This past Sunday, September 26, 2021, Frances Tarlton “Sissy” Farenthold died at the age of 94. She had a storied career in Texas as a politician in the late 1960s into the ‘70s. She later became president of Wells College in New York state. May she rest in peace.
Sissy Farenthold was a standout leftist among Texas Democrats, when there were still mainly conservatives in that party. She was elected to the legislature in 1968, and in 1971, was a member the so-called “Dirty 30” a coalition of legislators—would you believe Republicans with Democrats—formed mainly in response to the high-handed conduct of then House Speaker Gus Mutscher.
Farenthold then later ran for governor in 1972, and again in 1974, both times unsuccessfully. She left Texas politics in 1976 to become president of Wells College, an all-women’s school, until 1980. She was and remained a supporter of nearly all of the left wing’s issues and programs, though she had little success in bringing any to fruition in Texas.
Ms. Farenthold’s campaign for the Democratic nomination in the governor’s race excited many on the left. Her unabashed fully liberal (nowadays term progressive) primary campaign caught nationwide attention. Her three Democratic opponents incumbent Governor Preston Smith, Lieutenant Governor Ben Barnes, and Uvalde rancher Dolph Briscoe were all polar opposites to her in ideology. Farenthold received more votes than either Barnes or Smith. Ultimately, however, Briscoe won the nomination, and went on to win the governorship over Republican Henry (Hank) Grover in a close race.
Farenthold’s celebrity in Texas propelled her into being considered to be a Vice-presidential candidate in 1972. That year saw the national Democratic Party implode by nominating George McGovern to run against incumbent President Richard Nixon. McGovern, who qualified as a leftist in those day, lost by a landslide, with Nixon receiving the electoral votes of 49 states. The Party recovered by the 1974 national midterms because of the Watergate scandal.
During her campaign, I actually met Farenthold and shook her hand at an event in Denton, Texas. I found her to be overly intense and totally humorless, and, of course, disagreed with her political philosophy. My attendance was more curiosity than anything else, I did vote for her in the 1972 Democratic primary. That was my Machiavellian moment, going along with many other Republicans who, believing Hank Grover was the sure Republican nominee for governor, jumped party lines to vote for the Democrat who would be easier to beat in the general election than any of the other three Democrats.
It was never likely that Farenthold would win. Texas was as reliably conservative then as now. The Lone Star State’s brief flirtation with center-left Ann Richards in the early ‘90s was an aberration. (Richards won in 1990 mainly because her Republican opponent Clayton Williams was as gaffe prone as Joe Biden, and otherwise a terrible candidate.) There are those, however, that believe Sissy was a trailblazer for Ann. Perhaps.
Farenthold’s pedigree was what you might expect from a latte liberal. Her grandfather was a lawyer and Court of Appeals judge in Houston. She was educated at the Hockaday School here in Dallas, an elite (and expensive) all-girls school. She attended and graduated from Vassar in New York, and then the University of Texas law school. Before her political career she practiced law in her father’s law firm. Farenthold epitomized what I recently heard one Nzube Olisaebuka Udezue aka Zuby (a British rapper no less) say that it is easy to signal virtue and promote all kinds of government altruistic and expensive programs, social and otherwise, when you’re not affected by them. Nevertheless, Sissy Farenthold remains an interesting part of Texas political history.
 Some news media back then spelled her nickname “Cissy”
. Texas Governors then were elected for two-year terms. That changed in 1974.
. Wells College became co-educational in 2006.
. Unfortunately Niccolo Machiavelli, like George Orwell, is put in a false light by the use of his name to describe nefarious political maneuvering. His work The Prince related the deviousness in Renaissance Italian politics, but did not advocate their use.
. Republican Bill Clements was elected in 1978. Conservative Democrat Mark White edged him out in 1982, but Clements came back and won again in 1986.
. The Law library at the University of Texas is named after her grandfather, Benjamin Dudley Tarlton.