Longform

Fatal Perfection

Page 6 of 9

"In the community, a lot of people were upset with Crowder for having defended this brazen hussy," says Jim Atkinson, who co-wrote the book, along with John Bloom. "As far as he was concerned, however, it just fed his sense that he was a hero. He had defended this poor woman no one else would defend. He just had this way of looking at everything as if he were in a movie."

Crowder wanted leading man Tommy Lee Jones to play his part in Killing in a Small Town. Ever proud of his athletic built, Crowder was disappointed when the director instead cast portly character actor Brian Dennehy.

"That case made Don both famous and infamous," says Mattox, who was then running for a seat in the U.S. House. "A lot of people in civil practice couldn't understand how he could defend a criminal, a murderer."

"After it was over, Don got death threats," Carol remembers. "People that were supposed to be our friends wouldn't sit by us when we went to football games."

But the scorn of those in the community didn't stop Crowder from trying to parlay his notoriety into grander plans. "In the original deal he struck with me," says Mattox, "Don would practice law so I could be in politics. Don kept that deal, but it could just as easily be cut from the other direction."

Crowder certainly had political ambitions. After an aborted attempt to run for the state legislature in 1969, when he was only 26 years old, Crowder never lost his taste for politics.

In 1972, he joined up with Mattox as North Texas coordinator of U.S. Senator Edmund Muskie's campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination, and in the following years, he served as treasurer for Mattox's successful campaigns for the Texas House, the U.S. Congress, and Texas attorney general. Apart from his responsibilities as Allen city attorney, Crowder became president of the Lovejoy school district, and then a member of the Lucas City Council.

So in 1986, when Don Crowder announced he would run for governor, he was only following the pattern he had laid down for himself years ago: If you want it, go for it, no holds barred.

"I was lying in bed one day when he walked out of the closet, where he had been hanging his clothes--he was a very neat person--and announced he was going to run for governor," says Carol. "I almost fell out of bed. 'Most people start at the bottom and work up,' I told him."

Not Don Crowder.
He made headlines only when he called incumbent Gov. Mark White a "nerd" and a "low-life scumball," threatening to trail him around the state until White agreed to debate him. "Don was a progressive, populist individual, and he saw politics as a means of attacking some of the hypocrisy that exists in our society," says Mattox. "His run for governor was a Don Quixote challenge--he ran with very little money."

In the Democratic primary, he received 118,530 votes--more than 11 percent of the total--enough for Carol to consider it a "relative victory for an unknown," but certainly not enough for Crowder.

"He told me--and he really believed this--'If I'd had 30 more days, I would have been governor of the state of Texas,'" recalls Shapiro. "He told me, 'I am the most recognized political name in the state.'"

To those who knew him, that claim made perfect sense. Crowder lived his life in superlatives: His wife Carol was the best woman he had ever known, his son Austin was the best high school football player in the state. Whether this was delusional or just the way he perceived himself was of no consequence. What mattered was being the best--winning in sports, in law, in life--by the sheer power of his will.

On election eve, Don Crowder turned away news crews and stayed away from the celebrations of loyal supporters. He just wanted to be at home, surrounded by his large family. "The family was the most important thing to him," remembers Carol. He often compared himself to the Godfather, author Mario Puzo's magnanimous head of another large family.

Crowder arranged work and family life so the two intertwined. He surrounded himself with an entourage of those he loved and helped. In addition to employing his mother, Crowder had his wife Carol do the firm's bookkeeping. All the Crowder children except Christy (who became a hairdresser) worked there at some time or another. Rhonda became a paralegal, Austin is now finishing his last year of law school, and Jimmy got involved in the restaurant business.

In part because he wanted to give Jimmy a restaurant to run, Crowder, in 1991, decided to open his own sports bar in Plano: Gameday Sport Cafe.

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Juliana Barbassa