She's Her Own Grandma
Homegirl Carole Keeton Strayhorn is still running ... and running ... and running, after all these years
At a press conference last month outside her campaign headquarters, Carole Keeton Strayhorn was zipping through a string of run-on sentences at breakneck speed when a low rumble of thunder suddenly boomed in the distance. Any other politician might have responded to the midsentence noisemaker with a little humor, but Strayhorn never even broke pace. She merely dialed up the volume. "Let the race begin!" she hollered.
On this warm June afternoon, the two-term comptroller was trumpeting her confirmation on the November ballot as an independent candidate for governor. After waiting more than two months for the secretary of state to validate her voter-signed petitions, Strayhorn wasn't about to let thunder steal a celestial moment in her political career. "If I look like I'm floating, I am," she gushed, sounding more like a giddy schoolgirl than the "tough grandma" moniker that's helped carry her through two previous statewide elections. "I couldn't be more excited."
To witness those few hyperkinetic moments in the life of Strayhorn that day defying an approaching storm one minute, defying gravity the next (speed talking all the while) was to understand at once why people either love or hate the diminutive but imposing spitfire who lets nothing stand in the way of her leapfrogging political ambitions. Now, after a long, colorful journey from Austin school board president, to Austin mayor, to railroad commissioner, to comptroller, and from liberal Democrat (by Texas standards) to conservative Republican, to independent, to who knows what next at 66 years old, Strayhorn is just getting warmed up.
She has now set her sights on the governor's office and, as with every other political challenge she's taken on, Strayhorn relishes the fight as much as the prospect of winning a race with very long odds. Her prime target in this five-way contest is Republican Gov. Rick Perry, who, despite voter-approval ratings that range from low to mediocre, is at this writing well ahead of Strayhorn and three other rivals Democrat Chris Bell, independent Kinky Friedman, and Libertarian James Werner. No matter who's side you're on, the entertainment value alone thanks to Friedman's snap and Strayhorn's bluster could be just the ticket to get voters, even traditionally nonvoting voters, to the polls on Election Day.
Strayhorn's biggest handicap right now is uncertain name ID an odd conundrum for a veteran politico who in 2002 captured more votes than any other statewide elected official, including Perry. She has run successful campaigns in Austin as "Carole Keeton McClellan," and statewide as "Carole Keeton Rylander," but never as Strayhorn. (She married her third husband, former high school sweetheart Ed Strayhorn, shortly after her 2002 re-election to comptroller.) She had hoped to build on her successful "One Tough Grandma" campaign slogan by adding "Grandma" to her name on the ballot, but Secretary of State Roger Williams, a Perry appointee, ruled that "Grandma" is a slogan, not a nickname. A few days later, Strayhorn accused Perry of sticking his nose in the ballot decision and sued to have the ruling reversed. Spokesman Mark Sanders, referring to the campaign's internal polling, said they [the Perry campaign] "were screaming bloody murder because they know our numbers go up 10 points when we use 'Grandma.'"
Strayhorn, who recently welcomed a sixth grandchild to her extended family, frequently offers anecdotal evidence to back up her argument that "I am not a slogan. I am Grandma!," a declaration that in itself has begun to sound like a slogan. "I can go in grocery stores all over this state and people know me as 'Grandma,'" she says. She recounts a Saturday morning a few weeks ago when she stopped by a McDonald's to fetch some breakfast for her campaign staff and a "wonderful Hispanic woman" greeted her at the drive-through window. "She said, 'I know you! I don't know your name, but you're Grandma.' And I said, 'You are absolutely correct.'"
She Vouches for Carole
The Grandma factor or its official absence may help explain Strayhorn's thus far underwhelming performance in statewide polls. SurveyUSA's June numbers (and all such early numbers need to be taken with a considerable grain of salt) show Perry at 35% (down six points from May), Friedman up five points to 21%, Bell up two points to 20%, and Strayhorn down one point to 19%. In other words, Perry could easily win the race with less much less than 50% of the vote, which could be embarrassing for him. And think how the rest of us would feel.
