After the 2010 elections, there's a good chance the only African American in the U.S. Senate will be a conservative Republican from Texas named Michael Williams. Though he's been running for over a year and is something of a rock star on the tea party circuit in the Lonestar State, you probably haven't heard much about Williams's bid for the Senate. That's because he's been stuck in a holding pattern, waiting for Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison to retire.
Hutchison has promised to step down after she faces off against Governor Rick Perry in the March 2 gubernatorial GOP primary--and after she's cast her vote in the major legislative fights of this Congress. "For all of the good Republicans out there who plan on running for my seat next year," Hutchison said in November, "make no mistake: This [retirement] is going to happen. It just isn't going to happen until after health care reform and cap and trade are finished. And that will be after the primary election."
After Hutchison retires, Governor Perry will likely appoint a successor. Williams, a charismatic, bow-tie-wearing railroad commissioner, is in prime position to get the nod, and incumbency would boost his prospects.
In the special election he'd likely face a crowded field of Democrats and Republicans on November 2. If none got 50 percent of the vote, the top two would advance to a runoff in early December. Former state comptroller John Sharp is one Democratic contender to emerge. Lieutenant Governor David Dewhurst and former Texas secretary of state Roger Williams are two other strong Republican candidates.
Though Michael Williams trails his Republican rivals in fundraising, he scored early endorsements from Newt Gingrich and Rudy Giuliani. And, on December 10, he was in Washington to accept the endorsement of Jim DeMint's Senate Conservatives Fund. "Millions of people who've spoken out at town halls and tea parties . . . are looking for common sense mainstream leaders who believe in the principles of our Constitution," DeMint told reporters, as he stood with Williams outside the Capitol. "He's one of the most inspiring people I've heard talk about those principles in a long time."
Addressing a dozen or more tea parties that drew from 300 to 3,000 attendees, Williams has honed his message opposing Obama's resurrection of big government. "Washington is on course to double our debt in the next five years," he said at one rally, "but don't be fooled by the word debt. It is simply a tax increase deferred to another day that will fill the bank vaults in Beijing."
Williams is a solid fiscal and social conservative, but his rhetoric and many of his views are mainstream. "It's one thing for Medicare to be for the elderly and the disabled, it's another thing for Medicare to be for everybody," Williams told me. "There's going to need to be Medicare reform, but I'm not suggesting we need to eliminate Medicare."
From 1984 to 1993, Williams held a number of positions in the Reagan and George H.W. Bush administrations, including deputy assistant secretary at Treasury and assistant secretary of education. He then worked as a lawyer in the private sector and was appointed by Governor George W. Bush to the Texas railroad commission, which regulates the oil, gas, and mining industries. Since his appointment in 1999, he's won statewide election to the commission three times and developed an expertise in energy policy. After ticking off statistics on wind and coal power in one recent speech, Williams began talking about the benefits of nuclear power. "If the French can figure it out, surely we can," he said.
Williams's good nature and wonkishness don't fit the stereotype of the tea party activist. But then according to conventional wisdom, Williams, who was born in 1953 and grew up in the segregated South, is supposed to be a Democrat.
The son of public school teachers, Williams lived in Texas until high school, when he attended a boarding school run by Benedictine monks in Colorado. At the University of Southern California he was a hurdler. "I was anything but a conservative" back then, Williams told me. He cast his first vote for George McGovern in 1972 and served as president of the black student union at USC law school. By the early 1980s, however, Williams was a conservative Republican.
While he credits his parents and his Catholic faith for instilling a "conservative values system" in him, the thinkers who most influenced his political evolution are Milton Friedman and Thomas Sowell. "Even though I didn't think of myself as a conservative, I was always reading. I was always examining my own thoughts," Williams says. Friedman's Free to Choose helped him realize that the welfare state played a big role in keeping the poor and vulnerable from succeeding. And Sowell was "central" to him. "It was important to me," Williams explains, not only to find affirmation for "my own thoughts and thinking and in many ways to expand my understanding of these values and principles, but to get it from somebody that looked like me."
"People would say, 'Someone who looks like you cannot think what you think,'" says Williams. "That rarely happens nowadays."
Those attacks may revive once the Senate race heats up in Texas. Williams is the "Democrat party's worst nightmare," says DeMint. The Democrats do not want an impressive minority Republican on the national stage, and they may play the race card.
At the same time, Williams acknowledges that his race creates an opening for him to "have a conversation with other African Americans." He insists, though, "We've got to go beyond symbolism to real solutions."
"I would much prefer the story-line be 'consistent, courageous, conservative from Texas comes to Washington,' " he says. "The real story is not the one of race. The real story is that you've got a new Republican who's going to rally the next generation of Americans around conservative solutions."
John McCormack is deputy online editor of THE WEEKLY STANDARD.
Correction: An earlier version of this article reported that Houston mayor Bill White is running for Senate. He dropped out of the Senate race on December 4 and is now running for governor.