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Jack Martin: The TT Interview

The founder and chairman of Public Strategies Inc. — set to be honored today an Austin luncheon — on why the Republicans beat the Democrats so badly on Election Day, whether Texas is philosophically the same state it was 30 years ago, how things have changed for business interests dealing with the government and whether the "little guy" has a voice in our political system.

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When Jack Martin is honored today by the Center for Public Policy Priorities at is ninth annual Legacy Luncheon, it will be the second time in two days that the spotlight will shine on the former Democratic political consultant and top aide to U.S. Sen. Lloyd Bentsen. On Monday, the public affairs consulting firm that Martin founded and runs, Austin-based Public Strategies Inc., announced it will soon merge with Hill & Knowlton, the venerable New York-based public relations and marketing firm. Martin will be the merged company's global executive chairman, presiding over a 2,300-employee enterprise with offices in 44 countries.

Martin talked with the Tribune late Monday afternoon. An edited transcript of the interview follows, along with audio and video excerpts.

TT: You managed the last Democratic sweep of statewide offices in Texas, in 1982. Now it's the Republicans who've swept. What moved it, and what do you think would move it back?

Martin: It was two years after the great Reagan victory, where we lost a large number of seats in the U.S. Senate, and they were surprise losses. And Clements had been governor of Texas at this point for four years, and that had been a surprise. So there was a notion, I think, that we were on the defensive in Texas. We really were organizing on a defensive posture. We really weren't organizing to sweep the whole state.

The difference in then and now, I guess, that's pretty significant to me is that we never talked about the process. We didn't talk about that we were organized to sweep the state. We never called it a Dream Team. We just organized quietly the idea that we were going to do two things and two things really well. One, we were going to turn out the Democrats in the state to vote, and second, for the first time ever, we were going to have the most sophisticated [get-out-the-vote] effort we'd ever had ever had as Democrats to go after swing voters. We were the most surprised group of people in the country on Election Day when we realized the turnout was going to hit 50 percent.

It wasn't like we were just winning these elections by landslides year in and year out. Going all the way back to 1960, it was always teetering, that it could have gone either way and it was always a small number of votes. And so I think the message in that, even today, is that you have to be careful pronouncing that a state is going to be a red state or a blue or it's going to be a Republican state or a Democratic state from here on out because of one election. I think the message, to me, is that it is, until the morning after the election. And then it isn't.

I don't think people really want to hear that they've gone to the voting booth to give a party control of a state. Particularly not in the 21st century.

TT: How would you describe what happened in this latest election?

Martin: I haven't studied all the election returns, but something caused there to be a groundswell in Texas that caused there to be, for example, [22] members of the Legislature change when everybody thought it was going to be eight or nine. I think that was just a national phenomenon of people being fed up and disgusted with their government, and in Texas, it took the form of an impact on the Texas House races. I don't think it was really a referendum on whether they wanted a Democratic state rep or a Republican state rep to lead Texas into the future. I think they happened to be standing there when the plane crashed. It was really a national situation. It's not to say they shouldn't take heed and get some lessons from this.

TT: Is this philosophically the same state it's been for the last 30 years?

Martin: I think it is the same state it's been for the last 30 years. I don't think it was ever as liberal as people said it was when Ann Richards was elected. At the time, if you'll recall, there was the notion that this was the New Texas. In terms of the spirit of what Ann wanted to accomplish, that was absolutely right. But I don't think it reflected that the voters wanted a fundamental change in the way the state was governed. It's always been a state that's more conservative than liberal. It's always been a state that prides itself on its independence. And it's always been a state that really values officeholders that they think are leaders, particularly on the national level. And I think that really hasn't changed.

TT: How have things changed for business and other interests that deal with the government?

Martin: There was a time in business in Texas when the business leaders would go to an elected official and make a case and then the decision was made and that was it. And the same would be true with senior members of the Legislature.

I think we're in an age now where there is an explosion of public information. The public has access to more information than they've ever had. And the elected officials are more aware of that. The notion that an elected official in today's environment — no matter what party they're in — is going to make a big decision at the Legislature about a major issue without taking into account where the public fits into that is really what's changed in the last 20 or 30 years.

TT: Do the little guys have a voice?

Martin: I think you saw that in the Tea Party. What you're seeing with the Tea Party, whether you agree with it or not, is a group of people who think that they're the little guys who want to have a voice and they want to be heard.

The explosion of access to information is bringing a lot of this on. People have access 24 hours a day and seven days a week to all of this information. They've got blogs and they've got all sorts of ways to communicate now. It doesn't go through the traditional channels. If you're an elected official now, you're a little more attentive to those types of things. I think if you're somebody with your own agenda, you have a little better access to getting that known to the public. Even the corporations understand that. They are looking for ways in digital and social media, in corporate responsibility, to show that they're more connected with their stockholders or the public, or their customers. I think there's part of this that's a good thing.

TT: How will this progress?

Martin: I think the access to more information is healthy and I think that will continue. Groups organizing themselves and expecting to have a voice is really healthy.

If we get to the point where we're just responding to what we think the will of the day is, or if we get to the point where we're responding to what we think is the frustrations of people — that alone, I don't know that really in the long term is going to serve the public interest. We elect people and people lead these public policy debates because we expect them to have some ideas. And the one thing that concerns me about this is that I hope, I really hope, that people understand that going forward there's still an obligation for them to take a risk. And by take a risk, I mean take a risk in terms of say what they think and stick to it and put it out there for people to decide on and don't run away from.

There's a fine line between responding to the anger of voters and not demonstrating leadership about critical issues of the day, and we're going to struggle with that.

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