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Interview with: E. A. "Squatty" Lyons
Interviews by Louis Marchiafava
Date: July 7, 1976
Archive Number: OH 109
EL: Well, my long-time friend and former football coach, Arnold (Craighammer?), was very interested in politics. Having just graduated from law school and had worked with the District Attorney’s office as assistant DA, he thought that I had an excellent chance to win if I’d run for county commissioner. It never entered my mind, but he planted the seed, and through that, over a period of about 3 years, I convinced my daddy to loan me the money to run for county commissioner, which he did. So I entered the race in 1942.
LM: Did you find campaigning the first time for public office difficult? How did you go about it?
EL: Well, I knew that with the money that I had, I had to run what we call a “poor-boy” campaign. I was very fortunate in having a number of very close personal friends, and my wife also. One reason is, I guess, that we’re both born and reared right here in Houston. So during the campaign, what we decided to do was bang on doors in every voting box where I wasn’t known well. There were 10 of us. We went every day from 4:00 to 8:00, banging on doors. We did it systematically with a brochure, and I believe that was the biggest element that won the campaign for me.
LM: Were there any central issues—critical issues—at that time that you used in your campaign?
EL: Not that I used, except that I felt that being a younger man—and the man in office had been in office for 24 years—16 years as a criminal district clerk and 8 years as county commissioner—that new blood would bring about different thinking and maybe a little bit more exertion towards trying to take care of what the people wanted. It so happened that after I had announced and was running for office, there was a tragedy occurred here in the county that was indirectly involved with the man I ran against. Of course, I realized that that had a lot to do with his defeat.
LM: What was that about?
EL: (02:33.9) This gentleman who was commissioner at that time, his brother was killed by the then sheriff who then killed himself. It was— Well, it wasn’t proved to be, but most of the public felt that it was because of this man who was county commissioner at the time. It created the animosity that brought about this double killing.
LM: Was that used in the campaign by you?
EL: No, sir. I never mentioned it.
LM: What were the—now these were war years—1940s and through there.
EL: That’s right.
LM: Were there any particular problems that arose out of the—?
EL: Oh, there were problems galore. The county had a priority ratio that was less than an ordinary family that had a garden in their back yard. We had an A-10 priority, which got you absolutely nothing. So we couldn’t get parts for equipment, tires, gas was rationed. Of course, meat was rationed and that sort of thing. And we went for several months at one time—there was a (s/l 6-mantainer??) set up because we couldn’t get a tire. But we weathered those and finally convinced the government to give us a better priority. We got down to an A-2, which did allow us to get some parts and some tires. But the public was—we’ve got a great public in our country, and they knew there was a tremendous hardship everywhere. I don’t know. I guess that I was lucky in that I was born and reared here and live in a country where the kind of people that we have that know when a man in public office is responsible for a service is not able to perform the way he would like. And evidently they felt that way because they reelected me pretty often.
LM: Yeah, I’d say that. Outside of the shortage of parts and material, what were the critical issues in your area that you represented?
EL: Oh, the critical issues back when I was first elected?
EL: It was get the farmer out of the mud. In my precinct, 85 percent of the roads in Precinct Four at that time were dirt. When it would rain, which we have quite an occurrence of that in our county, these farmers had to fight the mud, and these dairy farmers too, to where some of them just could hardly get in town to their market. It was tremendous wear and tear on their equipment. That was one thing that I had tried to make progress in was getting the farmer out of the mud, and we did.
LM: (05:19.6) How many years did it take before you could actually show some results in road building?
EL: During the war, there’s a lot of restrictions and you couldn’t get that MC3 road oil delivered unless you were more than 200 miles by tank car. So I devised this 15,000-gallon tank—I don’t mean 15,000—45,000-gallon tank and set it up on stilts and had the county engineer at that time, Hugo (s/l Zepp?) design it. And Jack Fraser(?), who had discovered the (__?) oil field, sold us that steel tank for 200 dollars. We put a network of pipe through it and attached our heating apparatus to it to where we could heat that oil to the right Fahrenheit. We got one company that finally would bid on delivering this MC3 oil from Baytown, and we could heat it at our own camp. We hauled it out. We had booster tanks made for our dump trucks, and then we started MC3-ing what a lot of people called the “stabilization program” of the sand roads in Precinct Four. The first year we must have improved 100 miles. And over a period of about 8 or 9 years, I had every road under my supervision hard surfaced with some kind of material—smooth, asphalt-type material.
LM: That’s quite an achievement.
EL: It sure was. We had maybe 20 miles of dirt, shell, and gravel combined after about 8 or 9 or 10 years, something like that, with this process.
LM: Well, apparently the roads were—the condition of the roads was one of the primary issues then. Has it changed much?
EL: Oh, no. It’s the same only in a more magnified manner because of the tremendous explosion of our community traffic wise. Of course, the cost of everything has gone up to where it looks like it’s insurmountable. But I believe that when you look to the freeway program and the road improvement program, this county is tops in the south, and we just feel like we’re meeting the challenge. We got the challenge every year here, and I’m quite proud of it.
LM: There’s been much talk about modernization of the county government and so on. How effective was the court in dealing with problems in this early period?
