Wednesday, January 19, 2022 Jan 19, 2022
59° F Dallas, TX


Can Mark White’s ambition take him to D.C.?


{{ currentIndex+1 }} / {{ images.length }}


A FEW DAYS before Christmas 1984, Gov. Mark White called the heads of state agencies and institutions of higher education to the Texas Law Center for what was termed a “summit conference.” As it turned out, there was very little conferring. Mostly it was White and other top state officials saying that they had meant it when they said Texas would have to meet its expenses for the next three years without a tax increase.

Since there was no opportunity to respond, it seemed strange to call it a summit meeting. But for Mark White to reiterate his promise was not strange at all, and probably necessary. This was, after all, the same man who had run in 1982 on a promise of no tax increases, who then less than two years later, called for the biggest tax increase in Texas history.

In his State of the State address to the Legislature in January, White again repeated that Texas would meet its obligations without any new taxes. The members of the Legislature, many of whom say their positions against a tax increase are carved in stone, hope that he is right-that he indeed means what he says.

White is seeking to regain the conservative mantle he once wore in the wake of the 1984 elections that devastated the Democrats nationally. Despite grumblings from some of his critics, he seems to escape accountability for broken promises, donning the same Teflon coating as President Ronald Reagan.

White, carving more switchbacks than a mountain highway, seems to continually surprise us. Republicans hope that his number will come up in the 1986 election-that his broken promises, coupled with his 1984 support for hapless Walter Mondale-will spell his undoing. But as White moves into the final half of his first four-year term, no one is willing to bet much that it will be his last.

For one thing, White’s tax increase was passed to improve education and highways. That’s spending lauded by many conservatives, including Dallas billionaire H. Ross Perot, who ramrodded the education reform effort.

Another of White’s campaign statements was the inference that he could bring utility rates down. Even consumer advocates didn’t believe he could. But the members of the old state Public Utility Commission quit, and White appointed his own commissioners. And he notes now with glee that in one recent instance, a utility asking for a rate hike actually had its rates chopped.

While his aficionados say he is a caring, people’s governor, his critics say that White is simply an adroit politician who is somehow able to keep turning manure into gold.

At the end of the special session on education last July, State Rep. Ed Emmett of Houston, an ardent Republican, said White had scored big. “Whether I like it or not, whether it was started by Bill Clements or not, Gov. White is going to end up being the governor when education was reformed, and for that I take off my hat,” Emmett told the Houston Chronicle.

WHITE HAS REPEATEDLY beaten the odds. In 1978, he was considered an extreme long shot against Price Daniel Jr. for the Democratic nomination for attorney general. He beat Daniel with a stunning 59 percent of the vote. Later that year, he handily whipped Republican Jim Baker, who is now President Reagan’s secretary of the treasury.

In 1982, when Land Commissioner Bob Armstrong and Railroad Commissioner Buddy Temple thought they could beat White out for the dubious honor of being the Democrat to throw himself across the rails in front of the Republican Gov. Bill Clements’ re-election juggernaut, White ran a strong 44.9 percent in the first election, scaring Temple out of a divisive runoff. And then, while Clements’ polls on election day showed him getting at least 52 percent of the vote, White beat him by a 53-46 margin.

White thought the whole thing sufficiently humorous that when he bought into a sailboat with some friends, he christened it No Chance. Here is a man Clements called “an incompetent attorney general”-a judgment with which many observers agreed-who now lives in the mansion that Clements talked his well-heeled backers into renovating at a cost of $7 million. White and his wife, Linda Gale, enjoy free rent and a lavish entertainment budget, an annual salary pushing $100,000, an expense allowance of even more than that, a staff of servants and Department of Public Safety officers to drive the first couple and their three children, a jet airplane to ferry the governor around and even a playroom for the children-refurbished with $25,000 of budget surplus funds left over from the Texas Film Commission in July ’83.

White’s presence on a campaign trip for Democratic hopefuls is sure to guarantee a crowd. He has appointed more minorities and women to state boards and commissions than any governor in Texas history. As of February 5, 1985, White’s 1,228 appointments included 921 males (75 percent), 307 females (25 percent), 917 whites (75 percent), 121 blacks (10 percent) and 190 His-panics (15 percent).

He helped attract the MCC computer development think tank to Austin. He has put consumer bite in the PUC. He has refurbished the state’s educational establishment, (facing down Texas’ rabid football coaches and drill teams) and passed the largest tax increase in Texas history-and received resounding applause from many quarters.

