One candidate is the consummate symbol of the Old West, a self-made oil millionaire who sports ten-gallon hats, boasts that he owns no shoes—only cowboy boots—and installed not one but two statues of John Wayne in his west Texas bank. The other is the epitome of modem urban chic, a faultlessly coiffed divorcée who strode into politics on spike heels and the strength of her wicked wit from a life of throwing perfect cocktail parties. But in Texas, a state never known for its subtlety, those stark personal contrasts between Republican gubernatorial candidate Clayton Williams, 58, and his Democratic rival, state Treasurer Ann Richards, 57, offer only part of the explanation why their campaign has become one of the most vicious, vulgar—and significant— sideshows in the Nov. 6 balloting to elect 36 of the United States’ 50 governors.
Texas political analysts have also credited Williams’s penchant for inserting his trademark cowboy boots squarely into his mouth.
From his confession that he used to visit Mexican brothels because they “were the only places you got serviced then,” to his remarks last spring comparing the weather to rape—“If it’s inevitable,” he told reporters, “sit back, relax and enjoy it”—Williams has managed to enrage many of the state’s women voters. Last week, with two polls showing the candidates tied, Richards tried to mobilize that disaffection. Before a roomful of cheering college women, she reminded them that, ever since a Supreme Court decision last year gave states the power to restrict the availability of abortions, governors could determine what she called “a woman’s right to choose and the most basic right of every Texan: the right to control our own lives.”
In fact, with abortion-rights activists organizing the most massive grassroots voter campaign in the movement’s history, the Texas race has become a test not only of one of the most explosive issues on the current political
agenda, but also of female power at the ballot box. And when Kate Michelman, executive director of the Washington-based National Abortion Rights League, told the Houston crowd that the abortion issue would “cut
across party lines,” that prediction was promptly confirmed. From the audience, 65year-old grandmother Adele Berryhill stepped forward to shout: “I’m a Republican and I’m voting for Ann Richards. I just can’t take any more of Clayton Williams’s insensitivity.” Berry hill said later that, unlike many Texas women, she had at first been prepared to excuse Williams’s chauvinism. “I liked Clayton Williams and what he planned to do for Texas,” she said. “There was no doubt I was going to vote Republican.” But his continuing lack of sensitivity made her change her mind. Berryhill added that when she went as a delegate to the party’s state convention in Fort Worth last June and discovered a platform announcing “pro-life legislative goals,” she rebelled. Her own daughter, she explained, had chosen abor-
tion over giving birth to a baby diagnosed with Down’s syndrome. Said Berry hill tearfully: “I took one look at the platform and said, ‘That doesn’t represent me.’ My vote against Clayton Williams is that dead baby’s memorial.” Passions such as Berryhill’s have heartened pro-choice activists across the country who had watched as the issue of reproductive rights, once predicted to be the pivotal issue of the campaign, had failed to live up to that explosive billing. But with only days to go before the vote, the question may now be gathering more weight. “In close races,” said Michelman, “the right to choose can provide the margin of victory.” Still, Berry hill expressed equal outrage at a campaign in which almost all discussion of the issues has been obscured by mud-
slinging so intense that former governor Mark White complained, “Everybody in the state is disgusted.”
In fact, Williams’s sexist comments appear to have turned around a race that, only last August, he was leading by as much as 15 per cent in opinion polls. The first to declare his candidacy to replace retiring Republican Gov. William Clements, Williams not only threw his ten-gallon hat into the ring in June, 1989, but also added $6.5 million of his own money, more than a third of the reported $18.3 million that he has spent so far in the campaign. A flamboyant oilman, rancher and banker popularly known as “Claytie,” Williams boasted a public profile straight from Hollywood central casting—his biography a caricature of frontier Texas myth. A graduate of Texas A&M univer-
sity with a degree in animal husbandry, he is a self-confessed “Bubba”—Texans’ nickname for the tough-talking, gun-toting, conservative good ol’ boys of local legend who make up a substantial portion of the state’s white male population. Despite a comfortable middle-class upbringing as the son of a cotton growerturned-county commissioner, Williams has stumped the state proclaiming, “I’m a country boy and proud of it.”
His celebration of unfettered free enterprise is hardly surprising from a man who made his millions by striking oil outside President George Bush’s adopted west Texas home town of Midland. But unlike the aristocratic Bush, Williams has not been shy about flaunting his wealth. With a peculiarly Texan flair, he owns a corporate jet, a helicopter, a 10,000square-foot Midland mansion and a ranch house with a swimming pool in the shape of a boot. His 12 ranches in Texas and Wyoming support 11,600 cattle, and he has branched out to buy a pipeline and a Midland financial institution, which he named the ClayDesta National Bank in his own, and wife Modesta’s, honor. Still, to prevent anyone from thinking that he takes himself too seriously, he teaches a college course on entrepreneurship that he has entitled “B.S. 489.”