EL: (08:09.8) I can only answer it this way. It appears to me that we must have been pretty effective. There’s been any number of groups attempt to bring about what they call the “county unit system” in this area. I have opposed it vigorously on each occasion that it’s brought up. Then also various groups have tried to instill into the minds of the people here that metro-type government is great, such as they have in Dade County. And I have opposed it. Most members of our court over these years have opposed it vigorously, and it hasn’t come into being. And I believe that that has had—that’s a pretty good indication that evidently what we’ve been doing is—with the majority of the people anyhow—the proper thing.
LM: What was the political complexion of the court in the ‘40s?
EL: The political complexion was—I’m sure you’re referring to party wise—democrats, and to be a democratic nominee was purely election. And the republicans, on some occasion, would field people that the party would nominate and run for office in November, but those years none of them were successful.
LM: So, more or less, individual efforts to pursue the office weren’t supported by—let’s say—special groups at that time?
EL: Well, I didn’t follow you exactly—just what you were referring to. I have no idea what you meant the way you put it.
LM: All right. Let me rephrase it then. Now that there are, for example, local political concerns—for example—there is the black organization, the Houston Community Organization group. And there are several others that field candidates.
EL: Those types of groups were in evidence, but in a very minor way in those days. Now they are quite important politically. They were important then, but they didn’t have the political slug that they now have.
LM: Have the changes in the voter registration—for example, in the ‘60s, of course, the dramatic change was black voters—more of them going to the polls. Has that altered politics county wise since then?
EL: Certainly you can tell that. There’s a number of black office holders now. Which I see no harm in and no wrong in at all because if you’re going to tax people, by golly, they should be treated all alike. If you’re not going to treat them alike, don’t tax them. I’ve always felt that way. But this free poll tax has not stimulated voter interest. Which if you’re a student of it at all, you’ll find that this 10 and 13 and 14 percent of votes being cast in very important elections doesn’t appear to me that the free poll tax has helped out any.
LM: (11:33.8) Has it made campaigning more difficult for you now in your own area?
EL: Oh, tremendously more. I have many, many, many more people in my precinct than I formerly had. I guess I have close to a half a million voters—I mean—I have a half a million more than a half a million people, and I have over 200,000 qualified voters. When I first ran, golly, the total vote cast for three candidates—there were three of us in the race—was about 18,000 total votes.
LM: I remember in doing the research—I think it was your last election—there were about four or five other people opposing you.
EL: I had six opponents. I had seven, and one dropped out. I had six that actively campaigned through the primary. Then I had a republican opponent in November.
LM: Was that a very different situation than you faced in the past?
EL: Oh, yeah. You see, when they changed the law and the filing fee only cost 100 dollars now, there’s any number of people who will pay 100 dollars to get the publicity that goes along with it—their picture in the paper and picture on TV. And then, of course, a lot of them are sincere, but many of them are purely to get the public exposure and will pay 100 dollars for that. And I think it’s ridiculous. I would think if a person had to put up enough money as we did formally— For instance, it used to be a filing fee of 3000 dollars, which was less than the 600 dollars filing fees that I paid when I first ran in ’42, on a comparative basis. So I think that it should be a sufficient filing fee to where the person’s intent is for a serious campaign.
LM: How has this altered your campaign tactics, this new situation with more candidates running for office and, I suppose, a much different mixture of voters in your precinct?
EL: I don’t know that it’s changed except this—that it’s physically impossible now to bang doorbells. You can’t campaign from that standpoint. And you have to—in a precinct race such as mine—you can’t afford to use TV or newspapers because you’re paying for total coverage and only a small segment of it will be effective for you. So your outlets for the media have to be from the local newspapers that might be in your precinct, and then the radio stations. The spot announcements, and so forth, from them are so much cheaper. And you have to depend on that, plus a very active telephone campaign, which I think is very good. And I have used a postcard type, trying to contact the various voters through friends of mine sending their friends these postcards. And then on Election Day, actively working each election box. I have 109 election boxes.
LM: (15:08.2) Besides the road issue, what other issues are people most interested in in your precinct? What do they contact you most about?
EL: Well, primarily flood control, drainage situations, and then right along with it would be playgrounds for little league and girls that are involved not only in that, but in tennis and model airplanes and many of that type of activities. There’s a tremendous number of our people that are very active in those programs.
LM: For years, apparently you had a running banter with former Judge Bill Elliot.
EL: That’s right.
LM: What was the essence of that dispute?
EL: The essence of it was very apparent if you followed it or read it. I disagreed with him on most occasions. I felt that no person should be all powerful, and that’s what he desired. Which, to me, I thought was wrong, so I opposed him. We just didn’t agree.
LM: Do you have a different concept of what county government should be like than he did?
EL: Very much—very much. Judge Elliot felt, in my opinion, that there should be one top boss, and coming from that boss is a little string that hits everybody to where, when he wanted them to turn and flip, all he had to do was jerk the string. And I disagree with balled fist tactics. I am a firm believer in we haven’t got any boss but the public and there’s a heck of a lot of them. The public should have as strong a voice in government as possible. That’s why I’m so strong in my belief of administrative government by election.
LM: He had a concept of county government based on the—I think we mentioned before—the metro system.
LM: And I believe further that he saw county government as shrinking in importance.
