Grandma goes electric

Comptroller Carole Keeton Rylander wants to take the state into the 21st century -- and herself into higher office -- with her vision of "e-Texas"

Texas Comptroller Carole Keeton Rylander couldn't have picked a better time to slip out of town.

Democrats in Austin who have loathed her since she changed parties in the mid-1980s were trying to smear her with a Nixon-like scandal involving audiotapes of phone conversations that her staff attorney recorded clandestinely. She was also ducking questions about why a 27-year-old woman barely out of college, who happened to be the wife of Rylander's chief of staff, was the only person interviewed for a director's position in the comptroller's office that paid $55,000 a year.

It had been a rough month for the 60-year-old politician who was elected comptroller last year on an advertising campaign branding her "one tough grandma."

Carole Keeton Rylander's life has been graced with plenty of rewards. But they never seem to satisfy her.
John Anderson
Carole Keeton Rylander's life has been graced with plenty of rewards. But they never seem to satisfy her.

But on a gentle day in October in the nation's capital, Rylander was among friends, a safe distance from the snide gossip in Austin. She would seize the moment, using a purely political setting to reveal for the first time some choice details about "e-Texas," a government-reform initiative she considers the cornerstone of her administration. One month before she would formally unveil e-Texas to Texans, she would spill the beans at a luncheon in Washington put together by the influential conservative think tank Heritage Foundation.

The inverse order of the announcements raises questions about whether Rylander's e-Texas is less about Texas and more about politics.

"It's time for government to stop competing with the private sector," she told her Heritage Foundation audience. "E-Texas will be a true public-private partnership using new strategic tools such as activity-based costing, outsourcing, managed competition, and benchmarking the best practices."

Those buzz words may send some heads spinning, but Rylander knew how to speak the language of her audience and play to the crowd. The foundation endorses outsourcing, or farming out, more government functions to the private sector, and Rylander has been an outspoken advocate of privatizing. During her 1998 campaign for comptroller, she called for a "Yellow Pages test" to gauge the efficiency of state government. Her slogan: "Government should do no job if there is a business in the Yellow Pages that can do that job better and at a lower cost."

E-Texas, a medley of 14 task forces of 10 to 15 people each, will recommend to the Legislature areas of government that can be outsourced to the private sector. In that way, Rylander is making good on her campaign promise to apply the Yellow Pages test across state government.

E-Texas, however, also appears to be a clever device to help Rylander build a political base so she can continue her advance to higher public office, which seems to be an overriding obsession of hers. That may explain why she's more at ease yukking it up with a bunch of conservatives in Washington than she is explaining the nuances, and foibles, of her administration to the people of Texas.

Rylander, who declined repeated requests to be interviewed for this story, is a 5-foot-2-inch-tall workaholic and whirlwind personality who can't sit still.

Her rapid-fire auctioneer's speaking style wears thin, but her cornball shtick is a big hit with virgin ears. "I give my mother full credit for the reason I talk this fast, because when I was a kid she'd let me help her in the kitchen and she'd let me lick the beaters on the electric mixer but she wouldn't turn them off," she said to a belly-laughing Heritage Foundation crowd who had never heard the tired line before.

The mother of five sons and a doting grandmother to four girls, Rylander is the daughter of beloved former University of Texas Law School dean W. Page Keeton, who died one year ago. One of her sons is a lawyer, one is a doctor, and another, Scott McClellan, is a press aide for Gov. George W. Bush's presidential campaign. Rylander's daughter-in-law Suzy McClellan is Bush's appointee to represent ratepayers as the state's public utility counsel.

Rylander, who is twice divorced, wrote a diet book that documents how she lost 80 pounds in seven months. She also hosted her own public-affairs TV show on Austin's NBC affiliate. She was the first female president of the Austin school board and the only woman elected Austin mayor, Texas railroad commissioner, and comptroller.

Rylander's life has been graced with plenty of rewards. But they never seem to satisfy her.

She has run for office nine times since 1972. She was elected to a six-year term as railroad commissioner in 1996 and quipped during her campaign that turnover on the commission over the past several years made the three-member panel as unstable as the price of oil. "I want to bring Cal Ripken-like staying power to the commission," she said, vowing to serve out her full term.

As it turned out, Rylander showed the team loyalty of a free agent. A mere six months into her term she declared her candidacy for comptroller, a more prestigious and influential position.

"In Texas, the comptroller shop is the heart and soul of state government," she told the Heritage Foundation crowd before describing her office in terms Washingtonians could understand. "It is the equivalent of the GAO, OMB, Treasury, and IRS all rolled into one."

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