D Magazine’s 40 Greatest Stories: Clayton Williams Runs For Governor

The last GOP nominee for governor to lose.
The last GOP nominee for governor to lose.
I sort of remember Bill Clements vs. Mark White in 1986, but the first Texas gubernatorial election to which I paid any measurable attention was state treasurer Ann Richards’ victory over West Texas oilman Clayton Williams in 1990. The GOP wasn’t yet the wholly dominant party in our state, but neither did the Democrats still hold the iron grip they’d maintained politically since Reconstruction.

My memory of the election centers on Williams’ TV ad in which he explained his plan to put drug offenders to work busting rocks in hard-labor boot camps rather than lounging around in luxurious prison cells. Behind him is shown a group of college students who were dressed up as convicts, swinging pick axes and shovels. I was in junior high school and not terribly political at the time, but I remember thinking that this guy was laying on the tough-on-crime schtick a little thick.

Still, I doubt that’s what cost Williams the race. (I’d guess that actually did him a lot of good.) What had a lot more to do with his blowing a more than 20-point lead in the polls and ultimately losing out on the governor’s mansion was his propensity for saying stupid things. Most famously, he explained how bad weather is like rape: “if it is inevitable, just relax and enjoy it.”

Do you think if a politician made a statement like that today that he’d even be able to stay in the race? Well, anyway, he did. When Mike Shropshire wrote about Williams and the election in the September 1990 issue of D Magazine (two months before election day), there was still a sense that “the state’s No. 1 Bubba” would come out on top. “Republicans believe a changing of the guard is at hand,” Shropshire wrote in one of D Magazine’s 40 greatest stories.

They were right, of course. Williams’ loss — garnering 46.92% of the vote to Richards’ 49.47% — proved to be just a speed bump on the road to GOP hegemony. But don’t shed too many tears for old Claytie. After the premature finish to his political career, he went back to work in the oil and gas business. He took his company public in 1993, and today Clayton Williams Energy (of which he remains chairman, president, and CEO) boasts a market capitalization of $1.61 billion.

As for the legacy of his campaign to the state’s government and politics, he told the Midland Reporter-Telegram in 2011 that before him the GOP was primarily associated with the country-club crowd:

“I made it OK for Bubba to vote Republican.”