- - Tuesday, August 19, 2014


Whatever the final outcome of the seemingly politically based indictment of Texas Gov. Rick Perry, it should be noted that the media’s references to his being the first Texas chief executive to be charged in nearly a century fails to provide the necessary historical background for the comparison. To be sure, Democratic Gov. James Edward “Pa” Ferguson (1871-1944), who served from 1915 to 1917, was indicted by a Travis County grand jury in July 1917 on charges of misappropriation of state funds, embezzlement and diversion of special funds, but these never went to trial.

Ferguson was instead impeached and removed from office. That came about in part because, unlike Mr. Perry, who had legitimate concerns regarding drunken District Attorney Rosemary Lehmberg, who he wanted removed from office, Ferguson began a crusade against faculty members at the University of Texas he found objectionable. The professors were lazy and corrupt, in the governor’s eyes, and their views were antithetical to his, especially historian Eugene C. Barker, a revered and accomplished advocate of academic freedom.

So Ferguson, in what he called “the biggest bear fight that has ever taken place in the history of the state of Texas,” vetoed most of the appropriations to the university because administrators failed to dismiss the faculty members whose salaries took money away from “country boys.”

The problem was that Ferguson, as time went on, had other skeletons in his closet that became the fodder for rumors. Hoping to placate the university controversy, Ferguson called a special session of the Legislature in order to strike a deal. Instead, the Legislature — probably illegally, given their constitutional mandate for a special session — chose to begin impeachment proceedings on 10 grounds, only three of which dealt with the university. The most serious charge was that the governor had received $156,000 (an enormous sum at the time) from a source that he refused to disclose. By a lopsided vote of 25 to 3, Ferguson was tossed out of office.

By any measure, Ferguson was corrupt and obstreperous. He admitted during his re-election campaign in 1916 (terms were only two years then) that he spent state funds for personal items. As a youngster, he was thrown out of school for chronic disruptive behavior at age 15. He practiced law beginning at age 26, but never was tested for a license because the examiner and Ferguson’s father were good friends. He also courted farmers and the rural poor for votes, no matter that he had little in common with them. Pressed to give specific reasons why the university faculty members should be fired, Ferguson boasted: “I don’t have to give reasons. I am the governor of Texas.”

Owing to court decisions that made Ferguson ineligible to run for state office after his removal, he saw to it that his wife, Miriam Amanda Wallace, “Ma” Ferguson, was elected governor in 1924 and again in 1932. Not surprisingly, Pa Ferguson actually called the shots.

Thomas V. DiBacco is professor emeritus at American University.



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