As Hurricane Harvey washed onto the Texas shore last month, flooding streets and toppling buildings, John Sharp stayed up late into the night working the phones.
The chancellor of the Texas A&M University System had no official role to play at that moment. But in his usual restless manner, he wanted to check on his old friends and his childhood home in Victoria County.
The friends were safe, and the woman who lives in his old house told him it survived even though "the wind went right through it,” Sharp recalled.
But Harvey will likely continue to keep him up late in the coming months and years.
Last week, Republican Gov. Greg Abbott named Sharp the leader of his newly-formed Commission to Rebuild Texas, giving Sharp a key role in the state’s efforts to rebuild a region close to his heart. Sharp will pile that unpaid job on top of his current position overseeing the university system that includes his beloved alma mater in College Station.
Those two jobs will make him one of the busiest and highest-profile non-elected officials in Texas over the rest of this decade. That might seem surprising given that he’s a longtime Democrat in one of the most conservative states in the nation. But the former legislator, railroad commissioner and state comptroller has emerged as the Democrat that Texas Republicans seem to love.
His folksy but hard-charging style has earned him a reputation as an astute and effective shepherd of government bureaucracy. Members of both parties say he’ll need those skills over the long-term recovery process.
“In looking for someone to lead this effort, I needed someone with a very unique skill set,” Abbott said. “Someone who knows how to work with local officials, state officials and federal officials. Someone who has a natural, intuitive feel for the people of these communities. Someone who has mastered the complexity of budget issues at state and federal levels. Someone with a comprehensive understanding of our state agencies and the resources that come to bear.
“I found all those attributes in one person: John Sharp.”
Once a rising star
Sharp’s continued standing in the state after his party's fall from power probably wasn’t hurt by the fact that he has a habit of living near future Texas governors. While attending A&M, from which he graduated in 1972, he lived on the same dorm floor as Rick Perry. They became fast friends, scheming practical jokes together and helping each other get elected to student leadership positions — Sharp was student body president; Perry was a yell leader, an esteemed cheerleader-like position that leads students in organized chants during football games.
After graduation, Sharp worked for the Legislative Budget Board and quickly became a rising star in Texas politics — which was then dominated by Democrats. He was elected to represent Victoria in the Texas House in 1978, moved on to the Senate four years later, then won a statewide race for a spot on the Railroad Commission four years after that.
He made the biggest name for himself after being elected comptroller in 1990. Sharp initiated regular performance reviews of state agencies, designed to cut costs and streamline operations. Sharp later claimed that the reviews saved $8.5 billion and helped the state stave off the need for an income tax. Vice President Al Gore later used the strategy as a model for a similar initiative in the federal government.
But his political rise ended there. In 1992, when President Bill Clinton appointed Texas’ U.S. Senator Lloyd Bentsen as treasury secretary, Sharp was a favorite to be named Bentsen’s replacement. The job went to Bob Krueger instead.
In the meantime, the political tides turned in Texas, and Democrats’ electoral prospects faded. In 1998, Sharp ran a fierce campaign for lieutenant governor against his old friend Perry, but lost the vote 50 to 48 percent. Two years later, Gov. George W. Bush was elected president, and Perry rose to the top elected office in the state.
After what he calls his “involuntary retirement from elected office,” Sharp moved to the private sector, working as a consultant in Austin and living in a house across the street from Abbott, who was attorney general at the time.
But even as Republicans tightened their hold on state politics, Sharp remained prominent. In 2005, Perry named him to chair the Texas Tax Reform Commission, which was tasked with cutting property taxes while finding a sound way to fund public schools. The commission’s work led to major property tax cuts, but also to the creation of a new tax on businesses that turned out to be unpopular both because of its complexity and because it didn’t bring in as much money as its creators predicted.
Abbott cited all Sharp's previous roles as the reason he was right for the Commission to Rebuild Texas job.
“He is known for his ability to cut through red tape,” Abbott said.
Not your usual chancellor
At A&M, Sharp rarely acts like an academic. When he arrived in College Station in 2011, many on campus were skeptical. Some faculty and staff were leery of his relationship with Perry, who appointed all of the regents who voted to hire Sharp. Some were put off by his unconventional style.
