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Ex-Speaker Jim Wright Rose to House Leadership by One Vote

Ex-Speaker Jim Wright Rose to House Leadership by One Vote
July 29, 2005 photo of former House Speaker Jim Wright of Texas, standing next to the Texas pillar of Washington's World War II Memorial. (Yuri Gripas/AP)

By Monday, 11 May 2015 07:24 AM Current | Bio | Archive

With the death on April 30 of former House Speaker Jim Wright, most of the obituaries of the Texas Democrat dwelled on his dramatic downfall in 1989. Mired in charges of ethics violations, Wright resigned from Congress barely two years after he assumed the speaker’s gavel.

But, more dramatic than the Texan's demise was his improbable rise to power in December 1976. In what Ralph Nader called "the most important congressional [leadership] election in the last 30 years," Wright was elected House majority leader, the second-most powerful office after the speakership, by one vote.

After three ballots among House Democrats in which two other contenders were eliminated, Rep. Phil Burton, D-Calif., lost to Wright by a vote of 148-147. Wright thus became the heir apparent to newly elected House Speaker Thomas "Tip" O’Neill of Massachusetts (who Wright succeeded in 1986).

The Fort Worth congressman was an unlikely choice, to say the least, for House Democrats who were moving gradually to the left. A supporter of the Vietnam War and the oil depletion allowance, Wright had voted against the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

He was rated only 30 percent by the liberal Americans for Democratic Action (ADA), compared to Burton’s 90 percent.

"[F]ew politicians in American history who held his redistributive and ultraliberal views ever accumulated as much raw power as Phillip Burton in his prime," the late John Jacobs wrote in "A Rage for Justice," his widely acclaimed biography of Burton.

Burton knew the rules of the House cold. In 1966, in his third year in Congress, he pushed through new provisions to the minimum wage law that guaranteed its extension to farm workers, federal workers, and 1.5 million hospital and nursing home workers. He could draw maps of California’s congressional districts that favored Democrats on restaurant napkins.

As the current holder of his old district, Nancy Pelosi, told this reporter shortly before her own election as speaker in 2007: "[Democrats] didn’t have many computers in the 1970s and '80s, but God gave us Phil's brain instead."

Already elected by House Democrats as chairman of the Democratic Study Group and to the No. 3 leadership position of Conference Chairman, Burton was the runaway favorite to become majority leader.

But Burton also had, as biographer Jacobs wrote, "the salty vocabulary of the San Francisco dockworkers he represented, and a presence that often left allies fearful and enemies totally terrorized. Burton smoked three packs of unfiltered Chesterfields a day, drank vast quantities of Stolichnaya on the rocks, and never hesitated to explode at friends and enemies alike."

"You’re dog----!" was one of Burton’s frequent ripostes, even to colleagues with whom he usually agreed.

Supported primarily by fellow Southerners, Wright gained unexpected backing from lawmakers who feared a Burton with enhanced power and a heartbeat from the speakership.

Burton lost between 10 and as many as 14 votes among the 29 California Democratic House members on the third and decisive ballot. One of them, Rep. Leo Ryan (best remembered for his murder in Guyana in 1978 at the hands of the Rev. Jim Jones' followers), later said: "Just put it down [his vote for Wright] to the fact I don’t like the way he operates. If Burton were elected speaker, he'd be ruthless."

Another liberal, Rep. Frank Thompson, D-N.J., had never forgiven Burton for standing by heavy handed House Administration Committee Chairman Wayne Hays, D-Ohio, before he was brought down by a sex scandal. Thompson personally switched three Burton votes to Wright.

"F--- Burton!" he growled. "This guy worked me over and I want to teach him a lesson."

Incoming Speaker O’Neill, always insisting he never campaigned against Burton, nevertheless made little secret of his preference for Wright. Of Burton being his chief lieutenant and heir apparent, O’Neill reportedly said: "I’d be the first speaker in history to have to hire a food taster."

Burton, who died in office at age 56 in 1983, would spend much of the twilight years in Congress as a major player in conservation legislation. He also tried to learn just who among those he had counted on for support had ended up voting for Jim Wright.

Many Democrats in Congress refused to say how they voted.

One of them was the late Rep. Augustus Hawkins, the first black congressman from California and later chairman of the House Education and Labor Committee. On a flight from Los Angeles to Washington after he retired from Congress in 1990, Hawkins still wouldn’t say how he voted. But he did share a story with this reporter: "Phil and I were state assemblymen together in the '50s. He fought hard for civil rights and he was my friend.

"When Democrats won control of the Assembly in 1958, I ran for speaker, but I lost to [fellow Democrat] Ralph Brown by one vote. I always assumed Phil was in my corner and I asked him after the vote if he supported me. He said no, that I didn’t ask him for his vote, and that he cut a deal with Ralph.

"That was fine. I got elected to Congress in 1962 and enjoyed that much more than had I been speaker. When we had the vote for majority leader in 1976 and Jim Wright won by one vote, [fellow California Rep.] Ed Torres turned to me and whispered: 'What goes around comes around.'"

John Gizzi is chief political columnist and White House correspondent for Newsmax.

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With the death on April 30 of former House Speaker Jim Wright, most of the obituaries dwelt on the Texas Democrats' dramatic downfall in 1989, but more dramatic was his improbable rise to power in December 1976, when he was elected House majority leader by one vote.
jim wright, house, phil burton, speakership, leader
Monday, 11 May 2015 07:24 AM
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