Political Realist

An Interview with Ben Barnes

Political Realist
Photo By Jana Birchum

Despite prevailing Republican mythology, not every Democrat is enamored with Ben Barnes. Though he is a perennial punching bag of the GOP, the former Texas House speaker and lieutenant governor didn't achieve his meteoric rise in state politics by being a liberal. In the Sixties, Barnes rose through the ranks under the conservative wing of the Democratic Party, when Texas operated under its earlier form of the one-party system. The more powerful the conservatives grew, the more Texas started to resemble a two-party state trapped in a single-party body. Liberal Democrats (Ralph Yarborough, Sissy Farenthold) held camp on one side, with conservative Democrats (Lyndon Johnson, John Connally, Ben Barnes) on the other. Political infighting was only part of the Democrats' problems. In the end, it was the infamous Sharpstown banking scandal that cost several lawmakers their careers and ultimately brought the party to its knees. Barnes was never directly tied to the scandal, but the taint of corruption at the Capitol foiled the rising star's 1972 bid for governor.

Today, Barnes remains a visible force in politics, both as a Washington lobbyist and Democratic fundraiser. (This election year, Barnes is putting his money on Carole Keeton Strayhorn, a Republican-turned independent candidate for governor, instead of Democratic nominee Chris Bell.) A consummate insider who knows how to spin a good yarn, Barnes is currently on the book-tour circuit with his latest work – Barn Burning, Barn Building, a Texas tale of the rise and fall of the Democratic Party.

In the book, Barnes expresses deep regrets for supporting Johnson's stance on the Vietnam War and for pulling the strings that helped the sons of rich and powerful Texans avoid going to Vietnam. As most people now know, one of those boys was a young George W. Bush, for whom Barnes helped secure a coveted slot in the Texas Air National Guard. If only briefly, Barnes may have won a spot in the hearts of liberal Yarborough loyalists when, two months before the 2004 presidential election, he appeared on 60 Minutes to explain his role in helping Bush escape the front lines of battle. The furor that erupted after the program aired, however, had little to do with Barnes' nationally televised confession and everything to do with some apparently doctored documents that the show's producers had turned up as evidence that Bush sloughed off his Guard duties. Barnes reflects on the 60 Minutes episode in his book, noting that the uproar over the documents succeeded in diverting attention away from Bush's questionable military career.

In a recent interview in his Austin office, Barnes talked about his book, his career in politics, and what Democrats need to do to rebuild the party. The following is an edited transcription of our conversation. – A.S.

Austin Chronicle: In your book you lay out a series of events that led to the collapse of the Democratic Party. Now we're seeing similar themes of scandal and political infighting playing out in the Republican Party, so it's interesting how history repeats itself.

Ben Barnes: Yes, it really does. In the beginning of the book, I have that conversation with Mr. [Sam] Rayburn, when I ask him what kind of president that Kennedy was going to make, and he said, "That's not important – what's important is that Richard Nixon was defeated. And young man, he's going to try to come back some day, and you've got to try to stop him." I didn't realize how apropos that was, and I should have taken that a lot more seriously. But we worked like heck campaigning for [Hubert] Humphrey, and we beat Nixon in Texas, and that's what really got the big target on my back with the Republicans and the Nixon people.

AC: Then you got another target on your back with your appearance on 60 Minutes.

BB: Oh, yes.

AC: You offer some pointers on what Democrats need to do to rebuild the party. How does your support of Carole Strayhorn for governor help the Democrats?

BB: I'm supporting an independent to get rid of a person who gets an "F" on his report card for what he has done as governor of Texas.I don't want to make it personal, but where Texas is today is back with Louisiana, Alabama, and Mississippi. We're No. 1 in public education dropouts, we're No. 1 in prisons, we're No. 1 in children's deaths. We're getting statistics that just make us almost a Third World country. And if Texans really understood that, I don't think they'd be willing to accept that.

The Republicans are going to have a lot of reasons to be mad at me because I'm going to travel the country with this book, and I'm going to talk. And they can't get on me and say I'm out there trying to sell this book to make any money, because the proceeds from my book are going to the Boys & Girls Club [in Austin], and the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children.

Jack Kennedy said that sometimes party loyalty asks too much. And man, I like Chris Bell. I think he's a great candidate and a good guy, but he's not going to have the money to have an impact when Perry pulls in the money from the Jim Leiningers and Bob Perrys. [Rick] Perry has unlimited funds. Carole Strayhorn understands government, she's been there, she's comptroller. People have forgotten that Carole will have to have the Democrats in the Legislature to do anything if she got elected governor. And if she was governor, she'd have to be hoping – not publicly – but she'd have to be hoping more Democrats got elected. So it works in my mind that this can be a step in the right direction.

Look, we're not going to elect anybody statewide this time, even if we had the money. I think because of my age that I've become more of a political realist. I'm not Don Quixote as much as I was at one time.

