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Texas House Speakers Oral History Project -
Lt. Governor Ben Barnes at a special joint session in the House chamber. Photo by Bill Malone. TSLAC Current Events, Texas State Library and Archives Commission, #1971/162-12.
The 59th Legislature's regular session January 12 to May 31, 1965; and the 59th Legislature's first called session February 14 to February 23, 1966.
The 60th Legislature's regular session January 10 to May 29, 1967; and the 60th Legislature's first called session June 4 to July 3, 1968.
Born in 1938 in Gorman, Ben Frank Barnes graduated from the University of Texas at Austin law school. While still a UT student, Barnes worked at the state Health Department. He later said he became fascinated with politics after he discovered the misappropriation of funds at this department and was able to instigate a state investigation.
Barnes defeated a heavily favored opponent to win election in 1961 to the Texas House, where he represented the Comanche County town of De Leon. Barnes quickly assumed a leadership position, chairing the House Rules Committee and serving as vice chair of the Banks and Banking Committee. Barnes helped lead opponents to Gov. Price Daniel's and Speaker Jimmy Turman's tax plans and strongly supported passage of the state's first sales tax. Barnes also served as liaison between House Speaker Byron Tunnell and Gov. John Connally.
In 1965, Barnes backed Tunnell in an anticipated run for a second term as speaker. Just before the 59th regular Legislative session, however, Gov. Connally appointed Tunnell to serve on the Texas Railroad Commission. Barnes, who had planned to run for speaker in 1967, instead won the office two years earlier, thus becoming at 26 the youngest speaker of the Texas House in 95 years. (The youngest, Ira Hobart Evans, served as speaker at age 25.) Barnes won a second term as speaker in 1967, before his election as lieutenant governor in 1968.
During his speakership, Barnes placed a high priority on the state's colleges and universities, with financial support for these institutions rising by 300 percent. Furthermore, he helped establish the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board. Under Barnes, salaries increased for university professors, the University of Houston merged with the state university system, and Angelo State College and Pan American College turned into four-year institutions.
Furthermore, Barnes won passage of a minimum wage standard for farm workers, played a key role in winning approval for clean air and water legislation, and successfully fought for a bill creating the Texas Rehabilitation Commission. The political future seemed limitless for Barnes, who enjoyed the support of Connally and President Lyndon Johnson who, after leaving the White House, predicted that his young protégé would one day claim the presidency.
Barnes won the lieutenant governor's post, a position he held from 1969 to 1973. Barnes served on the Executive Committee of the National Conference of Lieutenant Governors and many political observers believed he was the most powerful man in state government during that tenure. Barnes again thought of higher office.
The political fallout from the Sharpstown Scandal, however, wounded Barnes, who lost the 1972 Democratic primary race for governor. Even though Barnes was not directly involved in the scandal involving bribes from banker Frank Sharp, he was saddled with anti-incumbent voter backlash. This defeat prompted Barnes' unexpectedly early retirement from public office.
The collapse of oil prices in the mid- to late-1980s and its effect on the Texas real estate market forced Barnes to file for bankruptcy following the financial collapse of the Barnes/Connally Partnership, a real estate firm. The former politician, however, rebuilt his business fortune. Barnes received a Distinguished Alumnus Award from the University of Texas in 1995 and an endowed fellowship was created in his name at UT's Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs. A Democratic Party activist, he now runs Entrecorp, an Austin firm that advises businesses on government relations.
– Interviewed by Patrick Cox and Michael Phillips