Gov. Mark White, the last hurrah of the Texas Democratic Party’s conservative wing, delayed the full emergence of the Republican Party of Texas, diversified the state’s boom-and-bust oil economy and championed public education reforms that helped end his political career.
The former governor, who fought kidney cancer for years, died Saturday in Houston shortly after waking up and feeling uncomfortable, according to his wife, Linda Gale White, and his son Andrew White. He was 77.
White was governor from 1983 until 1987. The education policies approved during his single term included pay raises and competency tests for teachers, class size limits for elementary schools and the state’s high school basic skills graduation test.
White also pushed through a $4 billion tax increase to help pay for schools and highways. The no-pass, no-play legislation was an unpopular move that had to survive a challenge at the state Supreme Court.
“He cared about Texas deeply,” his son said. “He realized that this wasn’t about getting re-elected. This wasn’t about being popular. This was about making Texas a better place.”
Gov. Greg Abbott on Saturday ordered flags statewide be lowered to half-staff in White’s honor. Abbott recalled in a statement his friendship with the former governor, dating back to when Abbott was a young lawyer in Houston and the two shared an elevator bank.
A protege of Gov. Dolph Briscoe, White often defied the odds, first with his 1978 upset victory as attorney general and then his 1982 defeat of Bill Clements, the state’s first Republican governor in modern times. His rivalry with Clements, who defeated White in a 1986 rematch, dominated the state’s political landscape during the 1980s.
“He was on his game that decade,” said Pike Powers, White’s former chief of staff.
By 1990, though, White could only finish third in a Democratic primary race for governor, ending his political career. Not only had the Texas Democratic Party shifted further left, the last of the conservative Democrats had become Republicans and White was scarred by old political battles.
“I think he had a brighter political picture than the cards let him play,” Powers said.
Dwayne Holman, White’s campaign manager, agreed.
“You can overstay your time in politics,” Holman lamented. “I had advised him not to run, but he had a sense of unfinished business.”
Born in Henderson in East Texas, White grew up in Houston, the son of a salesman and a first-grade teacher. He graduated from Lamar High School, which the city’s fortunate sons and daughters attended.
“I was the poorest kid in the richest school in town,” White once said.
Working his way through college, White graduated from Baylor University with degrees in business and law. After a brief stint as a young lawyer at the attorney general’s office, White practiced corporate law in Houston, quickly becoming a partner.
A senior partner at White’s firm, Joe Reynolds, was the personal lawyer of Briscoe, a wealthy Uvalde rancher who became governor in 1973. After Reynolds introduced the two men, White worked on Briscoe’s campaign. Upon his election, Briscoe appointed White, then 32, as one of the state’s youngest secretaries of state.
As the state’s chief elections officer, White was able to promote himself to the public as he modernized the state’s voter registration system. Also, White often filled in for Briscoe at political functions, allowing him to build a network of supporters in the state’s courthouses.
“We didn’t go into a county without the first stop being the courthouse,” said Austin lawyer Shannon Ratliff, who was a member of White’s inner circle. “I think he’s the last politician who spent time courting them.”
White’s first campaign
White was a young man in a hurry. In 1978, he stunned friend and foe alike by running for attorney general.
White faced the popular Price Daniel Jr., who was a speaker of the Texas House from the Democratic Party’s liberal wing and the son of a former governor. Republican James Baker, the wealthy Houston lawyer who later became a fixture in Reagan and Bush presidencies, waited in the wings to challenge the eventual Democratic Party nominee.
Ratliff had the job of raising money for White’s campaign.
“Who is this green kid from Houston?” Ratliff recalled would-be donors asking.
Daniel was so confident that he didn’t spend money on TV advertising, saving money for a fall campaign against Baker.
Holman said that White was personable, bright and hard-working, but he had a lot to learn.
He recalled White’s first attempt at a TV commercial in which he was to give his campaign spiel while cutting a strip of red tape. It took 14 hours to finish, Holman said.
“You had to talk and cut the tape at the same time,” Holman said. “He missed the tape a lot.”
White became so adept with television, however, that his critics later branded him “Media Mark.”
In the race for attorney general, White famously was filmed slamming a jailhouse door, promising to be tough on crime, although the state’s top lawyer had next to nothing to do with criminal law at the time.
White shocked the Texas political world by winning the race.
His mentor, Briscoe, was not so lucky. He was upset in the Democratic primary by Attorney General John Hill who, in turn, lost that fall to Clements, a wealthy Dallas oil-drilling executive.