EL: (17:26.1) Well, you’d have to talk with Judge Elliot. I felt otherwise that it was expanding in importance. We’re closer to the public than any government that you have. You, or anyone that you know, have more to do and more interest in activities as a county government than any other government that we got. And so many people don’t realize it. I can tell you how the (s/l little fast theory?). When you’re born or die, you need the courthouse. If you get married or divorced, if you buy or sell a piece of property, or if someone commits a crime against you, you’ve got to have the courthouse’s help. Either violence or money, if children are taken from their parents that are unworthy, they’re a ward of the county. The county is the only local government that it’s a partner with the state and federal government in freeways. None of the cities are involved, strictly county. The county immediately took on itself the responsibility of curbing the sleeping sickness outbreak through the control of the Culex mosquito. It’s not cities, it’s county—the mosquito control department. The county’s effectiveness in the air and water pollution department has not been outdistanced in any place in the nation. We have done the work. Others have fallen behind us and have started cooperating finally. But it was through our air and water pollution department that more cases have been filed than all the other departments in the state of Texas combined right out of our own county department as of a year ago. You do any and everything that you do. You can’t even vote without the services of the courthouse. We’re the ones that are involved in all of your voting procedures; it’s the county government. We’re partners with the state and federal government in 74 separate service operations on funding and grants and that sort of thing. So the county is the most important government and it’s a grassroots government and it’s a government of elected administrative officials that’s closer to the people than anybody. An illustration—your mayor, he is the only elected administrative official in the city hall. Your eight councilmen are legislative in authority only, and it’s a violation of the charter if a councilman were to direct any city department to do any administrative job. They can only plead to the mayor if he’ll tell one of his executive assistants to see that that department performs that service that a constituent or a group of constituents in the city have appealed to the councilman to do it. And the public is removed from the city government, because they can talk to the councilman, of course, but the councilmen are without the authority to direct. And it’s a physical impossibility for them to talk to the mayor—too many folks. But in the county they can talk to each one of us commissioners that are responsible for service—Carl Smith, the tax collector, Ray (s/l Hardy?), Bob Turrentine and so on down the line. The county is a group of elected administrative officials.
LM: (20:47.6) There is an argument made by some persons that as Houston and other cities expand and annex additional areas and as other areas become incorporated that this is just chewing the county down and that there is no longer a need for a large county form of government.
EL: Which is ridiculous and not a word of truth in it. The county might absorb the cities, but the cities can’t absorb the counties. The city of Houston could be all the area to the county line, and then, under the laws in our constitution, every street could be a county road or a county street. But even if the cities do, the only impact it might have would be on roads. All the other services would still be county under the constitution.
LM: How has cooperation been with the city of Houston between county and city?
EL: Oh, I think very, very good over the years. Naturally, you’re going to have occasions when you don’t agree or they don’t agree, but generally speaking, the county government has gotten along very well with the city government of Houston over the years.
LM: Well, there was one area particularly I wanted to talk to you about and that was the merger of welfare and charity hospital programs. I think you had mentioned that in the past the city had dumped the financial burdens on the county.
EL: That’s exactly right, and the records will show it. Oscar Holcombe, back during World War I, was successful in getting the federal government to give them that old TB and venereal buildings out there at Camp Logan. He established a charity hospital. And after a year or two there, they came to the county for assistance, and the county agreed those years to pay a per diem on people that came from outside the city of Houston and used the charity facilities. The county paid that. That went on for several years. And then finally, the commissioner’s court agreed with the city that the county would pay—I think it was—20 percent of the cost and the city 80. Then it came to 70/30—the county paying 30 percent and the city 70 percent over a period of a number of years. And then finally— That happened after I was elected. And then later on, we finally agreed on one-third/two-thirds. So that went on for a number of years, and then all of a sudden, without our knowledge at all, out of the clear blue, the city announced that as of next January 1, we’re withdrawing all of our support to the charity hospital. So it’s either abolished, or the county takes over. So then, we had formally presented a hospital district to the people of Houston and Harris County and they turned it down. They did twice. And then when the city issued that ultimatum, we knew that the county, under its tax structure, could not fund that total hospital. So we proposed a hospital district with the proclamation from the commissioner’s court that if this district did not pass, we were going to set the ratio on county tax collections that would offset the cost of a charity hospital, because we felt it was that important to have a charity hospital in our community. Many of the people could see that if that came about that not only would they have to pay an accelerated tax to the county, but they were going to have to pay it to the school district, water district, flood control, and all the others who use county evaluations. It would be double taxation going to cost far more than funding a hospital district. So the public then approved, by substantial majority, the 75 cents total that the county could allocate as a tax rate for the financing of that hospital district. So it’s under the county in that we appoint all members of the board, and then we have the right of approval or disapproval of their budget and setting the tax rate to finance it. Other than that, the total operation of the hospital is under the hospital board.
LM: (25:26.7) Are you skeptical about the merger of city and county functions?
EL: Yeah. Certainly.
LM: On the whole?
