Barnes: 'Take Back Texas'

The former Texas political star fires up local Democrats

It's taken nearly three decades, but former Texas Lt. Gov. Ben Barnes is slowly re-emerging into Lone Star politics. The Democrat, despite never being charged with any crime, saw his rising political career killed in the 1970s by his closeness to players in the Sharpstown scandal. He's kept a relatively low profile since then, but the reign of George W. Bush and the Republican takeover of the Legislature has inspired him in recent months to speak out. Last week, he whipped members of Austin for Kerry into a frenzy at Mother Egan's Irish Pub.

"I'm damned mad about my state," Barnes told the 60 or so cheering Democrats on the pub's outdoor patio. "I love that Capitol. I served where we had the best highway system, higher education. ... We took the University of Texas and Texas A&M to where they were in the top five universities in the United States; we raised teachers' salaries where they came from 37th to 18th in the United States; we got in the top five states in mental health and mental retardation; we were working on plans to insure every single child in Texas, and today we're ranked 50th or 47th or 48th in almost all the areas of state responsibility. The only thing we rank number one in is prisons.

"That Capitol is occupied by people that don't love Texas," Barnes continued. "They're up there for their own selfish benefit and gain, and we've gotta take back Texas for the Democratic Party."

Barnes went on to lavish praise on John Kerry, saying that he initially told Kerry he couldn't support him but changed his mind after one round of golf with the now-presumptive Dem presidential nominee. He also disputed that a Republican chokehold on Texas is a foregone conclusion: "This is not a Republican state; Texas is a moderate conservative state." And, he says, one that will become winnable by Dems when people see that "no new taxes" and "scrubbing the budget" means, in Barnes' words, that "they've scrubbed the budget where 25% of the people in Texas don't have health insurance, they've scrubbed the budget where 500,000 kids right now have been taken off insurance."

After his speech, Barnes told the Chronicle why he never followed the exodus into the other party nor joined the many Texas Dems who backed Bush. "This is a failed administration. I think the polls reflect what the American people think. Who would have thought that George Bush, who was at an 82% positive rating in this country, is now down to 41%?

"When [former Gov.] John Connally, my friend, switched parties, he encouraged me to do it. The Republican Party is not what I believe. A lot of people would tell you that I'm a liberal Democrat. I passed a minimum wage, a farm wage, and I did a lot of liberal things. ... the Democrats care about people, and I was raised on a peanut farm by a poor family, and I'm not gonna forget my roots. ... I believe that government should be involved in making people have a better way in life. Education, highways, health care – those are services that government should provide."

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Election 2004, Ben Barnes, Austin for Kerry, George W. Bush, Mother Egan's Irish Pub

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