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Clayton Williams: Texas Crude

The state's No. 1 Bubba is galloping toward the Governor’s Mansion. Will Ann Richards head him off at the pass? Can anyone explain the power of Claytie?


Even in West Texas, with its 10,000-square-mile blocks of solitude, Fort Stockton is a unique kind of place. Along Interstate 10, between Kerrville and El Paso, Fort Stockton is a rare stopover where the traveler has an option of more than one restaurant. That is a 390-mile stretch.

Around these parts, absolutely no one who grew up with or around Clayton Williams was surprised by his resounding win, over several better-known rivals, in the Republican primary. Nor were they particularly surprised when Williams informed a gathering of major media reporters at Williams’ Alpine, Texas, ranch — folks primed to quote cactus plants and moo cows, if necessary — that “bad weather is like rape; if it is inevitable, just relax and enjoy it.”

Not that the townspeople were all that thrilled about Williams’ little fireside chat.

“That’s just Clayton,” sighs a middle-aged waitress at Sarah’s Cafe, a landmark establishment in Fort Stockton that could become the West Texas equivalent of that feed store where the Carter brothers used to hangout. “Around here, we just refer to it as that silly remark Clayton made about the weather.”

The home boys were less forgiving of Blunder II in Williams’ post-primary malaise, when Claytie admitted that he frequented cat houses as a young man and implied that “getting serviced,” as he expressed it, was as normal a part of growing up in West Texas as getting baptized.

“Well, he was right about one thing. A lot of kids did that,” says Gregg McKenzie, a Pecos County commissioner. “Although I’m not going to say that I did.”

Ever since he was just a li’l buckaroo, Claytie Williams has been comfortable with horses and guns. Sometimes, however, the Indians—and his own words—come back to ambush him.

But gaffes or no, McKenzie and other Williams cronies believe that the man has enough of the right stuff to win in November. For one thing, Williams has the strongest ties to Hispanics of any modern Texas Republican. Traditionally, and especially in recent times, the Democrats pin their hopes for victory on landslides in the mostly Hispanic boxes from the Rio Grande Valley. Williams, who delivered six or seven minutes of his Fort Worth speech in a slow, drawling Spanish, may cut into the Hispanic vote. He’ll get nowhere near a majority, but if he could crack the Democrats’ Hispanic lock with even 10 or 15 percent, it could be a lethal blow to Ann Richards, especially if Williams is able to good ol’ boy his way into similar gains in yellow-dog Democrat territory, East Texas.

McKenzie recalls that at the end of World War II, the city of Fort Stockton integrated, a bold stride in regional race relations, “That’s with the Mexicans, that is,” the commissioner says, speaking the standard Fort Stockton drawl. “Until then, they weren’t allowed to go to school. They had to sit in the balcony at the movie theater and weren’t allowed in the public swimming hole, which was part of Comanche Springs. The Mexicans had to go down and swim in the creek.

“There was a little trouble, at first, with integration and all,” McKenzie recalls. “But I remember Claytie having a lot of respect for the Mexicans. He could speak Spanish fluently in high school. And even to this day, if Claytie is in a room with a lawyer and a banker and some old Mexican cowboy walks in, Claytie will ignore the other guys and go over and hug the Mexican’s neck.”

After a stint at Texas A&M and later in the U.S. Army, Williams returned to his Fort Stockton roots. He sold insurance and dreamed dreams of ways to scratch his itch to get rich. Claytie was clearly a disciple of what was then the unwritten law of Texas finance: scrape up every dime that you can (about two grand, in Williams’s case, money he says came from selling insurance and waiting tables in Mineral Wells) and roll the dice in the oil patch.

“I remember Claytie sitting down in a restaurant one night years and years ago and mapping out exactly what he was going to do with his life,” says Fort Stockton optometrist Omer Price. “He said he would make a million dollars, go on an African safari and kill a lion, and marry a beautiful woman. It doesn’t take a special man to say those kinds of things, but Claytie’s the only one I know who then went out and did it.”

