As far as Republicans go, Texas Railroad Commissioner Michael Williams is pretty easy to recognize. There usually aren't too many African-American men sporting a giant bowtie and cowboy boots speaking at conservative gatherings.
The boots are easy enough to explain. “Well, I’m from Texas,” Williams told The Daily Beast in an interview, his bass-heavy drawl reverberating from the phone. The bowtie? It started as a bit of a prank while he was serving as a White House education official under President George H.W. Bush. After being called up to testify in front of a hostile audience of Senate Democrats, his staff suggested he try to cut the tension and stand out from the crowd with some offbeat neckwear. “I wanted to bring a light moment to the hearing, be humorous,” he said. “We had a very confrontational hearing anyway. But I had bought all these bow ties…” Soon he had a trademark.
On Thursday, Williams declared his candidacy for Senate, entering what’s expected to be a crowded and competitive Republican primary to replace the retiring Kay Bailey Hutchison. Political observers and early polls peg him as an underdog against Lieutenant Governor David Dewhurst, who is expected to enter the race and enjoys better name recognition and a large personal fortune to help back his campaign. But Williams’ unconventional background and strong grassroots outreach gives him unusually high potential to break out as a national Tea Party star.
Already, his candidacy is ruffling feathers in Washington. Sen. Jim DeMint (R-SC), the conservative lawmaker who lent endorsements to successful Tea Party candidates like Rand Paul and Christine O’Donnell in tough primaries, backed Williams last year for a Senate run to replace Hutchison, who was then planning to leave office to run for governor before deciding to hold off until her term ended. After vowing a less hands-on approach to primaries for 2012, this week DeMint put out an email talking up Williams as an “outstanding conservative leader” and praising another dark horse, former state Solicitor General Ted Cruz, all while notably downplaying Dewhurst. His meddling irritated Senator John Cornyn (R-TX): "Is that guy from Texas?" he told Hotline On Call when asked about DeMint.
“Marco Rubio’s race is the classic example,” Williams said. “He started behind in the polls, way behind in money, he began raising small dollar money, and then before you know it, the graph of his fundraising looked like a hockey stick.”
Supporters look to brand Williams as the next in a line of recent Republican candidates who scored upset primary victories against more entrenched politicians with heavy Tea Party support.
“It’s definitely going to be Tea Party grassroots vs. establishment,” Ken Emanuelson, a Tea Party activist in Dallas who organized a "Draft Williams" Facebook page told The Daily Beast. “Within the grassroots in Texas, Michael is known and loved very much. To the extent there can be anyone described as the grassroots candidate in this race, I think he would be the guy—and second place isn’t even close.”
RedState blogger Erick Erickson has taken to labeling the Texas Lieutenant Governor “DewCrist,” after the moderate former Florida governor who ditched the GOP last year while running against Tea Party icon Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL). Williams cited Rubio’s race as his own campaign model.
“Marco Rubio’s race is the classic example,” he said. “He started behind in the polls, way behind in money, he began raising small dollar money, and then before you know it, the graph of his fundraising looked like a hockey stick.”
While the substantive policy differences between Dewhurst and his challengers are considered minor, Dewhurst bears the burden of having presided over a State Senate through some difficult budgets—the legislature has come under criticism from anti-tax groups for restructuring taxes to extract greater revenue from business, for example.
Williams declined to address Dewhurst’s record, but certainly didn’t shy from the insider/outsider message.
“People are telling me what they want in Washington is someone with a record as a consistent conservative who has the courage to stand up to the Washington establishment and who can rally Americans around the next generation of conservative principles,” he said, when asked what distinguished him from the field. “Whether I’m an establishment candidate or an outsider, I’ll let them make that distinction.”
After evangelizing for oil and gas and decrying “the fantasy called global warming” over the last decade (the misleadling Railroad Commission actually regulates energy), Williams told The Daily Beast he’s looking to turn his sights on federal spending and immigration laws as his top priorities if elected. He cited the Republican Study Committee’s proposal to cut $2.5 trillion from the budget over the next decade as “a very good start.”
“We have to get back to limitations on the federal government,” he said. “There’s no way anyone can go to the Senate and not be focused on reducing spending and unleashing the marketplace so we can create jobs and prosperity.”
Spending and immigration are the two areas that have most tarnished President George W. Bush’s legacy with his conservative base. Williams and the former president, who first appointed him to his current position in 1999 while governor of Texas, have had a close relationship spanning decades—Bush personally ran Williams’ first political campaign, an unsuccessful run for county attorney in Midland, in 1984. The ex-president recounted his friendship with Williams in his book A Charge To Keep: My Journey to the White House, describing him as “a good honest man,” and writing that his appointment as the first African American to hold statewide office one of his memorable moments in the statehouse.
Williams has fond memories of the president, whom he first met when they volunteered together as officers of the United Way of Midland.
“This was someone who was very concerned about his community, was engaged in his community, and was concerned about helping uplift people less fortunate than the two of us,” he said. “That was my first impression and still the impression today.”
Nonetheless, he is blunt discussing their differences.
“There’s no doubt I think there were many of us who disagreed with the administration with regards to spending and patrolling the border,” he said. “There’s no doubt that many of us disagreed with the comprehensive immigration reform put forward by the president. While we understand the motive and the interest behind it, the first thing is to control the border.”
As for his unusual background, Williams admitted that he and his parents, who were Republican as well, stood out politically growing up. But he said the election of two African-American congressmen signified that those with natural conservative tendencies were no longer “being cowered by the left.”
“More African Americans are saying ‘I believe what I believe and I won’t let the left dictate to me what I believe,’” he told The Daily Beast. “‘You will not scare me, you will not cower me: I am comfortable with who I am.’”
If elected to the Senate, Williams would become its only black member.
Benjamin Sarlin is the Washington correspondent for The Daily Beast and edits the site's politics blog, Beltway Beast. He previously covered New York City politics for The New York Sun and has worked for talkingpointsmemo.com.