I'm going to continue to support Democrats with my money, my time and energy, but it was very easy for me to see and to encourage my friends that Carole Strayhorn is the only possible person to beat Rick Perry. And I'm sorry Kinky's running. I like Kinky Friedman. But if Kinky was not running, Carole would be ahead right now; there's that much dislike for Perry. So it'll be interesting to see how independents run in Texas. We haven't had an independent governor since Sam Houston.

AC: Is she truly an independent? She has a history of –

BB: Well, she has a history, but you know, Rick Perry was a Democrat, Phil Gramm was a Democrat, even John Tower at one time was a Democrat. Just about everybody in Texas at one time that was alive during that period was a Democrat. Now everybody thinks they've got to be a Republican to get elected. It's amazing how the pendulum has swung.

AC: Right. Although the Travis County Democrats recently recruited a Republican – [now Democratic District Judge] Julie Kocurek.

BB: That's right. And in Kansas, I was there for the announcement of a Republican becoming a Democrat to run for attorney general. I'm very pleased with that. You're beginning to see some signs like that.

In going around the country with my book, I'm going to a lot of the states where there are contested races, where we have a chance. I'm going to Pennsylvania for a book signing party, and Gov. [Ed] Rendell is having a party for me. So I'm talking about Democratic candidates wherever I go. I'm so sorry that Republicans are using [former Pittsburgh Steeler and gubernatorial candidate] Lynn Swann, because he's such a great football player.

AC: You mentioned the lack of a farm system for recruiting and grooming young people to run for office. Who are some of the rising stars in the Democratic Party?

BB: I said this to Howard Dean, one of the few times that I have talked to him, that to rebuild the party in these Republican red states I think the logical place to start is in the state legislatures. I think there are people who would vote for a Democrat to be their state representatives. This is where we need to start rebuilding. I think it's very, very important to work it at the legislative level. We're not going to be able to do much at the Congressional level until we get the Census in 2011 and redistrict again.

I don't talk about this in the book, but I talk about it on the road a lot. When the founding fathers wrote the United States Constitution, they carefully thought about and debated for a long time that the U.S. House of Representatives would run every two years because they wanted one of the houses of Congress to be close to the people, to be able to reflect the current views. Now there are only 30 districts that are in contest because the others are considered either safe Republican or safe Democrat. Most of them are safe Republican. And I'm not too sure that's good. We could let school children draw the lines, and we'd have a better chance of electing a Democrat. We're not going to be able to take back any of these congressional seats [in 2006], and we have to fight like hell to hang on to Chet Edwards because he's in a Republican district. I believe the only way Chet wins is because he went to Texas A&M. He's got that base there, and he's one of them.

But I think we're going to have to go back to the farm system that Johnson and Connally talked to me about – taking responsibility for bringing other people on. That's why I worked so closely with Barbara Jordan. I thought she was the greatest thing in the word. To send a black woman from Texas to the U.S. House of Representatives – what a great message that was. I think Austin is really producing some of the potential stars, with Mark Strama and maybe [Patrick] Rose, and I think Kirk Watson will rapidly become a star in the Senate. So you see the farm system working right here in Austin, and I think it's very healthy.

AC: Are there some unknowns out there that you're keeping an eye on?

BB: I want to go to these college campuses and talk to young Democrats, young college students. I think there's a lot of talent out there, and we can develop and encourage them to become real strong leaders. We Democrats worry about having blacks and women and browns all represented in the party, but I don't think we've done enough work recruiting young people into the Democratic Party.

With this huge [federal] deficit that we've got, they're the ones who are going to have to pay it back. Social Security is not on solid ground. Medicaid and Medicare are not on solid ground, and they're the ones who are going to have to pay for that. The most intelligent questions I get are from young people.

You know, success has so many mothers. I hope the one thing that this book does is encourage more young people to get into politics. If somebody ugly and redheaded from DeLeon, Texas, can get elected as a state representative when they're 22 years old, and go on to be Speaker when they're 26, and lieutenant governor when they're 30, it doesn't look so impossible, when they talk to someone who's been lucky and fortunate like I have been, to do it.

AC: I recently sat in on a talk that Chris Bell gave to high school students, and it was pretty amazing to see how knowledgeable, and how critical, they were of George Bush's education program.

BB: George Bush's education plan is a fraud. I doubt very seriously if it would work, even if they had funded it. I get mad at the Republicans who say you can't just throw money at education. Well, let me tell you, how would we know? We haven't thrown any money at public education. In Texas we've had one of the poorest-funded systems there are, and now they say public education isn't working and we need vouchers. Bull! We haven't given public schools a chance. Starting teachers in DeLeon, Texas, aren't making as much as the people at McDonald's. Education costs more money because we have more kids. Our schools are growing; our state is growing. We really ought to be ashamed of ourselves. Shame on Texas. We've got so much to be thankful for, and we're not putting back into this system.