Sharp is aggressive and not enamored with the belabored pace at which decisions get made in higher education. He often refers to people by their last names, and it isn’t unheard of for him tell an off-color joke during a meeting.
While he stays closely attuned to the wants and needs of powerful Texans, he also doesn’t shy from a public fight — and can sometimes have a short fuse. Last year, an article hinting at financial problems at A&M written by Chip Brown, a reporter for a University of Texas at Austin sports fan website, prompted Sharp’s office to release a statement calling the story a “fairy tale.” The statement ended with the sentence, “we hereby nominate “Cowchip” Brown for sleaziest reporter in Texas, with full confidence he will win hands down.”
Sharp has also aggressively fought Texas Tech University’s plans to open a new veterinary school in Amarillo — which would end the A&M veterinary school's status as the only one in Texas.
But even his skeptics admit that Sharp has had a transformative impact on the A&M System. He lured the president of the University of Washington to head A&M’s flagship school in College Station and attracted the former president of Brown University to temporarily oversee Prairie View A&M. He has massively expanded engineering enrollment and spearheaded a $485 million renovation of A&M’s football stadium. And in his trademark search for efficiency, he outsourced janitorial and food service work, saving A&M tens of millions of dollars.
“At the A&M System, I have never seen anything like it,” said Phil Adams, who became an A&M System regent in 2001. “He gets things done. He executes, he moves the ball down the field. He is a tremendous leader and a tremendous administrator.”
Sharp's also overflowing with school spirit. For the 2013 holiday season, he decorated his official chancellor’s residence with more than 40,000 lights flashing in sync with a rotation of six Christmas carols and Aggie marching band staples. This month, at the request of Sharp, the Texas Department of Transportation installed a series of rumble strips on a road adjacent to the A&M campus that sound out the first few notes of A&M’s fight song when cars drive over them.
At A&M, Sharp is known to work late into the night — he reportedly came up with the rumble strip idea at 2 a.m. But he insists that his new role in hurricane relief won’t get in the way of his paid job.
“When Abbott told me to do this — it wasn’t a request, by the way — I said, ‘Do I get to keep my job?’” Sharp said.
“He said, ‘Yeah, you probably only work 10 to 12 hours per day at that job. There’s 24 hours in a day. You have another 10 or 12 left.’”
Sharp said he’ll lean heavily on A&M System staff to help with the recovery. Many of his top aides have accompanied him to meetings along the coast, and he plans to use A&M AgriLife Extension Service agents assigned to every county in the state to set up a network of people on the ground in affected areas.
Last weekend, he joined Abbott on a listening tour through affected regions and gained his first hints about the scope of the task at hand. He visited areas that were decimated by Harvey’s winds and spoke with officials from Houston, where thousands of homes were flooded.
The federal government and the Texas General Land Office will be in charge of helping repair much of the damaged housing from the storm and flood, with Sharp’s commission helping in any way it can. Sharp said his focus will be on infrastructure — repairing sewer systems, school buildings and the Refugio County Courthouse, which was practically destroyed in the storm.
He said he’ll work with Houston and Harris County, but knows that those areas have big, experienced staffs that know how to navigate the challenges they face. A lot of his time will be spent with the smaller cities and counties that don’t have the resources to respond to the disaster they have experienced.
Officials say they have already seen how he will work. State Sen. Paul Bettencourt, R-Houston, who represents many of the most damaged areas in the state, said Sharp shared his cell phone number with numerous people in the region, saying they could call at any time. The only rule: They can’t call to ask about A&M’s struggling football team.
Bettencourt took advantage recently to pass along an offer by a local church to set up a Federal Emergency Management Agency office on its grounds.
“It wasn’t even five minutes before he responded,” Bettencourt said. “That is one of John’s great strengths.”
Bettencourt said he has no worries about whether Sharp can handle the job while also being chancellor.
“With John, I always worry that he’s going to be bored,” Bettencourt said. “Now I know that he won’t.”
Disclosure: Texas A&M University, Prairie View A&M University, The University of Texas at Austin, Texas Tech University, and the Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service have been financial supporters of The Texas Tribune. A complete list of Tribune donors and sponsors is available here.