Remembering “Dollar Bill” Clements, the Man Who Turned Texas Republican

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Almost 17 years have passed since a fellow named George W. Bush was elected governor of Texas—17 years of uninterrupted Republican dominance of the Lone Star State. After all that time, it’s easy to forget that Texas did not always belong to the GOP. Like the rest of the former Confederacy, Texas was solid for the Democrats for roughly a century after the Civil War.

The shift of the South from Democratic to Republican is one of the keys to understanding contemporary politics. But while every politics gearhead can explain the significance of party shifters like Strom Thurmond of South Carolina and Jesse Helms of North Carolina, one of the key figures in the rise of the Texas GOP is largely forgotten. William “Dollar Bill” Clements, the first Republican governor elected in Texas post-Reconstruction, died on Sunday in a Dallas-area hospital, with scant notice from the blogosphere.

Why the obscurity? For one thing, Clements never held elected office in Washington, and thus never became as famous, or infamous, as his fellow Texas trailblazers John Tower or George H.W. Bush. For another thing, Clements had a decidedly mixed record, grappling with an economy in fitful transition from over-dependence on oil and gas. For a third thing, his election in 1978 was quickly followed by Ronald Reagan’s win in 1980, at which point the rise of the Sunbelt GOP was no longer a breaking news story—it was a fait accompli.

Mit Spears is well-known in Washington as a veteran of the Reagan Justice Department, former General Counsel of the Federal Trade Commission, accomplished private practice attorney—and hunnert-percent Texan from his boots up. He got his start with Dollar Bill (the nickname derived from Clements’ vast self-made fortune from the oil-drilling business and his willingness to spend millions on his own campaigns). I asked him this morning to share a few thoughts by e-mail:

Lessee… How about the time when he first met the Executive Director at the Department of Water Resources and told him that ‘I didn’t spend $7 million of my own money to come and sit down here with my thumb up my ass.’

The story that I remember best was a meeting with the regional director of the U.S. Department of Energy who, in trying to sell the Governor on having Texas enforce a federal law that would make outdoor decorative natural gas lighting illegal, said that citizens would react better if state officials were enforcing the ban rather than federal officials. Clements innocently asked him if federal inspectors were licensed to carry firearms and the DoE official responded that they weren’t. Clements ended the discussion by saying, ‘Well, you’re probably going to need to change that rule.’

Bill Clements was a tough guy who accomplished much and had to fight for everything he had. While he was demanding, and could be exasperating at times, he was fair and knew what he wanted to accomplish. Building the Republican Party of Texas was his passion. While many tectonic forces were in play that were moving Texas to the Republican column, Bill Clements delivered that baby. He showed that you could run as a Republican statewide and win. He and his team recruited and supported Republican candidates for the state legislature and Congressional seats, converted conservative Democrats, and broadened the base and the reach of the Republican Party in Texas. In 1978, if you identified yourself as a Republican, people would laugh. Ten years later, those people were showing up at your fundraisers. Bill Clements had a lot to do with that.