I was deeply saddened to learn of Gov. Mark White’s passing. I have many fond memories, both personal and political, of our long friendship. His intelligence, wit, compassion and loyalty not only changed my life, but the face of Texas itself.
I first met White when he was secretary of state under Gov. Dolph Briscoe. I worked on campaigns in both college and law school and was actually working for the Democratic Party when he was elected attorney general in 1978. I can still remember when he called me in 1982 and asked me to manage his campaign in El Paso County, which was an honor because of how critical El Paso would be for carrying the November election against Bill Clements, a powerful and wealthy incumbent. White was an underdog whose strongest supporters were teachers, and I worked hard with local educators to maximize the El Paso vote.
The campaign eventually took an interesting turn when Clements was publically asked whether he would appoint a woman to the Public Utility Commission. Clements (who had a history of appointing affluent businessmen to the state’s most important positions) said something to the effect of, “there is not a housewife competent enough to serve on the PUC.” White quickly replied that women were the ones who wrote most of the checks to the utility companies and promised he would appoint a woman to the PUC as one of his first acts in office.
As it turned out, I knew a woman named Peggy Rosson who was heading our local Public Utility Regulation Board, and I passed that on to White. He immediately came out to El Paso, where I connected the two and drove them both to a political rally. The press picked up on that meeting.
When General White became Gov. White in a stunning upset, he prepared to appoint El Pasoans to big state offices; after all, El Paso had produced a decisive victory for him. He quickly made good on his promise and appointed. Rosson — who had contributed no money to his campaign — to the PUC, making her first female to ever hold that position. When the chairman resigned in protest, White gave his job to Rosson, and that remains one of the highest statewide appointments for any El Pasoan. (Incidentally, after a distinguished career on the PUC, Rosson was elected as El Paso’s state senator; White’s instincts about her were right.)
I myself was fortunate to be appointed to serve on what would later become the Texas Ethics Commission, and White eventually appointed me judge of the 34th District Court, where I’ve been honored to serve for the last three decades — probably as his last appointee still in elected office. In fact, White appointed a record number of El Pasoans to boards and commissions, and they were significant appointments. He never forgot what El Paso did for him, and he repaid our community generously.
His greatest achievements as governor — ultimately, his political undoing — were signature education measures that brought important reforms to Texas public schools. Those efforts were long overdue because of the political risks of addressing them. They included a large raise in teacher pay (requiring a tax increase) as well as the controversial “no pass, no play” rule for extracurricular activities. There was also a new requirement that teachers take a test for certification as competent professionals, and while only a handful of teachers across the state failed the exam, many were angry and did not support White again. He told legislators that if they took political heat over education and taxes, they should blame him. They did, and it cost him his job when he was defeated in 1986.
Nonetheless, White identified a critical problem, developed a solution and got it passed into law despite the difficulty and the risk. He was willing to put his political career on the line because he believed it was what Texas needed. He devoted his long public career to improving Texas for all Texans. The courage he showed is sorely needed in American politics today.
We could also use the kind of character he had, including a genuine desire to meet everybody and hear their concerns. I recall one day of campaigning that included a high-dollar fundraiser for him at a beautiful home near the Coronado Country Club, followed by a full day of campaign activities. When we finished, he wanted to stop off at his favorite Mexican restaurant in El Paso, Forti’s Mexican Elder on Chelsea. He took time to meet with the owners, but he also insisted on going back to the kitchen to speak with the cooks, the dishwashers, the busboys and the waiters. He shook their (sometimes wet or dirty) hands, thanked them genuinely, and gave them the same attention and respect as the wealthy donors he had met with earlier in the day.
This was the governor of the state of Texas, a man once mentioned as a possible vice-presidential candidate, and he consistently showed those around him what it really meant to be a public servant. His wife and children, who I came to know, are an outstanding legacy for him and everything he stood for, but I will still miss this humble yet great man. His kind is in too short a supply these days.
Rest in peace, my friend.