Curmudgeon Clements left strong legacy
His passing provoked memories of the hard-nosed, do-it-my-way kind of guy he was.
To say William P. Clements, Jr., was “crusty” sells him way, way short. He founded the offshore oil drilling giant SEDCO, and after becoming a multimillionaire, became deputy secretary of defense under presidents Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford.
He wanted to run anything in which he was involved. As the chief operating officer of the Pentagon, he brought his no-nonsense reputation from the private sector to making the military trains and planes run on time, and on budget.
After the Watergate scandal brought down Nixon and Ford lost to Democrat Jimmy Carter in 1976, Clements decided it was time to have chief executives who ran governments more like a business – like him. He decided to run for governor.
His Republican primary opponent was former Dallas state Rep. Ray Hutchison, who quit as state GOP chairman to run.
Clements said previous Republican candidates for governor hadn’t raised enough money to go the distance against the entrenched Democrats. Clements promised he’d put in his own money, so he wouldn’t “run out of gas in the fourth quarter.”
Clements overwhelmed Hutchison, getting 75 percent. The same day, conservative Democratic Gov. Dolph Briscoe was beaten for re-nomination by more moderate Atty. Gen. John L. Hill.
In one-party Democratic Texas, Hill presumed winning the general election was a foregone conclusion. He neglected courting Briscoe’s supporters.
Clements didn’t. And he promised to hang the unpopular Carter around Hill’s neck “like a dead chicken.”
At a joint appearance at a dinner in the Panhandle, Clements lobbed a rubber chicken at Hill. It fell short -- in the plate of another head-table guest.
No problem. Clements poured on TV ads, direct mail and phone banks, and won by less than one percent – a margin of 16,909 votes out of more than 2.3 million cast.
As governor, Clements considered himself the chief executive officer, like he could fire the members of the House and Senate. He learned he couldn’t. But he flexed his muscles by vetoing 51 bills and $252 million from the legislature’s budget.
Clements was blunt with people, including reporters. He did not suffer fools gladly, and thought there were plenty in the capitol. And his appointments to boards and commissions, and judgeships, was a huge boost to Republican growth in Texas politics.
He did respect Democratic Comptroller Bob Bullock, who was equally no-nonsense. After Bullock returned from treatment for alcoholism in 1981 – he called it “drunk school” – one of the first calls he got was from Clements.
But a recession in 1981-82, Clements’ outspokenness and the first-ever Democratic Coordinated Campaign in Texas caught up with him in 1982.
The Democrats had U.S. Sen. Lloyd Bentsen at the top of the ballot. He and Lt. Gov. Bill Hobby had watched Republican gains elsewhere. They determined a year in advance that they didn’t want to be on that casualty list.
They hatched the coordinated campaign in 1981, before most Democratic nominees for other offices were even known. The next spring, the Democratic primary winner for governor was then-Atty. Gen. Mark White.
Bentsen’s top political sidekick Jack Martin, coordinating with Houston consultant Dan McClung, drew up a plan on a bar napkin, that included a get-out-the-vote campaign. A year later, it brought half a million more Democrats to the polls than Republicans had anticipated.
Bentsen was easily re-elected, and White unseated Clements, 53 to 46 percent. He went home to Dallas.
But White was wounded by the bottom falling out of oil prices in the mid-1980s. That, and a school reform bill that included teacher competency testing and no-pass no play for extracurricular activities like football, made White a pariah to many Texas teachers and coaches.
Clements decided to revenge his loss to White. He wound up beating White in 1986 as handily as White had beaten him four years earlier.
In 1987, the first year of Clements’ second four-year term, the budget shortfalls White had faced came to roost on Clements. He said he’d veto any tax increase over $2.9 billion.
But Hobby and House Speaker Gib Lewis went to the governor’s mansion and pleaded with Clements to sign off on a budget with a $5.7 billion increase in taxes – the largest ever to that point in Texas.
Hobby said he and Lewis left Clements not knowing what he would do. But Clements apparently became convinced the future of Texas, and particularly education, was too important to stint on spending, and signed the bill.
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