Mark Wells White, Jr., lawyer, businessman, and the forty-third governor of Texas, was born on March 17, 1940, in Henderson, Texas. He was the son of Mark Wells White, Sr., and Sarah Elizabeth (Wells) White. The family moved to Houston in 1942, and White grew up there and graduated from Lamar High School. He attended Baylor University and earned a degree in business administration in 1962 and his J.D. in 1965. On October 1, 1966, White married Linda Gale Thompson. They had three children.
White began his career as an attorney in private practice before becoming an assistant state attorney general and then returned to private practice in Houston. By 1972 he was working for the Joe Reynolds firm in Houston. White, a Democrat, had become interested in state government, and in 1972 he returned to Austin when Dolph Briscoe, Jr., was elected governor. In 1973 Briscoe appointed White secretary of state.
“When I began to consider candidates for secretary of state, I realized that it was crucial to appoint someone with legal training who shared my political views and who was loyal, energetic, and personable,” Briscoe wrote in his memoirs. “Mark was a brilliant and ambitious young lawyer as well as an extremely personable young man. I felt that he would make an excellent secretary of state.” Briscoe called and asked White to come to Austin. But White, Briscoe later recalled, thought the conversation would be about serving in the secretary’s office and not actually being secretary and was “shocked” to be chosen for the office.
In my opinion, Mark White made as fine a secretary of state as any governor has ever had….During the legislative sessions, he served as my liaison with [Lieutenant Governor] Bill Hobby. Whenever things weren’t going well with one of our bills in the Senate, Mark was always ready to go to work on the senators who were having problems supporting the bill. He was a persuasive advocate for our program….He enjoyed doing it, and he had excellent relations with the members of the Senate. Mark White’s talent and ambition would eventually lead to his election as attorney general in 1978 and as governor in 1982.
During his tenure as secretary of state, White was elected president of the National Association of the Secretaries of State. White defeated prominent political figures on his way to being elected attorney general. In the Democratic primary, he defeated Price Daniel, Jr., a former speaker of the Texas House of Representatives and son of former Governor Price Daniel, Sr. In the general election, he defeated James A. Baker III, the Republican nominee. Baker later served as White House Chief of Staff for presidents Ronald Reagan and George H. W. Bush.
White served as attorney general from 1979 to 1983. The position has often been a launching pad for gubernatorial candidates. In White’s case, the situation in 1982 was unique in that he faced incumbent William P. “Bill” Clements, Jr., the first Republican governor since the Reconstruction era more than a century earlier. White’s candidacy was helped by the presence on the ballot that year by two of the state’s most prominent Democratic incumbents: U.S. Senator Lloyd Bentsen, Jr., and Lieutenant Governor Bill Hobby. Bentsen and Hobby won their respective elections, and White won his election in an upset.
As governor, White championed education reforms, most notably House Bill 72, which reorganized the State Board of Education, called for teacher testing, raised teacher salaries, and incorporated the “no pass, no play” rule, which required students to have passing grades in all subjects to be eligible for extracurricular activities.
“HB 72, (no pass, no play) was the greatest piece of education legislation passed in many years,” Hobby said. White also worked to pass legislation for workers’ compensation for farm workers, and his administration ushered in the Texas seat belt law.
The collapse of oil prices during White’s term put Texas in hard economic times. White recalled that it was harder to govern the state “when the price of oil drops to $9 a barrel.” In 1986 he called a special session of the Texas legislature to ask for budget cuts and tax increases to balance the state budget. “I know what I am asking of you when I call for a temporary tax increase,” White said in an address to the legislature. “We need a temporary tax increase to save education and build our future. I’ll defend it. I’ll explain it. And to those who try to blame you for what we do here, tell them we had to do it. Blame me.”
In 1986 William Clements defeated White in a rematch of the 1982 governor’s race. In his farewell address as governor, White told state lawmakers, “I asked for a tax increase and said, ‘Blame me,’ and you did.” His comments drew laughter from the legislators. After leaving office, White practiced law and was active in business. He was a member of the firm of Reynolds, White, Allen & Cook in Houston. He also founded Geovox Security, which specialized in the development of heartbeat detectors to aid in the fight against human trafficking. He attempted a comeback in the 1990 Democratic primary but lost to Ann W. Richards, who ultimately was elected governor.
White remained active in civic and business affairs. He was on the advisory board of the Hobby Center for Public Policy at the University of Houston. He also chaired the Houston Independent School District Foundation. In 2014 Mark White Elementary School in Houston was named in his honor. White was able to keep his sense of humor. In 2015 he agreed to be a television weatherman in a mock newscast that was part of a sixtieth anniversary event for the Headliners Club in Austin. When he was called to present, White, joking about his gubernatorial defeat and that it took counseling to “get over losing to a grumpy old guy in an ugly plaid sport coat,” declared, “My therapist recommended I look for something in a profession that people trust even less than politicians. That’s why I’m now Mark White, weatherman.”
White battled kidney cancer for several years before his death. He died of a heart attack on August 5, 2017, at his Houston home. He was seventy-seven. He was survived by his wife, Linda Gale, their three children, and their families. Services were held at Second Baptist Church in Houston. White was buried at the Texas State Cemetery in Austin.