In 1954, Congressman Wingate Lucas was up for a difficult reelection. Lucas had actively participated in the Conservative Coalition and was a staunch foe of organized labor, having spearheaded a limitation on increasing the minimum wage in 1949 and voted for the Taft-Hartley Act. Lucas also frequently butted heads with the Truman Administration, which worked just fine for the 1952 election in which Truman was unpopular for numerous reasons, but unity was the call for Democrats in 1954. Enter Jim Wright (1922-2015).
Lucas at first didn’t take Wright’s challenge seriously, but this was his downfall and he lost. Jim Wright had thought Lucas too conservative and the voters of his Fort Worth district had come to agree. He proved much more cooperative with what the national Democrats wanted and was staunchly loyal to Senator Lyndon B. Johnson, who was one of his mentors.
Wright on Civil Rights
Jim Wright took a moderate course for a Southerner on civil rights in the 1950s and 1960s. After opposing the 1956 civil rights bill and voting against the House version of the 1957 Civil Rights Act, he voted for the Senate version of the 1957 Act, backed the McCulloch-Celler Amendment to the Civil Rights Act of 1960, the Voting Rights Act of 1965, and the Civil Rights Act of 1968. However, he also voted against the 24th Amendment, the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and against the Civil Rights Act of 1966 (for its fair housing title).
Path to Leadership
Wright was highly ambitious and in 1961 he attempted to win the special election for LBJ’s Senate seat but came in third. On November 22, 1963, he was in the presidential motorcade when President Kennedy was assassinated. Wright had played a key role in hosting the president’s fence-mending visit to Fort Worth, where he had received a good reception. He was mostly supportive of the Great Society, including voting to repeal the “right to work” section of the Taft-Hartley Act, one of the few Texans to do so. Throughout the 1960s and 1970s Wright worked his way through the Democratic caucus and his efforts paid off when in December 1976, he managed to win the election for House Majority Leader by a single vote against ultra-liberals Phil Burton of California and Richard Bolling of Missouri. The new speaker was Tip O’Neill (D-Mass.), a state reversal of the Rayburn (D-Tex.)-McCormack (D-Mass.) team-up (the Austin-Boston Connection) that had lasted so long and had been so effective in Washington. During the Reagan years, Wright tried, with mixed success, to keep Texas Democrats in the Democratic fold against Reagan. Congressmen Phil Gramm and after his departure from Congress Kent Hance would switch parties and some, like Sam Hall, Ralph Hall, Marvin Leath and Charles Stenholm would frequently cross the aisle on major issues. O’Neill and Wright would work to override President Reagan’s vetoes of domestic spending bills, attracting some cross-over support from liberal and moderate Republicans. With Reagan’s overwhelming reelection in 1984 Wright came to sense that the political mood was becoming more tenuous for Democrats and grew more partisan, demonstrating this in his next role: Speaker of the House.
Wright: Newt’s First Scalp
Speaker Wright acted imperious in his role and this was noted by both Republicans and Democrats, and this plus his mixed history with ethics set him up for a fall. Congressman Newt Gingrich, a firebrand who relished antagonizing the Democratic leadership, had especially objected to Wright’s leaving the minority Republicans out of decision making and limiting staff positions for them; by contrast the last Texan Speaker of the House, Sam Rayburn, had such a good relationship with his counterpart Joe Martin (R-Mass.) that Republicans got certain privileges that as a minority they otherwise wouldn’t have been accorded. Congressman Vin Weber (R-Minn.) expressed the Republican discontent over Wright thusly, “The dislike of Speaker O’Neill was ideological…He was really the symbol of northeastern liberalism. The dislike of Speaker Wright is different. Republicans think he is basically and fundamentally unfair; that he does not have the respect for the institution like Tip; that deep down he is a mean-spirited person, ruthless in the truest sense of the word” (Wallach). Wright had also caught the ire of Republicans by trying to negotiate with the Contras and Sandinistas despite President Reagan’s refusal and foreign policy being foremost in the realm of the Executive, not Legislative Branch. Gingrich had Wright’s background investigated and struck gold.
Wright had several skeletons in his closet, one being that he employed a man named John Mack as a clerk, a brother of his son-in-law who had been sentenced to 15 years in prison and served only 27 months for a violent attack on a woman with a hammer. Mack was not only a clerk, though, he was also the executive director of the Democratic Steering and Policy Committee. Although he resigned on May 11, 1989, the criticism of Wright didn’t abate. He had also been subject to an ethics investigation that found that he worked around limitations on earnings for speaking fees through bulk sales of his 1984 collection of his speeches, Reflections of a Public Man, and had employed his wife Betty to get around limitations on gifts.
Wright’s rise was also alleged to have been aided by funding S&L fraudsters including Charles Keating. The deputy head of the Federal Savings and Loan Corporation, William K. Black, alleged that Wright had intervened in favor of S&L executives. More bad news for him came with the release of the report of the special counsel of the House Ethics Committee, which painted a picture of corruption resulting in recommendations for further investigation of 69 charges. Wright chose to resign on June 6, 1989, as the situation was escalating and his credibility as speaker was gone. His MC-Index score was a 24%. Newt’s next scalps would be those of his successor, Tom Foley (D-Wash.), Ways and Means Chairman Dan Rostenkowski (D-Ill.) (who would go to the penitentiary for mail fraud), Judiciary Committee Chairman Jack Brooks (D-Tex.), and the Democratic House majority in 1994. Ironically, Gingrich himself as speaker would face an ethics scandal and be ordered to pay a $300,000 fine for a violation.
A year before his death, Wright bemoaned the partisan rancor that followed in the years after his resignation and that he regretted doing so, as he hoped that it would bring about peace in Congress. He thought that his resignation would counterbalance the ethics issues as well as the Democrats sinking former Senator John Tower’s (R-Tex.) nomination for defense secretary. Wright went on to say, “Maybe I was attributing to myself a greater influence than I had…that members would change their attitudes toward one another because of what I did” (Associated Press).
Although Jim Wright is not the last of the Texas Legends to enter or leave Congress, he was in truth the last hurrah for Texas Democrats nationally, who had wielded tremendous national influence throughout the 20th century. As Philip A. Wallach (2019) wrote, “Wright failed spectacularly, in a way that discredited institutionalism by making it seem like a lame cover for simple corruption”. What’s more, although Newt Gingrich often gets singled out for the escalating partisanship of the 1990s, Jim Wright’s substantial role in it gets overlooked.
Arnold, L. (2015, May 6). Jim Wright, U.S. House speaker forced out over ethics, dies. Seattle Times.
Former House Speaker Jim Wright regrets resignation. (2014, May 12). Associated Press.
Wallach, P.A. (2019, January 3). The Fall of Jim Wright – and the House of Representatives. The American Interest.