"At the end of the day, I think it's going to be Perry, Bell, Carole, and Kinky" (i.e., in that order), said Austin lobbyist Bill Miller, a Perry supporter who enjoys a good deal of sway at the Capitol under the current administration. "Carole hasn't shown yet that she can beat Perry, and not until she can clearly and unmistakably show she can beat Perry will she be able to pick up Democratic votes. Otherwise," he said, "the Democratic voters will default to the home boy [Bell], and he'll do well accordingly."
That's why the Democrats or at least those publicly true to the home team are working overtime to drive up Bell's numbers and to hold Strayhorn at 20%. "She has name ID that we envy, and she's stuck in the high teens," said Bell spokesman Jason Stanford. "And now she's trying to prove that she hasn't overpoliticized the word 'Grandma,' which just makes her look silly. Every time I think this race has gotten as weird as it's going to get, the sun rises again and we reach new levels of absurdity." Stanford elaborated, "Rick Perry just signed the biggest tax increase in state history. Kinky Friedman is trying to put out serious policy, and Carole Strayhorn is asking the state to certify that she's a grandmother. We don't have to convince anyone that Chris Bell is the sanest choice in this election. That's not our challenge."
Indeed, that's the least of Bell's challenges. A former U.S. congressman from Houston, he doesn't have the instant (and free) celebrity media advantage of Friedman, or the institutional (and free) media access afforded officeholders Perry and Strayhorn. For now, he's trying to keep Strayhorn, a former Democrat, from cutting into his fundraising turf. She has built the second largest war chest behind Perry by tapping into the tills of big-wheel Democratic establishment figures like former Lt. Gov. Ben Barnes, Waco philanthropist Bernard Rapoport, and Laredo millionaire Tony Sanchez, the unsuccessful Democratic candidate for governor in 2002. She's also hauling in campaign cash from major trial lawyers who have traditionally backed Democrats.
Strayhorn's advantage as a former school teacher, along with a widely held belief that she's the strongest candidate in the Anybody-but-Perry field of contestants, has allowed her to splinter the labor vote with political endorsements from the Texas State Employees Union, the Texas State Teachers Association, and, most recently, the Texas Federation of Teachers. The larger collective labor prize the Texas AFL-CIO's endorsement went to Bell.
In part to maintain that crossover money and potential vote, Strayhorn has consistently tried to paint the contest as a two-person race between Grandma and Perry. As the last gubernatorial candidate to address the Texas Classroom Teachers Association last month in Austin, Strayhorn made an effort to distinguish herself from the rest of the pack by providing what were then the most current financial balance sheets for each of the campaigns. Perry, she said, had more than $9 million in the bank, while she had over $8 million in ready cash, followed by Friedman with $271,000, and Bell with $98,000. "It costs a million dollars a week for TV in Texas," she told the crowd, "and $98,000 won't get you governor." (Friedman and Bell have since posted balances of $491,000 and $654,000, respectively.) That was Strayhorn's way of proving what she had just told them: "This is a two-person race. You can have four more years of Rick Perry, or you can have Carole Keeton 'Grandma' Strayhorn, a teacher, in the governor's office."
Strayhorn and Bell who earlier that morning called education his "top priority" and denounced "high-stakes testing" both scored audible points with the TCTA audience. As campaign styles go, Strayhorn is without question the grandmother of folksy charm. She can move a crowd, work a room, draw you in, hug your neck, and crack up an entire assembly hall with the same cornball jokes she's been telling for years. Before she took the podium, Strayhorn yukked it up with a couple of women in the hallway, sharing with them the oft-told tale of why she talks so fast. See, whenever she helped out in the kitchen at home, her mother would let her lick the beaters on the electric mixer but she wouldn't turn it off. The women loved that story.
Addressing the teachers group, Strayhorn opened with some down-home humor before jumping feet first into the issue of public education, starting with her own history in the classroom. "I've had a lot of firsts in my life," she said, ticking off a laundry list of milestones: "First woman president of the Austin school board, first woman president of Austin Community College board of trustees [then governed by the AISD board], first woman elected to the Railroad Commission, first woman comptroller. ... But what I'm most proud of first I was a public school teacher, and I never forget my roots!"
