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The Power of the Texas Governor

The Power of the Texas Governor
Connally to Bush
Foreword by William P. Hobby, Jr.

A revealing look at the personal factors that have allowed many Texas governors to wield significant political power despite holding an office with limited authority.

March 2009
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184 pages | 6 x 9 | 20 b&w photos |

George W. Bush called it "the best job in the world," yet many would argue that the Texas governorship is a weak office. Given few enumerated powers by the Texas Constitution, the governor must build a successful relationship with the state legislature—sometimes led by a powerful lieutenant governor or speaker of the opposing party—to advance his or her policy agenda. Yet despite the limitations on the office and the power of the legislative branch, many governors have had a significant impact on major aspects of Texas's public life—government, economic development, education, and insurance reform among them. How do Texas governors gain the power to govern effectively?

The Power of the Texas Governor takes a fresh look at the state's chief executives, from John Connally to George W. Bush, to discover how various governors have overcome the institutional limitations of the office. Delving into the governors' election campaigns and successes and failures in office, Brian McCall makes a convincing case that the strength of a governor's personality—in particular, his or her highly developed social skills—can translate into real political power. He shows, for example, how governors such as Ann Richards and George W. Bush forged personal relationships with individual legislators to achieve their policy goals. Filled with revealing insights and anecdotes from key players in each administration, The Power of the Texas Governor offers new perspectives on leadership and valuable lessons on the use of power.

  • Foreword
  • Acknowledgments
  • Chapter 1: Governance
  • Chapter 2: John Connally
  • Chapter 3: Preston Smith
  • Chapter 4: Dolph Briscoe
  • Chapter 5: William P. Clements
  • Chapter 6: Mark White
  • Chapter 7: William P. Clements's Second Term
  • Chapter 8: Ann Richards
  • Chapter 9: George W. Bush
  • Chapter 10: Conclusion
  • Notes
  • Bibliography
  • Index

Brian Mccall is Chancellor of the Texas State University System. He served in the Texas House of Representatives from 1991 to 2010, representing District 66 in Plano. McCall has been recognized nationally for his efforts in the field of biotechnology, and he wrote and passed one of the largest tax cut bills in the nation. He holds a Ph.D. from the University of Texas at Dallas.


In the past five centuries, under several forms of government, Texas has been governed by eighty-nine governors, a presidial captain, and four presidents. Ninety-four men and two women have directed the government of Texas under six flags—as a province, a republic, and a state. This is an examination of politics and the use of power in the modern governorship of the last four decades: the administrations of Governor John Connally through Governor George W. Bush.

When John Connally became governor, Texas had a population of fewer than ten million people. When George W. Bush assumed the governorship, there were approximately nineteen million Texans. Connally's first legislative appropriation was less than three billion dollars, while Bush's first state budget exceeded seventy-eight billion dollars. To be sure, the state changed dramatically in many ways during that time, from a rural, agricultural, and oil-based economy to a diverse, high-technology economy driven more by powerful brains than brawny backs. Along with those changes came adaptations in governance.

It is widely reported that the governorship of Texas is by design a weak office. However, the strength of an individual governor's personality can overcome many of the limitations imposed on the office. Capital observer Paul Burka writes: "The fundamentals of governing are candor, competence, loyalty, and leadership. This is true during booms and busts, for Republicans and Democrats, in times of ideological fervor and in times of pragmatism. Personality transcends policy."

There is no better laboratory for studying human behavior than the Texas Capitol. Because gubernatorial powers in Texas are not specifically enumerated, observing the use of those powers can be instructive. A strong governor has a strong will and understands how to mobilize the wills of others effectively.

Texas generally elects colorful people to the post. Writing on leadership, Richard Nixon observes that to be effective, leaders must touch people emotionally: "The politician, no less than the actor or the filmmaker, knows that to bore his audience is to lose his audience. Thus, few great political leaders are dull. They cannot afford to be. Political leadership has to appeal to the head, but it must also appeal to the heart." Texans vote with both head and heart. Challengers who have new messages can defeat popular governors—hence Bush's victory over Ann Richards. Smart, successful candidates with agendas perfectly in line with the desires of the majority of voters, but who fail to make an emotional connection with voters, lose to more empathetic challengers whose views are less familiar—hence Richards's defeat of Clayton Williams. In fact, Williams failed so signally to connect with the voting public, despite his solid campaign, that it was said he would "win the governorship—unless he goes door-to-door!"