For the first time in a century, Texas had a Republican governor.
By default, White, on his first day as an upstart attorney general, was being touted as the Democratic Party’s best hope to make Clements a one-term governor.
It put the two men on a collision course.
White versus Clements
Clements was the state’s chief executive and White was the state’s lawyer during a time when Texas was involved in several high-profile lawsuits, particularly one over prison conditions.
The two men’s public swipes at one another became legendary, but Powers, who was a lawyer working on the prison case and worked with both men, said things were different away from the public eye.
“They were always very cordial with one another in the meetings,” Powers said. “The minute they’d hit the door, they’d be at each other’s throats in front of the media.”
White enjoyed politics more than running the attorney general’s office. Inevitably, White challenged Clements in 1982.
Once again, White was considered a long shot. He had to survive a contested Democratic primary and runoff just to get to Clements.
The Dallas Republican, who outspent White 2-to-1, went to bed on election night assured by his pollster that he would win. He woke up a lame duck.
The credit for White’s upset largely went to U.S. Sen. Lloyd Bentsen and Lt. Gov. Bill Hobby, who financed a massive Democratic turnout effort that propelled a generation of Democrats, including Ann Richards, Jim Mattox, Jim Hightower and Garry Mauro, into higher office.
Ratliff said White didn’t get credit for his contribution to the 1982 electoral sweep.
“If you went into the black precincts and in the rural areas, Mark White did better than Bentsen and Hobby,” he said.
Although he came out of the Democratic Party’s conservative wing, White moderated his views over the years.
Early in his career, White had opposed the extension of the federal Voting Rights Act and the public education of the children of unauthorized immigrants.
“Then I got a hold of him,” Holman said. “White became a better Democrat as time went by.”
As a gubernatorial candidate, White campaigned against big utilities and escalating electric rates. He called for double-digit pay raises for teachers while insisting there was no need for a tax increase.
Skeptics questioned White at every turn.
“Is Mark White born-again populist or just a ‘gimmick governor’?” read one headline.
White’s stature, however, was growing on the national scene.
He frequently criticized President Ronald Reagan as speculation grew that he might be on the 1984 Democratic national ticket as a vice presidential candidate.
At National Governors Association meetings, White was watched as closely as his peers: Arkansas’ Bill Clinton, Massachusetts’ Michael Dukakis and Arizona’s Bruce Babbitt.
White’s biggest success during his first year in the governor’s office — and perhaps his most lasting legacy — was the successful recruitment of a major research conglomerate to Austin.
White put Powers in charge of trying to win the national recruitment battle for Microelectronics and Computer Technology Corp.
“Mark White was the guy who put the stake in the ground and said, ‘We’ve got to diversify this economy,’” Powers said.
The recruitment of MCC foreshadowed the emergence of Texas — and particularly Austin — as a high-tech center. It also schooled Powers in how to recruit high-tech industries, a talent he would employ later as an Austin civic leader.
At the time, George Christian — considered one of the wise old men of Texas politics because he had worked with President Lyndon B. Johnson and two governors — predicted that MCC could become White’s most important achievement.
Neal Spelce, a longtime local TV anchorman and former chair of the Austin Chamber of Commerce, was on a team of stakeholders that White convened to bring MCC to Austin.
“As far as Austin is concerned, it owes a major debt of gratitude to Gov. White for his leadership in beginning and carrying through the successful effort to trigger the high-tech revolution in the city,” Spelce said.
But White still had to rebound from his poor showing during the 1983 legislative session.
He struck a deal with legislative leaders to salvage a pay raise for teachers. White appointed Dallas businessman Ross Perot to lead a select committee to suggest sweeping reforms of the public schools.
“We thought we needed a high-profile businessman because of the need for a tax increase,” Holman said of Perot’s choice.
It worked, but at a price to White’s political capital.
During a 1984 special session, the Legislature approved a pay raise for teachers, funneled more money to property-poor school districts and enacted other reforms, such as smaller class sizes.
The cost was a $4.6 billion tax increase and a greater burden on local property taxpayers.
White also had to accept the so-called no-pass, no-play provision that benched failing students in sports and other activities and a requirement that all teachers take a basic skills test.
Those last two provisions hurt White with coaches and teachers. And Clements exploited it in his 1986 rematch.
“It beat us,” Holman said. “We should at least take some of the credit.”