Sins of a Preacher Man

Until his overthrow, Bill Price led the Texas anti-abortion movement for 17 years. Was it politics, ego, or something worse that did him in?

"Bill had this nasty habit of promising legislators that if they would just give him this one little thing, this time, he would leave them alone next session," Dunham says. "But he always came back for more."

In the '85 session, he led a successful fight to require that all abortion clinics meet minimum health standards. He was back in '87 asking for a ban on all late-term abortions. He signed off on a compromise piece of legislation with Lt. Gov. Bill Hobby that recognized exceptions to the ban when the mother's life was in danger and in certain cases of fetal abnormality. "Afterward he viciously attacked Hobby in his newsletter," says Peggy Romberg, the head of the Texas Family Planning Association, "calling him the No. 1 enemy of the pro-life movement."

Small wonder he had a tough time getting legislation passed in the next five sessions under the Democrats--no bill restricting abortions on minors, no laws banning state funds for Planned Parenthood. "We did a lot of lobbying," Price says. "But with either Bill Hobby or Bob Bullock, who were ardently pro-choice, we didn't get anywhere."

Peter Calvin
Bill Price says that 17 years of devotion to the anti-abortion cause meant nothing when the Texans United for Life board investigated him for misusing his expense account.
Peter Calvin
Bill Price says that 17 years of devotion to the anti-abortion cause meant nothing when the Texans United for Life board investigated him for misusing his expense account.

It didn't help his cause that he lacked the standard lobbying tools of money (to help fund an election) or a voting bloc (to help win an election). "Because he spoke so loudly, so consistently, and so tenaciously, he was rather masterful at giving the impression of having a much larger movement than there really was," Dunham says. Price admits that Texans United for Life never had more than 5,000 members. But reporters would list its membership at 100,000, and he did little to correct them.

He was also masterful at keeping his issue and his face in the media. "You had to deal with him if you were a legislator, or he would go to the press," Romberg says. "And the press liked him because he was very good at giving them something pissy at a moment's notice."

If a politician hesitated on the abortion issue, remained silent, or reversed himself, Price attacked. In 1992, he slammed state Comptroller John Sharp, a Catholic who once said that he would go to hell if he changed his mind on abortion. When Sharp began to express pro-choice inclinations, Price told the Houston Chronicle, "I guess John Sharp has decided to go to hell."

But these skirmishes paled in comparison with the civil war Price started in the state Republican Party over the seating of U.S. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison as a delegate to the '96 Republican National Convention.

That war had its roots in the movement of social conservatives into the ranks of the state Republican Party hierarchy. That process began during the Reagan years as the Religious Right ousted country-club Republicans, beating them at a grassroots level, precinct by precinct. Groups like the Christian Coalition, Eagle Forum, and Texans United for Life turned the Republican platform into their manifesto, and by 1994, their denizens dominated the party machinery. The abortion issue was the glue that held them together and the question wasn't if you were pro-life, but how pro-life were you? A one-exception politician (life of the mother) was certainly preferable to a three-exception one (mother's life, rape, and incest). And someone like Hutchison, who had a fleeting history of voting pro-choice, was anathema to people like Bill Price.

Price says that prior to the 1996 state GOP convention, he and the other anti-abortion leaders in the state made a deal: No one--not even a U.S. senator--would become a delegate to the national convention unless their pro-life bona fides were beyond reproach. "I knew I was taking on the entire party establishment, Phil Gramm, Hutchison, even the other pro-life groups abandoned me," he says. "But I had to draw that line in the sand."

The only group that didn't abandon him was the media, and he made the most of it as a trail of reporters and cameramen dogged him daily on the convention floor. Gramm branded him a "bully" and a "blowhard." Although Hutchison would gain a delegate slot, Price says he made his point. "I wanted to make Hutchison radioactive so Bob Dole wouldn't consider her for a running mate."

Others, even within his movement, believed Price was just staging the media event as a fund-raising tool, something he had a habit of doing. Days after the Hutchison showdown, TUL sent out a fund-raising letter, asking for money to send Price to the national convention to seal the fate of Hutchison, as if he were the only true defender of the faith.

Oddly, Price didn't sound like such a purist when it came to the position he staked out for himself within his own movement. By 1988, Operation Rescue had begun to engage in civil disobedience, grabbing headlines as their volunteer zealots blocked the entrances to abortion clinics and were arrested for trespassing and vandalism. Price came out hard and often against Operation Rescue, publicly condemning their tactics as a slippery slope toward violence.

By 1993, radical elements within the anti-abortion movement grew increasingly frustrated. Blockades of clinics led to arson; harassment of abortionists led to murder. Price's press releases grew bolder. He accused even mainstream anti-abortion opponents of willful silence and demanded they condemn the violence openly. Four members of Price's own board were sympathetic to Operation Rescue, but Price rarely consulted his board when he took a position.

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