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Feb 15, 2006 5:59 pm

Read on he sounds like a helluva guy…

A Red-Stater Even Before There Was Such a Thing


HOUSTON, Feb. 14 — Back in the 1960’s, when politicians jokingly referred to Texas as a two-party state, dominated by conservative Democrats and not-so-conservative Democrats, Harry M. Whittington was a rare figure: a die-hard Republican.

Before Vice President Dick Cheney sprayed him with birdshot in a hunting accident over the weekend, Mr. Whittington, 78, was known largely for his pivotal role in building the Republican Party in Texas into a powerhouse.

A grocer’s son from hardscrabble East Texas noted for his blunt style, Mr. Whittington accompanied the patrician George H. W. Bush around Texas during Mr. Bush’s unsuccessful race for the Senate in 1964 and has remained a figure in Republican politics ever since, raising money and advancing the ambitions of the party’s office seekers.

A lawyer with a knack for lucrative real estate investing but with decidedly old-school habits, Mr. Whittington has eschewed not only billing by the hour but even a personal computer at his penthouse office in the 10-story Vaughn Building in Austin.

“I know he must be very close to the Republicans,” said Joe R. Greenhill, 91, a former chief justice of the Texas Supreme Court and a monthly card-playing companion of Mr. Whittington, but "he doesn’t talk about it."

Mr. Greenhill and Mr. Whittington had been scheduled to meet this Wednesday for a game of pitch, in which the loser can return home poorer to the tune of $5 or $6, Mr. Greenhill said, though "it looks like Harry won’t be making it this week."

Mr. Whittington, a graduate of the University of Texas and of its law school, is used to maneuvering for much larger amounts anyway, as in his tussles with the political establishment in Austin, where Democrats still hold substantial sway. He has spent hundred of thousands of dollars on legal fees to fight a decision by the city six years ago to condemn property owned by his family and build a $10.5 million parking garage there.

In January, the Texas Supreme Court handed him a victory, declining to hear an appeal from a lower court ruling that officials had failed to prove the land was needed for a public purpose. In a recent profile of Mr. Whittington, The Austin American-Statesman said he could now end up owning not only the garage, which had been built in the interim, but also another facility constructed on the property, a water-chilling plant used for air-conditioning. Together they are valued at $29.8 million.

If private-property rights are one of Mr. Whittington’s passions, he has others that do not fit so squarely with his image as a Republican elder. One is prison reform. While serving on the board of the Texas Department of Corrections in the 1980’s and after observing the conditions in many state prisons, he once claimed, “Prisons are to crime what greenhouses are to plants.” He also led an effort to move mentally retarded inmates out of the general prison population and followed this with outspoken support of a bill to ban execution of retarded prisoners. (Although Gov. Rick Perry vetoed that bill in 2001, the United States Supreme Court later outlawed such executions.)

“A person who is born with a body that becomes an adult and a mind that remains a child needs special protection in our criminal justice system,” Mr. Whittington, one of whose four daughters is retarded, wrote in a letter to The Dallas Morning News in 2001.

Mr. Whittington and his wife, Mercedes, live comfortably in a ranch-style home in northwest Austin near Mount Bonnell, a breathtaking spot overlooking much of the city. He is trim, and frequently begins his day with a workout at Tarry House, a private social club he founded in 1968.

Mr. Whittington is close to President Bush, who in 1999, as governor of Texas, named him chairman of the regulatory Funeral Service Commission. The Texas funeral industry was then riddled by claims of irregularities, some surrounding Service Corporation International, of Houston, a large chain of funeral homes headed by an ardent supporter of the Bush family. Under Mr. Whittington, the commission reluctantly settled a whistle-blower lawsuit filed by a former state regulator who maintained that she had been fired for investigating the company.

Dealing with that issue and others at his first meeting of the funeral commission, Mr. Whittington said, "If any agency needs divine guidance, it’s this one."

Nathan Levy contributed reporting from Austin, Tex., for this article.

Feb 15, 2006 11:25 pm

Of course we all know that nobody at the Washington Post has a liberal bias, right?