Politics & Government

Bill Clements, first GOP governor of Texas, is dead

AUSTIN, Texas — Bill Clements, a Dallas businessman who shattered the image of Texas as a one-party state by becoming its first Republican governor in more than a century, has died at the age of 94.

Not content to be the millionaire founder of a worldwide oil-drilling company, Clements sought to transfer his success in the business world into a successful career in politics.

In his first try for office, in 1978, he won the governorship of the nation's third-largest state. Although he lost his bid for re-election four years later, he staged a stunning comeback in 1986, beating incumbent Gov. Mark White in one of the closest races for governor in state history.

Gov. Rick Perry hailed Clements as "the father of the modern-day Texas Republican Party."

"Our state and nation have lost a true pioneer, and a larger-than-life entrepreneur, public servant and, most of all, a Texan," Perry said in a written statement.

As the state's chief executive, Clements established a reputation as an efficient, businesslike manager. But his second administration was marred by his involvement in the Southern Methodist University pay-for-play football scandal.

Clements helped broaden his party's appeal among voters in the state and made it possible for hundreds of other Republicans to win local and state political offices.

William Perry Clements Jr. was born in Dallas in 1917. He graduated from Highland Park High School in 1934, and as an all-state guard on the school's football team was offered several athletic scholarships.

But the Great Depression intervened, forcing the 17-year-old Clements to cancel his college plans and seek work when his father became unemployed.

With help from a classmate's father, he found a job in the oil fields of South Texas, going to work as a roughneck and driller.

"In 1929, the East Texas oil field had been found, and the idea of drilling and exploration and wildcatting and finding oil fields exciting and glamorous," Clements recalled in a 1978 interview.

He took time out to study engineering at Southern Methodist University in the late 1930s, then resumed his work in oil fields.

Using his experience in the oil business, Clements, then 28, founded the Southeastern Drilling Co. with two partners in 1947, and he eventually turned SEDCO Inc. into the world's largest drilling contracting company.

By 1978, when Clements entered his first race for governor, his personal wealth was estimated at $30 million.

Clements was active in Republican Party affairs for several years, and his business experience led President Richard Nixon to appoint him as deputy defense secretary in 1973. He served in the post until 1977, when Democrat Jimmy Carter became president.

A year later, Clements, who had once considered running for the U.S. Senate, decided to run for governor. His campaign emphasized his success with SEDCO, pointing to the need for a businessman's perspective in the governor's office.

He also showed his feisty side on the campaign trail, shaking a rubber chicken at his Democratic opponent, Attorney General John Hill, and calling Carter a "goddamn liar."

No Republican had won the office since Reconstruction but Clements upset Hill in one of the closest elections in state history. His margin of victory was fewer than 17,000 votes out of 2.4 million cast.

"They took my candidacy very lightly, as kind of a joke," Clements recalled later. "I don't think Mr. Hill ever did wake up to the fact that he had a very serious race on his hands.

"He just didn't believe that he could lose that race to an unknown businessman. I never doubted I would win."

After taking office, Clements quickly established himself as a strong-willed, no-nonsense chief executive intent on slowing down the growth of state government. But he also showed some ability to work with leaders of the Democratic-controlled Legislature.

He even made Republicans angry by appointing Democrats to some state boards and commissions.

Among the most significant legislation pushed by Clements in his first term was his War on Drugs program, which stiffened state drug laws and gave police new wiretapping authority. He also advocated a series of tough anti-crime bills passed by the Legislature.