January 09, 2004
Why Texas politics are just different

It's not just that we're a state in which a Republican candidate can get into a pissing contest with an oil tycoon. It's that they do it in public that makes this state so special.

To say Dallas oilman T. Boone Pickens and state Senate candidate Jesse Quackenbush disagree on water rights is an understatement.

After Quackenbush an Amarillo attorney and restaurateur commented in the Odessa American newspaper about Pickens' attempt to sell Panhandle water, Pickens' attorney fired off a letter threatening a libel lawsuit.

Quackenbush, who considers the tone of the letter "threatening," is refusing to be muzzled.

"Tell Mr. Pickens I'll be his huckleberry. Please let him know that if I'm elected to represent the 31st District, the only water he'll leave the Panhandle with will be the urine I leave on his pant leg," Quackenbush wrote to Pickens' attorney, James A. Besselman, also of Amarillo. The letter is dated Jan. 5.

See what I mean? You can't buy this kind of entertainment anywhere else. I will of course prefer to see the Democrat, Elaine King Miller, win this race, but if it has to be a Republican (and it almost assuredly will), I'll be rooting for Quackenbush. May I suggest now that his Official Senate Nickname be Huckleberry Hound?

Jokes aside, the article is pretty interesting in its own right. Here's the nub of the dispute:

Quackenbush is making water rights a theme in his campaign and name-dropped Pickens in the newspaper story.

"The rapidly approaching special election should be about issues, not the popularity contest it's turning into," Quackenbush told the American. "T. Boone Pickens is closer than ever to stealing and auctioning off the 31st District's limited water supply."

In a letter to Quackenbush from Besselman dated Dec. 23, Besselman wrote that the water underlying Pickens' ranch and the ranches of a separate landowner group belong to them "as a matter of law."

Besselman also wrote that Pickens has put forth a "viable solution to the state's impending water crisis that should be debated as a public policy issue."

"Your public statement that Mr. Pickens is going to 'steal' water that somehow belongs to the 31st District's water supply is a libelous misstatement that is offensive to Mr. Pickens and appears to be a blatant mischaracterization and untruth published by you to gain some advantage in your election efforts," Besselman wrote.

"We view this known untruth and malicious lie, to further your own political ambition, to be a very serious error of judgment."

The letter stated it was Quackenbush's only reminder to never again refer to Pickens in any further "untrue fashion" about his proposed use or sale of his water.

"To do so will assuredly cause you to be a defendant in a libel lawsuit, and I can promise you that your time will be saturated with the prosecution of that case," the letter states.

Quackenbush said he doesn't agree with water being sold for profit and transported to other areas. He equated it to the sale and transportation of oxygen. He said he is trying to protect the interests of farmers in the 31st District, which goes from the Panhandle through counties along the New Mexico border to the Permian Basin. It includes Amarillo, Midland and Odessa.

"We don't think water should be treated as a commodity," Quackenbush said. "The people in the Panhandle do not understand the commodity that's about to be taken away from them."

Water rights are a big deal, and as more people move into and are born into the West and Southwest, you'll see a lot more of this kind of dispute, if perhaps with a bit less color. I believe Quackenbush is on the right side of this issue for the same reason that I believe development should be strictly controlled in the Edwards Aquifer recharge zone. I hope whoever wins this Senate seat will see it Quackenbush's way.

Posted by Charles Kuffner on January 09, 2004 to The great state of Texas | TrackBack

I wonder if there were similar colorful discussions about William Mulholland in California during the Owens Valley water fights. (See Chinatown for a decent representation of that imbroglio).

Posted by: Linkmeister on January 9, 2004 2:42 PM

I think it was Chinatown, anyway.

Posted by: Linkmeister on January 9, 2004 2:43 PM

Even a joke about Quackenbush winning the senate race is nauseating to someone who's watched him, despite his admittedly humorous comment about Pickens.

For one thing, read this article:

This was just a day or two after the end of Quackenbush's failed campaign, for which dozens of Amarillo Democrats devoted blood, sweat and tears.

Posted by: AmarilloReader on January 9, 2004 2:58 PM

AmarilloReader - Fair enough, and thanks for pointing that out. It's a shame he thanked his supporters that way. Y'all definitely deserved better.

Posted by: Charles Kuffner on January 9, 2004 3:36 PM

"I'll be his huckleberry."

Perhaps "Doc" Quackenbush would be more romantic than "Huckleburry Hound." That line from Tombstone has gotten alot of mileage.

Posted by: Jaye on January 9, 2004 4:37 PM

Chuck: "You can't buy this kind of entertainment anywhere else."

Actually, Chicago city politics (and Illinois politics in general) are at least as entertaining. It's of a decidedly urban character compared to Texas's decidedly rural character--Chicago politicians are Poles, Irish, and blacks, in a working-class city, while Texas politicians are Anglos and Hispanics of a rancher/tycoon bent.

The stereotypes are different, but the jokes are just as funny.

And that's just for the two areas I qualify as at all familiar; I have every reason to expect that Miami, New York, and LA have their own home-grown brand of wacky political hijinks.

Texas may be special, but it ain't unique.

Posted by: Greg Morrow on January 12, 2004 11:00 AM

Water rights belong to the land where the water is at. The only way water should ever be allowed to leave the land should be by a yearly lease of only a portion of the water,(up to 50%), to be either renewed or not renewed yearly by the owner of the land. When water rights are sold, then immediately the value of the land greatly diminishes, and eventually becomes worthless. EVEN IDIOTS KNOW THIS!

Posted by: concermed citizen on February 17, 2005 4:00 PM