During the second half of the nineteenth century and the first part of the twentieth, boss rule became a prevalent pattern of political organization in the big cities of the United States. Typically, a clique of politicians dominated the political life of a city by manipulating the votes of large numbers of immigrants. The bosses resorted to bribery and coercion, but they also won the support of the hard-pressed newcomers by providing informal welfare services and limited opportunities for upward mobility. Businessmen as well often embraced the systems to secure special favors from city government. Some historians have even argued that the centralization of authority resulting from boss rule was an essential step in solving social problems growing out of rapid urban growth.
The concentration of political power in the hands of a few has not been uncommon in Texas cities during the twentieth century. In cities like Dallas and Houston, powerful business interests have prevailed. For example, the Citizens' Council and its sister organization, the Citizens' Charter Association, not only promoted the economic growth of Dallas but also, beginning in the mid-1930s, determined the character of city government. Corporate executives participating in these Dallas organizations recruited candidates for public office, arranged newspaper support, and provided generous financial backing. Their candidates usually carried the city elections. The corporate leaders also directly decided such basic social issues as the pace of racial integration in Dallas.
Despite the concentration of power and the limits on the political choices open to the public, however, this form of business government did not conform to the basic features of Texas boss rule. The truest and most notorious application of machine politics took root in South Texas during the closing decades of the nineteenth century and was still visible in some counties ninety years later. Stephen Powers and James B. Wells, Jr., oversaw the establishment of a Democratic political machine in Cameron County during the 1870s and 1880s. The ring retained control of Cameron County politics until 1920 and contributed to the formation of similar organizations in Hidalgo, Starr, and Duval counties.
All of the South Texas Democratic machines followed the same pattern of operation. While manipulating the vote of the Hispanic majority and engaging in varying degrees of graft, the bosses and their cohorts served the interests of their diverse constituencies. In the courts and the state legislature, lawyer-politicians defended the ambiguous and sometimes suspect land claims of local ranchers. The politicos held land taxes to a minimum and lobbied for the deployment of Texas Rangers to maintain order and intimidate the Mexican masses, who had shown signs of rebelliousness against white domination during an earlier era. The bosses catered to the needs of land speculators, developers, bankers, and merchants by promoting the extension of railroad lines to this remote section of the state. To the Mexican-American laborers the South Texas politicians offered paternalistic services modeled after the feudalistic obligations of Mexican patrones to their peones. In return for relief during hard times and the financing of weddings, funerals, and other special occasions, lower-class Mexicans submitted to the political control of the bosses. Anglo politicians also reached an accommodation with the well-to-do Mexican families who were able to retain their lands and businesses in the face of the American onslaught after the Civil War. In fact, Manuel Guerra acted as the political boss of Starr County from 1905 until his death in 1915.
Thousands of white settlers came to South Texas, especially when large-scale irrigation was introduced in the lower Rio Grande valley. Racial hatred intensified during the border violence accompanying the Mexican Revolution. These influences fueled a widespread rebellion against boss rule in South Texas after 1900. The white challengers to the Democratic machines expressed both a commitment to honest, businesslike public administration and a racist contempt for Hispanic involvement in politics. Still the machines displayed remarkable resilience. Although the Wells machine of Cameron County collapsed in 1920, the Hidalgo County organization under John Closner and later Anderson Y. Baker survived until 1930. The Guerra family continued to rule Starr County until 1946, when another Hispanic-controlled organization established its dominance.
The most notorious of all the South Texas rings, the Duval County structure headed by Archer Parr from 1908 until his death in 1942 and then by his son George Parr, lasted until 1975. The rule of the Parr family weathered public outcries over apparent political murders, repeated state and federal investigations into blatant acts of graft and election fraud, and even the imprisonment of George Parr in 1936 for income-tax evasion. The Parr machine gained nationwide attention in 1948 when late and allegedly fraudulent election returns from Duval County and neighboring Jim Wells County gave Lyndon B. Johnson a narrow primary victory over Coke R. Stevenson in the United States Senate race.
At different times, political machines dependent on Hispanic support have existed in Corpus Christi, Laredo, and El Paso, but Texas-style boss rule left its most enduring imprint on the rural counties of South Texas. Not even the suicide of George Parr and the collapse of his organization in 1975 brought this political phenomenon to an end.