Reformer Sissy Farenthold Is Still Watching

Frances “Sissy” Farenthold sits at a desk in a stately Houston eating room adorned with a pair of carved crosses atop an ornate altar. Wearing a chic white shirt and with impeccably coiffed hair, she eats like a fowl, tucking items of cornbread into her mouth. The window earlier than her gives a shocking view of Houston’s leafy West Kirby district. A Corpus Christi native, Farenthold employed a South Texas artist to revamp the house to honor her respect for historical past and her dedication to difficult it. From this remoted aerie, the 94-year-old has a eager eye for political scandals and corruption, each previous and current. She trains her sharp gaze on Texas politics with the agility of a hawk. 

A legendary former state legislator, Farenthold earned her place in Texas historical past as a fearless reformer—a “melancholy insurgent,” within the phrases of Molly Ivins; “Texas’ Joan of Arc,” within the phrases of a University of North Texas graduate pupil. 

Farenthold is elated that there’s lastly a lady within the White House serving as vice chairman, almost 5 many years after the native Texan narrowly misplaced her personal bid to change into the Democratic Party’s VP in 1972 underneath nominee George McGovern, again when VPs have been elected on the conference. (She completed second within the discipline of nominees; all others have been males.) “Judging from what my expertise had been, I felt it was going to be for much longer in coming—a change would come a lot later,” she says.

Farenthold was a born rebel. A 1946 graduate of Vassar College, she as soon as confirmed up for a Corpus Christi society gala in naked ft, incomes the nickname the “Barefoot Debutante.” As an legal professional with Nueces County Legal Aid, she attended protests and filed lawsuits totally on behalf of Hispanic Texans and ladies who’d been discriminated towards. Farenthold ran for the Legislature to bolster Texans’ civil rights and enhance faculties. But her welcome was not heat. At a legislative discussion board in Fort Worth, she was directed to take a seat with magnificence pageant contestants reasonably than with candidates. Even as an elected consultant, Capitol police repeatedly questioned her credentials to make use of the legislators’ car parking zone. 

Imagine the rose-tinted Texas Capitol as Sissy Farenthold discovered it in 1968 as a newly elected state consultant from Corpus Christi. At the time, the mom of 5 was the one feminine House member and an idealistic political rookie. 

In her first session in 1969, she confronted one distinguished state chief accused of utilizing his workplace for private achieve and deceptive legislators about gold found in a shipwreck. Jerry Sadler, commissioner of the General Land Office, testified that gold doubloons recovered from a Spanish wreck in Texas waters had mysteriously been shipped out of state. Farenthold was sitting beside a prosecutor who whispered: “He’s mendacity.”

Farenthold championed a decision that condemned Sadler’s misbehavior, and Sadler later misplaced his seat—one of many few instances the Legislature has publicly sanctioned any statewide officeholder. She additionally helped cross laws clarifying the state’s rights over shipwrecked treasure.

By her second session, a scandal erupted involving Houston financier Frank Sharp, a swindler who was pleasant with state leaders. Sharp and state leaders made a tidy revenue in a financial institution fraud scheme Sharp concocted. As buzz over the Sharpstown scandal grew, sharp-eyed Farenthold seen that House Speaker Gus Mutscher Jr., who was implicated within the scheme, saved pushing payments to learn Sharp.

Farenthold strategized with employees about the way to confront Mutscher and his allies. She met with a handful of progressive legislators to alert them {that a} younger regulation pupil had discovered a approach to press for an investigation. Soon, the petite, well-dressed girl stood on the House ground and demanded that Mutscher depart the ground as she launched a decision that known as for a proper investigation of the speaker and others tied to the Sharpstown scandal. Mutscher stared her down, saying, “Sit down, Mrs. Farenthold.” But Farenthold stood agency. Years later, she remembered the sensation of being surrounded by indignant legislators. “The phrase that involves me is ‘loneliness.’ I felt very alone,” she says.

She pressured an attention-getting ground vote that known as for a proper investigation of the speaker and others tied to the Sharpstown scandal. The decision gained 30 votes, in need of a majority however sufficient to get statewide media consideration. From a balcony stuffed with spectators, a lobbyist shouted out that her supporters have been “30 soiled bastards.”

Texas historical past buffs view this second as historic. Mutscher misplaced energy and was convicted of conspiring to just accept a bribe. Others have been convicted or pressured out of workplace. Farenthold saved on working with different reformers, who borrowed the lobbyist’s insult as a badge of honor. “We later dropped the bastards half,” she remembers with a wry smile. “But we saved the Dirty Thirty.”

Though Farenthold’s personal legislative profession was quick, the actions of the Dirty Thirty enabled historic reforms within the subsequent session, together with the founding of the Texas Ethics Commission; the passage of the Texas Public Information Act, the Texas Deceptive Trade Practices Act, and the Texas Open Meetings Act; and the institution of different cornerstone transparency measures. “Those have been halcyon days as a result of we knew we had one legislative session to do what we have been going to do and that was going to be it,” remembers Joe Longley, who wrote a few of this laws after he was named assistant legal professional common in 1973. 

While Farenthold’s efforts may very well be seen as a mannequin for right this moment’s ethics-minded lawmakers, they don’t look like following her instance, regardless of a current wave of scandals that Farenthold finds just like these of the Nineteen Seventies. Attorney General Ken Paxton is underneath indictment on securities fraud costs and has confronted prison costs for everything of his five-year tenure. Meanwhile, Governor Greg Abbott is being questioned about why appointees he picked to supervise the Texas electrical grid badly bungled the state’s response to a extreme winter storm, leading to 4.5 million folks shedding energy and the deaths of greater than 150. “These folks have been all hand-picked by the governor. And 1000’s of people that have been put in uncomfortable circumstances, to place it mildly,” Farenthold says. 

In the newest legislative session this 12 months, legislators posed questions throughout hearings. But they need to be pushing to formally sanction one or each of these leaders and launching formal investigations, Farenthold says. She and others who’ve studied her legacy marvel why they aren’t. “We’ve been eager about that,” says Thomas Cohen, a historical past professor who’s writing a biography of Farenthold. “Sissy was keen to take dangers that folks right this moment are usually not taking. She was keen to say issues that folks didn’t wish to hear.”

From her eating room in Houston, Farenthold is watching. “It’s a distinct set of information, however for me, it’s the identical. It’s an abuse of our system,” she says. 

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