Brutal primary battles and split parties

Photo by Robin Jerstad: Valdez/Marjorie Kamys Cotera: Andrew White

As Lupe Valdez and Andrew White take to the debate stage, heated past Democratic gubernatorial primaries from 1972 and 1990 highlight how the nastiest battles are often fought within a political family. Vicious runoffs resulted in political divides that didn’t heal for decades.

In 1972, Lt. Gov. Ben Barnes, a politically-gifted heir to the mantle of party power broker and LBJ’s hand-picked protégé, was the odds-on favorite for governor. Dolph Briscoe, a conservative, wealthy rancher and state representative from Uvalde, and Frances “Sissy” Farenthold, a liberal state representative from Corpus Christi, joined the field. Preston Smith, the incumbent governor, sought a third term.

The first volleys in that primary had Barnes accusing Briscoe of improperly influencing the construction of a 13-mile farm-to-market road in Dimmit County that went by Briscoe’s sprawling Catarina Ranch — a “road to nowhere,” Barnes claimed. Rumors also surfaced, possibly from the Barnes camp, that Briscoe had been treated for a mental illness, a stigma in the 1970s.

Then Sharpstown hit — a stock swap scandal that stained the Democratic Party and many of the candidates for governor. House Speaker Gus Mutscher, a state representative and an aide were indicted, found guilty and sentenced to five years of probation for their roles. Smith and Lieutenant Barnes were not legally on the hook, but proximity was bad enough. Smith claimed himself absolved, saying he vetoed the bill Frank Sharp bribed members to pass. Barnes clarified he wasn’t presiding over the Senate on the day the legislation was passed. Briscoe and Farenthold said they had clean hands, but only Farenthold sponsored a resolution to investigate Mutscher before his indictment. She joined thirty other members who would vote 'no' on pending legislation and then leave for Scholz Beer Garten for a long lunch — a group dubbed “those dirty 30 bastards” by a lobbyist in the House gallery. Briscoe was not a member of the “dirty 30,” but ran on a platform of cleaning up state government after Sharpstown.

The runoff featured Briscoe and Farenthold after the weakened Barnes and Smith were eliminated. Farenthold had the liberal wing, and Briscoe had the conservative wing. Briscoe, who believed in small government and low spending, objected to the tax increases during the Smith-Barnes administrations and ran against the “Austin establishment” crowd. Farenthold used her momentum from the “dirty 30” episode to press for ethics reform, civil rights and the Equal Rights Amendment, and attempted to rally the baby-boomer vote, a growing segment of Texas, as well as African Americans and women.

The intraparty skirmish quickly turned ugly. Farenthold claimed Briscoe was part of the establishment, arguing “our present state leaders have run Texas like a cash register.” She called for abolishing the Texas Rangers, the storied law enforcement agency, which Briscoe found objectionable because of his commitment to law and order. Farenthold’s campaign also accused Briscoe of employing illegal immigrants on his ranch, a charge Briscoe denied.

Briscoe won the runoff battle with 55 percent of the vote, but the war wasn’t over. The acrimonious campaign ended the power of the moderate Democratic old guard who had been the party’s unifiers, which left Democrats deeply divided with liberals on the left and conservatives on the right. Neither camp moved to heal the rifts.

The 1990 Democratic primary gubernatorial race was another vintage Texas political battle: “bitter, expensive, and no holds barred,” according to “Claytie and the Lady: Ann Richards, Gender and Politics in Texas,” by Sue Tolleson-Rinehart and Jeanie R. Stanley. Republican Bill Clements, the first Republican to win statewide office since Reconstruction, declined to run for a third term in 1990, setting the table for a group of hungry Democrats: Ann Richards, the state treasurer (then a statewide elected office), Attorney General Jim Mattox, and former Gov, Mark White.

There was not much camaraderie in that primary. Molly Ivins recalled that Mattox was so mean that “he wouldn’t spit in your ear if your brain was on fire.” Mattox ran an abrasive campaign against Richards, accusing her of drug use beyond her admitted alcohol abuse and claiming she “frolicked in a hot tub with Lily Tomlin” (according to Jan Reid’s biography, “Let the People In: The Life and Times of Ann Richards”). White accused Mattox and Richards of not being sufficiently in favor of the death penalty, bragging that he carried out 32 death sentences. Richards challenged Mattox to release his tax returns, which she did during her time in office. She accused White of being a “crook” who had “lined his pockets” since he had bought a million-dollar house on a governor’s modest salary, and compared his time in office as governor to a “B movie” that you wouldn’t want to see again. White exploded and compared Richards to a Nazi who used “Himmler” tactics.

Maddox and Richards advanced to a runoff — a “mud-wrestling contest,” according to Richards. The ideological divide was as potent as the personal animosity between the two, despite Mattox’s warning that the party could not “stand the luxury of a bloodbath in the primary.” Welts from decades of divisive ideological battles were still present. Richards was one of the few authentic liberals in Democratic politics, which opened her up to criticism that she’d raise taxes to fund her programs. Mattox presented himself as a conservative opposed to tax and fee increases and in favor of the death penalty.

In the runoff campaign, Mattox continued to pepper Richards with criticism that she didn’t support a state lottery and she had abused marijuana and cocaine. Richards called him the “garbage man of Texas politics.” According to Reid, there were media reports of witnesses who said they saw Mattox, who said he never used alcohol, smoking pot on two occasions.  Maddox denied the charges.

Mattox’s punch in the runoff was limited since he had spent most of his campaign funds in the primary. Richards performed very well with female and repeat Democratic voters, winning by more than 150,000 votes.

Richards won the general election over Republican Clayton Williams by a slim margin, but observers worried about the long-term effects of the bruising primary on the Democratic brand. The rise of two-party Texas allowed conservatives and moderates to vote Republican and the growing number of Republican officeholders signaled a sea change in Texas politics.

The present Valdez-and-White runoff has some of the same ideological splits but, happily, little of the personal venom from the 1972 or 1990 contests. Even so, ideological rifts are long-lasting and the Democrats would be advised to learn about the importance of unity from past wounding primaries.

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Brandon Rottinghaus

Professor, University of Houston