Adam: Thanks again for taking the time to share your story and your advice. First things first, though, what are your thoughts on the current political climate nationally and in Texas? You are as connected in Texas politics as anyone – is Texas really a purple state? When will Democrats win a Senate seat and/or the state’s electoral college votes?
Ben: I think the political climate is very fluid both nationally and in Texas. I’ve watched both state and national politics for the last 6 decades, and I’ve witnessed the pendulum of control swing back and forth. Regarding Texas, I believe that Texas is more purple than people realize. Although Democrats haven’t won a statewide office since 1994, Democratic gains in last year’s midterm elections on the federal, state, and local level show progress is happening. I’m excited to watch a few factors such as the census and the 2020 state elections, which will determine who gets to draw the state’s districts. On the national level, whoever is at the top of the ticket will also have a great deal of impact on the future of the state.
Adam: How do you hope the 2020 primary plays out and why? What lessons can you share from your experiences in throes of previous presidential campaigns?
Ben: I’ve been to every Democratic National Convention since 1960, which may be longer than anyone else. Democrats must be very careful in how we approach the upcoming election, and we truly need to listen to the current pulse of our country. Personally, I don’t think the majority of America will vote for a far-left candidate. In 1972, when our party nominated George McGovern, I felt that he was too progressive for the average American. In fact, I said that he would only carry one state, which I thought he would carry his home state of South Dakota. When the votes came in, he did carry only one state, but it was Massachusetts, and Richard Nixon was elected to the White House. I’m looking for a candidate who is electable.
Adam: What are your favorite memories from your time as Speaker of the House in Texas and Lieutenant Governor? What are some of the best lessons you learned from those experiences?
Ben: People often joke that I couldn’t shave when I was elected Speaker of the Texas House. At age 26, it was the opportunity of a lifetime. Growing up, we had no electricity, no refrigerator, or electric lights. I’ll never forget the day two men pulled up and told my father they were going to bring electricity to our little farm. President Roosevelt’s Rural Electrification Administration changed my life. From then on, I thought of government as something that helped make people’s lives better, and I’ve never stopped believing that it could, and should do just that. Throughout my time as both Speaker and Lt. Governor, I loved meeting with Texans and passing legislation that made a difference in their lives for the better. Whether it was increasing the financial support for higher education by 300% or passing a minimum wage standard for farm workers, watching Texans have access to a better life was worth it all.
I was also fortunate that President Johnson was in the White House. The President appointed me as a US Representative to the NATO Conference in 1967 and to the United Nations in Geneva, Switzerland in 1968. I got to travel and see the world while serving both my state and my country.
Adam: You have had notable highs and lows in both your political and business careers. Looking back, what fueled your success politically and in building your multimillion-dollar real estate empire? What could you have done differently to avoid the succeeding crashes? And how have you been able to weather and bounce back from crushing hits and proceed to come back stronger?
Ben: Failure is a process. My life is proof that failure and success is an ongoing cycle. I was 34 with a family when I lost the race for governor and entered a career in real estate. With Governor Connally, we founded Barnes and Connally and were two happy beneficiaries of the real estate boom. After the oil business crashed, we were both forced to declare bankruptcy. With my knowledge of the legislative process, I started my third career in governmental affairs in my 50s.
Adam: In your experience, what are the defining qualities of an effective leader? How can leaders and aspiring leaders take their leadership skills to the next level?
Ben: When I first ran for State Representative, I had a map of my district, and I took a red marker and crossed off every house where I went to speak. I knocked on every door, and my effort paid off. Never underestimate the power of hard work. Very few people can follow-through and execute a project from start to finish. Additionally, I would say that along the way, you must know how to listen to others and compromise where you can with your opponents. Great leaders work hard, always listen, and compromise when possible.
Adam: Who are the greatest leaders you have been around and what did you learn from them?
Ben: I count myself blessed to have been able to learn from President Lyndon Johnson. I first met the President in the summer of 1960, and when he grabbed me by the shoulder, I knew that I was in the presence of a political master. I was drawn to him right away for both his charisma and his political pragmatism, which I aimed to emulate.
Lyndon Johnson put all his energy into passing groundbreaking programs and signed transformational laws such as: the Civil Rights Act, Medicare, National Endowment for the Arts, the Head Start program, and the Clean Air Act. I’m most proud of the immense courage he exhibited in pushing for civil rights
I was fortunate to be at the White House when President Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act. At the reception following the signing, I was standing with a group of other young politicians from the Southern Legislative Conference. President Johnson noticed me from across the room, and he walked over and said, “Ben, what I did today is bigger than your career; it’s bigger than mine, and everyone else’s. What I did today will probably hurt the Democratic Party for the next 30 years, but it was the right thing to do.” The President’s decision did in fact hurt the Democratic Party and the effects can still be felt today. President Johnson had a clear understanding of the power of his decisions, but he knew that he was doing the right thing. His example is something that I’ve always tried to follow: if you do what’s right, you never have to feel regret.
I’d like to also say that I’ve worked with incredible women such as Barbara Jordan, the first African American woman elected to Congress from the South. Barbara was resilient and one of the most intelligent people I’ve ever met. Also, I consider myself a friend of Speaker Pelosi, and I deeply admire her as a masterful legislator and fierce advocate for others.
Adam: What are your three best tips applicable to entrepreneurs, executives and civic leaders?
Ben: First, you have to communicate with candor and precision. Most problems are created by a lapse in communication. Whether I’m meeting with a new client or a lifelong friend, it’s critical for me to communicate clearly and honestly. Second, I would say to surround yourself with people who are better than you. Your team is a major factor in your success, which is part of the reason that I recently started working with Ionization Lab and their amazing team of cannabis industry veterans. Finally, always, always maintain humility.
Adam: What is the single best piece of advice you have ever received?
Ben: On one my first trips as a State Representative, I accompanied Governor Connally on a trip. Since I was a young guy, I was more of a staffer than a Representative with the Governor. One morning, Governor Connally spilled coffee on his shirt, and I pulled one of his extra shirts out of my bag and offered it to him. He was shocked by my readiness, and he gave me a lot more responsibility. That incident led to our great friendship. He would work fives times harder than anyone else. I’m 81 years old, and I fly more than 100 days a year. I don’t know if I have ever been the smartest man in a room, but I always strive to be the most prepared. That’s made all the difference throughout my professional life.
Adam: What is one thing everyone should be doing to pay it forward?
Ben: Give back now. Whether it’s volunteer hours or financial support, you have something to give back no matter what stage you are in your life. Over the last decade, I’ve gotten involved with working with students. My friends created a fellowship in my name at the LBJ School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas at Austin, and I enjoy devoting my time to interacting with these graduate students. A huge part of my success has come from someone older and wiser taking time to mentor me, so I feel that I have an obligation to do the same.