EL: I know all they can do is just like it is done elsewhere. You can go check other places where they are consolidated. The cost of government just skyrocketed. They’ll sell you that bill of goods on the economy move, yet it’s never materialized. Many years ago, the media sold the public of Houston the idea of a city manager form of government on the economical move and how much money we’d save the tax payers. I opposed it. I was a young man, but I voted nay, and I opposed it vigorously then. Yet the public was sold this bill of goods, and they put in the city manager form of government by tremendous majority. And the first year and then on, the government cost just jumped astronomically. Four years later, the people in Houston defeated it by as big a margin or thereabouts as they had voted it in and it’s never been considered since. So you can— I don’t mean that the public is gullible, but if you keep getting it pounded at you every time you hear, see, or listen to the media—what a great deal it is and how wise it would be to do so and so—finally it starts rubbing off a little bit. But when Otis Massey was the mayor and John Northetee(?) was the city manager—both very fine men—yet they couldn’t control the cost of government and it skyrocketed. And the people then, when they were getting burnt in that hip pocket, they threw it out. But these dreams and blackboard government don’t work.
LM: How much cooperation really depends on individuals, such as the mayors who have been in office in Houston? You’ve been in for a long time. You’ve been under Holcombe, Mayor Hofheinz, Welch, and two or three others. Who do you think understood the problems of city/county government best, and who was most cooperative in working out these problems?
EL: (27:54.0) Well, I’ve been in office while we’ve had a number of mayors, and I really believe that Louie Welch was the most astute and learned mayor that we’ve had.
LM: Are there any particular areas in which you feel demonstrates this most?
EL: Oh, I believe that he really studied the operation of the city and tried to put it in practice. I think that all of the mayors that we’ve had have been knowledgeable people. Oscar Holcombe was very knowledgeable and so was Lewis Cutrer and so was R.H. Fonville and so was Fred Hofheinz, whom I’ve known since he was born. I have a respect for all of them. But I just felt that Louie Welch had fitted himself to be a mayor—a full mayor—in all aspects, more so than the others, and put it into practice. I had a great respect for Louie. And I will not hide this fact either. I opposed the heck out of him when he first entered politics because, in my opinion, he was a smart aleck. But after I got to know him better, I realized he had tremendous abilities and was able to put them in practice.
LM: Are there any particular issues you opposed him on in the beginning?
EL: Oh, not really. So many of them who have been mayors over there in the city of Houston have tried to figure out how can we get to the county? Of course, we’re feeling this way—how can we keep them from getting to us, and how will we get back at them? Those sorts of things, but nothing that I would think would be tremendous. The city— All the mayors have cooperated with the county on various laws that we’ve gotten passed in Austin on many, many occasions. And very rarely has the city ever opposed any laws that we’ve gone to Austin to try to get enacted. I can’t even call to mind any of them at the moment. I’m sure there’s been one or two. So I think that shows pretty good faith in the two different governments.
LM: One of the areas in which some critics say that the county was taken was the Astrodome—the construction of it.
EL: Well, those critics are idiots. The fact—in the eating of a pie, is it tasty? What product comes out of it? How good is it, and how bad is it? We know what the product is now, and the Astrodome has paid for itself about twice to the economy of our county and our city. It took a little guts to stand up and fight that baby doll all the way through, and I never backed off an inch from the start. I am tremendously proud. If it blew up today, I’d still be happy of the move we made because it’s already paid for itself in the economy by at least 2 to 1. Incidentally, some of those idiots might be nice people, but they just had bad information. (Laughs) I’ll qualify my remark a little.
LM: (31:18.4) Okay. I’d like to talk just a few moments about the commissioner’s court itself. There apparently have been alignments on the court. Well, we mentioned one of them with former Judge Elliot. He had supporters that were the opposition. How did this affect the effectiveness of the commissioner’s court?
EL: Well, anytime you get a—we didn’t discuss it a while ago, but you did then—an alignment. Of course, Judge Elliot had Jamie Bray and Tom Bass who were saying, “Me, too. Me, too,” on everything he brought up. When you’ve got three votes on that court, I don’t think it’s good. I think that, over a period of time, there’s going to be some bad judgment and bad acts of the court. I favor—and the position that I feel I’ve been in all these years has been that of an independent voter and thinker, and I have never gone over and tried to twist some other commissioner’s arm or the county judge’s or tried to shoot him with a bull horn to get people from the boondocks or the city or somewhere else to call them or write them to convince them to vote the way that I want them to vote. I feel like if I haven’t the ability to point out the good points of whatever I have in mind sufficiently strong enough to get enough votes to passage, that maybe my proposition is not as strong as it ought to be. I don’t believe in this aligning and getting somebody to vote your way just so you can get your way. But it did happen; it did for 11 months. And Tom Bass finally realized what he was getting himself into, and he threw over the (traces?). Needless to say, he and Judge Elliot fell out and are still not friendly. We have that same type of alignment on this court, and I don’t agree with it at all. I have bellyached repeatedly about it. In fact, I called the one member voting with Judge Lindsay(?) and with Bob Eckels a pseudo-democrat because he’d been voting republican over and over, over this entire term. I haven’t tried to sell him. I haven’t gone into his office or to his home or tried to take him to lunch or propagate my interest in devious means to get him to vote my way or to change his thinking. I have discussed it in court, and I don’t fail to on every occasion that comes up.
LM: Are there a lot of efforts to influence commissioners behind the scenes—other commissioners, judges?
EL: Very seldom. They don’t me anymore, but once in a while some members of the court might drop by. But rarely do I visit other members, even though I really like all of them socially. But I very rarely visit the judge or Eckels or Bass or (s/l Fontino). It’s hard to know what the inside of their office looks like. It’s not that I dislike them; I see no reason for it. They’ve got their job to do, and I got my job to do. If it was important enough, certainly I would.
