Wednesday, January 31, 2007



Nate Wilcox is a Texas friend of DWT and a political consultant specializing in online communications. Most recently he's worked for Mark Warner's and Richard Morrison's high-profile campaigns. Nate worked in the field since the late 1990s when he learned politics working for former Texas Governor Ann Richards, future Bush advisors Matthew Dowd and Mark McKinnon, Clinton staffers Paul Begala and Jeff Eller, Texas legend Jack Martin and direct mail guru Dave Gold. His mother's cousin-in-law, Texas Governor Preston Smith, was implicated but never charged in the Sharpstown scandal which brought down Ben Barnes and others. Family legends have always pinned the blame on Barnes, but research has shown that Smith was in all likelihood far more culpable. He's going to tell all us non-Texans the story of his state's ambiguous political figure, Ben Barnes. This is Part 1 of a 3 part series.

Blogging about Ben Barnes brings up a lot of conflicts-- conflicting emotions, generational conflicts, political conflicts, and especially conflicts of interest.

The powerful Barnes, sometimes called the "51st Senator," is easily the most charismatic living Texas Democrat. He is also easily the most controversial and dogged by scandal.

For those who are not students of Texas political history and/or modern big money politics, Ben Barnes is a Texan mega-lobbyist and power broker. In 2004 he inadvertently triggered "Rather-gate" with his admission that he helped George W. Bush get into the National Guard as Texas' Lt. Governor in 1968.

At age 26 Ben Barnes was the youngest ever Speaker of the Texas House of Representatives. At 30, Barnes was elected Lieutenant Governor and after cruising to re-election in 1970 he seemed a sure shot to be elected Governor in 1972.

I've seen Barnes speak many times-- most notably at the summer 2004 Austin for Kerry meetup where he admitted on video that he helped Bush get into the national guard in 1968-- and he's still a charismatic speaker who can rouse a crowd like few I've seen. For my dollar he's a far more powerful speaker than any living Texas Democrat.

When I think that he could have been the youngest elected governor in Texas history in 1972... and that he very well might have run for the presidency in 1976... a string of painful what ifs come to mind. I have no doubt that Jimmy Carter is the more ethical of the two men, but I also have no doubt that Ben Barnes is a far more effective politician and that had he been elected President in 1976 history would be very different today. Coulda woulda shoulda...

However, fate and Richard Nixon's dirty tricks crew intervened. In 1971, the Sharpstown scandal, a stock-for-legislation brouhaha, splashed enough mud on Barnes to end his career. Although never accused of accepting stock as a quid pro quo for passing legislation favorable to banker Frank Sharp, Barnes' political career took a mortal blow.

The plea-bargaining Frank Sharp, testified that he had been told the reason Barnes was not caught accepting payment was that "Barnes is too smart. He only takes cash."

I don't trust the word of jail-house rats, but enough Texas voters did to permanently damage Barnes' career.

Barnes makes a pretty convincing case in his 2006 autobiography "Barn Building, Barn Burning" that Richard Nixon's dirty-tricks crew played a major role in blowing up the scandal and dragging him into it. From a recent NPR interview:
Question: What was the scandal that brought you down? And
when you say Nixon was involved-- how so?

Answer: The scandal that ended my political career was an investigation at President Nixon's request of a gentleman named Frank Sharp, and an insurance company and bank he owned in Texas. The
speaker of the House and the governor were involved with Mr. Sharp and they bought stock with loans from his bank, and he then bought the stock back at a profit. I never met Frank Sharp, and as you can hear at my Web site, barn Burning, Barn Burning, you can hear clips of Nixon's Oval Office tapes, where the president talks to his Attorney General, John Mitchell, about Sharpstown.

Attorney General Mitchell apologized to me after he got out of prison. The evidence has been clear that Nixon's primary goal in Texas politics was to end my political career-- which he succeeded in

Question: In today's Reliable Source column, you imply that "Nixonian dirty tricks" brought your
career down. How so? What would Nixon have had to do with things happening in Texas?

Answer: The U.S. attorney in Houston years later revealed to a friend of mine that he was put under tremendous pressure by the Justice Department to try to use his powers to involve me in the Sharpstown scandal-- or some other scandal. They wanted to bring my political career down, because at that time I was the strongest Democratic politician in Texas, and Nixon had lost Texas in the 1968

Despite being heavily favored going into the Democratic primary for Governor in 1972, by the time election day rolled around Barnes only managed 18% and a career killing third place finish.

The tragic destruction of Ben Barnes' political career cost Texas the heir of Lyndon Johnson's brand of moderate/progressive Democratic leadership. As a protege of Johnson, Barnes focused on being
progressive-- passing minimum wage laws, investing in education and Texas' technology industry, nurturing the career of Barbara Jordon-- while still maintaining a strong partnership with the business

It wasn't always pretty, but it worked.

Without Barnes' leadership, the Texas Democrats staggered through the 1970s and Texas Republicans capitalized. There was a strong Texas Democratic revival in the 1980s and early 1990s but no clear model of Texas Democratic leadership emerged. Governor Mark White, Lt. Governors Bill Hobby and Bob Bullock, and House Speaker Pete Laney attempted to replicate the Barnes/LBJ pro-business stance but did little on the progressive front. Governor Ann Richards and San Antonio Mayor Henry Cisneros were charismatic but not especially effective. Jim Hightower tried to revive the old liberal wing of the party. Attorneys General Dan Morales and Jim Mattox tried running to the right.
None of them succeeded in defining the Democratic brand strongly enough in voters' minds to counter the impact of Reagan and Rove.

But the saddest part of the Ben Barnes story isn't the might have beens, it's what he did with all that wasted potential for the next three decades. It's a pretty epic tale spanning a failed real estate
empire, the paving of the Texas Hill Country, the biggest lobbying contract in Texas history, allegations of blackmailing Harriet Miers and then Governor George Bush into keeping that contract going, raising millions for John Kerry, being at the center of Rather-gate, and questionable motivations behind his raising millions for a Republican turned independent running for Texas Governor in 2006. I'm going to try to tell that tale in two blog posts, followed by a video interview with Governor Barnes.

-Nate Wilcox

Next: Barnes and Connally Get Rich and Go Bust and Barnes Wins the Lottery.


At 1:48 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Mr Ben Barnes has been involved with so many shady deals that no one can keep up with them. He is the ultimate con and strong arm man in Texas. He along with philanthropist Bernard Rapport of Waco, Roy Butler and Lowell Leberman of Austin have contributed to a lot of slush funds that are tapped by senators all over the United States.
Two years ago they raised a lot of money for then attorney general Eliot Spitzer, and they mentioned his posible run for president and if he had not been caught with a bunch of whores, he would have. I also think that the phlandering womanizing Mr Barnes was tied to Mr. Spitzers whores in New York City.
This man is not to be trusted and is an embarassment to the people of Texas.
Democratic Deep Throat
State of Texas


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