Davis seeks to be first Fort Worth resident elected governor of Texas in generations

Posted Wednesday, Oct. 02, 2013  comments  Print Reprints

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It’s been decades since anyone calling Fort Worth home held the state’s top elected office.

Wendy Davis wants to change that.

The Democratic state senator from Fort Worth is scheduled to formally launch her gubernatorial campaign today rather than running for a third term in the Senate.

She isn’t the only Fort Worth resident running statewide in 2014: George P. Bush, son of former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush and nephew of former President George W. Bush, is running for land commissioner in a race viewed as a launch pad for a political career with higher office in mind.

Davis is seeking to become Texas’ third woman to be elected governor, following the trail paved generations ago by Miriam “Ma” Ferguson and later by Ann Richards.

She and Bush are following some unique leadership legacies of political power emanating from Fort Worth with an influential reach that stretched to Austin and Washington, D.C.

Most associate Lee “Pappy” O’Daniel as Fort Worth’s only governor in Texas’ 168 years in the union.

But two others called the city home when they launched candidacies for the office.

Charles Culberson (1895-99), who is buried in Oakwood Cemetery on the city’s north side, and John Connally, who served as legal counsel and oil lobbyist for Sid Richardson and Perry Bass, both lived in Fort Worth.

Price Daniel, a onetime reporter for the Star-Telegram, spent his youth in Fort Worth, including secondary schooling at Central High School, now named Paschal.

Here is a look at the city’s history in gubernatorial politics:

Charles Culberson

Democrat Charles Culberson, born in Alabama and elected state attorney general as a resident of Dallas, came to office in 1895 amid the worst economic depression the country had seen.

His short term in office – the Legislature elected him to the U.S. Senate in 1899, a post he kept until 1924 – was marked by a statewide populist political revolt and a legislative session in 1895 that tackled a state budget in crisis. Difficult and controversial choices were made, including cutting programs and reluctantly raising taxes.

Culberson also called a special legislative session in 1895 to outlaw boxing in Texas after a heavyweight championship bout was planned in Dallas, where fight fans had raised $41,000 to build a big arena to seat fans from across the country.

“It surprised me that Culberson felt so strongly about it that he called the session and spent the money that a special session costs,” said Greg Cantrell, a history professor at TCU and author of Stephen F. Austin, Empresario of Texas and Lone Star Pasts: Memory and History in Texas. “He endured ridicule over the decision. But he pulled it off.”

The bout in Dallas was off and consternation ensued after a lot of money was lost.

Declining health due to a drinking problem, which historians say dogged Culberson since at least 1916, and an opposition to the Ku Klux Klan led to his political downfall. Culberson lost in the Democratic primary in 1922. He died in Washington in 1925.

‘Pappy’ O’Daniel

The 1941 election to replace U.S. Sen. Morris Sheppard pitted O’Daniel against John Connally, then 24 and U.S. Rep. Lyndon B. Johnson’s chief campaign strategist and manager.

O’Daniel owed his meteoric political rise to his capacity as a master marketer as an executive of the Burrus Mill flour company in Fort Worth, becoming one of the first to take full advantage of the advertising capability on the new medium of radio.

As part of that campaign, he had a show at midday everyday on WBAP, The Light Crust Doughboys. With no imposed signal restrictions in those days, WBAP reached most of the state and O’Daniel achieved instant celebrity.

He announced his first run for governor on the air.

O’Daniel, Cantrell noted, turned out to be unfit politically for the job. It didn’t help that he was no friend of the establishment, primarily because he didn’t need it to win votes in two landslide victories.

“We’ve seen a lot of guys like him since then who got elected to office on personality and marketing that didn’t really have any political principles,” Cantrell said.

O’Daniel turned out to be mostly a “tool” of big business, Cantrell said, citing failed anti-labor legislation the governor supported in 1941.

Ultimately, Cantrell said, the establishment wanted him out of Austin. Washington, D.C., would would work just fine.

Yet Johnson, who enjoyed the support of Roosevelt (“Franklin D. and Lyndon B.”) and with Connally by his side, appeared on the way to victory on the night of the special senatorial election until another old Texas tradition made its way into the fray.

After Connally called in his votes in Johnson’s stronghold of South Texas, the O’Daniel forces knew exactly how many votes they needed to win. The votes were “found” in East Texas.

Johnson, the future U.S. president, bowed out gracefully, saying he just got “flour in his eyes.”

John Connally

It was finally Connally’s time. The LBJ surrogate and Don Yarborough were the top two finishers among six candidates, including Daniel, in the 1962 Democratic primary.

Connally won the runoff.

Cynics assert that Connally’s most important accomplishment was surviving a bullet meant for the president. His popularity soared in the aftermath of a trip he planned for President John F. Kennedy, who was in town trying to unify a party divided by the conservatives led by Connally and the liberals of U.S. Sen. Ralph Yarborough.

That split had roots in Gov. Allan Shivers’ breaking from the party and endorsing Dwight Eisenhower in 1952 and 1956.

The schism, historians agree, eventually led to a two-party Texas. Connally switched parties and ran for president as a Republican in 1980.

Daniel’s tax bill and a booming economy based on oil and gas boosted Connally, Cantrell said.

Part of Connally’s success was that he had a lot of ability, Cantrell said. “Part of it was being the right man, in the right place at the right time.”

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