Maybe Texans should admire Grady Yarbrough, the Democratic nominee this year for the Texas Railroad Commission, for persistence, if nothing else. The 79-year-old has been on Texas ballots for statewide office off and on for three decades.
He has tried for four different offices, in two different parties. Although his name has been able to get him second place in four previous primary elections, it was not until this year that he finally will make it on a general election ballot.
Yarbrough is the Democratic nominee for an open seat on the three-member oil-andgas regulating Texas Railroad Commission. Incumbent David Porter did not seek re-election.
An East Texas native, an African-American raised in Tyler, Yarbrough went to Texas College there, and then got a master’s degree in education from Prairie View A&M. He taught in Chicago and in East Texas before moving to San Antonio in 2000, where he also taught social studies before retiring.
Beginning while he was a teacher in East Texas, Yarbrough parlayed his familiar political name into some success, running for Land Commissioner – as a Republican.
In 1986 and again in 1990, Yarbrough made it into a runoff in Republican primaries. But he lost both of them — the first to M.D. Anderson Jr. (not the cancer clinic), and the second to Wes Gilbreath. Both were dispatched by Democratic incumbent Garry Mauro.
Yarbrough had gained his name ID from populist Democrat Ralph W. Yarborough, who ran for attorney general in 1938; governor in 1952 and 1954, losing to incumbent Allan Shivers; and governor in 1956, losing narrowly to then-U.S. Sen. Price Daniel. in the Democratic primary runoff.
But then, Ralph Yarborough won the 1957 special election to succeed Daniel in the Senate. He was re-elected in 1958 and 1964, but his tenure as a senator was capped at 13 years when he was unseated by former U.S. Rep. Lloyd Bentsen Jr. in the 1970 Democratic primary.
In the 1960s, labor lawyer Don Yarborough ran in the Democratic primary for governor in 1962 and `1964 – losing both times to John B. Connally – and in 1968, in a runoff with Preston Smith. Ralph Yarborough made a comeback try in 1972 for the Senate seat held by Republican John Tower. He led into a Democratic runoff with Harold “Barefoot” Sanders, but Sanders won the second election — and then lost to Tower.
In 1976, another Don Yarbrough was the surprise victor for a seat on the Texas Supreme Court. But during efforts to impeach him in 1977 for earlier crimes, he quit the court, and fled to Grenada in 1981. Still, the name “Yarbrough” was in the news quite a bit.
So, after Grady Yarbrough’s 1986 and 1990 races for land commissioner as a Republican, in 1994, he switched races – to state treasurer – and also parties.
He ran against incumbent Democrat Martha Whitehead as her lone opponent in the Democratic primary. Whitehead had been appointed to the job by Gov. Ann Richards after the incumbent treasurer, Republican Kay Bailey Hutchison, won a 1993 special election for the U.S. Senate seat Democrat Lloyd Bentsen left to be President Bill Clinton’s secretary of the treasury.
Whitehead beat Yarbrough, but proving the residual nature of his name identification, he got more than a third of the vote.
Yarbrough’s political itch apparently hibernated for 18 years. It re-emerged in 2012, aiming for the first spot on the ballot below the presidential race: the U. S. Senate seat from which Republican Hutchison was retiring.
Still running as a Democrat, Yarbrough again got into a runoff – getting 26 percent to former 12-year state Rep. Paul Sadler’s 35 percent. Two other candidates forced the runoff.
In the runoff, Yarbrough got 37 percent to Sadler’s 63 percent. Sadler lost in November to Republican political newcomer Ted Cruz, by more than 15 percent.
So now in 2016, Yarbrough and his resilient name have finally survived a runoff. In the Democratic primary, former 18-year state Rep. Lon Burnam of Fort Worth was making a political comeback try, after narrowly losing re-election to Ramon Romero Jr. in the 2014 Democratic primary. Democratic party activist Cody Garrett of Austin also was in the race.
Yarbrough got 40 percent, and Garrett 35, eliminating Burnam, with 25. In the runoff, Yarbrough prevailed, 54-46.
Now in November, he’ll face another former state representative: Wayne Christian of Center, who lost his House seat to Chris Paddie, 52-48, in 2012.
Yarbrough’s success in finally getting on a general-election ballot may be his swan song, without ever actually winning any office. In Red-state Texas, Republicans haven’t lost a statewide race in two decades.
In a little over four months, we’ll find out whether things have changed enough that a Democrat named Yarbrough can succeed.
DAVE MCNEELY is a politial columnist. You may contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or (512) 458-2963.