LM: (34:33.4) Which issues seem to provide the sharpest break among commissioners?
EL: All the issues, of course—republican/democrat. You said the issues that divide.
LM: Right. Okay. How do party alignments reveal themselves in the issues? In other words, which issues are democrats more likely to vote for or against, as opposed to republicans?
EL: Well, I know what you want me to say, but—(Laughs)
LM: No, I don’t want you to say— I’ll be satisfied with just an answer.
EL: You want me to say—or I think you do—that the democrats would vote for the give-away programs and the charity deal and all those sorts of things and the republicans would vote otherwise because they’re more conservative. And I don’t agree with that at all. The republican members of our court are more apt to jump up and spend too much money in an affluent area for some do-gooder program in that affluent area than they would half that money in another area that would do that much good for twice as many people. I don’t know if I’ve made myself clear, but I hope I have. I don’t agree with that type of thinking. I think if it’s a human being, if they are a constituent, and if you’ve got 900 here and 900 there, this 900 is just as important and should be considered just as much as the other 900. I think it ought to be expended fairly, equally, and sometimes that isn’t the case.
LM: Are there any specific areas which this has involved recently?
EL: Yeah, recently. I think I know what you’re building up to. I have opposed, and did vigorously, the building of the library in Spring Branch, not the library itself, but what it costs. I was strong for a library, a new one, in Spring Branch, but not at the expense of tearing down a very serviceable building that housed voting machines and occupied the space of land that I found and bought for the county for the voting machine department many years ago—destroying that and building a library that cost a couple of three hundred thousand more than other libraries in other areas. That’s one of them that I mentioned a while ago. And the other was, getting up on here in Cypress Creek in the floodplain and flood land and paying top prices for land where you cannot build structures to those people up there in that affluent area. I wanted a park up there, but I wanted to pay a price that was more in keeping with the value of the land. And the county, through the efforts of three members of the court, spent 5500 dollars an acre for acreage on Cypress Creek that’s in the floodway and floodplain. And I opposed it vigorously. It’s too darn much money for those acres, particularly with land—what are you going to do with it? When you could have bought land that was out of the floodplain within 500 yards of it for less money than you paid for that. But I just didn’t think that was right, just purely because it’s a bunch of the fat cats that live in that area, so they spent a heck of a chunk of money. And whoever owns the land, I don’t even know. But I didn’t think it was proper expenditure of the money. And then they buy 10 acres that I opposed vigorously adjacent to the school out here at Aley. And they spent almost 30,000 an acre for 10 acres. That’s 300,000 right at it, and I opposed it. And the first proposition was 60,000 an acre. That was 600,000 for that tract of ground, and I opposed it long and loud and they withdrew it. And then came back 6 months later and that same tract of ground was sold to the county for less than 30,000 an acre, and I opposed it because it was still too much. But if you go out there and look at it, it’s surrounded by 50,000-100,000 dollar homes. And I’m saying, if you spend that kind of money there, why can’t that same amount of money be spent in some areas of the county for the interest and pastime of those residents? That’s what I’m talking about. The republican end or the—you might say—conservative end are, in my opinion, too quick to spend that almighty everybody’s dollar, which it appeared to me to be of less fun and interest for the community because you’ve got 10 acres there where you could probably buy 100 acres or 150 acres somewhere else.
LM: (39:35.1) Was there much pressure put on commissioners to buy this?
EL: Not on me because—
LM: Well, not you, but do you know of any pressure put on anyone?
EL: If it was— I’m sure there were bound to have been groups, because they even had a group from (unintelligible) that complimented those who voted to buy at the commissioner’s court. Members of that school district, too, because it’s adjacent to that school. But I was for a park there, but for a reasonable cost. God, that’s ridiculous. And 5500 for land you can’t build buildings on on Cypress Creek. That’s ridiculous. And that incident is going to hurt the acquisition of other park land along Cypress Creek because other landowners can point to it. We could have bought land right across the street—in the same area right across the street—for less than half of 5500 dollars and acre.
LM: Why did they choose that particular land?
EL: Three votes did it. And I opposed it long and loud. You said you did some research. You’re bound to have read that.
LM: (40:47.4) While we’re on the area of flooding, there was one issue which certainly provided a good deal of controversy. That was the federal flood insurance. You opposed that.
EL: I sure did. I opposed it for about 3 years or better. I was able to—not me, but we three who opposed it—that was the republican county commissioner, Mr. Bill (__?) and Commissioner Kyle Chapman and myself. We three opposed it because we didn’t want the federal government involving themselves in our local government. I found that on all occasions when you take federal help, you take a certain amount of federal control. I just didn’t believe the federal government ought to be in land management in our county. And I opposed it and opposed it and opposed it, and it came up many, many times. We had the courtroom in there packed several times. Every one of them in there for the insurance—subsidized insurance program—and we three would vote against it. And all we were doing was getting the political blood beat out of our heads. And these people who owned the land in those areas said, “Let them get their heads beat off.” None of them—you’d never see the opponents to this federal subsidized insurance in the courtroom. We never got any of the news media pounding at us too. But then later, when Judge Elliot, who was strong for it all along, had the votes of Tom Bass and Jamie Bray, they put it in. So the day they put it in they had four votes, and I said, “Well, there ain’t no use to oppose it anymore, so I vote with it.” If you check the record, you’ll find that. And I don’t know that it’s been any great help. I know one thing, there’s sure a lot of people hurt with this federal control over their land, not only in our county, but in adjacent counties.