The most powerful person in any relationship is the most flexible one. This is particularly true in gubernatorial leadership. Effective leaders must weigh the need to achieve important goals against the necessity of resorting to unpalatable ways of achieving them. Winston Churchill once remarked of a nineteenth-century leader who failed to reach his potential that "he would not stoop; he did not conquer."

Humility, one could argue, is the mother's milk of politics. It could also be said that whom God wishes to strike down, God first gives political success. Hard-fought legislative victories often come at a governor's moment of greatest peril. Legislators are pressed, and promises are made during long periods of give-and-take. Napoleon said, "The greatest dangers occur at the time of victory." Members of the legislative branch enjoy their power and are not reluctant to exercise it to the detriment of a governor whom they believe to be ungrateful or haughty. A governor must pay attention to all legislators. An appointee of what one senator felt to be an aloof John Connally lost Senate confirmation by one vote. The senator who cast the deciding vote explained that he did so "just to let the governor know I exist."

Just as important as knowing what to do as governor is to know what not to do. A governor must have the will to stay out of other people's fights and to avoid getting dragged into strategically unimportant battles. The governor must judge struggles by what they will yield and what they will cost. Nietzsche wrote: "The value of a thing sometimes lies not in what one attains with it, but in what one pays for it—what it costs us." The governor must ask not only, "Can I attain the goal?" but also, even of a worthy goal, "At what price?"

Mary Beth Rogers, chief of staff to Governor Ann Richards, says that an effective governor focuses on two or three key goals and commits all resources to them instead of getting spread too thin. At the beginning of Richards's governorship, this approach worked. As Rogers notes, "I feel really good about our first few months in office because we stuck to our plan, and things just rolled on through. We knew what we were supposed to do, and we all did it. I think that's important." However, establishing momentum and maintaining it are different issues. As Rogers puts it, "I think any leader over time wears down, and the staff in particular wears down. You need to be rejuvenated, reenergized, and I think that is difficult to do." Part of the problem, especially for a governor who loses focus, is the limits on the governor's powers: "When you couldn't dominate the legislature, you were limited in your ability to get anything done. That became a problem. It's a structural flaw in Texas government."

However, a resourceful governor can overcome these flaws. When asked about the built-in limitation in gubernatorial authority in Texas, Governor Mark White quoted Allan Shivers, whom White called "one of my favorites." As White explained, Shivers said, "when asked about the weak governorship in Texas, 'I never thought it was weak. I had all the power I needed.'" Writing retrospectively about the powers of the governor after seven and a half years in office, Shivers remarked:

No special session of the Legislature will be called except by him. No convict will be pardoned or paroled unless he approves. No man or woman will be appointed to a state board, no vacancies in office filled, and no special elections called except at his direction. He cannot be forced to act, even by the courts, as the Texas Constitution exempts him from mandamus and quo warranto proceedings. Martial law will not be declared unless he declares it. The militia will not be called out unless he calls it. Only he can veto legislative acts, sign proclamations, and permit fugitives to be extradited. These are ordinary, almost routine, prerogatives of the governor.

Through the traditional State of the State address given at the beginning of each regular legislative session, the governor has an opportunity to outline legislative priorities and to persuade legislators and others of their importance. This bully pulpit gives the governor an excellent opportunity to cause the various stakeholders to focus on his initiatives. From there, effective governors mobilize interest groups, select floor sponsors, meet with key legislators to elicit support, work with business and public policy leaders, and meet with editorial boards and party leaders.

If a governor's program is not fulfilled to the governor's satisfaction during a regular legislative session, the governor can call and set the agendas for an unlimited number of thirty-day special sessions concerned only with the governor's specific requests.

