Obituaries

Jim Mattox, 65; 'Junkyard Dog of Texas Politics'

Jim Mattox's pinched twang, pugnacious face and penchant for political brawling made him a familiar Texas figure. After three terms in Congress, he became attorney general of Texas.
Jim Mattox's pinched twang, pugnacious face and penchant for political brawling made him a familiar Texas figure. After three terms in Congress, he became attorney general of Texas. (Family Photo)
By Joe Holley
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, November 24, 2008

Jim Mattox, a former Texas congressman, state attorney general and gubernatorial candidate who narrowly lost to Ann Richards in a bitter 1990 Democratic primary, died of a heart attack Nov. 20 at his home in Dripping Springs, Tex. He was 65.

Richards's victory over Clayton Williams, her Republican opponent in the general election, was relatively easy compared with her knock-down, drag-out fight with Mr. Mattox, a scrappy Dallas lawyer who, for much of his political career, was known as the "junkyard dog of Texas politics."

"He reveled in that reputation," said his wife, Marta Mattox.

In the governor's race, Mr. Mattox accused Richards of alcohol abuse and cocaine use a decade earlier. He suggested that as a recovering alcoholic she might not be up to the job of being governor.

The charges were vintage Mattox. Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, his pinched twang, pugnacious face and penchant for political brawling made him a familiar Texas figure.

"When he gets into a campaign, he gets in a frenzy, almost like he was a warrior again like he was growing up in a tough neighborhood in Dallas," longtime Mattox associate Harmon Lisnow told the Dallas Morning News in 1994.

Mr. Mattox and Richards, who died in 2006, long ago reconciled their differences, Marta Mattox said.

In office, the three-time Texas congressman -- he represented the 5th Congressional District in Dallas -- and two-time Texas attorney general got high marks for his public record, particularly on consumer issues, environmental concerns and law enforcement.

James Albon Mattox was born in Dallas and grew up in a working-class neighborhood of East Dallas, the son of a sheet-metal worker and a waitress. After graduating from high school in 1961, he joined the Teamsters and worked on loading docks. He also peddled Bibles door-to-door in Dallas and Tulsa.

Thinking that he might want to be a Baptist preacher, he enrolled at Baylor University, a Southern Baptist institution, where he ultimately decided to major in business. He received his undergraduate degree in 1965.

After receiving his law degree from Southern Methodist University in 1968, he worked as a felony prosecutor for Dallas County District Attorney Henry Wade. He also got himself arrested while in private practice when he rushed to a downtown Dallas park one evening to assist pot smokers being arrested by police.

Mr. Mattox was elected to the Texas House of Representatives in 1973 and to Congress in 1976. In that race, he accused his Republican opponent, Nancy Judy, of being unladylike for bringing up labor contributions to his campaign that had come from outside Texas. Asked during a television interview to define "lady," he responded in character: "I think Mrs. Judy is a woman -- but I wouldn't swear to it."


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