The teachers ate it up. She then turned on Perry, accusing the governor of "turning his back" on public schools while positioning a private voucher program to become the viable alternative. "My bottom line vouchers are off the table," she vowed. "As governor I will veto any plan or any legislation that puts a single dollar into any voucher program, period!" By the time Strayhorn wrapped up her 34-minute speed-spiel at the mic hammering Perry at every turn Grandma's gift for gab had earned her three standing ovations and more than 20 applause lines. For Strayhorn, it was all in a day's work.
Seeking Higher Ground
Before she was Carole Keeton McClellan or Carole Keeton Rylander or Carole Keeton Strayhorn or Carole Keeton "Grandma" Strayhorn ... she was just Carole Keeton, a homegrown Austin girl, one of about 30 kids in Miss James' art class at O'Henry Middle School. Carole wasn't just any kid. She was the daughter of Page Keeton, the revered dean of the UT Law School. Her teacher, Geraldine James (now Jerry England), was practically a kid herself, having just landed her first teaching job. "Of course I knew who she was because she was Dean Keeton's daughter," England recalls. "The entire school was just filled with faculty children." England eventually married and moved out of state, returning to Austin 50 years later in 2004, and surprise! discovered Carole Keeton in her living room one night. "I saw her on TV and I thought, my gosh, that's little Carole Keeton from O'Henry!" And England reports that, save for the spectacles she now wears, little Carole Keeton looks just the same. If Strayhorn demonstrated any artistic genius in those early years, her work didn't make a lasting impression on England. "She was just a nice, sweet little girl," she recalls. "I can still remember where she sat, and she was always there, and smiling."
One of two children born to Madge and Page Keeton, Strayhorn and her brother Richard, now a high-profile Houston attorney (and, of late, part of Tom DeLay's defense team), grew up in a household keen on intellectual debate, education, and public service. As Strayhorn is fond of saying, "My father taught the law, my mother was the law." Carole Keeton's three dominant traits she's competitive (in 1957, she ranked No. 2 in the state in women's doubles tennis), extraordinarily energetic, and super ambitious combined to deliver her first political victory when she ran for student council president in 1956 at Stephen F. Austin High School.
In those days, Austin High tradition held that boys ran as president and girls signed on as their running mates. Strayhorn, then serving a nonelected role as cheerleader, decided it was time to shake things up. "I went to my dear friend Richard Castruita Richard and I did the Maypole dance together at Pease Elementary and I said, 'Richard, how'd you like to run as vice-president?'" Richard, the head cheerleader, agreed to take the No. 2 spot on Carole's ticket. The cheerleading duo crafted a catchy campaign slogan "Eureka! Keeton and Castruita" and clinched the race.
(Backstory: Strayhorn shared this anecdote at a press briefing one morning after a reporter asked her how she intends to attract Hispanic voters. The comptroller responded with an entertaining tale spiced with the Hispanic-sounding name of a "dear friend" and said absolutely nothing about her strategy to get out the Hispanic vote. "So," Strayhorn concluded with a smile, "my friends are all Texans. That's who I am. I will be all over the state." With that, her ever-present press agent Mark Sanders called the briefing to a halt.)
Strayhorn's lengthy political résumé is highly impressive, but it's also suggestive of a strong impulsive streak. Throughout her career, she has quit one elected post after another in pursuit of the next big thing.
In a nutshell: She had one year remaining in her term on the Austin school board when she resigned to run for mayor. Four months before the end of her third two-year term, she quit to serve as former Gov. Mark White's appointee on the State Board of Insurance. She followed with a complete 180 not only did she quit the insurance board with three years left in her term, she switched to the Republican Party and mounted a campaign to run against Jake Pickle, the long-serving (and it turned out, unbeatable) Democratic giant of an Austin congressman. Pickle died a year ago, on the day Strayhorn announced her candidacy for governor stealing her thunder once again.
"Probably the big mistake she made that put her on the sidelines was the Pickle race," says Miller. "That knocked her out for a while." But only for a while. In short order she bounced back and ran for a seat on the Railroad Commission in 1992 against Barry Williamson in the Republican primary. Williamson went on to beat Democratic rising star Lena Guerrero thanks in large measure to Strayhorn, whose campaign handed Williamson's political henchman, none other than Karl Rove, the gift of gold: documents showing that Guerrero had lied about graduating from college. Strayhorn was more than happy to let Rove take the credit for nailing Guerrero. Her reward would come later. In 1994, GOP party bosses got behind Strayhorn in her bid for the Railroad Commission, and, of course, she won. Shortly into her first full term, she began laying the groundwork to run for state comptroller, winning in 1998 (with a hefty financial boost from San Antonio voucher proponent James Leininger, who stopped supporting Strayhorn when she stopped supporting vouchers). She won re-election four years later.
