After a stream of politicians past and present filed in, after eight Texas state troopers solemnly escorted the flag-draped coffin to the front of the church and after the singer Rhonda Williams’ “Holy Ground” shook the walls, the late Gov. Mark White Jr.’s three children read from the Bible.
Mark White III and Elizabeth Russell teared up as they recited their verses and said a few words. But their middle brother, Andrew White, was clear-eyed and spoke forcefully.
One of the qualities “that made my dad who he was,” Andrew White said, “was his very favorite Sam Houston quote: ‘Do right and risk the consequences.’ He did, and he got those consequences.”
The audience at Houston’s Second Baptist Church that day in August included Luci Baines Johnson, George W. Bush and Rick Perry. But that message, Andrew White said later, was directed at two others in attendance: Gov. Greg Abbott and Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, whose leadership style White considers the antithesis of his father’s.
Now, Andrew White, an investor who has never been active in politics — and says he never once discussed with his father the possibility of running for office — is vying to unseat Abbott.
It won’t be easy. As a moderate Democrat like his father, White will have to overcome his less-than-liberal views on issues like abortion and border security in a crowded primary before facing Abbott, a Republican seeking his second term with high approval ratings and a record $43 million in his campaign war chest.
The funeral took place while the Legislature was meeting in a special session called by Abbott and prompted in part by Patrick’s push for a “bathroom bill” to restrict transgender Texans from using the restrooms of their choice. The juxtaposition of those issues and the stories he was hearing about his father’s accomplishments lit a fire in White. But he didn’t commit to running until after Hurricane Harvey, when he rescued more than 100 people in his 16-foot bay boat and was featured in People and Texas Monthly magazines.
“The opportunity to serve the public and to do something that was important, that mattered, is what came out of that for me,” he said. “I’m starting to think, ‘What am I doing with my career? What am I doing with my life?’ I’m 45, I’ve sold my business, and then the articles start coming out about how no (Democrat) is running for governor, and I said, ‘You know what? I can do this.’”
David Magdol, a friend who manned the boat with White for much of the rescue effort, said he realized White’s father was on his mind during the storm.
“There’s no question that he was feeling very passionate about doing work for others in the memory of his father,” said Magdol, the chief investment officer with Main Street Capital.
Magdol said he also realized then that his friend was a natural leader. When Harvey hit, White quickly recruited a small team of friends and acquaintances for specific roles. Magdol, for instance, was tapped by “Captain Andrew” as first mate because he was light enough to not weigh down the boat but athletic enough to swim or wade through rough water. A friend who works in technology was chosen to monitor social media and meteorological websites and call in information about changing conditions and where people needed help. Another had a truck that could drive into high water to tow the boat or grab survivors out of it.
White, he said, has the “ability to communicate and to take large pieces of information and pare them down to the exact need.”
Democrats whiffed on ‘heavyweight’
A religious family man and political moderate, White is pitching himself as the Democrat best positioned to win in November, a dicey proposal in a primary dominated by party die-hards.
White describes himself as “personally pro-life” but supports Texas Democrats’ oppositions to recent GOP bills restricting access to abortion.
He favors strong border security but opposes President Donald Trump’s border wall plan.
Yet on the vast majority of issues, White said he is in line with Democratic orthodoxy.
“What I see is a massive labeling problem where we want to oversimplify complicated issues and slap a label on it. And then once you put the label on it, then you can pick sides — whose team are you on?” he said. “A lot of what I’m trying to do is get past the labels because there is progress to be made on all these issues.”
White’s statements on abortion and his lack of history in local Democratic politics have irked party insiders, who are largely backing former Dallas County Sheriff Lupe Valdez in the nine-candidate primary on March 6. Valdez, who would be the first Latina and the first gay governor if she won, has special appeal to the party’s Hispanic base after her high-profile skirmish with Abbott early in the battle over so-called sanctuary cities.
Richard Murray, a University of Houston political scientist, said that continued growth in the Latino population has put Texas Democrats in a better position this year than they were in the last midterm election cycle when a Republican occupied the White House. That was 2006, when Texas Democrats made gains at the legislative level but fell short in competing for statewide offices.
But despite the favorable trends and the possibility of an anti-Trump wave, Texas Democrats have struggled to recruit big names to top the ticket.
“They had a terrible time getting a heavyweight candidate in and never really did,” Murray said. “Given that the field is limited to what it is, (White) looks like a much more competitive candidate against Abbott.”
The key for White, Murray said, will be winning over “Joe Straus Republicans,” supporters of the moderate retiring House speaker who opposed the push for the bathroom bill.
“If the business, country club Republicans continue to be pushed out of the party, he could take advantage of that,” Murray said.
But to compete in November, White will first have to win in March, when Hispanic voters make up 30 to 40 percent of the primary electorate.
“White, obviously, as his name suggests, would not have any automatic appeal to Latino voters,” Murray said.
On a recent Monday evening, White ate dinner at his family’s go-to spot for a quick meal: Local Foods in Houston’s Upper Kirby neighborhood. He had just come from his 14-year-old son’s soccer game. They lost 8-0, but it wasn’t as bad as the scoreboard looked, White said wryly.
