Democrat Bill White charms West Texas for votes
Jul. 10, 2010
PECOS, Texas (AP) — Bill White's got the monogrammed cowboy boots, the worn jeans and the ability to appear at ease connecting with Texans he doesn't know but dearly needs in his race to be governor.
The campaign crisis this day, though, is the hat.
Actually, the lack of one.
The Democrat's usual cap is forgotten at home in Houston, 500 miles to the east, and the fair-skinned and formerly red-haired White needs something to protect his nearly bald head from hours of unforgiving West Texas sun.
A quick stop at a convenience store doesn't offer a fix. The only caps without an advertising logo are pink or carry the word "Outlaw."
Not quite the right message for the former three-term Houston mayor and energy executive who promises to "shoot straight with people."
So White forgoes a hat and borrows sunblock to continue his bid for governor by breaking into a run through the streets of Pecos, a legendary Wild West frontier town on the edge of the Chihuahuan Desert.
The results of the greater run — his political marathon to keep incumbent Republican Gov. Rick Perry from a third full term — won't be known until Texans vote in November.
"We don't have too many politicians visit Fort Stockton," businessman Pete Terrazas, 82, says of White's breakfast stop at the Steak House Restaurant in the town along Interstate 10 midway between San Antonio and El Paso. "He's listening to little people.
"We feel Bill White can do a better job for us."
The strategy of canvassing off-the-beaten-track places for votes mirrors the tactic White used in Houston in 2004 when he first ran for mayor, showing up in neighborhoods and at churches.
"He's indefatigable, just incredible," says Stephen Klineberg, co-director of the Institute for Urban Research at Houston's Rice University. "When he ran for mayor, he visited 300 churches in the year before he ran. And you can see that happening now, he's going to every single little place all around Texas.
"He's going to give it his all in a way you don't see Rick Perry doing."
Unlike Perry, a statewide presence since he was elected agriculture commissioner in 1992, White needs to make himself known outside Houston.
Texas hasn't had a Democratic governor since George W. Bush defeated Ann Richards in 1994, and state government is fully in Republican hands, so White is expected to have a hard time defeating Perry, a straight-from-central-casting billboard for Texas who has become a national GOP figure since he became governor in 2000.
For White, work and education are recurring themes as he shifts from folksy politician, shaking hands with people in cowboy hats and western shirts, and slips on a navy blazer to speak to about 100 people at a town hall meeting in El Paso.
Some find the session, marked by long-winded questions about charter schools, immigration and financial disclosures, equally long on rhetoric from White and short on specifics.
"A whole lot of nothing," said a disappointed Laura Contreras, 20, a college student who voted for Barack Obama two years ago.
White tells them about how he's been "blessed in life that began with a modest background" to head companies, become deputy energy secretary and lead Houston.
In his standard speech, White touts that for five of the six years he was Houston mayor, he oversaw budgets that included property tax reductions.
That's true. However, taxes increased because property values and appraisals went up.
"I've worked with Bill in public crisis operations and he's very good at it," says Republican Paul Bettencourt, a former Harris County tax assessor-collector. "But on public policy issues like tax rates ... he's nowhere."
White grew up in San Antonio and recalls his first real job — thanks to a family connection with San Antonio Sen. Joe Bernal — came in 1967 as a legislative page in Austin. He became conversant in Spanish listening to Bernal's car radio on trips between San Antonio and Austin.
After Harvard and University of Texas law school, White went into the oil and gas business, became undersecretary of energy in the Clinton administration and served a couple years as chairman of the Texas Democratic Party. As Houston mayor, he gained national recognition for accepting Louisiana residents fleeing Hurricane Katrina. At home, the praise was tempered with criticism for a spike in crime blamed on Katrina evacuees and for a chaotic evacuation of the city weeks later as Hurricane Rita approached.
In the close quarters of his campaign plane, White treats those traveling with him to stories about how his first real date with wife Andrea was a canoe trip in the Big Thicket, how his younger brother who died five years ago tutored two immigrant kids to successful careers in music, how as a kid he became skilled at making as many as four raspas — Mexican-style snow-cones — at a time while working concession stands at San Antonio's annual Fiesta.
It's a side of the message-focused White that normally doesn't surface on the campaign trail.
While Perry's style can be much more effusive and passionate, White's personality tends toward the low-key and soft-spoken, although recently he has sharpened his attacks on Perry.
"The epitome of what governor should look like and sound like — it's Rick Perry," Klineberg said, wondering, "What role is that going to play?"
But White is hopeful.
"I'm not pessimistic," he says. "We've come a long way. It takes leaders to have bold vision.
"Gov. Perry's best days in Texas are behind."