cameras rolling, when he was asked about legislation that would ban open containers of liquor in automobiles and raise the drinking age to 19. He paused, apparently not long enough, and called them legislative “frills,” the kind of careless talk that makes organizations like Mothers Against Drunk Drivers hopping mad.

“What I really meant to say was that they were ’satellite’ issues, but the only word that came to mind was ’frills,’ ” Lewis lamented. “I was sorry I ever said it. I realize now that it wasn’t a good choice of words.”

ALTHOUGH FAIRNESS seemed to be his trademark, most House members believe that Lewis’ greatest contribution to the 68th Legislature was in his restructuring of the House Appropriations Committee, the powerful House budget-writing committee. Lewis admittedly is an advocate of the committee system, and claims he intended for the committees to do more work than they had in the past. “I have a great deal of respect for the committee system,” he says. “That’s where all the work gets done. That’s why I took a great deal of time to balance the committees.”

He claims that it became apparent to him before he assumed his post as Speaker that money would be scarcer this session than in recent years. “It was a drastic change to the way we operate in the House,” he says. “But the budget is the most important thing we do all session.” The first thing Lewis did was to set aside seniority as a consideration for appointment to the Appropriations Committee-a bold move in itself, and one that might not have worked if the 68th House hadn’t had the largest freshman class (45 members) since Sharp-stown. The committee was expanded to 29 members, with 28 of them taking on the dual role of vice chairman in charge of budget and oversight in each of the 28 key House committees. This, according to Lewis, would ensure educated input from every important committee as the Appropriations Committee shaped the budget. By eliminating seniority, Lewis says his creation also put a stop to much of the logrolling of past Appropriations Committee members who frequently voted for each other’s pet projects.

While most legislators now hail the change as a “stroke of genius,” it was at first received very skeptically by many. It was seen by some members as a power grab by Lewis because it meant he could have stacked the entire budget-writing committee to his liking. Carlyle Smith was one of those representatives edged off the committee because his seniority was meaningless. Smith says the decision not to include veterans on the committee is “one of the reasons we’re going back into special session this fall.”

House members also applauded Lewis for standing his ground on the session’s hottest issue and refusing to back Gov. Mark White’s tax increase proposals to give Texas teachers a 24 percent pay raise. “I was real intent when I first took the gavel that there simply was not going to be a tax increase in the House,” Lewis says. It was that insistence to return a balanced budget from the House without a tax increase that impressed legislators like Frank Eikenburg (R-Plano). “It was what we didn’t get that showed Gib’s strength as Speaker,” Eikenburg says.

“I think the governor took advantage of the House early on-he kind of poked fun at the House,” GOP representative Lee Jackson says. But when the two leaders got into a tax-increase showdown in May, Jackson claims that Lewis finally “decided not to play along and instead took the offensive.”

“I think the press was always making the governor and I out like we were fighting all the time,” Lewis says of the tax disputes. “But that’s just not true. I’ve known Mark from way back, and we’ve been good friends. I think the only major disagreement we’ve had has been over the tax increase. I just couldn’t go along with his proposal to raise taxes for a teacher pay raise. After all, it was the governor who promised the 24 percent pay raise to the teachers. I didn’t promise it, and nobody in the House promised it. As it was, the teachers got more of a pay raise than any other group of state employees.”

But the jury is still out on the issue since the Legislature is scheduled to meet again this fall in special session to reconsider teacher pay raises.

NOW THAT the Legislature is out of session, Lewis is spending most of his time tending to his pressure-sensitive label company, Lewis Label Products Inc., located in Fort Worth. He says that he and his wife of 25 years spent five years working day and night building the firm, located in a modest building on Race Street. It does a $4 million annual business now and employs 65 people. “I’ve seen that sun come up many times when I was first starting the business,” Lewis says. “I’d often go home, take a shower and come right back to the office. Now we’re among a group of about a half-dozen companies who lead the market nationwide.”

Like most successful politicians, Lewis is a man full of contradictions. He is comfortable living as a political being, yet says that it wouldn’t matter to him if politics disappeared from his life tomorrow. “I plan to only be a two-term Speaker,” he says. “I don’t have any further political plans. I’m not like a lot of my colleagues who really need their political lives. I don’t need the Legislature; it’s something I can do without. In fact, I have this lure to come back to the business. To me, business is very challenging.” And he seems to be a gentle man, but, on the other hand, he’s addicted to the rugged outdoor life. One female legislator refers to him as a “man’s man.” Last month, he made a several-week jaunt to Africa, where he hunted leopards and lions. In the past, he has hunted big game in Mongolia, Canada, Alaska, Mexico, Asia and Russia. What he enjoys most is wandering into the wilderness for several days to backpack alone. “I have a need to slow down,” he says. “I enjoy the scenic beauty. Being alone gives me time to think about where I’m going and where I’ve been.” Although he says he’d rather be in his Cherokee Jeep, he looks natural commuting around Fort Worth in his 1981 Mercedes 450SL, which he says he bought as an investment.

Despite his relatively liberal leanings on social issues, he thinks like a self-made man on economic issues. “I spent night and day building my own business,” he says. “That’s why I’m such a defender of the free-enterprise system. I believe in hard work and determination.” He assesses his net worth at somewhere between $1 million and $5 million, but he says he isn’t fond of being called a millionaire. “Sure, I’m a millionaire when you consider all my assets. But to tell you the truth, when I write a check for $100, I’m not all that sure it won’t bounce. But I’m not ashamed of my money. I earned every penny of it. Not one dollar came easy.”

Like any businessman turned politician, Lewis complains that eight-hour days are foreign to him and that he takes a lot of public abuse that his friends say “he doesn’t have to.” Although politicians often beef-up their balance sheets after entering politics, Lewis claims that, in his case, business and politics don’t mix. “If I hadn’t gotten into politics, I would have been a wealthy man,” he says. “Politics hasn’t benefited my business. If anything, it’s cost me money.”


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