Sins of a Preacher Man

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Price organized about 20 anti-abortion organizations around the state into the Texas Coalition for Life, a group--he told the media--consisting of 100,000 members. On March 7, 1986, Price, as leader of that coalition, held a news conference in Austin where he endorsed former U.S. Rep. Tom Loeffler for governor in the Republican primary over former Gov. Bill Clements.

To Paulette Standefer, one of the founding members of Dallas Right to Life, Price's endorsement of Loeffler was not only politically naive (Clements won), but a self-serving attempt to make himself a force within the emerging Religious Right.

Standefer (who refused to be interviewed for this article) spoke out against Price, and he immediately took steps to remove her from the board. "Paulette just wasn't ready to yield the organization," Price says. "Voting to remove her established me as the leader."

It also ripped the board in half, as six other members (most of them Catholic), resigned in protest. Price filled their seats with members more favorably disposed to his bold style of leadership (most of them evangelical).

In his letter of resignation, board member Richard Land expressed his fears about the board's increasing lack of oversight regarding Price: "I am dismayed by [Price's] lack of ongoing accountability to the board on policy, personnel, and budgetary matters. The board may wish to do it this way, but they should make a conscious decision...instead of sliding into it unconsciously."

Price was now free to direct his war without anyone looking over his shoulder. He could go to Austin and lobby the Legislature, go to the state Republican convention and play powerbroker, go to his office and write an op-ed piece attacking the more militant elements within his own movement. Price's new hand-picked board was more willing to let Bill be Bill.

Although the Texans United for Life had both a political and educational arm, Price's real passion was evident even to his enemies.

"He was a political junkie," says Phyllis Dunham, former executive director of the Texas Abortion Rights Action League. "You could just watch the man light up when the Legislature was in session. He seemed to live for those few months every two years."

But politics is the art of compromise, and he spoke for a group of ideological purists who saw anything short of an outright ban on abortion as a defeat. The line he walked--between political insider and moral crusader--was a fine one, particularly in a Democratic-controlled Legislature.

"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."

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."

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Mark Donald
Contact: Mark Donald