AUSTIN -- At the traditional Labor Day Weekend start of the fall political season, the Republican nominee for governor of Texas, Clayton Williams, uttered what have become the famous last words of GOP candidates here and nationally in recent years: He vowed that if elected he would not raise taxes and would veto any tax bills presented to him by the state legislature.
Williams's promise was the same vow that such fellow Lone Star Republicans as Gov. Bill Clements and President Bush made -- and later broke -- before their elections in 1986 and 1988. Clements eventually put his name behind the largest tax increase in Texas history, while Bush raised lip-reading to a new art in retracting the most-repeated three words of his political career.
Whether Williams, who if elected would face a situation much like the one Clements had to deal with -- a massive budget deficit of perhaps $1 billion -- could actually avoid new taxes is of little concern to the Midland oilman and his advisers. What counts is that he is polishing the image of the antitax candidate. The symbolic meaning of his position has resonance with voters even if they don't totally believe that he will keep his word. Clements and Bush proved that, too, since polls showed most voters did not hold their broken promises on the issue too much against them.
It has been an ugly summer for Williams and his Democratic opponent, Ann Richards. His political sidekicks tried to paint her as a soft-on-crime, Jane Fonda-embracing pinko; her team's response was to portray him as a desperate, unethical and morally bankrupt business wheeler-dealer. But now they seem to be moving to the next phase of the campaign, just as manipulative, in its way, though less muddy as the outright name-calling. As Williams's antitax posture suggests, they are entering the symbolic phase.
For Richards, a key act of symbolism took place Saturday in a field in Kaufman County in northeast Texas. She killed a dove -- literally and perhaps figuratively. Richards appeared before the cameras with two birds in her bag. It was the opening day of dove season in Texas, the first chance of the fall for the state's posse of hunters to get their shotguns out of the closet, and the first opportunity for Richards to attempt to quiet the gun lobby and counteract any notion that she is out of step with traditional Texas culture.
The dove hunt was hosted by state Sen. Ted Lyon (D), who called Richards "a good person to have around the campfire" and said he hoped the event would help Richards with the "good-ole-boys." The candidate wore a camouflage vest over khaki pants and shirt. She carried a 20-gauge shotgun. She cleaned two birds. It made the TV news, and got mentioned in the Sunday papers.
The scene was played out with memories of Massachusetts Gov. Michael S. Dukakis (D) lingering in the background. Dukakis's presidential aspirations were gunned down in Texas by a riled-up firearms lobby that organized and advertised against him because of his support for gun control. Even more important, his image to Texans seemed the antithesis of the pioneer or frontiersman. His efforts to change the image -- riding around in a tank and sending his son to Texas to go hunting with House Speaker Gib Lewis -- came across as lame or comical.
"I think it would be pretty difficult for an anti-hunting candidate here. Texas is a frontier state, and hunting has been a way of life in our culture," said Joe McBride, owner of McBride's ("Where the Hunt Begins"), the largest hunting store in Austin's Hill Country. "It was an important statement for Richards to be seen hunting. She understands the politics of it." McBride said about 30 percent of his customers are women.
Republican Williams is the stereotypical Texas big-game hunter. He has traveled the world shooting exotic animals. The walls of his house and office in Midland are lined with stuffed animal heads.
While Richards has a different sense of decorating aesthetics, there is nothing disingenuous about her and the hunting symbolism. She is against gun control in most forms, though she supports placing some controls on semiautomatic weapons and assault rifles, which Williams does not. She was a self-described tomboy as a youngster in the Waco area of central Texas and she spent much of her childhood hunting and fishing with her father.
In her autobiography, "Straight From the Heart," Richards described how she would run trotlines at night before she went to bed. Her daddy used a peculiar form of bait -- coagulated blood he would pick up at the butcher shop. She described her young days as a hunter this way:
"If we got an opportunity to go on sombody's deer lease or somebody's farm and kill a deer -- that was absolutely wonderful. You could make sausage out of it, you could cure the whole thing and eat for months. It was great."
During the 1970s, when she served as a commissioner in Travis County, Richards spent much of her time dealing with the "good-ole-boys" in the county roads department. Her background as a hunter was invaluable in those dealings. Later, when she was elected state treasurer, she realized that many of the most important decisions in state government were being made by males away from the office at various hunts.
She helped break the gender barrier at former House speaker Billy Clayton's annual pheasant hunts in West Texas every December. Clayton, who switched parties, retired from public office and now supports Williams, nonetheless remembered Richards as the "life of the party" at his hunts -- and a pretty good sport as well. He could not recall whether she was a good shot, but there might be some proof of that in her book -- one of the photographs shows her holding a shotgun in one arm and a downed pheasant in the other.