Clayton Williams’ zodiac was apparently in order when the time came for him to make a stab at his special destiny. His first well didn’t come in until 1959, but after that, the drilling successes appeared in such sufficient numbers that Williams would found (in 1961) Clajon, a company that would become the largest individually owned gas company in the world. The next venture would be investment in raw West Texas land, which would lead to cattle raising. This is Claytie’s strongest area of business endeavor, since he was trained in animal sciences at A&M and maintains a passion for techniques in insemination and advanced embryonic transplant. His ranch near Alpine, adorned with a large boot-shaped swimming pool, is the seventh-largest venture of that type in the country.

By now, Williams had moved up the interstate to Midland, that unusual tract that at one time probably contained the largest assortment of rural millionaires in the United States. It was there that he met his wife Modesta in a Mexican restaurant in the mid-’60s. “I’d go in there and drink beer and sing with a mariachi band. Modesta was in there with a girlfriend. I like to say that we sort of picked each other up.”

Williams was living in “Middling” on New Year’s Eve 1975, when one of his wells came in with such force that a small town had to be evacuated. That hole in the ground in Loving County began producing $50,000 worth of natural gas a day. Claytie would establish a bank and Claydesta Communications, which is heavy into digital and fiberoptic communications — a fact that Williams is quick to point out when political foes accuse him of maintaining a stagecoach mentality at a time when Texas requires some progressive ideas.

In the process of creating this flatland business duchy, Claytie may have stepped on some toes along the way and established a few enemies here and there. But even his detractors will concede that few Texas fortunes were ever established on the basis of fair play and altruism.

Williams’ success came just in time to stage a tough and largely successful battle to stay on top in the midst of brutal economic calamities that would wrack West Texas. At the dawning of the ’80s, Williams was fond of joking to friends that “I’m in oil and gas, real estate, banking, and cattle — everything that’s losing money.”

By the mid-’80s, as oil hit rock bottom, Claytie found himself in the unenviable position of having “seven banks breathing down my neck.” He was forced to sell off Clajon to satisfy his creditors, and everyone still employed by the crumbling Claydesta empire took heavy pay cuts. “It was a very difficult time for me and my family,” Williams says. “We had bankers literally on our doorstep ready to shut our business down. We had to retrench, consolidate, sell. But we survived.”

Even people who have known Claytie for half a lifetime were a little gap-jawed when the man actually pulled the trigger on what seemed a wild and wicked dream to become governor of Texas. Risking everything you own on a 20,000-foot oil well is a calculated risk. Tossing millions into a scheme to become governor, many of Clayton Williams’s friends were convinced, was simply a daredevil stunt.

Obviously it’s a stunt that appears less zany with time. A year ago, marketing surveys indicated that Williams commanded exactly 4 percent of the vote; six months later, Williams would write what campaign organizers from throughout the land regard as a significant chapter in modern American political history. Nothing is unusual about some well-heeled wheel horse from the private sector poking his head into the political prize ring. But the amateur usually gets his head handed back to him. Claytie may be a different story.

“When Claytie actually announced for the race, I thought he was crazy,” says Ted Collins, a Midland oil executive who is one of the few who can paddle his canoe on the same pond as Williams. “Nobody east of the Brazos had ever heard of him. Now, to say he’s crazy is not to say I was surprised that he ran. Everybody who knows Claytie knows he’s on a hard-core ego trip. But he’s got the guts of a daylight bank robber.

“A couple of years ago, everybody out here was speculating that he might be about to go broke. Now look at him. The guy is stronger than horseradish. And that TV ad personality is no act. He’ll drink beer and dance on the table and sing Mexican songs all night, every night.”

Does pure bravado entitle a person to govern the third-most populous state in America? Voters, so far at least, apparently deem it a strong qualification. Certainly, no political unknown before Clayton Williams has proceeded so far on the wings of a five-word phrase: “the joys of bustin’ rocks.”


Williams seems to have struck pay dirt with his idea of hard labor boot camps for adults and teenage drug offenders. It sounds tough — and it sounds cheap. “They have one already in Georgia, and I visited it,” he says. “I thought that breaking up rocks in the Big Bend, to be used for roads and picnic tables, would be useful. The camp would be arranged around a 90-day boot camp, followed by a six-month work camp. The kids would get paid for that part of it. If they complete the boot camp and the work camp, the drug conviction goes out the window. That’s a lot healthier situation than prison. Once a kid goes to prison, you lose ’em forever.”

