Mattox is Back

Former AG Rises From the Ashes

Is Jim Mattox the Comeback Kid?

Although his race appeared to be slow to get off the ground, no one can deny that it was good to be Jim Mattox last Tuesday. At the headquarters of the Democratic candidate for attorney general, on Manor Road in East Austin, the phones were ringing, the parking lot was full, and campaign workers were abuzz with the news that had hit the papers and radio stations that morning: Mattox was ahead in the polls. "Didja see the Statesman?" asked one supporter who had popped in to deliver a contributor's check. The receptionist logging in the payment cheerfully shoved him the Dallas Morning News. from the pile of papers on her desk. "Yeah, check out the Dallas paper." The story that had captured the attention of so many of the relatively few who are actually interested in the March 10 primaries being held next week was the release of the latest Texas Poll results. According to the poll conducted for Scripps Howard by UT's Office of Survey Research, the only candidate who is outpolling "undecided" in any of the major statewide races is Mattox. No doubt the news came as a bit of a shock to those who have been ho-humming the AG's race since it became apparent that - despite many a Dem's pleas to rope in more universally palatable candidates such as Houston Mayor Bob Lanier - the Democratic primary was going to be a two-way contest between Mattox, who served as Texas' AG in the 1980s, and Court of Criminal Appeals Judge Morris Overstreet. (Also running in the Democratic primary is perennial candidate Gene Kelly, who relies on his whimsical name to dance his way into the hearts of ill-informed voters.) Note that the poll's margins of error are 6.4 percentage points for Republicans and 6 percentage points for Democrats.

While the Statesman gave credit for Mattox's strong showing in the polls to the fact that voters found it "familiar," the 54-year-old former AG, already grey-headed and with a girth that - whether or not the owner of it drinks - can only be described as a beer belly, allows as how he believes there was more to his success than a name that rings bells. "Our message has gotten through," Mattox says in his very Texas drawl - that particularly muffled accent which is at once both proud and modest. "There are a lot of people who remember the qualified job I did as attorney general," he continues. "Sometimes people want you for one office and not for another. A lot of people who didn't support me for governor when I ran, like me as the attorney general."

And perhaps that is what's most interesting about Mattox - his steady rise and subsequent fall, and (could it be?), possible rebirth as a Democratic powerhouse in this state.

Politics and Religion

Born and raised in Dallas, Mattox, 54, recalls a childhood in which he acted as surrogate father to his two younger siblings after his parents' divorce. His mother, who died at age 52 in 1970, worked as a waitress and his father owned and operated a sheet metal and air conditioning business. Mattox went to Baylor University to do his undergraduate studies, with plans of joining the ministry. At school he became interested in economics, government, and politics, but was most affected by the assassination during his senior year of President John F. Kennedy in Mattox's own hometown. "It greatly enhanced my interest in government and in public service and religion. I saw a lot of the hatred that came out of my fellow Southern Baptists and the bitterness and distrust of Catholics and such things as that," Mattox recalls. "I became pretty well committed to public service, which was a form of public ministry where you could help a lot of people do a lot of good things, and I'm still motivated by those same things."

Because that's what legislators did, Mattox opted for law school and, after earning his degree from SMU, became a U.S. Congressional aide in 1967 for Rep. Earle Cabell of the 5th District, an office Mattox was to win a decade later. That was after working as an assistant district attorney prosecuting criminal cases in Dallas County for a couple of years, and after serving two terms as a Texas state representative from 1973-76, during which he earned his liberal credentials among pro-labor and environmental progressive forces and was named among the Top Ten Outstanding Legislators by Texas Monthly. As a three-term U.S. Congressman from 1977 to 1982, Mattox was a leader of the class whose members included Dick Gephardt and Al Gore, among others. Mattox recalls being among the few freshmen members selected to serve on the powerful budget committee. Mattox also served on the banking, finance, and corporate affairs committees. But, as usual when it comes to his endless ambition, Mattox wasn't satisfied. Tired of "standing around debating the issues," Mattox set his cap for an elected position in which he could serve in an executive role as head of one of the state's biggest law firms - the AG's office.

The Democratic party never embraced AG candidate Morris Overstreet's campaign efforts, despite his early start in the race.

