Houston Mayor Bill White’s wife, Andrea, served the visiting ambassadors sandwiches in the living room of their spacious memorial-area home as several hours of discussion set the stage for Monday’s announcement that White is considering switching from a run for the U.S. Senate to a bid for Democratic nomination for governor.
As a result of that Sunday afternoon meeting, Democratic candidate Tom Schieffer — who was a Bush administration ambassador to Australia and Japan — announced Monday that he will withdraw from the race for governor to clear the path for White. Schieffer urged other Democrats in the race to drop out and join him in support of White.
“We simply must get behind one candidate who can unite the Democratic Party and offer a credible alternative to the Republicans,” Schieffer said. “Bill White is that candidate.”
The mayor then held a City Hall news conference to say he will consider running for governor and make an announcement by Dec. 4.
“I think it’s time that we have new leadership in Austin,” White said. “I’m disappointed at the failure to make real and tangible, significant progress on cutting dropout rates, improving school achievement, limiting tuition increases, fighting polluters, and I could go on and on.”
Several sources close to White said the decision to switch races was made at the Sunday meeting with Schieffer and his adviser, Lyndon Olson, who was a Clinton administration ambassador to Sweden. Houston lawyer Scott Atlas also was at the meeting. White insisted he still is in the listening stage.
“Right now, people want folks who are competent and shoot straight, don’t engage in cronyism and get things done,” he said. “I’ve had a lot of people bending my ear about what I ought to do next, and I ought to listen to them.”
The expectations that White, and a healthy campaign war chest, will enter the governor’s race immediately changed the dynamics for the Democrats. At the end of September, White had $4.1 million in a U.S. Senate campaign account that can be transferred to a state political committee as seed money. He also has a track record of winning elections in Houston.
Gov. Rick Perry and U.S. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison each had more than $12 million in the bank at the end of June, but the only other Democratic candidate with financial heft is Houston millionaire businessman Farouk Shami. Shami has said he will spend $10 million of his own money to win the Democratic nomination.
White has been running for the U.S. Senate special election that had been expected to be set after Hutchison resigned to challenge Perry in the Republican primary. But Hutchison announced two weeks ago she was putting off any resignation until after the primary.
As late as last week, White adamantly was denying he was going to switch from the Senate race to the governor’s contest.
But Schieffer changed that dynamic after attending a Democratic candidate forum in Fort Worth last week: “It didn’t remind me of the G-8,” he said, referring to a gathering of representatives of the world’s richest nations.
A fateful meeting
Schieffer said he called Olson on Friday and asked him to arrange a meeting with White. They gathered Sunday in White’s living room overlooking Buffalo Bayou. The discussion was state policy and politics.
“I told him our state was facing a crisis of leadership,” Schieffer recalled. “I told him if we did not have a new governor, Texas would end up as a Third World state.”
Schieffer said he told White he would get out of the race to clear his path. Schieffer had found his own campaign hampered by poor fundraising and some Democrats’ “visceral hatred” of former President George W. Bush.
White, at first, demurred about whether he would run, saying only he consulted his family regularly: “It’s about a whole lot of things besides politics, including whether I should eat as many tamales as I do.”
Other Democrats in the race include Shami, Tyler-area rancher Hank Gilbert, humorist Kinky Friedman and Fort Worth school teacher Felix Alvarado. Shami, Gilbert and Friedman said they are staying in the race.
SMU political scientist Cal Jillson added of White, “I have always thought that he would prefer to be governor than to be a senator. His experience is executive rather than legislative.”
Nathan Gonzales with the Rothenberg Political Report in Washington said national Democrats would rather see White in the Senate race. “At the same time, he has a good chance of winning the governor’s race, although it would be an uphill battle for him.” Gonzales said. “But Republicans will continue with a bitter primary, an expensive primary, so Democrats see an opportunity.”