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Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 485

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This is the grave of Mark White.

Born in 1940 in Henderson, Texas, White grew up in Houston and attended Baylor University in Waco. He then received his law degree from Baylor in 1965. He started a law practice in Houston, but very ambitious, was named the state’s assistant attorney general in 1966. He stayed in that role until 1969. He returned to Houston to go back to private practice. In 1973, Texas’s recently elected governor Dolph Briscoe named White Secretary of State. Chosen both because of his outgoing personality and strong legal mind, he was Briscoe’s right-hand man. He was the point person for legislation that upset the conservative Texas legislators. In 1977, White stepped down to run for state attorney general the next year. He won the primary over the son of another former governor and then defeated James Baker in the general election. Texas was moving to the Republican Party pretty fast by 1978, but Democrats could still win, even against someone like Baker.

When someone in Texas runs for attorney general, it usually means they want to be governor. That’s how it was for White, who ran in 1982. While White had won in 1978, so had the Republican Bill Clements for the governor’s race, the first Republican governor since Reconstruction. But Democrats could still compete statewide. Moreover, the recession of the early 80s provided a good path for Democrats and White defeated Clements. This was the last election in which Democrats swept statewide offices in Texas.

As governor, White’s big obsession was with quality public school education. He also wanted to diversify the Texas economy away from oil, so that it would not be subject to so many shocks when oil prices went down. The latter certainly happened over time, though it’s hard to parse how much actual credit for this should go to White. He also appointed a lot of people of color–both African-American and Latino–to statewide office for the first time. But it was really education that motivated him. He wanted to raise the state’s SAT scores, created commissions, and did the things that governors do on this issue.

But White also decided to take on the greatest icon in all of Texas to promote his educational agenda: high school football. Specifically, his administration created a policy that made all high school football players ineligible if they were failing even one class. Well, Texas may or may not care about educating their children, but they sure as hell care about football. The same bill that required athletes to pass their classes also included raises for teachers and mandated smaller class sizes. This caused a slight rise in taxes. Voters were outraged. Many people say this is the biggest reason that White lost his reelection bid in 1986, when Clements ran again. Texas voters definitively decided they were not pro-education.

In the aftermath, White went back to his law practice, now incredibly well-connected. He ran again for governor in 1990, but lost the primary to Ann Richards, who of course then won and became a Texas-sized legend of her own. White did play to some of the worst of Texas politics here, running ads bragging about all the people executed under his administration.

Yuck.

After this, he became a senior figure in the state, working on public education, giving key endorsements in Houston politics, and publicly opposing Texas A&M leaving the Big 12 in 2011. White died in 2017 of a heart attack.

Under White, the state covered 67% of public school expenditures for local districts. At the time of his death in 2017, the state covered 38%. I highly doubt it has improved since.

Mark White is buried in Texas State Cemetery, Austin, Texas.

If you would like this series to visit other governors of the 1980s, you can donate to cover the required expenses here. Frank White, who lost his seat to Bill Clinton, is in Little Rock while our old friend George Wallace is in Montgomery, Alabama. Previous posts in this series are archived here.

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