LM: How has it hurt?
EL: It hurts in this matter of the permits that you have to acquire and the new type of buildings that you have to build, whether you are in that hundred-year floodplain. Now, I’m agreeable—but we were controlling by our flood control department. We were controlling the floodway by permitting no one to build in any area that they might build below the historic high-water mark, which kept anybody from building anywhere in the floodways. But this floodplain—good golly—two thirds of it is land that will only be inundated by 6 or 8 inches or a foot of water. Yet it’s federally controlled. And most of it was simple work that we’ve got planned and on the books now and money and funding is going to eliminate tremendous acreage from the floodplain. But you are under federal land control under this subsidized insurance.
LM: That was a very heated point of dispute, I know.
EL: Oh, it sure was.
LM: (44:08.4) Judge Elliot charged that the developers had lobbied the court not to have the federal flood insurance.
EL: They could have. If they did, it wasn’t any concerted action. I’m sure some of them were bound to have said something to me on occasion because I go all the time. But never has any group bet with me or has any group said, “I’m going to contribute to your campaign. Hope you keep up the good fight.” Nothing like that. But I’m sure some of them have said something, but nothing like those who lobbied to get it in. There’s two sides to a coin. Those who were trying to get it were in abundance everywhere. But when you check them, they were purely only those—not only—but the majority, by far, were those that had had flooded conditions before. There’s enough of them in our county to constitute quite a crowd.
LM: Most of the people that supported it were private individuals? They certainly weren’t developers or builders or land investors?
EL: I don’t guess they were. I don’t recall them making any big fanfare. But the areas all along—for instance, (unintelligible) and Cypress Creek—that had experienced flooding conditions were the prime backers. Many of those, though, if you’ve checked the records—many of them in those areas didn’t even bother themselves to take out the insurance when they could. I mean, a tremendous percentage did not.
LM: That’s interesting.
EL: It’s the truth.
LM: There was another area too—another issue which created a good deal of controversy. That was the mass transit issue. You were opposed to that too. What were your reasons for that?
EL: Cost. The cost was prohibitive. That first deal—what was it? Two billion? I didn’t think we were—our area was in the kind of financial condition that they could dig in their hip pocket and come up with those kinds of funds. And I opposed it. Incidentally, the general public opposed it, if you recall.
LM: What was behind the redistricting of our commissioner’s precincts?
EL: Oh, that ought to be very obvious. The most important reason for the commissioner’s redistricting was to defeat Squatty Lyons, and the other reason was to bottle up a republican area. In other words, to sell out one spot on the commissioner’s court to a republican. But the primary reason for redistricting was preserve Jamie Bray on the commissioner’s court and defeat Squatty Lyons.
LM: (47:14.9) Was he behind it? Was he the lead figure?
EL: He was one of the main ones—Tom Bass, Jamie Bray, and Judge Bill Elliot. And I even got— A professor from the University of Houston admitted—admitted—that Jamie Bray drew those lines over here between he and his precinct and mine, cutting out his troubled area because he felt that he couldn’t carry them at all in the next election. And he gave me that area thinking that since they were rankled and mad—that I would probably lose all of them too and get beat. That there would be enough blacks in the new area, where Judge Elliot, Jamie Bray, and Tom Bass had so much influence with the blacks, they could convince them to vote against me. They figured they could get rid of me, and it boomeranged, which I was quite proud of.
LM: I’m sure you are. How did you overcome these efforts?
EL: I think by work. They made one bad mistake. They gave me a little over a year in which to work. Those people in those areas didn’t know the county could perform like we did. For instance, the Huffman area and the Humble area and the areas just north of the city limits off Homestead Road—we hit those areas with our machines and our people, and they just couldn’t see how we could accomplish as much as we did. When you check the voting boxes, you will find that it paid tremendous dividends. That’s what I have to lay it to. They realized we were serious, we were working, and we were interested in their welfare. And most of them didn’t— The talk with us felt that the other commissioner didn’t feel the same way about them as we did. But I carried all those boxes, so I felt real good about it.
LM: So the road issue was quite useful even then?
EL: Oh, yeah. Well, you recall, I beat all six opponents in the primary without a run-off and then beat the republican about 3-1 in November.
LM: And these were all in areas that it was thought you would lose in?
EL: Well, I don’t mean the republican deal, but I had two blacks running against me and I know that they felt that the blacks would draw the black vote. And the truth of it is that out of 109 boxes, I didn’t win but 100. So I didn’t lose but 9 boxes, and that city councilman didn’t carry but one of them, and he carried that only by one vote. So I think we did quite well.
LM: (50:11.5) One other area in which a great deal of controversy arose was over the appointment of Gus Taylor as personnel director. What was the issue—the problems—behind that?
EL: I don’t recall that. I can only recall this: That I don’t remember opposing his appointment. After he had been in that job for some time, I defended him on several occasions. When he left, he did of his own free will. I attempted to get his first assistant appointed, but the majority of the court didn’t vote with me—the republican majority of the court didn’t vote with me. That’s when they appointed Richard (s/l Holguin). I didn’t oppose Richard (Holguin), and when I saw that I couldn’t get three votes for the first assistant under Gus Taylor, I switched my vote to Richard (s/l Holguin). So he’s the man in charge now.
