Michael Williams walks into the room wearing his trademark bowtie and cowboy boots. He’s a genial fellow with a booming voice and ready grin, but something about him says “Don’t mess with Texas.” It’s a message Williams would like to carry directly to Harry Reid, as the Republican formally announces later today that he will be a candidate for U.S. Senate.
It’s an announcement that has been a long time coming. The Texas railroad commissioner intended to run last year if Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison followed through on her plan to resign from the Senate to campaign for the Republican nomination for governor of Texas. The Houston Chronicle described Williams as the favorite to receive an interim appointment to Hutchison’s seat from incumbent Gov. Rick Perry.
Perry easily beat Hutchison in the primary and she decided to stay put, thus no vacancy was created. Williams decided he would definitely run for Senate in 2012, even if that meant challenging Hutchison in the primary. “I have said from the beginning,” Williams declared in a statement, “I will be a candidate for this seat whenever it comes up.” This time she budged, announcing she had served in Washington long enough and would retire.
Hutchison’s announcement didn’t alter Williams’ plans, but it does change the dynamics of the race. Without an incumbent, the primary will likely get crowded. Williams insists he doesn’t mind. “I just know that people are hungry for real leadership,” he says. “They are looking for someone to go to Washington and not just say the right things or vote the right way, but actually take the lead on getting the federal government back under control.”
Williams has been on the Texas railroad commission — which oversees the state’s large energy industry and has absolutely nothing to do with railroads — for 12 years. He was first appointed by then-Gov. George W. Bush in 1998 and he was popularly reelected three times, most recently in 2008. He resigned last week to prepare for a Senate bid. Before that, he was a prosecutor in the Reagan Justice Department and ran the civil rights office in the first President Bush’s Department of Education.
Discussing his platform, Williams seems to be saying “don’t mess with Texas” all over again. He wants to repeal the “disastrous” health care bill President Obama signed into law. “I’m hopeful that the repeal bill might make it to the president’s desk before the next election,” he says. Williams also adamantly opposes cap and trade — “I know a little bit about Washington’s impact on the energy sector” — and fears an unchecked Obama Environmental Protection Agency.
A gifted orator, Williams has in recent months emerged as a popular speaker in the Tea Party circuit. He talks about the Constitution and out-of-control federal spending. He is also pro-life and opposed to amnesty. “No country that is serious can fail to guard its borders,” Williams says. “Leaving the border unprotected leaves us vulnerable not just to illegal workers but also criminals and people who would harm Americans.”
Williams sounds a cautiously supportive note about Rep. Paul Ryan’s Roadmap, the House Budget Committee chairman’s long-term plan to deal with the entitlements crisis. “I think he’s started an important conversation,” he says. “I intend to be a part of that conversation.” He argues that “everything must be on the table” when trying to cut spending. Asked if that includes defense, he says yes. “But we do have to prioritize too,” Williams continues. “And there is no higher priority of the federal government than protecting America.”
The other Republican candidates are sure to make similar appeals. For example, Ted Cruz, the former state solicitor general, threw his hat in the ring with this statement: “We need leaders in Washington who will stand up and fight to defend liberty, preserve the Constitution and stop federal overreach.” Primary voters will be left to sort out their records. “Right now, there isn’t a Tom Coburn or Jim DeMint in this race,” says former Texas GOP chairman Tom Pauken.
Williams argues that he is a proven fighter. As an assistant secretary in the Bush Education Department in 1990, he tried to eliminate federal aid for race-based scholarships. “I grew up solidly middle-class but in a mostly poor black community,” says Williams, the son of a math teacher. “We need to empower all our people, black, Latino, and white.” Civil-rights activists attacked Williams and the Bush White House backed down. But Williams didn’t change his mind. “It was the right thing to do,” he says. Williams also faced threats when he successfully prosecuted members of the Ku Klux Klan during the Reagan administration.
It will take some fighting to get to the Senate. A survey by Public Policy Polling, a Democratic firm, found Texas Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst ahead with 23 percent of the vote, followed by Congressman Ron Paul at 21 percent, Attorney General Greg Abbott with 14 percent, Congressman Joe Barton at 7 percent, and fellow railroad commissioner Elizabeth Ames Jones at 6 percent. Williams and three other candidates, including Dallas Mayor Tom Leppert, are stuck at 3 percent.
Dewhurst is considered the frontrunner and some observers question whether Williams — despite his popularity with national Republicans — can raise the money to compete. Williams aide Corbin Casteel dismisses such talk: “From Charlie Crist to Hillary Clinton, we’ve learned that the ‘inevitable’ candidate doesn’t always win.”
“I expect it to be a hard-fought race but not a dirty race,” says Williams. But he claims he is not focusing on his opponents. “I ran track,” he says, “so I know how to concentrate on my own lane.”