We've got the highest dropout rate in the United States. They're dropping out because they don't have an adequate preschool program. We've got so much to be thankful for, and we're not putting back into this system. We just want to pull the ladder up and say, I don't care. I was over at the Boys & Girls Club the other day, watching about 35 young black men playing soccer. I was watching them and thinking that the way things are going in Texas, we're sending one out of every four black men to prison. We've got kids suffering from malnutrition and a lack of good medical attention right here in the shadow of the Capitol. Two-thirds of our black babies born in Travis County are born out of wedlock, and people want to raise hell about sex education, and they want to burn the books. Come on! We've got all these bad things, yet we've got one of the highest percentages of college graduates in the United States. We've got so many talented people here. We've got to get active in East Austin. We need to do more. We're just not doing enough.

When George Bush got elected president, he followed the Republican formula of no new taxes. He cut taxes twice, took [billions] out of the system. He gave us back $65 one year, and he gave us $88 another year. Then Rick Perry talked about it, and now he says he's giving us "$2,000 back in property taxes," and that's a lie. It's not going to be anything like that. But we don't have anybody out there throwing the flag down and saying, you're lying.

AC: How did Rick Perry manage to get his tax bill passed? His charm?

BB: John Sharp. He made it a bipartisan thing. It's the only session that Rick Perry was ordered to do something by the Supreme Court. If he had not done it, it would have caused political havoc for him because the Supreme Court would have made the Legislature have another session.

AC: Did you ever talk to Sharp about working with Rick Perry on the tax bill?

BB: No, but I think John made a contribution to the state when we were in a crisis, and he convinced some people to vote for it. I'm from a different era, and I know I used to hate to hear old men sit around and talk about how they did it, but when I was there and when Connally was there in the Sixties and Seventies, I voted for a tax bill every session of the Legislature. As speaker and as lieutenant governor, I passed four tax bills. We told the people exactly what we were doing and what we were spending the money for. And so I guess I'm just jubilant that a Republican, with Sharp's help, did do something that, even though I'm unhappy with it, it was somewhat responsible that they did do something to try to come up with some more money.

AC: You helped defeat a corporate tax bill when you were in the Legislature, and this Legislature just passed one. What do you make of that?

BB: It's a little different situation. We should have had a corporate tax; it was time for a corporate tax. When I was there I didn't want to do it that way, because it would have taxed small businesses, too. But quite frankly we're going to have to have a personal income tax. That's political taboo; it's the kiss of death to talk about that, but when we see we're not going to have any real property tax relief, that's what's going to happen. When you give people a choice between eliminating 90% of property taxes [via an income tax] and putting a cap on it, I think people would vote for an income tax because people pay on what they earn, not on the accelerated appreciation of their property that they're just sitting there living in.

We're operating in Texas, the second largest state, on tax per capita that's 49th. You can't run the second largest state as 49th per capita on taxes. In California they're going to spend $3 billion on stem cell research, and you know what we're going to spend? $30 million. And of course it has to be a certain type of stem cell research or the Republicans won't allow it. California has nine flagship universities, and we've got two. U.S. News & World Report ranked them the lowest they've ever been since they started doing the rankings. But as I said at the beginning of this interview, I think Texas should be ashamed of facts like these. But people's eyes glaze over when they see the statistics. I'm not sure anyone really understands it.

AC: I don't see the Democrats crafting a catchy message to get the word out.

BB: Democrats have spent so much time talking about what's wrong with the Republicans and not what's right with Democrats. I know there are probably a lot of soccer moms who are Democrats who voted for George Bush in 2004 because they thought he was going to make them and their children more secure at night. I don't think Democrats have gotten the message out that that we're just as strong on defense as Republicans. That horrible thing that happened on 9/11 – that left an indelible mark on people's minds. For the first time since the Cuban Missile Crisis, since I've been alive, national security has become a big, big issue in people's minds. I think they go into the ballot box and end up voting for a Republican because they don't want to take a chance. A lot of very socially responsible people, particularly women, voted for George Bush in 2004.

AC: And will they stick with the Republicans this time around in the congressional races?

BB: Well, Karl Rove is talking about national security. They're getting ready to run the same kind of campaign that they ran last time.

AC: Is there a Democratic equivalent of Karl Rove out there somewhere?

BB: I tell you what, I wish I could find that person. I'd carry him around on a pedestal. One thing that makes the Republican strategy so effective is the fact that they have unlimited funds. The Democrats don't have near the money to get out that message. I think the Republicans are smarter than we are, and I don't think they're very concerned about the consequences of the long-term collateral damage, or how many broken arms and legs they leave behind. Now I don't think that's true of Republican people in general, and not all Republican candidates, but I think it's true of Republican strategists. But I'm glad I'm out there traveling the country with my book during a political season. My wife says I'm having the best fun, and I am.

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