Former Civil Rights Official Runs for U.S. Senate in Texas

By Sean Cavanagh — February 04, 2011 2 min read
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The race to fill departing Texas Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison’s seat includes a name that will be familiar to some education insiders: Michael L. Williams, who held a top civil rights post in President George H.W. Bush’s administration.

Williams, a former federal prosecutor who recently announced he would seek the Republican nomination for the Senate, served as the U.S. Department of Education’s assistant secretary for civil rights two decades ago. His tenure in the education post, which was once held by Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, wasn’t without controversy.

In December of 1990, Williams made waves when he told officials at the Fiesta Bowl, a major college football event, that federal law would not allow them to award race-based scholarships.

Organizers of the event had plans to donate $100,000 to each of the two universities competing in the bowl for scholarships intended for African-American students, a plan that Williams, in his post at the department, said wouldn’t be consistent with the law. The stance angered civil-rights groups and university officials, who said it ran contrary to established policies.The Bush administration backpedaled from the policy, and Secretary of Education Lamar Alexander later rescinded it.

At the time, Williams said that his stance on race-based scholarships was “legally correct” but “politically naive.”

The civil rights post at the department has been at the center of many a political fight, as our school law expert Mark Walsh explained in a story a few years ago.

Williams currently serves as an elected commissioner on the Texas Railroad Commission, which, despite its name, no longer regulates railroads but rather the oil and gas industries. (He will resign that position effective in April, the commission says.) He is the first African-American in the history of the state to hold an executive statewide elected post, according to his campaign biography. He’s also served in several high-ranking legal positions, including deputy assistant secretary for law enforcement at the U.S. Department of the Treasury and as a prosecutor in the U.S. Department of Justice during the Reagan administration, during which time he successfully prosecuted members of the Ku Klux Klan on weapons charges. He also once served as assistant district attorney in his hometown of Midland, Texas.

His campaign web site doesn’t dwell much on education, focusing instead on his ideas for cutting taxes, limiting government, developing new energy sources, and border security, among other issues.

But his bio notes that he’s the son of public school teachers who earned degrees in math, and that he’s the creator and co-sponsor of the “Winnovators,” a summer camp for students in grades 6-12 that aims to “inspire the next generation of scientists, technologists, engineers, and mathematicians.”

Hutchison recently announced she wouldn’t seek reelection in 2012 to her U.S. Senate seat, after making an unsuccessful attempt to de-throne incumbent fellow Republican Rick Perry in the governor’s race. The Senate race is expected to draw a broad field of candidates; former Texas Secretary of State Roger Williams is running, and speculation abounds about whether Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst will jump in.

As the campaign to fill the seat unfolds, expect to hear more about Williams’ positions on schools and other issues.

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A version of this news article first appeared in the State EdWatch blog.