Neil Caldwell was a member of the “Dirty Thirty,” a bipartisan group that helped oust a scandal-plagued Texas House speaker in 1971, before Caldwell moved on to become a longtime district judge in Angleton and the state artist of Texas.
Known for a sharp, plain-spoken wit and a strong streak of idealism during his time in office, Caldwell died Tuesday morning at age 88 at his home outside of Angleton after entering hospice care for liver cancer, said his wife, Mary Lou Caldwell. Services and his burial at the Texas State Cemetery in Austin have not yet been scheduled, she said.
“Neil Caldwell was extraordinary — a powerful progressive voice, later a distinguished jurist, and always a man of principle,” said U.S. Rep. Lloyd Doggett, D-Austin. “He courageously stood up against corruption and for fair play, protection of our natural resources, working people and civil rights. He not only drew some great cartoons, he left a truly positive mark on Texas.”
Caldwell, a lawyer and liberal Democrat from Alvin near the Texas coast, was elected to the Texas House in 1960 and spent his first 11 years as a gadfly supporter of the little guy who lost more battles than he won.
Then the Sharpstown stock fraud scandal erupted in 1971, implicating Speaker Gus Mutscher in a bribery investigation involving deals set up by Frank Sharp, a Houston banking and development mogul. Caldwell drafted a resolution to force Mutscher to speak out about profits he had made in deals with Sharp, and, although the measure failed, the vote earned Caldwell and 29 others on the losing side a nickname they wore with honor — the Dirty Thirty.
Mutscher lost his election in 1972 and was later convicted of bribery-conspiracy, and the 1973 legislative session began with a mandate for reform and with Caldwell in a new position of power — chairman of the influential Appropriations Committee, where the teetotaler who chewed cigars but never smoked them helped draft laws on lobbyist registration, campaign finance disclosure and consumer protection.
Texas Monthly approved of the job he did in the 1973 session, naming Caldwell to the magazine’s list of the 10 best lawmakers and declaring him “probably the all-around best member of the Legislature.”
Caldwell was “an extremely smart, savvy politician who is thoroughly trustworthy” — a House member who took a serious approach to public office without being sanctimonious and without sacrificing his sense of humor, Texas Monthly wrote.
One session later, however, Caldwell watched in disgust as those he considered part of the “business as usual” crowd returned to power in the House, and he lost his committee chairmanship. The 1975 session would be his last, and his decision to retire was cemented when a job opened as a state district judge in Angleton.
Caldwell, who got his law degree from the University of Texas in 1957, won that election and remained on the bench until the end of 1994.
Former American-Statesman political columnist Dave McNeely caught up with Caldwell in 1982, describing him as a Texas version of Ben Franklin — a humorist, intellectual, artist and idealist who didn’t lose touch with reality.
“He was a rare combination of a genuine intellectual who had a lot of good ol’ boy in him and more raw talent than the law ought to allow — whether it be music, sculpture, painting or legislating,” Bob Armstrong, a friend who had served with Caldwell in the House, told McNeely at the time.
A 1967 resolution designated Caldwell the “artist laureate of the Texas House” and praised him for his quick mind, ready wit and facility with Aggie jokes, along with his skills at drawing, sculpting and photography.
Caldwell’s skills were acknowledged again in 1987, when he was named to a one-year stint as the state artist of Texas.