The problems of his adopted son, Clayton Wade Williams, inspired his efforts to fight drugs, or at least make that the focal point of his campaign. “Early on, Clayton had some problems with his self-image because he is adopted,” Williams says. “Sometimes that happens with kids; sometimes it doesn’t. We have another adopted son, and he never had any problems like that.

“Young Clayton had problems with beer and marijuana. He never reached the point of cocaine or the stronger stuff. But he got kicked out of high school, and Modesta and I enrolled him in the S-T-R-AG-H-T program in Richardson.

“Then he spent a year at Sul Ross (State University], but he didn’t do well in his classwork and started drinking beer. That might sound harmless. But he’d go off drinking beer with fellas and the next thing you know, somebody’s passing him a joint.

“Before I decided to run,” Williams says, “the whole family talked about how the campaign would affect us all, but particularly young Clayton, and how his problems would become kind of a public thing. He said, ’Go for it, Dad.'”

Joe Milam, partner in a 10-person Midland ad agency called Admarc, got the idea for the now-famous bustin’ rocks commercial that sent Claytie’s campaign into the stratosphere. Milam had produced a spot for Claydesta Communications in 1985 that featured Williams as a company spokesperson. The theme was a Pony Express station, and Williams was dressed in “period Western attire.” The company CEO seemed so natural, and so effective in front of the camera, that Milam was eager to tap that hidden talent again. He recruited the college rodeo club from Sul Ross State University in Alpine to play the roles of doper/rock-bust-ers and dressed them in tightly pressed convict costumes (actually, they were used security guard uniforms, purchased for $6 a piece). While the cameras rolled, the students pranced in a tight formation up and down a rocky hillside, swinging shovels and pickaxes while Clayton Williams, grinning in the foreground, outlined his plans for the sniggly little dopers responsible for Texas’ ’90-style crime-gripped paranoia. For their efforts, the actor/rock-busters from Sul Ross were paid $50 a day and all they could eat and drink.

The Admarc commercial has become a landmark in the annals of electronic image-making. People within that industry assume that Admarc people came up with the bustin’ rocks slogan, but Joe Milam will tell you that the inspiration for that was pure Claytie. The candidate himself might have been inspired by an Alabama political race about 15 years ago, where a law ’n’ order candidate successfully campaigned for the office of attorney general with the battle cry. “I want to fry ’em until their eyeballs pop out and green smoke comes out their ears.”

Clayton Williams figured that bustin’ rocks was more suitable for the general tastes of chic Texans, a perception that enabled him to blow the doors off the combined Kent Hance-Jack Rains-Tom Luce Republican establishment.

Instantly, the former student body king of Fort Stockton High became an international celebrity. “Mr. Clayton Williams’s television commercials were of a quality that would have met the standards of the most demanding automobile manufacturer,” wrote the Economist magazine, the British version of Fortune.

“And once he appeared on televised debates with the other candidates,” the Economist continued, “Mr. Williams demonstrated an ignorance of government that would have done Mr. Ronald Reagan proud.”

Primary election results proved that voters do not place much value on a candidate’s grasp of constitutional government. This seemed particularly true in Midland-Odessa country, where Texas crude is the hemoglobin for an entire society. One would have thought that Clayton Williams was the man who rescued little Jessica McClure from the bottom of that well shaft in Midland. He carried 76 percent of the vote in Ector County.

If Williams wins, his victory will mean several firsts for followers of Texas political trivia. First Aggie to be elected governor. First person who publicly stated that he was an eager patron of whorehouses to be elected governor. First person who is a second cousin of “Mad” Eddie Chiles to be elected governor.

“How can you not vote for Clayton in November, against a woman who couldn’t balance her own checkbook?” asks Midland oilman Ted Collins. “I don’t believe there is any way he is going to not win.” he says, adding the caveat that keeps Republican campaign organizers on edge, “as long as he keeps his big Aggie mouth shut.”

Clearly, following his tenure at Texas A&M, Williams was involved in extensive graduate studies at the Jerry Jones Academy of Tact and Elocution. But is there an old Aggie anywhere in Texas who would not vote for Clayton Williams in the general election?