Medium-height and slender with thick, parted red hair, White’s boyish face and energetic conversation make him seem younger than 45. Although he shunned politics for most of his adult life, his adolescent years in the Governor’s Mansion seem to have given him some innate political abilities, like smoothly pivoting questions to give the answers he wants, and sounding polite while taking swipes at his opponents.
“We absolutely have to nominate a candidate who has the best chance to beat Greg Abbott, and that’s a candidate who can raise money,” he said. “And also it’s a candidate that has the fight — that wants to hustle all over the state and do the work.”
With a $220,000 haul so far, White out-raised Valdez by an approximately 4-to-1 ratio in their first reporting period, and he appears more frequently on the campaign trail than she does.
Soon his children, shepherded by his wife, Stacey, rolled into the restaurant to pick up a to-go order. Mark White IV, who goes by his middle name Wells, was at home cleaning up a scrape he got in the soccer game. In tow were 11-year-old Thompson, and 15-year-old Emma Claire, named after a Governor’s Mansion cook whom White said became like a second mother to him. Emma Claire had just come from driver’s ed. Thompson had gone to the soccer game and grinningly recounted his brother’s team’s dismal performance.
“We know logistics. I’ve got three kids,” Andrew White said.
When they left, White noted that he was Thompson’s age when his dad moved the family into the Governor’s Mansion.
“It was the perfect age because you don’t really get it, you don’t really know what’s going on,” he said. “You just think, ‘Oh, this is a cool house, and I’ve got security guards around.’”
It’s not lost on White that his run for governor seems ripe for psychological analysis.
“It’s really healthy. The answer is always talk about it,” he said, laughing.
Although he made the decision in a moment of grief, White said his commitment to the race has not waned as the funeral drifts further into the past.
“This was what he did. He blazed this trail when he was 41 running for governor, and I’m 45 running for governor,” he said. “He had a family and had all the same issues that I have, trying to cover the whole entire state and yet still be there for your kid’s soccer game.”
Back in the public eye
Like many children of politicians, White wanted nothing to do with the family business for much of his life.
He remembers bomb threats called into the Governor’s Mansion, where he lived when he was 10 to 14 years old. He remembers his father losing re-election in 1986, after winning such major legislative victories as raising taxes to reform education and requiring motorists to wear seatbelts. He remembers local TV helicopters circling his family’s home in Houston after an opponent suggested — falsely, White said — that the house was purchased with taxpayer funds.
“I never ever wanted to be in politics. It was never in my plan,” Andrew White said. “As part of differentiating myself from my father, not being in politics was a big part of that, and proving that I could be successful without his help essentially was a big part of that as a young man.”
So White went to the University of Virginia, where he majored in religious studies, and then to New York City, where he worked as an analyst for Credit Suisse for several years after college.
He moved to Dallas to work for an internet startup called Market City USA, and he met Stacey Krause at their Presbyterian church. They were engaged six months later and married six months after that. Market City failed, leaving White unemployed on their wedding day.
They moved to Houston when he started a new phase of his career working for industrial and home services companies. Along the way, he earned an executive MBA from the University of Texas. After five years, he decided to launch his own business, Allied Home Warranty, as well as a sister company that did the repairs for his policyholders.
“In 2005, I had two babies and a mortgage, and I decided that I was going to start my own business, and so I told Stacey that we needed to sell the house because I didn’t want to have any debt and I also didn’t have any money,” White said. “Stacey was really gracious because we had just remodeled the house, we had these two little babies, we just had this cute life happening. And I put the kibosh on it and put everything we had into starting a business.”
It worked out. The businesses grew rapidly and were purchased in 2012 by NRG Energy. The agreement included a price nondisclosure clause, but Bryan Bledsoe, who ran the warranty business for White, said it was “a great deal of money.”
White now owns several businesses and serves in roles more akin to a board chairman than a CEO. Geovox Security, which he started with his father in the 1990s, sells heartbeat detectors that can help first responders find survivors in collapsed buildings or detect human trafficking victims and unauthorized immigrants crossing borders. Sweat Energy Services cleans storage tanks for oil and gas companies.
Bledsoe, an Army veteran who served in psychological operations in Iraq, joined the warranty company early on after finding a Monster.com listing for its general manager position. He submitted an application around 9 p.m. one weekday evening. About five minutes later, White emailed back and asked him to come in for an interview.
Describing White’s managerial style, Bledsoe said he almost never got rattled, wasn’t a micromanager and had a special talent for resolving differences. The warranty and repair businesses, for instance, were often of different minds on how to cover a claim but would leave adversarial meetings brokered by White on the same page, a phenomenon they called “getting Andrewed.”
Bledsoe said he was surprised to learn White was running for governor, although he had joked with him about it over the years.
“He would always say, ‘No, I’m not going to get into it. I saw everything that my dad went through,’” Bledsoe said. “And I would give him a hard time and say, ‘All right, Gov. White.’”
Bledsoe, a lifelong conservative Republican who now owns his own businesses and considers his former boss a mentor, said he plans to vote for White.
“He sat down with me and he said, ‘Are you voting for me because you’re my buddy, or are you voting for me because you think I would be a good leader?’” Bledsoe recounted. “I think he wanted honest feedback.”
Bledsoe told White that he was with him because he thought he would be a good governor.
“I told him, ‘Your biggest problem is you’re in the state of Texas,” Bledsoe said. “‘We are a Republican state.’”