LM: Are there any areas that I haven’t touched on that you would like to talk about before we conclude the interview—some points that you’d like to comment on?
EL: Oh, I would like to point this out: That I would certainly like to see something done with our judicial system that would cut this expense. It costs the county tax payers 285,000 dollars a year for each court’s function. And to me, there’s something wrong with the slowness in which they dispense justice, both civil and criminal. The apparent necessity of many more courts seems to be right now, and I’m afraid the legislature is going to saddle us with a bunch more. So I believe that something is going to have to be done, some new method or new procedure or a method of justice. I don’t—my brain isn’t tended judicially. I’m not a lawyer, but I can’t see each court costing the tax payers 285,000 bucks a year and only dispense of so many cases. And when you look into each case, so many of them are of minor nature that it’s just a statistic. I think that’s the real pressing problem on county government in big counties is making space available and financing the operation of the judicial system. It just looks like it’s gone out of bounds.
LM: I remember reading in one of the reports that you had said that if the judges worked a little longer, perhaps they’d get more cases.
EL: If they put in 40 hours a week like everybody else on the public tax tit and didn’t come in at 9:00 and an hour and fifteen minutes later get a 15-minute coffee break and then take 1 or 2 hours for lunch. And in the case of many of our courts, won’t even set new cases after Wednesday. I can’t understand that, because when that court doesn’t function, that 40 hours during the week, there’s five backup people in Ray Hardy’s(?) office. I don’t know what they’re doing. You’ve got the investigator and the bailiff from the sheriff’s office. I wonder what they’re doing. And you’ve got the court reporter, and you’ve got the clerk. There’s a whole bunch of people involved when that court is not functioning. And of course, they’ll all tell you how hard they work. But you’ll see more members of these courts down in the cafeteria getting coffee and shooting the bull than any other department in the county. Then you can go by on Wednesday afternoon, and particularly on Thursday evenings and all day Fridays, and it would just amaze you at how many courtrooms we have that are vacant—nothing going on. And each one of these costs the tax payer 285,000 dollars a year at this time. Yet, on top of that, I think we’ve got the finest judiciary in Texas. It’s just a habit that I would like to say is with courts all over the state—I guess all over the south. And I’m sure that our judges put in more time on the bench than the average.
LM: (55:06.5) What about the expense of the sheriff’s department? That has come up on several occasions.
EL: Oh, it just skyrocketed. Jack Heard’s budget has more than doubled since he’s been sheriff.
LM: What’s the reason for this? Is it his fault, or is it the pressure on the sheriff’s department?
EL: I think it’s propaganda and Judge Bue—is one reason—and the court seriously feeling that law enforcement is one of the real prime functions of county government. And we have tried to funnel as much monies as we could to keep up with the explosion of our whole county. You see, a lot of people just think of the sheriff as being a law enforcement officer outside the city. Good golly, the police pick up of an individual—heck—at most he’s in the city jail one night and it’s a misdemeanor. We got him the next morning. It’s ours. We’ve got him here. It’s the same thing with all the 30 cities that pick him up. It’s the same thing with the constables. It’s the same thing with the Department of Public Safety. It’s the same thing with the federal officers. We’ve got them in our jails. Then the sheriff furnishes these bailiffs and the investigators in most of these courts out of his office, and they are functioning for everybody whether it is city or county. So the sheriff’s job is countywide in scope, but his actual law enforcement—traffic and investigative work and so on—even though he isn’t restricted, they generally keep their efforts out in the unincorporated areas. But many of the smaller towns and cities call for them and their help. But we’ve tried to modernize and build up the sheriff’s office, and it now runs—the cost is well over 12 million a year, which is way over double the biggest budget Buster Kern ever had already.
LM: (57:11.2) You used the word propaganda. How did you mean that concerning the expenses of the sheriff’s department and the needs of it?
EL: Well, I meant that by Jack Heard and his deputies going all over the county to every civic club or service club, church group, or anywhere else and convincing the public that they didn’t have anything to work with, the monies that the commissioner’s court handed out wouldn’t finance anything, and the thing to do was to ride the commissioner’s court to get us more money. That’s what I mean by propaganda.
LM: Did they ride you?
EL: Well, they ride, but I don’t pay any attention to it. But that’s what I meant by propaganda.
LM: Yeah. Okay. I thought that was what you meant, but I wanted to be sure.
EL: That isn’t hearsay. That’s by actual observance. That was the procedure. And I think the sheriff’s department has cut down on that considerably in the last year.
LM: Why have they cut down on it?
EL: Well, I would think that because they have managed to make every member of the commissioner’s court sore. I told them what was happening, and most of them didn’t believe it. But everybody on the court now has been a party to having some of the venom from the sheriff’s office poured on them at meetings around the county. Most of the stuff coming from the deputies, generally that’s who it’s been that’s been speaking, has not been true and correct.
LM: Well, from what you’re saying, Heard can be doing a lot better with a lot less?
