A wealth of Texas tycoons has aspired to political life

April 05, 1992|By Susan Warren | Susan Warren,Contributing Writer

HOUSTON -- With his maverick bid for president, billionaire H. Ross Perot joins a colorful list of rich Texas tycoons who have brought their grab-them-by-the-horns business style to the world politics.

Although their millions pale next to Mr. Perot's nearly $3 billion estimated fortune, several moneyed Texas candidates have parlayed a keen business instinct into political success -- or in one case, spectacular political disaster.

While political neophytes have sprung from the ranks of the rich in other states, Texas has been particularly vulnerable to the phenomenon because of a relatively weak party system that encourages outsiders to jump in the race, observers here say.

"There's always been a slice of larger-than-life in Texas politics," said state Democratic Party Chairman Ed Martin. "The truth is we have outstanding public officials who have been in politics all their lives -- and then we have these others who just drop in."

Leading the Texas tycoon hall of political fame is Republican Clayton Williams, who gained infamy for his sensational defeat in a 1988 bid for governor. But breaking the ice for rookie politicians with deep pockets was oilman and former Gov. Bill Clements, who in his first bid for office in 1978 upset a Democratic tradition to give Texas its first Republican governor of the century.

And last year in Houston, wealthy real estate developer Bob Lanier booted the five-term incumbent mayor and stomped his favored opponent to win the city's top office.

While Mr. Perot stands out among his predecessors not only in wealth but in making his first political race for U.S. president, he fits neatly into what has become a predictable pattern for Texas entrepreneurs turned politicians. Invariably, they like to bill themselves as problem-solvers.

Their wealth stands as testament to their ability to go after something and get it. Far from playing down their riches, the tycoons, in bold Texas tradition, clamber atop their millions to trumpet their all-American success story. Yet they like to portray themselves as good old Texas boys. Each has courted the Joe Six-Pack vote by preaching a pull-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps philosophy. Each can point to his own rag-to-riches story.

Mr. Clements rose from the oil-field grind of a Rio Grande Valley roughneck to form his own oil company after he dropped out of college. But while he was worth at least $50 million by the time he ran for governor, he liked to emphasize his kinship with the common folk.

George Strake, former state GOP chairman and Mr. Clements' 1978 campaign manager, recalls that Mr. Clements drove a Chevy station wagon and ate at hamburger restaurants. "I used to say he was an oil-field roughneck who lived in a big house," Mr. Strake said.

Mr. Williams honed that image to perfection. From modest beginnings, he built his $400 million fortune in oil, ranching and numerous other business ventures. Despite his wealth, "he looked more comfortable on a horse than he did in [a] country club," Mr. Strake said.

Enjoying a huge lead in the polls over his Democratic opponent, Ann Richards, Mr. Williams' first major campaign blunder happened when he invited a posse of reporters to his west Texas ranch for a cattle roundup. Sitting around the campfire waiting for a thick fog to lift, Mr. Williams likened the bad weather to rape and counseled the press to "just lie back and enjoy it." His campaign never outlived the remark.

Mr. Lanier's family struggled through the Depression in Baytown, Texas, and Mr. Lanier put himself through college and law school. He raked in his riches harvesting the fertile fields of Houston real estate during its oil-boom days.

By billing themselves as political newcomers who promise to shake up the status quo, these tycoons are tapping into growing voter disillusionment with incumbents.

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