At age 45, after more than a decade in state government as secretary of state, attorney general and now governor, Mark White is on a roll. He has developed a reputation as a populist hero, a warmhearted spokesman for the minority black and Hispanic populations of Texas, an opponent of greedy big business. It was not always so.

He used his position as secretary of state under Gov. Dolph Briscoe to aggressively promote his name identification. In 1975, he took a high profile in opposing inclusion of Texas under the federal Voting Rights Act, to the chagrin of such people as Democratic U.S. Sen. Lloyd Bentsen, who was championing the extension.

After winning the race for attorney general in 1978, White stood by while portions of the Consumer Protection Act were dismantled. He fumbled several major lawsuits, but continued to travel around the state at a breakneck pace, keeping up an already high profile.

White kept his distance from other Democrats during the 1978 general election, and again during the 1980 Republican landslide. However, immediately thereafter, White called for rebuilding the Democratic Party. And with the critical help of a get-out-the-vote apparatus provided by Hobby and Bent-sen, he knocked Clements off in 1982.

White took office a week after the Legislature had convened for its biennial session, and jumped immediately into the fray. He mounted a $193,000 campaign of paid television advertisements designed to convince the public and members of the legislature of the need to elect, rather than appoint, public utility commissioners.

The Legislature turned a deaf ear to White’s call-especially after two of the three members of the PUC, weary of White’s criticism, abruptly resigned less than two months into White’s term. White turned the matter to his advantage by appointing his ballyhooed “housewife,” Peggy Rosson, to the PUC, plus former member Al Erwin, before the sun had gone down. But the fact that White’s appointees were now in control of the commission made it very simple for legislators to resist his efforts to get them to join him as a born-again populist.

Nonetheless, White was getting fairly high marks during his first 100 days as Texas governor. He opened the door to various lobby and constituent groups that Clements had closed. He had opened up the appointments process far more than Clements.

Less than two weeks after becoming governor, White remarked to a reporter, “You know, this job is sure a lot better than being attorney general.” Earlier critics had said White was a better politician than an attorney general- and as governor, he proved them right.

But as with the PUC, White changed his tune in another major area. The biggest turnaround White made in the 1983 legislative session was his reluctant conclusion that his double campaign promises of a large teacher pay hike and no new taxes were mutually exclusive. White, raised in the “no new taxes” creed that previous governors had been able to maintain because of rising oil prices in Texas brought by the OPEC price hikes, had hammered Clements for even hinting that an increase in the state’s lowest-in-the-nation gasoline tax might be needed to stop the drain of highway funding on the state’s general revenue fund. In a debate with Clements in Amarillo in September of 1982, White had proclaimed, “I’ll work to raise teachers’ salaries, and we don’t have to raise taxes to do it.”

Not so convinced of that fact was Lt. Gov. Hobby, the presiding officer of the Senate and one of the most knowledgeable people in Texas on state finances. Hobby began warning in late 1982 that it would be impossible to raise teacher salaries without also raising taxes.

White, although professing disbelief at Hobby’s statement, he nonetheless found in fairly short order that Hobby was correct. With the state’s projected tax revenues declining almost weekly as a result of a recession, rising unemployment and falling oil prices, White couldn’t pay teachers more money unless he found it somewhere. Comptroller Bob Bullock, who must certify how much money the Legislature has to spend before it can be spent, reminded White repeatedly with barely suppressed elation that the declining revenue estimates meant there was going to be no free lunch for teachers. (Bullock, no fan of White’s, had announced the day after the 1982 election that he would be a candidate for governor in 1986.)

Still, White, who hadn’t even lined up any sponsors for his legislative efforts, was slow to admit there was not enough money to do what he wanted. He held on to the hope that he could somehow have his cake and eat it, too. At first, he told legislators that teachers’ pay should be raised but that a tax increase wasn’t necessary, that Bullock was juggling the figures. After that suggestion fell on deaf ears, White came up with a package of increases in so-called “sin” taxes-liquor, tobacco and others. When that also foundered in the conservative House, White relied on his campaign pollsters’ finding that the public favored the taxes. He spent another $100,000 in leftover campaign money on another television advertising campaign pushing his education plan.

White also traveled to the districts of House Speaker Gib Lewis of Fort Worth, Ways and Means Committee Chairman Stan Schlueter of Killeen and Calendars Committee Chairman Bill Messer to condemn their opposition to his education spending program. What he accomplished instead was to strengthen their resolve against his tax plan. They were angry.