Mattox's first order of business after his election in 1983 was to revitalize the consumer protection division, which he says had gone undernourished under previous AG Mark White. The move was consistent with his background; Mattox had helped pass the consumer protection act when he was at the state lege, and his work in support of laws requiring open meetings, open records and financial disclosures was well known. After beefing up the consumer protection division and giving lawyers the freedom to investigate and pursue cases - a luxury that some ex-employees of current AG Dan Morales say was stamped out once Mattox left office - Mattox went after big business in a big way. He became known as an aggressive watchdog for consumers. During the 1980s, Texas was a leader in multi-state investigations into deceptive advertising by major national corporations. The AG's office under Mattox's direction took on Quaker Oats and Kellogg for touting the supposed health benefits of their cereals. It challenged airlines for their fare advertising, and prompted a settlement of a case against Aamco Transmissions Inc. for allegedly luring customers with free inspections and then convincing them to pay for unneeded repairs. In one of the Mattox administration's most famous cases, Volvo manufacturers had to pay $316,000 in investigative costs to the state and yank a television commercial off the air after it was discovered that a Volvo shown withstanding a close encounter with a Monster Truck was actually reinforced by steel braces.

All this is not to say that Mattox's motives at the time he took on the big corporations were perceived as noble. Conservatives and the business establishment accused him of playing politics, while plenty of people on his own side of the political fence found him to be self-promoting. In fact, it wasn't until Morales later gutted the consumer protection and environmental divisions in the mid-Nineties that some folks learned to appreciate Mattox. Even Jim Harrington, head of the Texas Civil Rights Project, who watched Mattox end the case logjam that started up the death penalty machine in Texas - the likes of which the rest of the country has never seen - was quoted in the Chronicle in 1994 lamenting the loss of the ex-AG. "I was very unhappy with Mattox," Harrington said in the Chronicle. "But I'd give my eyeteeth to get him back now."

Donkeys Never Forget

So if Mattox was the most willing AG ever when it came to taking on the powers that be, why has the Democratic party been slow to embrace him in this race? For one thing, there's the fact that Mattox clashed with other state officials, regardless of party affiliation. Although the AG is supposed to act as the lawyer for state agencies, Mattox never let that stop him from challenging what he thought was bad legislation, even if it meant going after the very clients he was elected to defend. But most agree that Mattox wore out his welcome with the Democratic power structure when he engaged in nasty tactics against his former friend Ann Richards in the 1990 governor's race. Mattox, who passed up a try for a third term at the AG's office in order to run for governor, was no stranger to bloody campaigns from his state lege and congressional days; but he reached new lows, according to many party faithful, when he took a rather personal, negative, rightwing approach on the campaign trial by publicly accusing Richards of using cocaine. "He isn't getting as much support [from Democratic leaders] as he should because of mixed loyalties," observes Joe Crews, the former chief of consumer protection under Morales who has also done private legal work for Mattox in the past. "People are still holding a grudge because of what he did to Ann."

Those kinds of tacky campaign tactics do stick in the craw. Mattox's railings on Richards came back to haunt him time and again. According to the March 25, 1994 issue of the Texas Observer, Richards' office quickly put the word out that association with the Mattox campaign was a liability for potential political appointees. In 1993, she refused to consider Mattox for the interim appointment to replace Lloyd Bentsen in the U.S. Senate. A year later, when he ran against Dallas millionaire Richard Fisher for the Senate seat, the belief was that, as the Observer put it, "though Mattox has proven himself perfectly capable of alienating potential fundraisers, there is sufficient evidence to suggest that the governor... has sent Democratic funders a message that she does not want Jim Mattox on the ballot in November."

On the day after the election, the New York Times quoted Richards' and Morales' powerful political consultant George Shipley, well-known for his steerage of the Democratic party to the right: "Mattox is a loser who ran one of the most barbaric campaigns in Texas history." Little wonder that prior to this primary's filing deadlines, the Dems were scrambling for AG candidates with no black marks against them. But, says Crews, who is active in the Democratic party and is working in several local Democratic judicial races, the recent poll results may indicate that it's time to let bygones be bygones. "We would be foolish to let some fascist [Republican candidate] win this race because of something that happened eight years ago," Crews says.