EL: You tell them. His whole campaign, if you recall—you check the records and you see whether or not I’m telling the truth—was that he could take the same money that Buster Kern had and do a tremendous job and a far more creditable job than Buster Kern. Yet his budget has more than doubled and all you hear is cry.
LM: (59:13.1) Where does most money—? Where is most of the increase seen in his budget?
EL: (Laughs) Everywhere they can spend it—any and everywhere. If it costs money, he’s for it.
LM: Is he likely to get increased funds?
EL: Well, I can’t answer that. I don’t even know what our new monies will be. That’s why I opposed the commissioner’s court and did not attend any sessions last year and will not this year if they start trying to have budget hearings in October and November. Because we will not know what the monies are available until January 10th. And until we know what monies are available, I think that it would be bad business to get semi-committed or sold on programs before you know what you’ve got. So I just think it’s a waste of time both for the official, Heard, and of the members of the court to start discussing budgets prior to knowing what your budget money is going to be.
LM: One last point, dealing with the sheriff’s department, that I’d like to get to, and that’s the county prisons. There was much discussion about the terrible conditions in the county, and according to the sheriff we need more money to improve those conditions. Have you found any basis for that?
EL: Oh, why certainly. We know that the jails have been overcrowded, but the population at the jail has been dwindling over the last few months. But we also know that there were a lot of things, and reports that came from the jail, which were not entirely true and correct.
LM: Such as?
EL: Such as a report that there was raw sewage up there on the floors. It was not raw sewage. One of the prisoners was stuffing up a commode and the water was running in spots. And on one occasion, a member of the Health Department just parroted what a deputy had told him—that it was raw sewage. When it was analyzed, it came back water. Yet in the newspapers, it came out raw sewage. So then my building engineer, Mr. Bob Richardson, took them up there and even knocked a hole in the wall and showed them where the leak from the water line was creating the water. No raw sewage at all. But practically all of the trouble had been those types—when you got the report of raw sewage that hadn’t been true and correct. We know that the jails are overcrowded, and we’ve gone to the public and the public has voted 15 million dollars to build a new jail. But under Judge Bue’s order, we’re trying to find out some method to use this 15 million dollars judiciously in that we can house the kind of prisoners, or the number of prisoners, the federal courts—which I disagree with dictating to governmental entities here and forcing them to spend tax monies here, whether you’ve got it or not, to an appointed judge that’s judge for life and if he quit tomorrow got the same pay until he dies—having that type of authority. That’s a federal government encroachment on local government, and I just don’t believe it’s good government. But they do have that authority as of this time. So we’re trying to live with it and do all that we can. So we’ve got a very competent engineering firm studying the problem to come up with a recommendation as to just how we spend this 15 million.
LM: Well, I’ve used my time. I want to thank you for your cooperation and participation in the program. Thank you very much.
EL: Okay. I thought maybe you were interested in my family or something.
LM: Well, if they’ve played a role in your political career, I’m sure—
EL: My wife has been my campaign manager at every campaign, and she is not campaign manager in name only. She runs the headquarters. I don’t.
LM: How long has she been your campaign manager?
EL: Since 1942. And she’s been very successful because we haven’t lost an election.
LM: In all my research, I haven’t run across that.
EL: Well, she’s been every year. She has been in charge— And I have had a headquarters, and she’s been in charge of it every year. We do a tremendous amount of work out of our headquarters, but she runs it.
LM: Is she a pretty tough campaign manager?
EL: Well, not tough, but she’s very able in getting work out of volunteer help, and that’s what we’ve always had—volunteers. We haven’t had hired help.
LM: You have any other family members that have played an active role?
EL: All of my four sons have banged doorbells with us and have worked election boxes on Election Day. All four of them have put up placards, put up big signs, and put out bumper stickers galore. My sons, they’re all just as enthusiastic as they were when they were little and growing on up. When I was first elected, I had two sons, now I have four. All of them are grown and have families. We have 11 grandchildren.
LM: It sounds like you have a growing constituency.
EL: (1:04:37) (Laughs)
LM: Does your wife take an active part in other campaigns?
EL: Well, my wife has been very active in various civic affairs all over. She’s been president of the city council, PTAs. She’s been president of half a dozen school PTAs. She’s been a state district officer of the PTA. She was the first president of the West End (unintelligible). She was President of the city Women’s Club. She’s on one of (unintelligible) committees—head of it. She’s now the chairman of that hundred year celebration of old Central High School and Sam Houston High School that they’ll have next year. She’s chairman of that. They have many outstanding people from that school in attendance. They’ve already had a half a dozen meetings. It’s going to be a big event. So she’s been very, very active in her community.
LM: Well, it sounds like she has it in the blood.
EL: Oh, she does. She loves it. But we’re a very happy family. We live out on Bethlehem Street (unintelligible). We’ll probably stay there until we die because we just paid the final payment on our home last year.
EL: And that’s just a block from where Louie Welch lives, one block from Jim Wallace, less than a block from Larry McCaskill, and Sonny Jones just lives two or three blocks from there. That’s it, I guess. One of the federal judges lives about four blocks from me.
LM: Sounds like a political neighborhood.
EL: Yeah, and I was the first one out there. All the rest of them moved there after I had bought in my addition. We’re real proud of it. We’ve got a nice addition out there. It’s kind of folksy.
LM: Well, thank you very much. I appreciate it.
(End of dictation 1:06:56)