Even before then, it was clear where she was headed next. But to get there, she needed incumbent and fellow Republican Rick Perry's head. On a platter. When she announced in January that she would run for governor as an independent, GOP leaders offed her head, too right off the wall of the Republican Party of Texas headquarters. No telling where her framed mug ended up.
Nailed to the Nuke
After graduating from UT in 1961, Strayhorn entered the world of public service as a school teacher at McCallum High. She married her first husband, attorney Barr McClellan (father of her four sons; they divorced early in Strayhorn's first term as mayor). If there are two personal characteristics that genuinely distinguish her from her gubernatorial rivals, it is her intrinsic bond with school teachers and single mothers. "I don't think she slept," said her son and campaign manager Brad McClellan. "She'd sometimes be up, doing work, doing laundry, getting our lunches together. I think she gave up her social life, too. ... It was kids and it was work."
Frustrated with the lack of direct teacher representation on the Austin school board, Strayhorn took matters into her own hands and mounted her first citywide campaign for AISD trustee in 1972. "She was head and shoulders above the other candidates," says former Mayor Gus Garcia, who made his first bid for trustee the same year, becoming the first Hispanic elected to the board. "She was very hard-working, very smart, very connected. She was Old Austin, so to speak. And she knew the issues because she had been a teacher." Garcia and Strayhorn were part of what was then considered a dream team of a school board; it also included its first African-American woman, Wilhelmina Delco, who went on to represent East Austin in the state House of Representatives. In Garcia's admittedly Austin-centric view, Strayhorn's performance on the school board ranks among her greatest political achievements.
Having been a tennis competitor in high school, one of Strayhorn's pet projects as an AISD trustee centered on Title IX issues providing opportunities for girls to take part in school athletics. (Perhaps in part as a way of showing her appreciation to Strayhorn's support of women athletes, UT Lady Longhorn basketball coach Jody Conradt signed Strayhorn's petition to secure a place on the ballot in the governor's race.)
Strayhorn was "very meticulous" on curriculum issues, Garcia says, and she could always be counted on to support matters pertaining to civil rights. "She had a lot of friends in both the Hispanic and black communities, and she did her homework," he says. "She basically worked with us, and we could always count on her votes [on minority issues]." Even now, with their political differences Garcia is a hardcore Democrat he and his family have maintained a lasting friendship with Strayhorn. "I'm not particularly enamored with the idea of her being a Republican," he says, "but more than likely I will vote for her, and so will members of my family." And Garcia echoed the widely held belief and a growing source of irritation for Bell supporters that the race is between Strayhorn and Perry. "If anybody can beat Perry," he insists, "it's Carole. ... And if she can't beat him, she'll make a Christian out of him."
Strayhorn began her political metamorphosis during her tenure as Mayor McClellan, a title she held from 1977 to 1983. Before taking office, she had campaigned for Jeff Friedman, an early voting-rights advocate and anti-Vietnam War activist who was a City Council member before advancing to mayor in 1975. Friedman served one term in the mayor's seat and then campaigned for Strayhorn, in those times the liberal challenger to conservative candidate Jack McCreary. "My introduction to her was, in part, through her dad," said Friedman, who recalled meeting her shortly after he graduated from law school, where he had become a huge admirer of Dean Keeton.
Asked whether Strayhorn shared many of her father's traits, Friedman paused for a moment. "Her bona fides were there, so she may well be similar to him in a lot of different ways," he said. But there was one noticeable difference between father and daughter, as Friedman considers it now. "His compromises were based on the concept of doing the right thing, as opposed to, how [the compromises] would help him get ahead." On social issues, at least in the early part of her administration, she remained true to her values. "She never gave us any problem when I was trying to get Brackenridge Hospital to perform abortions," Friedman said. "And she was very actively oriented toward public input and citizen involvement, which is not too different than how she is now."
