Flashback: How Greg Abbott Became the Most Powerful Governor in Texas History

For more than a century, journalists and academics have proclaimed that the lieutenant governor of Texas is the most powerful statewide elected official. Governors got the glory, but the Texas Constitution and control of the Senate allowed the second-in-command to direct every aspect of the state government and set major policy agendas. Bill Hobby held the office for eighteen years through the seventies and eighties and shaped the state under three different governors, overhauling public education and bringing water to the colonias of South Texas. The irascible Bob Bullock, who served as lieutenant governor in the nineties, commanded the Senate often through a type of intimidation so sudden and fierce that one lawmaker described it as a “drive-by ass chewing.”

The governor, by contrast, has historically wielded little authority. In the wake of Reconstruction, former Confederates who regained power in Texas wanted a government with restricted reach, so they sought to rewrite state laws. At an 1876 constitutional convention, lawmakers limited the governor’s main powers to the administration of a weakened government, the calling of special legislative sessions, and the vetoing of bills. The hottest debate about the top office concerned whether to even pay the governor a full-time salary.

Throughout the next century, governors and those pursuing the office routinely discovered the limits of its reach. In 1893, when Governor James S. Hogg sent telegrams ordering officials in North Texas to halt the lynching of Henry Smith, a Black man accused of murder, his missives were ignored and local news reported they were “looked upon as a joke.” A mob burned Smith at the stake. During a 1998 election debate when Democratic nominee Garry Mauro said he would tell state environmental regulators that a nuclear waste dump would be too hazardous to build in Texas, his opponent, incumbent George W. Bush, replied that governors are not supposed to tell state agencies what to do.

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