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CAMPAIGN 2000

As Governor, Bush Displays Reluctance to Jump Into the Political Fray

Government: When controversy surrounds one of his appointees, the Texan keeps a distance, demanding a resignation only once in the last six years.

October 08, 2000|T. CHRISTIAN MILLER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Compared to his contemporaries, Texas Gov. George W. Bush wields relatively little power over his giant state. He can't fire most agency heads. He doesn't regulate oil, one of the most important businesses. He can't even grant death penalty pardons.

Most of that work in Texas is left to the Legislature and other independent state bodies. But there's one area where Bush holds undisputed sway: his ability to appoint about 3,000 people to the state boards and commissions that do the daily grunt work of government in Texas.

By most accounts, the vast majority of Bush's appointees have done their jobs admirably, running everything from the state university system to the Committee of Examiners in the Fitting and Dispensing of Hearing Instruments.

But when controversy has surrounded one of his appointees--including some who have been accused of racist comments and charged with felony crimes--Bush has kept a distance, stepping in to demand a resignation only once in the last six years.

For the Record
Los Angeles Times Tuesday October 10, 2000 Home Edition Part A Part A Page 3 Metro Desk 1 inches; 34 words Type of Material: Correction
Texas official--A Times story Sunday incorrectly identified Marshall Police Chief Charles Williams as a current member of the law enforcement training commission in Texas. Williams, an appointee of Texas Gov. George W. Bush, died Sept. 14.

While fewer than half a dozen appointees have come under fire--not unusual for any Texas governor--critics say Bush's response illustrates a refusal to directly attack political controversies, sometimes letting them fester until they threaten the ability of the boards to function properly.

"These should not be very tough decisions to have to make," said Molly Beth Malcolm, head of the Texas Democratic Party. "Is that what you want in a leader?"

Bush has made his appointees a special point of pride, calling them one of his most important responsibilities and a "good case study" of his decision-making process in his autobiography.

Bush aides say his hesitancy to ask for a resignation is partly because the GOP presidential nominee is a problem-solver who avoids unnecessary confrontation, and partly because Bush as governor actually has no direct power to fire his own appointees. Dismissal requires a special vote of the state Senate.

Bush invests much time and effort in each appointee, refusing to delegate the final decision concerning whom to put in a job, top staffers said.

As a result, Bush trusts his appointees to do what's right. Except for one case, when an appointee lied on his application about past legal troubles, Bush has made no effort--publicly or privately--to ask an appointee to step down, said Clay Johnson, Bush's chief of staff.

"When they stop functioning well, we get in there and work with them to try to make sure they have a high level of functionality," Johnson said. "That's the preferred course of action, as opposed to, 'You're fired, and we're going to replace you.' "

Of course, that system doesn't always work.

Take the case of Florita Bell Griffin, a member of the governing board of the Texas agency that helps provide better housing for low-income families.

Bell Griffin was indicted in June on federal charges for her alleged involvement in a kickback scheme. Prosecutors alleged she traded votes to win tax credits for a company in which she was a silent partner.

At one point, the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development threatened to stop dispersing any more money to the board until Bell Griffin stepped down, and federal dollars amounted to 90% of the board's budget.

Although a deal eventually was worked out to allow the board to continue its work, Bush never stepped in to ask his appointee to resign. He did issue a statement expressing his concern about the charges.

Johnson cited several reasons for Bush's stance. First, he said, Bush was waiting for the court to render a decision. But Johnson also said that Bush was reluctant to challenge Bell Griffin, a black woman who has said the charges against her are racially motivated.

Bell Griffin's term in office ends early next year, and Johnson said that Bush saw no useful purpose in waging an ugly public battle with his own appointee.

But housing advocates have criticized Bush for failing to grapple with the agency's problems.

"This is the one chance he's had to really govern, and this is what we end up with, a big mess," said John Henneberger of the Texas Low Income Housing Information Service. "I can't imagine the mess if he gets elected president."

Bell Griffin did not return repeated phone calls seeking comment for this story.

Still another appointee who has caused troubles for Bush is Charles W. Williams, chief of police in Marshall, a small city in East Texas.

Williams, who serves on the board that sets training standards for police, earned notoriety earlier this year when a court deposition surfaced in which he said that he did not consider "nigger" a pejorative term when he used it to describe elderly black men as a child in Oklahoma in the late 1940s.

He also denied in the 1998 deposition that "porch monkey" was necessarily a pejorative term. The deposition is part of a race discrimination suit filed against the department by a black officer.

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