Texas State Sen. Wendy Davis’s (D) meteoric rise to national prominence has left her in a unique position. Not only is she considered a strong candidate to run for governor but she’s also considered to be a rising star that Democrats hope could help turn the state blue. The Texas Tribune recently reported that other Democrats are taking a “wait and see” approach on whether the national attention and money a Davis gubernatorial campaign would bring to those who are eyeing seats.
But the story of the next great Democrat to bring change is nothing new for the state of Texas. In fact, a long time ago — in what now seems like a Texas that’s far far away — there were other Democrats who, like Davis, observers believed would herald in a new era of Democratic dominance. Below is a list of these Democrats who, at one time or another, were seen as the beginning of a new Democratic era in the Lone Star state.
The Castro brothers. One of the most popular names in Texas politics has been Castro — as in Rep. JoaquÃn Castro (D) and his brother, San Antonio Mayor Julian Castro (D). Democrats find the brothers so promising that Julian Castro delivered the Democratic National Committee keynote speech in 2012 in Charlotte (President Barack Obama gave the speech in 2004). JoaquÃn has stayed prominent by weighing in on big issues like immigration reform. Either brother could run for a higher office someday, but since Davis’s filibuster, the blue Texas spotlight has shifted to shine on Davis.
Ann Richards. When asked who might be the best comparison to Davis, political observers almost always say former Gov. Ann Richards, who served in Texas’ highest office for one term starting in 1991. Richards, like Davis, spent years prior to her time in the governor’s mansion in local Democratic politics. Also like other Democrats who rose at a sound-barrier-breaking speed, Richards earned the country’s attention when she made the keynote address at the 1988 Democratic National Convention as Texas State Treasurer. If Davis runs for governor and wins, Democrats will likely pray that her time in office will outpace Richards’ (she lost to George W. Bush in 1994). By the time Richards became governor, Democrats had already begun to lose their iron grip of the state and Republicans soon dominated every statewide election.
Dan Morales. During the heyday of the Richards’ era, there were a number of politicians Democrats were excited about, but perhaps the one who generated the most buzz was Morales. Morales served as attorney general first under Richards and then under Gov. George W. Bush. He ran for governor himself in 2002 after passing on a challenge against retiring Sen. Phil Gramm (R-TX) but Morales lost in the Democratic primary against businessman Tony Sanchez (who was in turn defeated by current Texas Gov. Rick Perry (R) in the general election). Morales then went on to endorse Perry in the gubernatorial election. In 2003, Morales was indicted for attempting to make hundreds of millions of dollars from legal costs in a settlement with a set of tobacco companies, effectively ending any political desires he may have had left.
Bill White. When he was mayor of Houston, Bill White was a hot commodity. He seemed destined for the governor’s mansion or perhaps something beyond that. Prior to running the largest city in Texas, White served as United States Deputy Secretary of Energy for then-President Bill Clinton from 1993 to 1995. His mayoral and association with Clinton win gave him the sheen of a Democrat who also could win in the South. White eventually ran for governor against Rick Perry in 2010 and lost by 13 points.
Henry Cisneros. In the 1980s, Cisneros became the first Hispanic mayor of an American city when he was elected the chief executive of San Antonio. In 1984, Cisneros was interviewed by Democratic presidential nominee Walter Mondale (MN) as a possible candidate for vice president. Clinton tapped Cisneros in 1992 to serve as secretary of the Department of Housing and Urban Development. Cisneros’s political career got mired over an investigation into whether he lied to the FBI about making payments to his former mistress and he left politics. Cisneros then went to the private sector where he started the Cisneros Asset Management Company. Currently, Cisneros serves as one of the co-chairs of the Bipartisan Policy Center’s Housing Commission. He also co-chairs the think tank’s Immigration Task Force.
Ben Barnes. Before serving as lieutenant governor from the late 1960s to the early 1970s, Barnes served in the Texas House of Representatives. He became the the chamber’s speaker at the age of 26, making him the youngest politician to hold one of the most powerful political positions in the state since the 1800s. He also was close to President Lyndon Johnson and Texas Gov. John Connally. “Back then, everybody said he’s going to be president,” Democratic strategist Paul Begala told TPM. In 1971, Barnes was accused of bribery in the Sharpstown scandal along with a number of other politicians but no charges were ever filed against Barnes. Barnes recovered and ran for governor in 1972, but lost and decided to end his career in politics. He eventually went into real estate and became a lobbyist.
None of these past great hopes for Texas is a perfect comparison to Davis today. Political strategists and historians stressed to TPM that each of these pols rode a wave of unique political factors — just as Davis is doing now.
“One of the reasons it’s hard to find a comparison is Wendy Davis’s rise is so rapid,” Dr. James Henson, who directs the University of Texas at Austin’s Texas Politics Project told TPM. “Ann Richards was, in a lot of ways, kind of a last gasp of something and if Wendy Davis is going to succeed she needs to be seen as the first breath of something new.”
Correction: The original version of this post incorrectly referred to Dan Morales as a former Texas lieutenant governor. In fact, he was attorney general of Texas. We regret the error.