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Guest Column: Why Bill Clements Mattered

He served as a metaphor for Texas in transition. From the boom and bust of the oil industry to the state’s political makeover, he personified the changes that occurred during his lifetime.

By Carolyn Barta
One of two portraits of former Texas Gov. William P. Clements, Jr. that hangs in the Capitol rotunda.

The success of the Texas Republican Party can be traced to Bill Clements' first gubernatorial election in 1978. He set Texas on a course of political realignment as the first Republican elected governor since Reconstruction, becoming the bridge between what once was a Democratic state to what is today arguably the most reliably red state in the nation. He proved, in his unlikely defeat of Democrat John Hill 33 years ago, that not only could a Republican be elected governor but he could function in the traditionally Democratic environment that was then Texas state government.

With his appointment power, Clements brought a generation of young Republican activists to the Capitol. He made it respectable to be a Republican at a time when the GOP primary only drew about 150,000 people. His ability to deal successfully with conservative Democrats created the environment that made conservative Democrats comfortable in switching parties. As a result, he hastened the emergence of Republicans down to the courthouse level.

To be sure, by the time Clements ran in 1978, Texas, like other states in the South, had begun its partisan realignment by rejecting Democratic presidential candidates such as Adlai Stevenson and George McGovern. But his 1978 election marked the first time that conservative Democrats shifted to a Republican for governor. Until then, winning the Democratic primary had been tantamount to election.

Democrats identified with him because he was a straight-talker, a ticket-splitter in the Texas tradition and because of his life experience. Starting as an oilfield roughneck, he became a risk-taking entrepreneur and corporate manager, turning the purchase of two rusty oil rigs into the multimillion-dollar drilling company, SEDCO. Those experiences gave him populist tendencies, a conservative philosophy, management skills, a distinctive personality, the power of personal wealth and political acceptance.

The character traits Clements took with him to Austin included his ability to project with certitude what he thought. That proved to be both his strength and his albatross. But as former President George H.W. Bush told me almost two decades ago, “When you come in as the first Republican governor since Reconstruction, you’ve got to break a little china; you’ve got to call ’em as you see ‘em.”

Clements served as a metaphor for Texas in transition. From the boom and bust of the oil industry to the state’s political makeover, he personified the changes that occurred both economically and politically during his lifetime.

He began his career in the old Texas of Lyndon B. Johnson and the Democrats, in an economy based on oil, cattle and agriculture and a rural-dominated government. He made his personal fortune as a tough, oil-drilling contractor and evolved into a Republican, leading the state into the modern era of high technology, a diversified economy and corporate-style government management.

His imprint was found in the expertise he brought to state government, persuading prominent Texans to work in his administration, and his Republican “farm club.” His appointees became candidates and elected officials. He considered appointments to be his greatest power and responsibility and made 4,000 in his first four-year term.

It’s hard to imagine now — with Republicans owning all statewide elected office, a 19-12 majority in the Senate and a super-majority (101-49) in the Texas House — that Republicans were ever a “phone-booth” party.  But in Clements’ first legislative session, only 26 of 181 members were Republican: 22 in the House and four in the Senate. He had to deal as a minority party governor but, with the sheer force of his personality, he became the first “strong governor” since John Connally.

Clements brought the use of task forces, long range planning and other management techniques into state government. He sought to stop the growth of government and cut 25,000 from the state’s work force. But his personality always overshadowed his policies, and his outspokenness and arrogance cost him the 1982 election. He was viewed as having a confrontational personality, as too blunt, tactless and mean-spirited. But he also had to fight off a unified Democratic campaign that year of three Democrats: U.S. Sen. Lloyd Bentsen, Lt. Gov. Bill Hobby and his opponent, gubernatorial candidate Mark White.

Four years later, in 1986, a kinder, gentler Clements re-emerged. He won the GOP nomination in a three-way primary and then re-election in a rematch against White. Despite the difficulties of his second administration, including the SMU pay-for-play scandal that occurred when he was chairman of the SMU board of governors, his presence in office continued to build the Republican Party.

Today, it’s doubtful that he would be comfortable in or embraced by his party. He probably would not fit in with Tea Party activists. He was a fiscal conservative who was not interested in social issues. In 1987, he was willing to compromise when it found it necessary to solve fiscal problems, including signing a tax increase after the budget battles of 1987.

Karl Rove once told me, "To understand Bill Clements, you need to understand he was a self-made man. … He literally came up from the bootstraps and then gave of himself to public service and did so without sacrificing his essential nature. He was a do-it, get-it-done, focus-on-the-problem, solve-it, kind of guy.

Clements counseled Republican gubernatorial candidate George W. Bush in 1993, telling him to concentrate on East Texas, the remaining Yellow Dog Democrat stronghold. Bush switched 100,000 East Texas votes that had been Democratic in 1990 and carried the region by 53 percent.

Bush later credited Clements with his success in becoming the second Republican governor in Texas in the 20th century: “He broke the ice .… He showed Texas that a Republican could bring to the governor’s office a philosophy that was acceptable to most Texans. He began the change at the state level for conservative Democrats to vote Republican for governor. That’s a huge legacy."

Texas undoubtedly would have become Republican over the years. Clements made it happen sooner than it might have, and his success made Republicans stronger over a 30-year period. The solid foundation of the GOP will be, as Bush understood, his legacy — along with the remembrance of him as one of the most colorful and forceful politicians in state government since Sam Houston.

Carolyn Barta, a veteran Texas political writer who teaches journalism at Southern Methodist University, is the author of Bill Clements: Texian to His Toenails (Eakin Press).

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