On at least one occasion when he apparently felt that his country-boy routine was not earning him enough respect, Williams declared: “I’m not stupid, you know. I did make several hundred million dollars.” But, according to The Dallas Morning News, he lost about two-thirds of his fortune during Texas’s economic downturn over the past decade. Still, as such outbursts betray, until he entered the gubernatorial race, Williams’s political experience had been confined to a headline-grabbing attempt to dramatize his opposition to communications deregulation by leading a 10-man posse on horseback up the steps of the Texas state legislature in Austin.
In contrast, Richards had labored for years in the back rooms of the state’s Democratic party, collecting political ious. The daughter of a truck driver from Waco, she won stardom on the highschool debating team. But marrying a rising young liberal lawyer named David Richards at 19 and raising four children (one of whom, Daniel, now helps run her campaign), she confined her quick tongue to her own celebrated parties in Austin. When her husband refused a draft to run as Travis County commissioner in 1975, she accepted instead and launched her meteoric career in politics. Among her feats: winning acceptance from the county’s maintenance crews by sitting around picking her teeth with an ivory toothpick.
Seven years later, Richards accepted another draft to become state treasurer. Her success at modernizing the archaic Texas financial systems won her rave reviews both in Texas
and in the national women’s movement. But it also cost her her marriage. And after her divorce in 1984, her reliance on a close circle of female friends sparked ugly remarks in July from two Christian activists, with ties to Williams, who referred to her as an “honorary lesbian.”
But the most vicious rumors of the campaign have resulted from the fact that Richards is a recovering alcoholic. Her aides say that, after she admitted her past drinking in a 1989 autobiography entitled Straight from the Heart, she was unprepared, during the bitter Democratic primary last spring, when one of her rivals accused her of having been a drug addict as well. She has refused to confirm or deny that accusation. Although the charge
has never been proven, her friends confided that it stung her, disillusioning her about a political game that she had revelled in until then.
Despite the fact that she won the hardfought Democratic nomination last April 10, her campaign stagnated all spring and summer, tom by staff infighting and a lack of money as the candidate herself appeared to have lost the will to win. Other supporters were alienated by her willingness to water down her stands to appeal to conservative southern Democrats: on Sept. 1, the opening of dove-hunting season, she appeared on television in a camouflage vest carrying a shotgun with two dead birds in her bag, an apparent effort to appease the state’s formidable gun lobby. For many, that was a shocking transformation from the spirited
Richards who rocketed to national stardom as the keynote speaker of the 1988 Democratic national convention in Atlanta. There, she provoked wild applause by mocking George Bush’s verbal pratfalls with her drawling chorus, “Poor George ... bom with a silver foot in his mouth.”
She now owes her recent resurgence in the race for governor to another verbally inept male. In September, when Richards’s reorganized and re-energized campaign began to close its 15-point gap in public opinion polls, Williams remarked, “She must be drinking again.” To many Texans, that stab was particularly offensive, coming as it did on the 10th anniversary of Richards’s sobriety and in the wake of Williams’s other offensive comments. With a wink at other good ol’ boys, he had borrowed some graphic rodeo terms to describe his plans to “head her and hoof her and drag her through the dirt.”
But Williams dealt his most severe blow to his own campaign by offending traditional Texan notions of chivalry. Richards claimed that his ClayDesta bank, currently under investigation by the state insurance commission for its lending policies, may have been linked with the laundering of drug money as well. Then, Williams used a rare joint campaign appearance at a Dallas crime commission luncheon to confront her. He strode up to her, pointed his finger and said, “Ann, I’m calling you a liar today.” When she reached out to shake his hand, he pointedly spumed it and stalked away. Most analysts credit that offence with costing Williams his lead in the polls. Said Baptist minister Willie Bruce Simon of Dallas: “In Texas, we have a lot of respect for our ladies. Any person who would show disrespect for ladies can’t be very good material for a governor. He is losing his cool under fire.”
Last week, as he campaigned through the dusty small towns of east Texas, a subdued Williams appeared to be on his best behavior. But Richards’s campaign officials are counting on the eleventh-hour, get-out-the-vote campaign by abortion-rights activists to catapult I her ahead in a state where, despite the obvious I appeal of Williams’s traditional macho rallying cries, both Dallas and Houston now have women mayors.
In fact, Doris Wallis Towne, an organizer of a 1,000-member Republican women’s group in Houston that supports Richards for her stand in favor of abortion, points out that on her travels through the conservative Texas countryside, she has noticed a hopeful sign. “Out in the boonies,” said Towne, “we found even the good ol’ boys are getting turned off by Clayton Williams. They say they still have a problem supporting a woman, but we notice their wives have a little gleam in their eye.” Added Towne: “I’m hoping the voting booth is one place where Bubba’s wife gets a chance to express her voice.” Whatever that voice, women across the country, and political analysts measuring the effectiveness of down-and-dirty tactics, will have their eyes on Texas.
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