By accident or design, Texas inherited some of this system. The first counties were based on the old municipio system of large swaths of land, sparsely settled. There were rich landowners. The new executive was weak. Though he led Texas to independence, as president Sam Houston could not convince the legislative branch to make lasting peace with Native Americans, faced army mutinies at Galveston and Velasco, heard talk of an assassination plot against him, had to put down a rebellion at Nacogdoches, and was forbidden by the new constitution from succeeding himself.
He could not even field a military response to one of the most infamous Comanche raids, the 1836 attack on Fort Parker, which led to the deaths of three people and the kidnapping of five. After statehood, Houston was driven from the governorship by the legislature for his unwillingness to pledge loyalty to the Confederacy.
Only the constitution imposed on Texas after the Civil War, in 1869, briefly created a strong executive. Backed by federal power, he could appoint judges, mayors, and aldermen. He could order a new state police force into action across county lines. When Reconstruction ended, a new constitution was drafted in 1876 and, in a backlash against Reconstruction, it purposefully hobbled the chief executive again, giving him few formal powers other than being named “chief executive.” Governors could serve only brief, two-year terms. The legislature would be limited to 20-week sessions every other year. Power was diffused among other officials, most importantly the lieutenant governor who presided over the Senate. And so it was for well over a century.
Strong governors would sometimes arise, but it was through dint of personality, the creation of informal alliances, and the bending of the occasional law. James Edward “Pa” Ferguson was elected in 1914, re-elected, impeached, and then slipped back into power by supporting the successful candidacy of his wife Miriam “Ma” Ferguson in 1924 and again in 1932. A real cowboy of few words, Coke Stevenson was the only person ever to defeat Lyndon Johnson and was the longest running governor at the time, in the 1940s. The taciturn Stevenson financed and extended the state’s highways, expanded the University of Texas, and paid teachers more—all while turning the state deficit into a surplus.
More politicians, some strong and many not, followed. Indeed, Ann Richards, the last Democrat to live in the white antebellum mansion across from the pink, granite capitol, clashed most notably not with Republican legislators, but with her own Democratic lieutenant governor, Bob Bullock.
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This history has a practical and modern implication: It helps explain, at least in part, why Texans are among the least likely Americans to engage with their civic institutions, particularly their political ones, and why Texans are so unlikely to vote. Government is something Texans too often leave to their betters: the rich and the powerful, and the bosses who work for them.