In Mark White’s death, a reminder that we’re in this together
August 12, 2017
Updated: August 12, 2017 6:58pm
One of the most poignant moments of former Gov. Mark White’s funeral came when it was over.
After the gospel choir had sung its last hymn and the state troopers had carried away the Lone Star-emblazed coffin. Political dignitaries of different parties began filing out of the sanctuary at Houston’s Second Baptist Church not as rivals but as fellow Texans.
Republican Gov. Greg Abbott wheeled his chair alongside the family of his late predecessor, a Democrat.
Former President George W. Bush, a Republican twice elected Texas governor, swung his arm around Mayor Sylvester Turner, a longtime Democratic state representative. Turner did the same, and the two walked out together, sharing a quiet laugh.
For one day at least, Rick Perry, former Republican governor turned U.S. energy secretary, and U.S. Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, D-Houston, were on the same page, both listed as honorary pall bearers. Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, an ultraconservative Republican who has presided over arguably the most divisive legislative sessions on record, listened politely as Luci Baines Johnson, the fiery liberal daughter of LBJ, delivered an aching eulogy for White, her centrist longtime friend.
“Mark has brought us here together,” longtime friend Bill Spann told the crowd of hundreds. “Republicans and Democrats, to honor the same principles, to celebrate the same life. I can tell you, if he knew that dying would do that, he’d have done it a thousand times over.”
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And I wondered: Why does somebody have to die for partisans to become people? Why does it take a senseless shooting at a congressional baseball practice for our political leaders to acknowledge they are Americans first?
How have we reached the point in this nation where our leaders come together only in tragedy?
In Texas, at least, I know the main reason. Years of partisan gerrymandering to protect incumbents created noncompetitive voting districts that inspired a monster: an electoral system where winners are chosen by primary voters, whose ideologies lie in the fringes.
Once general election voters lost their say, pragmatism lost ground, bipartisanship became profane and centrists became an endangered species. Mainstream Republicans still in office, such as Texas House Speaker Joe Straus, are viewed by the militant wing with the kind of contempt reserved for wartime deserters.
They don’t understand that Straus’ loyalty, as speaker, isn’t to any one party. He is elected by his colleagues to speak for the House, the whole House, all 150 members who represent Texans in every corner of this vast state, with its varying landscapes and languages, issues and ideologies.
Straus is fighting the good fight, mostly by following the same principle that guided White: do the most good for the most people.
That notion seems quaint in a world of political litmus tests. But it is what helped White pass landmark education legislation in the mid-1980s that reduced class sizes, hiked teacher pay a whopping 37 percent, introduced accountability standards for both students and teachers and installed the initially reviled “no pass, no play” rule requiring students to make the grade academically before they could participate in extracurricular activities.
“Now look,” Bush said in White’s eulogy. “Anybody who understands Texas, and the football culture of our state, knows that saying to a coach or the school boosters, ‘I expect that boy to read, else he doesn’t play’ takes courage. Mark White had courage.”
Passion wasn’t a stunt
His style was usually to soothe rather than inflame, Bush said, but he wasn’t afraid to rumble. One old wire service story from September 1984 depicts White pounding a podium while blasting those who complained about the reforms.
“I’m frankly tired of seeing some coaches come out and say, ‘why don’t you let our kids flunk one course?’ ” White said. “I ask those coaches why they don’t let their teams lose one game.”
White’s passion wasn’t a stunt or a partisan calculation. It was inspired by a genuine commitment to make Texas better. And it wasn’t devoid of pragmatism. He didn’t just demand lawmakers pass his agenda. He shrewdly worked to win support. When the teacher raises and the tax increase to pay for them didn’t pass in regular session, White convened a commission led by straight-talking billionaire Ross Perot to study the education system and recommend changes.
“It’s really pretty amazing that they could get that through a 30-day special session,” said Debbie Ratcliffe, a longtime Texas Education Agency spokeswoman who was a cub reporter for the Austin American-Statesman at the time. “I personally think that HB 72 was one of the three most impactful education bills passed in the 20th century.”
There were trade-offs. To get the raises, White had to tack on a teacher certification test. Even though around 98 percent of teachers passed the test, they resented having to take it, Ratcliffe said, and many withdrew their support for White, which helped cost him re-election.
Even in defeat, White didn’t regret the decision, and he didn’t give up on Texas, family and friends said, adding that he followed Sam Houston’s motto: “Do good and suffer the consequences.”
Where is the pride?
What stood out most when I went back and read White’s speech on the House floor at the start of the 1984 session wasn’t just that it was devoid of divisive rhetoric. It’s how ambitious it was.
He spoke, for instance, of a “quest for the finest educational system this country has ever seen.” That’s the kind of goal a governor can set when lawmakers play more or less on the same team.
Today, we see where divisiveness has led. Texas ranks near the bottom in school funding. Far from aiming for the stars, our lawmakers seem content with mediocrity: a school funding system that the Texas Supreme Court has ruled Byzantine, but satisfying “minimum constitutional requirements.”
Where is the pride in that? Where is the swagger I had growing up in Texas schools? What message are we sending to school children today?
Perhaps it’s naïve to hope that the bipartisan spirit at White’s funeral was anything more than fleeting pleasantries. But I want to believe they heard the same words I did, and that they meant something.
“Look who he has brought together,” Pastor Ed Young said at one point. “What else, who else, would bring us together?”
Surely, there is someone – a leader with the political courage to try and restore what White’s death reminded us we lost. A time when we were Texans first.