But more than any other decision she made in all her years as mayor, Strayhorn is most remembered as the person who as former Austin Chronicle writer Robert Bryce phrased it "nailed us to the Nuke." As Bryce recounted in a 1998 piece, city voters in 1979, just a few days after the nuke meltdown at Three Mile Island, faced a mayoral race as well as two opposing propositions on the ballot. One proposed that the city should sell its interest in the South Texas Nuclear Project; the other called for keeping the marriage intact by issuing $215.8 million in new debt to continue participating in the Nuke. Strayhorn served as the pro-Nuke cheerleader, taking out an ad in the Austin American-Statesman, one day before the election, that said, "The only way the only way to insure that your utility bills will be as low as possible is to vote to stay in the South Texas Nuclear Project." Voters on both sides turned out in droves, and the majority gave Strayhorn everything she wanted re-election to another term and a pro-Nuke victory on the propositions. "That has more or less plagued her in the progressive community," Friedman says. "She was an absolute fan [of the Nuke], and when we had a chance to vote against it, she came out, just after Three Mile Island, with total support, and I think that was poisonous. That pretty much set her off in many people's minds that she wasn't a true-blue progressive."
Her support for the Nuke was a slap, but her switch to the Republican Party, followed by her dramatic shift to the right, confirmed her rift with progressives. "I was just dumbfounded," Friedman recalls of her transformation. "She never expressed, let alone lived at least what the public saw a Republican approach. But I think if you were going to take on a congressman as deeply seated as Jake, she had to do something different." Still, he says, "I don't think her dad would have made those choices. He just said what was right. And there are times when she exhibits the same type of greatness."
With the exception of the Nuke issue, Austin environmental matriarch Mary Arnold largely gives Strayhorn good marks as mayor. "I guess one of my biggest disappointments was when she switched to the Republican Party," she said. "By then she wasn't involved in city issues as much, but I'd run into her every once in a while, and we'd have a nice little visit. But am I supporting her? Noooo. I'm sticking with the Democratic Party."
Eastside activist Larry Jackson says he disagreed with Strayhorn's Nuke stance and a number of other issues, but he's bullish on Strayhorn for governor and even refrained from voting in the primary to keep his name valid on her petition. "As mayor, she had a real sensitivity to the plight of African-Americans," he says. "Even when she switched parties, she didn't switch the kind of sensitivity needed to highlight the situation of African-Americans, then and now."
The Permanent Campaigner
Shortly after Strayhorn took over the Comptroller's job in 1999, her Democratic predecessor, John Sharp, offered her some friendly advice, written in the form of a letter and published in the June issue of Texas Monthly. "One of the realities of your job," he wrote, "is that the public will generally be unaware of how much you do. Everyone from the governor on down will take credit for your work ... That's okay. You serve the public's interests, not your own. Anything is possible if it doesn't matter who gets the credit."
Has Strayhorn followed Sharp's lead and served the public's interest? The consensus is generally yes. Has she served her own interests in the process? The consensus is, overwhelmingly, yes. Just two months after Sharp's letter appeared in TM, Strayhorn (then Rylander) showed up at Antone's Austin's beloved music venue one bustling Saturday night in August. She hadn't come to hear guitar legend Monte Montgomery. She was there to steal the show, in a media-orchestrated tax raid with plenty of camera-ready visuals: state agents seizing cash registers seeking $22,000 in back liquor taxes while the comptroller stood outside and provided sound bites. About 400 people went home really pissed that night, because they had paid $10 at the door to see Monte, and all they got was Grandma. The tax police collected $8,221 from the cash boxes, and Strayhorn got her picture on the front page of Sunday's Austin American-Statesman, next to a quote from a patron comparing her actions to the Gestapo. Most everyone else in town agreed.
In the years that followed, Strayhorn's media events have largely centered on the comptroller's drawing lines in the sand with Perry and/or the Legislature. Her revenue estimates, released before each regular session of the Legislature cranks up every other January, served as her best outlet for airing whatever dirty laundry had piled up during the off season. In 2003, when she dropped the bombshell of a $10 billion budget shortfall, she laid blame at the Legislature's doorstep, saying lawmakers had "thrown a party" in the 2001 session and "left the taxpayers with a hangover."
