How the debate stage shaped previous Texas governor races

State & Regional

As Greg Abbott and Lupe Valdez prepare to take the debate stage Friday night, an opportunity presents itself to take a trip down memory lane to revisit other gubernatorial debates in Texas history.

These debates lend a chance for candidates to tour their experience (or lack thereof) and successes that brought them to where they stand, while also opening them up to public gaffes.

“They both have something at stake,” Texas Tribune executive editor Ross Ramsey said.

“They’re going to try to draw distinctions between themselves,” he said. “Your position is this, my position is that.”

Take, for example, the 1994 debate between then-governor Ann Richards, a Democrat, facing George W. Bush, who had never held public office.

Bush boasted his business experience, while Richards pushed back, saying he was unprepared to handle the budget of the entire state.

“I’m proud of my business record,” Bush said. “I invite anybody to come see the ballpark in Arlington as an example of entrepreneurship.”

Richards downplayed her challenger’s business experience.

“Unless you put a dollar figure for what you propose and then tell the people how you’re going to pay for it, you are being inexperienced at the cost of the taxpayers of Texas,” she said.

Bush ended up winning the race and went on to be elected President of the United States.

Ramsey recalled a debate between Bush and Garry Mauro in El Paso for the 1998 governor’s race that “almost nobody saw.”

Other memorable moments in Texas gubernatorial debate history include the 2002 race between Republican Gov. Rick Perry and Democratic challenger Tony Sanchez.

“I’ve spent 18 years preparing to be the greatest governor that I could be for this state,” Perry said.
Sanchez chided to the panel that he was sick of Perry bragging about his experience.

“My question to him is this, if he has so much experience and has spent so much time in government and knows so much about it, how come we have so many problems in Texas?” Sanchez asked.

RG Ratcliffe was one of the reporters who asked questions at that debate. He has covered Texas politics for four decades and is now the political editor for Texas Monthly.

“Some of the key issues that were around in 2002 are around this year and they will remain around because they’re just the kind of things that the government has to deal with,” Ratcliffe said.

“The main importance of debates is to get the candidates off their script so that people can actually see what they’re talking about, not just what they want you to hear,” he explained.

While some candidates shine, others fumble. In a face-off between Richards and Republican nominee Clayton Williams in 1990, Williams was asked about his voting record on a constitutional amendment that dealt with powers of the governor.

“He didn’t know what it was, he stumbled over his answer, and then in desperation, he said he voted however his wife told him to,” Ratcliffe said.

Williams admitted he had trouble with the question.

“I just had to fess up, I forgot that,” he said. “I was briefed on it, was aware of it, and I overlooked it.”

Ratcliffe said it was a pivotal moment that may have cost Williams valuable votes.

“A large part of the reason a lot of people watch (debates) is for the train wreck,” he mentioned.

The meeting between Abbott and Valdez is the only scheduled debate of the 2018 race.

“Just get out your popcorn and watch,” Ramsey said.

For more information about the debate between Abbott and Valdez, click here.

For the Texas Tribune’s debate history list, click here.

Copyright 2019 Nexstar Broadcasting, Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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