It was not until May 13, just over two weeks before the end of the regular legislative session, that White recognized the inevitable and finally developed a broader tax package. But even that was in trouble because it was so late, and White had already infuriated some of the key players in the House.

Faced with the prospect of calling legislators back for a special legislative session after they had rubbed his nose in his other proposals, White instead finally began to wise up. Like Clements, he had learned the hard way that trying to order the Legislature around often had the opposite effect.

White fired his pollster and set about winning friends among members of the Legislature. When he called them back shortly after the end of the regular session, it was only for some housekeeping items that had not been accomplished in the regular session. He carefully steered clear of the education taxes issue, finding refuge instead in Speaker Lewis’s adamant opposition to any new money for teachers until the education system was studied.

By the end of the special session, White was joking that he had re-read the separation of powers clause of the Constitution. On the last night, he stood arm in arm with Speaker Lewis, complimenting the smiling House leader-who earlier had characterized White as “completely off-base” and a “desperate man.”

Lewis, whose conservative backers were basically opposed to new taxes, early on had simply opposed the whole idea. It was only late in the game that he called for a study. White, stymied at the idea of getting new taxes to fund education without mollifying Lewis and the tax-shy House, agreed to the idea of a comprehensive study of education. From that rather ignominious and acrimonious beginning, over the objections of teachers hungry for more pay, the blue-ribbon education study allowed White, who had stumbled into the issue while trying to raise teacher salaries to make good on a campaign promise, to set the stage for becoming the father of education reform in Texas.

Critics complained that the education study White had agreed to was simply putting off the inevitable for a year. Coupled with other problems such as violence in the state’s prisons, White was still providing a large target for his critics to shoot at. The irrepressible Bullock continued his caustic slams at White. “White is just following his same old pattern of neglecting the office he holds while grabbing for the next rung up the political ladder,” Bullock wrote in an 1983 press release. “In a way, I hope he’s elected vice president. I can’t think of anybody better qualified to hold an office without any official duties than Mark White.”

White’s wisest decision was in choosing Perot to head the education reform study. Perot had headed up a war-on-drugs study for Clements and had been a contributor to Clements’ campaign. Perot, whose own children had been educated in private schools, personally traveled to schools throughout the state to assess the quality of education. He was appalled by what he found. White pushed through recommendations from Perot’s study a year later in a relatively high-risk special session.

Although White once again went to the people with paid television commercials, this time he was wise enough to include with him Lt. Gov. Hobby, Speaker Lewis and Ways and Means Chairman Schlueter. By putting them on television saying that education reforms were needed, White had also managed to get a high-profile commitment to the program.

Despite past criticism, White’s marks continued to improve during 1984. His political future seemed brighter than it did in 1983- sufficiently bright, in fact, that Bullock pulled down his own battle flag for the 1986 governor’s race.

Bullock observed that there had been no groundswell for his services, and White seemed to have a large following in Texas. “He is popular,” Bullock said last fall. “I sense that everywhere I go, and I speak quite a bit around the state.”

Still, White’s life as he moved into the 1985 legislative session looks charmed, if not totally without political danger. His goals for the coming legislative session include trying to do something about water for the state, trying to contain the violence in the prisons and bring some degree of sanity to that operation, and to continue with implementation of the educational reforms.

White’s 1982 victory over Clements gained him national attention, at least among the nation’s Democrats. He added to that in 1984. Although he had let his name be cast around early as a potential vice presidential nominee, he then wisely deferred to Texas Sen. Lloyd Bentsen. Even after Bentsen was passed over for Geraldine Ferraro, White loyally stumped for the ticket-thus paying his political dues in case the effort by Democrats to court the South and West bring him to the fore in 1988.

White is positioned as well as anyone could be. He gained his office by beating a Republican incumbent in the nation’s third most populous state-one without which no Democrat has ever gained the White House. He is in very good shape to be on the national ticket in 1988. All he has to do is win re-election in 1986. Critics-and even some friends-say he can’t do it if taxes go up again. But even though Republicans are hot on his tail now, in the increasingly volatile world of Texas politics it is far too soon to mark him for defeat. Or victory, for that matter.

Related Articles

State Fair Autopsy

We examined the innards of some of the most popular, calorie-laden treats. The results are tasty. And fattening.