Bill Clements shifted the Texas political landscape

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by BRAD WATSON

WFAA

Posted on May 30, 2011 at 10:00 PM

Updated Tuesday, May 31 at 11:02 AM

The political design for the Republican majorities that now run Texas government were drawn starting with the election of Bill Clements as governor in the late 1970s.

Clements, the first Republican governor since Reconstruction, died Sunday in Dallas at the age of 94.

With voters realigning from majority Democrats to Republicans, Clements did his part through appointments and recruiting.

When voters elected Clements in 1978 Republicans controlled just one county in Texas — Midland.

As he set out to run state government like a business, Clements told News 8 in a 2008 interview that he also set to shift the politics.

"Particularly for somebody that has never done public work before — I've never run for anything, I'd never held any kind of office except owning my own company and so forth — and it was a great, great change," he said.

Clements' blunt style turned off Democratic lawmakers so much in 1979 they overrode gubernatorial vetoes for the first time in 38 years, and there hasn't been one since.

But over appointments, Clements held more control, and in his first term made 4,000 of them — mostly Republicans.

"He was known for making outstanding appointments to the various state boards, agencies and commissions," said Clements' former press spokesman Reggie Bashur.

Clements appointed Austin attorney and longtime Republican Harry Whittington to the prison board. Whittington raised questions about spending and treatment of mentally ill prisoners.

"It was just taken that Republicans did not know how to run anything or do anything in politics," Whittington said. "People were selected for positions on boards and agencies that brought new perspectives."

On the local level, Clements appointed almost 300 Republican judges in courthouses across the state.

He opened a political office to recruit Republican candidates and to urge Democratic incumbents to switch parties.

"I think his victory that year inspired a lot of people to join the Republican Party, to run as Republican candidates for local office, and through the years he helped build a two-party state," Bashur said.

Although Clements' popularity dropped in his second term because of the SMU football scandal and a broken pledge not to raise taxes, his administration kept appointing.

And recruiting.

Those new faces included a young conservative Democratic House member from Paint Creek named Rick Perry, who switched allegiances 1989 to run for Agriculture Commissioner as a Republican.

Perry won that race and hasn't lost since.

Perry won 226 of Texas' 254 counties last November, a victory built, in part, on a foundation laid by Bill Clements.

E-mail bwatson@wfaa.com

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