Faced with what is probably the biggest natural disaster in the state’s history, Gov. Greg Abbott turned Thursday to Texas A&M System Chancellor John Sharp, a savvy, no-nonsense politician with a track record of getting things done, to coordinate the rebuilding of communities devastated by Hurricane Harvey.
“I have a simple charge for Commissioner Sharp,” Abbott said in naming the 67-year-old former state comptroller to lead the newly created Governor’s Commission to Rebuild Texas, “and that is to rebuild Texas ahead of schedule, underbudget and with a friendly smile.”
“I know the charms and challenges of growing up along the Gulf Coast,” Sharp, who grew up in Placedo, a small community about 15 miles from Victoria, said as he sat beside the governor at a Capitol press conference. Behind them stood an array of state department heads who were embarking with Abbott and Sharp on a three-day mission to meet with local officials from areas damaged by Harvey’s wind and record rainfall.
Sharp, a Democrat, served in the state House and Senate representing coastal districts before serving four years on the Texas Railroad Commission and eight years as state comptroller, where he gained a national reputation for thorough and exacting audits of state agencies. He ran and lost twice for lieutenant governor, the first time, in 1998, losing by 2 points to Rick Perry, a former Aggie classmate, and the second time, in 2002, by just under 6 points to David Dewhurst.
“He knows how to cut through red tape. What he has done at A&M is amazing. He’s the best chancellor in history,’” said Garry Mauro, who was a year ahead of Sharp at A&M and a former Texas land commissioner.
“He knows where all the bodies are buried. He knows all the buttons that need to be pushed,” said Mauro, who is also a Democrat. “He’ll do a wonderful job. I can’t think of anyone better or anyone who would be more willing to hold people ‘s feet to the fire and get the best price for the state of Texas.”
“Brilliant choice,” said longtime Austin lobbyist Bill Miller of Sharp. “He knows the wheels of government and keenly understands politics. You need both to succeed in his new role.”
Abbott has estimated that the rebuilding effort will require between $150 to $180 billion in federal money and it will be up to Sharp to match the dollars Texas receives to local needs to maximum effect.
Abbott’s pick is not so much bipartisan, as nonpartisan or post-partisan
“Sharp has really cultivated an image of competence,” said Southern Methodist University political scientist Cal Jillson, who called Sharp a deft pick by Abbott.
Abbott said he needed someone intimately familiar with government at all levels, with the needs of coastal communities, the intricacies of state finance and budgets, and the workings of the state’s energy industry.
“I found all of those attributes in a single person,” he said. “John Sharp.”
Abbott, Sharp, the heads of key Texas departments and regional directors for the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency were all traveling together Thursday, Friday and Saturday to five regional meetings, where they will visit with county judges, mayors and other local officials from affected communities to get their input and offer their assistance.
The first two meetings were Thursday in Corpus Christi and Richmond. The next two will be in Houston and Victoria on Friday. The last will be in Beaumont on Saturday.
Sharp will continue to serve as chancellor and operate from College Station, but will travel as needed. His new duties, which might last years, are unpaid.
After the announcement, the governor’s office issued an operational plan for the recovery effort with what will be Sharp’s “rules of the road” for his tenure:
• Make the situation better, not worse.
• Let the experts do their jobs.
• Empower local governments to achieve their goals.
• Be available, all day every day.
• Make effective coordination a priority.
• Focus on the needs that will have the greatest impact locally and regionally.
• Respond immediately. Fix the problem. Cut red tape.
• Prioritize a consistent regional approach.
• Create a future Texas that is better than the status quo.
• Follow the law.
• No surprises.
John Sharp has long career in public service
John Sharp has been a presence in Texas public life for nearly 40 years, most recently, since 2011, as chancellor of the Texas A&M University System, where he has built A&M’s enrollment and reputation.
Sharp’s contract as chancellor, which had three years remaining, was extended in August by three years to 2023 by the A&M System Board of Regents.
Sharp is a 1972 graduate of A&M, where he was elected student body president. He received a master’s degree in public administration from Southwest Texas State University, now Texas State, in 1976.
Sharp, who had a business in Victoria, was elected to the Texas House in 1978 and to the state Senate in 1982.
Four years later, he was elected to the Texas Railroad Commission, and four years after that he was elected to the first of two terms as state comptroller. His re-election in 1994 came the last year any Democrat was elected to statewide office in Texas. He subsequently ran and lost twice for lieutenant governor.
As comptroller, with Texas facing a $4.6 billion budget shortfall in 1991, Sharp brought together more than 100 auditors, experts and state employees to find ways to provide state services for less.
That audit, “Breaking the Mold: New Ways to Govern Texas,” recommended $4.2 billion in savings in a $30 billion budget, about half of which was adopted by the Legislature, and it was studied as a model by the Clinton White House.