Jim Mattox: Two-fisted AG
Jim Mattox, a two-fisted populist, relished fighting for the little guy. As Texas attorney general in the 1980s, he called himself "the people's lawyer." In Congress before that, and in the Texas House of Representatives before that, he never seemed to play it safe.
Mattox, 65, died in his sleep at his Dripping Springs home Wednesday night, Nov. 19.
Mattox had an unbroken string of political victories from 1972 until 1990, when he lost to Gov. Ann Richards in what is still considered one of the nastiest Democratic gubernatorial primaries in the last half century. Mattox lost two more statewide races after that.
A lot of people loved him, and a lot hated him. But in office and as a candidate, he was tough to ignore.
The Dallas native got a business degree from Baylor University and a law degree from Southern Methodist University.
After a stint as a prosecutor for the Dallas County district attorney's office and two years in private practice, a federal court in 1972 ordered that Texas House members should be elected from single-member House districts, rather than run county-wide by place. A district opened up in Mattox's East Dallas stomping grounds, and he beat popular freshman incumbent Sam Coats, who had been elected under the countywide system.
In the wake of the Sharpstown stock fraud and banking scandal that rocked state politics, Mattox joined the largest incoming freshman class in the House in almost a century.
Mattox helped pass laws to open up Texas government: Open meetings, open records, campaign finance reform, lobby registration and financial disclosure.
Mattox said he considered politics "a contact sport," and quickly and eagerly accepted a reputation as a political "junkyard dog." He viewed his sometimes dirty tactics as necessary to help him win, so he could do good things.
In 1976, 5th Congressional District incumbent Alan Steelman, a Republican, ran for the U.S. Senate held by Democratic incumbent Lloyd Bentsen. (Steelman lost.)
In the 5th District Democratic primary, Mattox handily beat Wes Wise, a former TV sportscaster who had become Dallas' mayor.
Mattox beat Republican Nancy Judy with 54 percent in the fall, and became the only freshman appointed to the House Budget Committee.
He angered House Speaker Tip O'Neill by showing up on the House floor in shirtsleeves and no tie or jacket. Mattox said he was honoring an energy crisis order to raise building thermostats to 78 degrees. O'Neill ordered him to go put on a tie.
In 1978 and again in 1980, Mattox narrowly beat Republican Tom Pauken, whom he referred to as a "young Nazi."
In congressional redistricting in 1981, Republican Gov. Bill Clements told legislators he'd veto any bill that did not give Dallas a black congressional district. But putting the black population from Mattox's district with that in white Democrat Martin Frost's district made it a minority district, and Mattox's a Republican district.
So, Mattox ran for attorney general. A federal court tweaked the districts back roughly to their original form, but Mattox was far down the road on his statewide campaign. So he kept on, leaving it to state Rep. John Bryant to run for Congress.
Mattox narrowly won a bitter Democratic runoff over former state Rep. and U.S. Attorney John Hannah, after blasting Hannah's legal credentials.
Democrats swept the statewide races in the 1982 general election, including several new faces like State Treasurer Ann Richards. Mattox became one of the state's more aggressive attorneys general, infuriating business interests by winning judgments of $2.5 billion for the state.
Mattox was indicted in 1983 for commercial bribery, growing from threats he made to a Houston law firm trying to question his sister Janice over $125,000 that found its way from a bank into his campaign fund. Mattox was acquitted in 1985.
Mattox was re-elected in 1986, and almost immediately began running for governor. In 1990, he, Richards, and former Gov. Mark White ran in the Democratic primary.
White got enough votes to force Mattox and Richards into a runoff. But Mattox's charges that Richards had used cocaine seemed to backfire. She won the runoff, and went on to nose out Republican Clayton Williams Jr.
Mattox ran for the Senate nomination in 1994, but lost the primary to Dallas investor Richard Fisher. In 1998, he was the Democratic nominee for attorney general, but lost to Republican Supreme Court Justice John Cornyn.
Mattox said after losing the governor's race that had he known he'd lose, he'd have tried to stay as attorney general - which he described as the most rewarding job he ever had.