“Edwards is just now climbing down out of the trees. He’s way ahead of some of his people, but what he doesn’t know is that most of us came into town one Saturday a few years ago and stayed… We’re urban, by God. All of a sudden the people in the metropolitan areas outnumber the rednecks… They come into town – they buy little houses and color television and Volkswagen cars. Edwards is still pitching to the Church of Christers and the pickup truck crowd.” – Governor Fenstemaker in The Gay Place
Almost fifty years ago, Billy Lee Brammer opined that rural politicians in the Legislature were holding back the modernization of the state in his classic novel about Texas politics. Governor Arthur Fenstemaker (a thinly-disguised clone of Lyndon Baines Johnson) astutely plays both the liberals and the conservatives for the largely progressive goals of hospital construction and increasing school funding, mixing politics with passion and compromise with conviction. Brammer, a former Johnson aide, saw in his former boss an ability to extract large contributions and promises from the wealthy while doing what he wanted to do anyway to push Texas into the twentieth century. LBJ defeated a living legend, cowboy-governor Coke Stevenson, in the historic 1948 U.S. Senate race using modern media, targeting urban voters, and stealing votes. It was only logical that his alter-ego Governor Fenstemaker would proclaim the coming end of rural “reactionary” rule1.
But Brammer had it wrong; we still celebrate and cling to our rural heritage and mythology despite our Census numbers2. Texas has three of the largest cities in the United States and is one of the most urbanized states in the country. Houston is second to New York in corporate headquarters and has the biggest medical center in the world. We are one of the few majority-minority states. Yet we are most famous for Anglo cowboy folk culture and a recent president who proudly called Midland, Texas his hometown.
Our political culture, as far as I have observed in Austin, has not yet moved to embrace our urban reality of underfunded schools, mental health needs, pollution, drug abuse, crime, and our huge uninsured population. Thick Texas accents still dominate the speech of our part-time Legislature. But is accepting our urban nature and moving to a full-time, annual, proactive big-government Legislature really the solution?
In an address to a local chamber of commerce, Senator Hegar proudly stated that Texas is one of only four or five states that meets biennially. “Unlike New York and California, we have a part-time Legislature. And the point of the system is to prevent us from passing laws and expanding government,” he said. A trained lawyer who returned to farming because law did not interest him, he perhaps best represented this urban to rural mindset. Senator Hegar also pointed out that New York and California, the two states most similar to us in demographically, are in a budget crisis. Our limited government mentality made us one of only five states with a budget surplus (the others being the small, energy-rich states of Idaho, North Dakota, Alaska, and Montana). “I am glad I don’t have to deal with a $40 billion shortfall like California legislators did,” he reminded the audience.
Representative Zerwas pointed out to me that Texas is only growing so much faster than the nation as a whole because have been having so much job growth. A popular statistic bandied around Austin was that “70% of job growth” in the United States in recent years was in Texas. Might our “pro-business” and “limited government” regulatory environment be the key to this job growth?
But everyone knows the population explosion is in cities and almost everyone wants the state to regulate businesses like insurance fairly. A comical demonstration of a rural mentality outstaying the reality on the ground was Representative Bill Callegari’s complaint that Katy subdivision sprawl has been encroaching closer and closer towards his farm and “if it weren’t for the recession, they’d probably be across the street from my house.” He clearly represented an urban/suburban district but came from a generation almost farfetched from the daily life of his constituents.
I do not think that these country politicians are bad people or even bad representatives of their districts. And I do not think that a rural politician is incapable of understanding or moving forward on Texas’s real urban needs like mental health funding. But I do think a wide-open spaces cowboy mentality does honestly prevent us from moving forward if we pretend our state is something that is not, and perhaps never was. Should we limit our future to a mythic history conjured up by University of Texas historian Walter Prescott Webb over seventy years ago?
This may soon change: our state’s biggest political dramas involve the overthrow of a small town West Texas businessman as Speaker of the House and the pending gubernatorial primary between the urban Kay Bailey Hutchison and rancher Rick Perry. With the former conflict resolved in the favor of a San Antonio businessman, it may be that a mindset shift is pending in the new millennium. In the end, that change will have to come from the public at large and when they ratify that change at the ballot box.
Caro, Robert. Means of Ascent: The Years of Lyndon Johnson. New York: Vintage 1991.
Ennis, Michael. “No Hat, No Cattle.” Texas Monthly January 2005.