Because Texas legislators serve part-time in a job that pays less than the cost to serve, most maintain full-time careers in addition to holding political office. Therefore, often the mere threat by a governor to call a special session can advance the governor's cause or add to a bill's vote tally. Once a special session begins, a governor can add items to the legislative agenda—a useful bargaining chip, since legislators' pet bills can be included in exchange for their support of the governor's program.

The governor of Texas can veto any piece of legislation for any reason—or without a reason—and has the power of the line-item veto for specific appropriations in the state budget. In short, the governor can eliminate spending on certain items without vetoing an entire appropriations bill. Likewise, the governor can strike spending for various things deemed important by the legislature without giving an explanation; the governor can do this for political reasons. However, the governor may not reduce the spending in any budget item; rather, the governor must strike out the entire budget line or let it stand. Skilled legislators can design budget lines to make it politically difficult for the governor to veto the item. The threat of a veto can prompt lawmakers to modify their bills to be more palatable to the governor, or even to cause lawmakers to "pull them down."

The governor can grant clemency to convicted criminals. Typically, the governor acts on the advice of the eighteen-member governor-appointed Pardon and Parole Board. On the recommendation of the board, the governor can grant a criminal a full pardon or a conditional pardon, or can commute a death sentence to a sentence of life in prison.

On his own, a governor can grant a thirty-day stay of execution in a capital case. Things in Texas were not always so formal. Indeed, this layer of protection was set to buffer governors' actions. Governor James "Pa" Ferguson was quick to pardon, and a convict once escaped from the prison in Huntsville so that he could call Ferguson and ask for a pardon. Ferguson lectured the man about the wrongness of having escaped. Nevertheless, the governor promised to pardon the man eventually, provided that he return to prison on his own and serve the remainder of his sentence. The governor "then wrote a 'To Whom it May Concern' letter identifying the man and saying that he was returning to prison. The man, unaccompanied, returned as promised, and when he had completed his sentence, he received a pardon, sent via telegram to him at Huntsville." The restriction limiting the governor's discretionary power to a thirty-day stay of execution reflects a more modern sensibility.

Perhaps the most significant executive power is the ability to appoint individuals to governmental positions. Every governor has the opportunity to appoint approximately two thousand individuals to boards and commissions and to fill vacancies in nonlegislative offices. Nevertheless, this power is limited by the fact that all of the governor's appointments must by ratified by a two-thirds vote of the Senate—as opposed to the simple-majority approval of U.S. presidential appointments. Because most board and commission members serve overlapping terms, usually for six years, a governor is able to fill about one-third of all positions every two years.

The Texas Constitution names the governor as "commander-in-chief of the military force of the State, except when they are called into actual service of the United States." As such, the governor can mobilize the Texas National Guard during riots or natural disasters to safeguard citizens' lives, property, and security.

Texas governors who enjoyed the most success had high aims, ones that they articulated clearly, as well as patience in deliberation, a sense of balance, firmness, ability, and principle. They rose to the occasion, and, often, they created those occasions. They dealt effectively with crises and emergencies. They hired and appointed reliable, capable people. They gave to the office more than they took from it. They exhibited courage and charm. They had a sense of history. They had an innate sense of knowing which battles were worthy of the fight and which were not. They understood that principles are eternal. Governors fail when they abandon these essential qualities of statesmanship. The worst not only fail to "honor the principles of statesmanship, but also they fail to recognize them, having failed to learn them, having failed to want to learn them."

Formal examinations of the politics of leadership offer rich—and often contradictory—theories of the impact of the individual on the gubernatorial office. Perhaps this is because individual governors alter the character of gubernatorial power and uniquely mark it. In his classic examination of the politics of presidential leadership, Richard Neustadt looked at the human qualities that a president brings to the job, namely: a sense of purpose, a feel for power, and a source of confidence. These and the other personal characteristics mentioned above are particularly worth examining when studying leadership among Texas governors. In areas where formal powers are shared, governors must rely upon informal powers in order to succeed.


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