Meanwhile, political observers agree that the other Democratic contender in this race, Judge Morris Overstreet, must be frustrated with the way the primary has panned out. While Mattox waited until Morales bowed out to dip his toe in the primary waters, Overstreet made the courageous move of taking on Morales well over a year ago, criticizing him for, among other things, his interpretation of the Hopwood decision. According to Overstreet, who was the first African-American elected to a statewide office in Texas history when he was made a Court of Criminal Appeals judge in 1992, Morales' interpretation of Hopwood was too expansive. He says Morales was wrong to extend the Hopwood decision from its ban on affirmative action with regards to admission decisions at UT's law school to applying to all scholarship and financial aid programs at all of the state's institutions of higher education.

As a judge and a former prosecutor with the district attorney's office in Amarillo, Overstreet has the qualifications for the office, but neither he nor Mattox were considered viable candidates, and neither got the fundraising nods from their own party. Ultimately, because Texas has been swinging toward the GOP for a while, the kind of progressive litigation these two candidates offer must seem like a blast from the past to both parties. The "anti-business," pro-civil rights agendas these candidates present can't be viable in today's Texas, can they?

Perhaps Mattox's anti-government rhetoric, in which he vows to protect the Little Guy from the mindless government bureaucrats, is striking a chord. It appears at least that Mattox's name ID may overcome the lack of party support, but Overstreet's inability to ignite a fire after all the time he has spent campaigning must be discouraging. And while the lack of enthusiasm for Mattox can be chalked up to past bad behavior - in addition to the Richards debacle, Mattox was indicted (and later acquitted) in the mid-Eighties for allegedly using his office to pressure a law firm not to investigate his family's dealings related to campaign fundraising - Overstreet has a skeleton in his own closet. He was slapped with a sexual harassment and wrongful discharge complaint by his former court secretary, a charge which resulted in the state paying $10,000 in 1995 to settle the matter.

Fight for the Right

Although Mattox and Overstreet have yet to dredge up that personal dirt on each other, it's a given that any race "Mad Dog" Mattox is involved in could get ugly. But the real mud slinging isn't expected to begin until after the primaries. It's still a toss-up as to who will win the bitter GOP battle for the AG nomination. It's a three-way race between criminal defense lawyer and Railroad Commissioner Barry Williamson, former Texas Supreme Court Justice John Cornyn, and former state Republican party chair Tom Pauken. The arguments between the candidates are of the "more-conservative-than-thou" variety, whereby Pauken, who is comfortably positioned in the far right corner, has predictably challenged his opponents to come clean on whether they've ever done drugs. (Neither opponent took the bait on that one.) Cornyn made the political move of filing a legal challenge to Morales' tobacco settlement in an attempt to stop five private law firms from walking away with $2.3 billion in contingency fees from the deal, a pay arrangement that all five candidates say they would have done differently. For his part, Williamson has run ads about putting criminals behind bars, perhaps a bit of a stretch in a race for an office that deals with mostly civil matters. All the candidates in both primaries talk of doing a better job collecting child support payments, a duty that takes up the largest portion - 63% - of the AG's budget.

So while Pauken enjoys the conservative ride - he's sitting pretty since it's usually the zealots who bother to show up for the primaries - Williamson and Cornyn are left bloodying each other battling for the middle ground. Mattox can only hope to be up against Pauken come November - he's already beaten him twice in congressional races, legendary for their acrimony. Pauken "reflected the concept that there was a communist under every rock," Mattox recalls. The colorful Pauken, who was a military intelligence officer during the Vietnam era, first made a name for himself years ago when he formed a foundation that traveled around the country showing film clips and making speeches depicting then-anti-war protestor Jane Fonda (now Mrs. Ted "media mogul" Turner) as "Hanoi Jane."

The recent poll results show Pauken is likely get into a runoff with the well-funded Williamson, and after that, anything is possible. The match-up to watch would be Pauken, the rabid rightwinger, versus Mattox, the raging liberal. "His politics have not progressed since the Vietnam era," Mattox says. "I don't know if I'll face him or not, but it's kind of an interesting nightmare."

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