It was classic "fiscal conservative" rhetoric, but it also fit a pattern that became characteristic for Strayhorn's political behavior, the often double-edged swords of her permanent campaign. She would blast the Legislature and the governor for spending too much money always a dubious charge in a state distinguished by one of the stingiest per capita budgets in the country and would sternly advocate program "reforms" (for example, to children's Medicaid) designed to slash rising costs. Then, when those draconian reforms and others like them were duly instituted by the Republican-dominated Legislature and endorsed by Gov. Perry Strayhorn would blast the Lege and the governor for balancing the budget by cutting children's health care, or teachers' pensions, or some other broadly popular program. On one high-profile issue after another Medicaid, foster care, school vouchers, toll roads Strayhorn's critics point to a history of the candidate coming down hard on one side at first, and then later, with a shift in state political winds or her own ambitions, chiming in just as hard from the other. There are plenty of Texas Republicans, Rick Perry among them, who were once stoutly proud Democrats, but Strayhorn in this current political year a newly metamorphosed Republican "independent" seems to have raised the state's turncoat tradition to a new level of expediency.
When she publicly fought the Lege, payback was just around the corner. Lawmakers snuffed her ambitious TexasNextStep program, which would have provided free tuition for students attending community colleges. Once the session ended, Strayhorn grabbed another headline. She refused to certify the budget because it wouldn't balance budget writers had inadvertently axed $200 million from a highways fund. It took nearly an act of God to broker a compromise to get her to certify the thing. When Perry called lawmakers back to town that summer for what turned into multiple special sessions on (no, not school finance) congressional redistricting, Strayhorn saw two of her agency's most visible programs e-Texas Performance Review and the Texas School Performance Review transferred out of her office, effectively shutting down her (and future comptrollers') best vehicle for influencing public policy and getting some press out of it, too. Strayhorn was furious. She accused Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst, and Perry, too, of greasing the wheels that moved the measure through the Lege. The maneuver was punishment, she said, "because I told the truth" about the $10 billion shortfall and the budget being out of whack.
People familiar with the workings of the agency agree that the programs, particularly the School Performance Review created under Sharp, belong in the comptroller's office. "I don't think that would have ever happened under Sharp or [former comptroller and Lt. Gov. Bob Bullock]," said one former employee who worked under Sharp and briefly under Strayhorn.
Of course, a legitimate argument could be made that Strayhorn's gender, not to mention her "one tough Grandma" personality, might also figure into her strained relations with the boys at the Capitol. But then, the former staffer went on to explain, "Bullock and Sharp were creatures of the Legislature, having served there, and they knew the limits. They knew if they pushed too hard, the Legislature would push back. And I don't think she ever understood the give-and-take of that arena."
In Strayhorn's case, when the Legislature pushed back, she just pushed back harder, and boom! another bloody war ensued. For now, though, Grandma is content just to battle with the big chief, the one she needs to tomahawk to get to the governor's office and thereby complete her extraordinary Texas political odyssey. Her ability to tap deep campaign pockets remains undiminished, and the big institutional endorsements especially from teachers' organizations reflect that there are plenty of Texans so desperate to defeat Perry that they're willing to forget (or ignore) more than a few abrupt reversals in course by their de facto standard-bearer.
The problem for Texas voters, come November, is that "Grandma" Strayhorn sticks to her rhetorical guns as stubbornly as she sticks to her well-worn script. One on one, she comes across as incredibly friendly, funny, and animated, in a just-us-girls yakkin' kind of way. But when she leans in and stares intently into your eyes as though she's going to wander off that script and actually say something, anything, that she hasn't already said literally thousands of times before ... she'll grab a sound bite out of her mental database and declare "I run with the people!" or "This governor has [fill-in-the-blank outrage]" or toss out a quote from Sam Houston before the battle of San Jacinto: "We are nerved for the contest and must conquer or perish." She inevitably follows that solemnly with "I, too, am nerved for the contest."
Carole Keeton Strayhorn, Grandma for Governor, has certainly been at the state political game quite long enough to persuade Texans that she is more than sufficiently "nerved for the contest." What they still may not be clear on is precisely what sort of governor they'll get, should she win.