By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
Last year was a good one for Royce West. In May 2006, the large and imposing state senator from southern Dallas helped break a deadlocked state Legislature, playing a vital role in passing a landmark school finance law, a measure that had the surprising advantage of pleasing all sides in the debate over how to pay for public education.
West also bet on the winning horse for Dallas County district attorney, backing Craig Watkins, who shook off bad press about his slate of unpaid debts to upset the heavily favored and funded Republican Toby Shook. Then, in a self-assured performance that would impress Forest Whitaker, West starred in a television ad for Democratic gubernatorial candidate Chris Bell, helping the little-known former congressman carry Dallas County while lifting a gaggle of anonymous and thinly qualified Democrats below him to office—though not Bell.
On election night, when the party faithful gathered at the Adam's Mark Hotel downtown, the 54-year-old West served as the evening's host, gleefully mimicking Johnny Carson's clubless golf swing as the incoming results hinted that a landslide was beginning to rumble. He played a key role in the Democrats' Dallas uprising, producing radio and TV spots to help lead the party's decisive get-out-the-vote drive while dipping into his considerable campaign chest to fund the party's fight.
Now everybody in the room looked to West. The unabashed Democratic loyalist during the party's two decades in exile was now the face of their Napoleonic return. Reporters chose the state senator to explain the party's victory, and he obliged, telling The Dallas Morning News, "We now have the leadership of this county." Within weeks, West would select and lead Watkins' transition team, largely choosing his own friends and allies to help reshape the most important office in county government.
"He's the big dog in the party now," says former Democratic U.S. Attorney Paul Coggins, who thinks West would be a viable candidate statewide. "He has a little bit of LBJ in him. He is a consummate political strategist and has a huge web of influence."
If 2006 was good for West, 2005 might have been even better, albeit for different reasons. That year, West's tiny law firm billed nearly $580,000 to the Dallas Independent School District, where West and an occasional associate represent the district when fired employees appeal their dismissals. West also did good business that year just south of Dallas at the Wilmer-Hutchins school district, which in the fall of 2005 didn't have enough money to open its doors. District voters rejected a referendum that would have increased the property tax rate, and the Texas Education Association shut the district down for good just weeks before the start of the school year.
West, a graduate of Wilmer-Hutchins High School, tried to use his stature on the Senate's Education Committee to keep the district alive, pleading with the state for one more chance. He lost but didn't exactly come away empty-handed. In 2005, West collected nearly $180,000 from the district as its delinquent tax attorney, bringing his law firm's cumulative earnings from both school districts that year to close to $760,000. Not a bad year at the office.
His fee from Wilmer-Hutchins was especially sweet since, in 2002, the district's trustees had voted to end their relationship with West after the Texas Comptroller's Office criticized his work in an audit. After West met with board members behind closed doors, trustees re-did their vote and retained him as their tax attorney.
"Royce West only did what he was allowed to do," says former Wilmer-Hutchins trustee Ann Walker. "I can't say anything bad about him. He was given the thread, and he just unwound it."
Whether West is manipulating political leaders or spawning them, one thing about him is clear: He's in the middle of just about everything that matters, wielding power, influence and charm on behalf of the state, his district and himself, if not necessarily in that order. As a Democratic senator in an overwhelmingly Republican state, West has been extraordinarily successful politically, helping pass legislation affecting just about every college-bound student in the state and playing a starring role in some of the biggest debates in Austin. He also helped create the University of North Texas campus in southern Dallas, which could turn the bleak and underdeveloped surrounding area into a thriving college and commercial district.
Now that the Democratic Party has taken control in Dallas County—with a crew of unheralded neophytes learning every day on the job—West's savvy and status will more or less be on permanent display. The November elections ushered in a slate of obscure candidates, who largely owe their victories to straight-ticket voters who pulled the Democratic lever out of disgust over the war in Iraq. After the other senior Democrat in the county, the capricious John Wiley Price, endorsed several Republicans, West went from one of several leaders of a marginalized party to the chief of the new ruling class, with his experience likely to overshadow the slim profiles of the freshly elected for years to come.
"Does it enhance his stature? Of course it does," says attorney Ken Molberg, the senior member of the state Democratic executive committee, on the effect of last November's elections. "He's a top-tier Democrat. No doubt about that."