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Remembering Ex-Rep. Ralph Hall: Unforgettable 'Old Man Texas'

Remembering Ex-Rep. Ralph Hall: Unforgettable 'Old Man Texas'
Ralph Hall (AP)

Sunday, 10 March 2019 05:02 PM Current | Bio | Archive

“I don’t want to say anything bad about the lousy guy,” Ralph Hall, Democratic U.S. House candidate in Texas’ 4th District, said in 1980 about his Republican opponent John Wright.  Former State Sen. Hall, who was speaking at a luncheon in the U.S. Capitol hosted by then-Rep. Phil Gramm, D-Texas, normally avoided even the mention of opponents.

But Republican Wright had gone too far, he felt, by saying that, at age 58, Hall was too old to start a career in the House — seniority being the path to success there. 

Hall then told his audience the story of the 80-year-old widower who became engaged to a young lady who was 22.  Recalling how his children were scandalized, the Texan said that “they even said ‘Daddy, when an old man marries a young girl, what usually follows is death.’

“He replied: ‘She dies, she dies,’” concluded Hall, causing the audience to break up in side-splitting laughter.  That November, as Ronald Reagan was sweeping the 4th District by a landslide, conservative Democrat Hall kept the seat once held by Speaker Sam Rayburn in their party’s hands with a slim 52 percent of the vote.

Upon learning on March 7 of Ralph Hall’s death at age 95, I recalled vividly the luncheon in which I first met Ralph Hall and heard him deploy humor to deflate the “age issue.” Not only did he serve 34 years in the House, but set the record as the oldest-ever U.S. Representative (91) when he left office in 2014.

As he promised in his ’80 campaign, Hall voted like “an old-time conservative Democrat.”  He backed the Reagan budget and tax cut measures of 1981, supported the buildup of U.S. defenses in the 1980s, and in 1998 backed three of four articles of impeachment against President Bill Clinton. 

Two years later, Hall crossed party lines to support Republican George W. Bush, an old friend and fellow Texan, for president.

Hall’s early supporter Phil Gramm finally had enough of the left-leaning Democratic Party in 1981, switched to the Republican Party, and was elected U.S. senator from the Lone Star State in 1984.

While able to stick it out as a Democrat more than 20 years after Gramm left the party, Hall finally had his own “moment of truth” in 2004.  With a beaming President Bush at his side, he became a Republican and went on to win a primary in his newfound home with 77 percent of the vote.

As he continued to seek re-election into his late 80s, Hall began to face difficulty with Republicans at home.  In 2010 and ’12, he was held to career-low renominations of 57 and 58 percent respectively. Announcing that his 2014 campaign would be his last, Hall had no less than five opponents in the primary.  For the first time, he drew under half the primary vote and was thus forced into a runoff with former U.S. Attorney John Ratcliffe.

"He stayed too long, and promised too much," said Ratcliffe, who supports term limits. "I have limited myself to four terms."

Where incumbent Hall voted to lift the debt ceiling several times, favored the farm bill and the "Cash for Clunkers" measure pushed by the Obama administration, challenger Ratcliffe would have opposed all three.

Where Ratcliffe was backed by newer conservative outlets as the Club for Growth and the Madison Project, conservative groups of longer standing rallied to Hall. Jim Martin, head of the 60Plus seniors association, backed the incumbent because he was one of the first to support his group’s proposal to kill the “Death Tax.”

"This is Ralph Hall's last mission," said Martin, noting that the onetime U.S. Navy pilot was one of the last two World War II veterans in Congress, "And we know we'll count on him to be firing away at the death tax in the next session of Congress."

It was not to be.  Ratcliffe rolled up 52.8 percent to defeat Hall.

After seeing action in the Pacific, Hall earned degrees at the University of Texas and Southern Methodist Law School.  At the age of 27 in 1950, he was elected county judge (executive) of his home county of Rockwall. 

In 1962, Hall went to the state senate after incumbent Democrat Ray Roberts was elected to Congress. As chairman of several major committees, he was a close ally of then-Gov. John B. Connally (a conservative Democrat who switched parties in 1973.)

After a losing race for lieutenant governor in 1972, Hall entered the private sector as CEO of Texas Aluminum Corporation and later served on numerous boards of directors.  Friends guessed that he took a major cut in salary to go to Congress in 1980, but with Ralph Hall, they agreed, public service came first. 

Just as I first encountered Hall when he was joking about his age, our last interview ended on the same light-hearted note.  As for running again at 91, he told me: "Hey, I have good genes and I run two miles a day. And if you think I'm out of touch, just come to my district. Follow me around. You'll shape up."

John Gizzi is chief political columnist and White House correspondent for Newsmax. For more of his reports, Go Here Now.


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"I don't want to say anything bad about the lousy guy," Ralph Hall, Democratic U.S. House candidate in Texas' 4th District, said in 1980 about his Republican opponent John Wright. Former State Sen. Hall, who was speaking at a luncheon in the U.S. Capitol hosted by...
hall, gramm, reagan, bush, deathtax, navy
Sunday, 10 March 2019 05:02 PM
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