A powerful governor clashes with the University of Texas at Austin. Its president is in the crosshairs. The Legislature is aghast at the meddling with the flagship state university. Soon the talk of impeachment is echoing through the halls of the Capitol.
This might sound like the controversy involving UT System Regent Wallace Hall, an appointee of Gov. Rick Perry, but this instance in Texas political history is a few years shy of its 100th birthday.
In 1917, Gov. Jim “Pa” Ferguson became the first person in Texas to be impeached. He submitted his resignation the day before he was scheduled to be formally convicted.
“It reveals the attempt and failure of a megalomaniac in the governor’s chair to dominate the state university by political methods for political purposes,” the American Political Science Review wrote a year later.
Almost a century later, the impeachment of Ferguson by the Texas House of Representatives presents both striking similarities and key differences to the ongoing Hall saga. Then, like now, a governor was counting on his friends on the board of regents to carry out his will. And once again, there is talk of impeachment in the Legislature.
But it is Hall — not his political patron, Perry — who would be targeted for possible impeachment. And this current flap is far from over.
If Hall is impeached, he would be the third person in Texas history to be in that situation. The second was state District Judge Olivero Carrillo in 1976, who was impeached for income tax fraud. Carrillo spent three years in a federal penitentiary.
Though Ferguson’s hatred for UT ran deep, he never fully explained his animus. During the events that led up to the final quarrel, the University of Texas Board of Regents had repeatedly refused to remove certain faculty members whom Ferguson found objectionable.
He had attempted to stack the board of regents with friends who would help fire these professors and staffers, and he had called for the resignation of the university’s president, Robert Vinson.
When his reasoning was questioned, he would respond, “I am governor of Texas. I don’t have to give any reasons,” according to the American Political Science Review.
Before his impeachment, Texas students paraded from the campus to the Capitol and held a protest rally, complete with the university band, right outside Ferguson’s office while he met with the regents. Ferguson was so enraged by the demonstrators that he got into a yelling match with one of the student protestors and had to be restrained from climbing out of his window to fight them, according to The Impeachment of Jim Ferguson, a 1983 book by Bruce Rutherford.
Ferguson was convinced that Vinson was behind the protest. He decided that the university president must resign, and when Vinson refused, Ferguson vetoed the university’s entire budget.
Ferguson then went on a tour of Texas, voicing his disdain for the university and what he called the “university crowd” in public speeches. He vilified everything from fraternities to the faculty to the student body. In his eyes, the university was made up of “corruptionists,” “draft dodgers,” “two-bit thieves” and “butterfly chasers,” according to a historical account compiled by what is now the Texas Exes. The account said Ferguson accused the student protesters of committing treason against him.
Soon after, the alumni group began taking out ads in newspapers calling for the governor’s impeachment. In the wake of the controversy, issues from Ferguson’s past campaign for governor in 1916 came back into the spotlight. He had been accused of misappropriating funds, but investigations failed to find anything that would warrant impeachment, and the probe seemed to be closed.
But in the midst of this personal war he had sparked with the flagship university in Austin, Ferguson appeared before a Travis County grand jury and was indicted on nine charges. Seven related to misapplication of public funds, one to embezzlement and one to the diversion of a special fund. He posted bond and wasted no time in announcing his candidacy for a third term as governor.
House Speaker Franklin Fuller called a special session to consider charges of impeachment against the governor. The legality of the speaker calling a session was questionable — the Texas Constitution says only the governor can call a special session — but the point became moot when Ferguson called his own special session to discuss the budget for the University of Texas. Instead, the House immediately turned its attention to 21 articles of impeachment.
The Senate, acting as a court of impeachment, spent three weeks considering the charges and convicted the governor of 10 of them. Five concerned the misapplication of public funds, three related to his quarrel with the university, one declared that he had failed properly to respect and enforce the banking laws of the state, and one charged that he had received $156,500 ($2.9 million in today’s dollars) from a source he refused to reveal.
The Senate removed Ferguson from office by a vote of 25-3. The vote made him ineligible to hold any office of honor, trust or profit in the state of Texas.
Ferguson declared that the Legislature was nothing more than a “kangaroo court," resigned a day before the official conviction, and was steadfast in his beliefs that the judgment didn’t apply to him, according to Rutherford.
After an unsuccessful campaign for president in 1920, Ferguson ran the gubernatorial campaign of his wife, Miriam “Ma” Ferguson, in 1924. He ended up back in the Governor’s Mansion for a third time when she became the first woman governor in Texas history.
Their campaign slogan: “Two governors for the price of one.”