Future President Lyndon B. Johnson’s top priority as a freshman member of the U.S. House of Representatives in 1937 was getting $5 million from Washington to build the Mansfield Dam near Austin, Texas.
Mansfield was one of six dams being built by the Lower Colorado River Authority (LCRA), a new state agency dependent on federal loans and grants to move forward. The dams had been sold to Congress as flood control projects, according to Ray Lee, a Johnson speechwriter quoted in The Politician: The Life and Times of Lyndon Johnson by Ronnie Dugger. But public power advocates like Johnson were focused on something else.
Turbines at the dams could generate “electricity to replace the kerosene lamp,” Johnson said. Rural electric cooperatives could be set up to distribute the kilowatts to farms and ranches in his Hill Country district.
“He had been raised by the light of lanterns and cooked for on a wood-burning stove,” Dugger wrote. “He had seen his mother scrubbing clothes in a washtub. He knew the insides of outhouses.”
Johnson didn’t need to read the Department of Agriculture report documenting that, in 1935, only one farm in 10 had electric utility service. He had lived the statistic.
The power companies refused to serve rural areas, claiming they couldn’t make a profit. That’s why people living even a mile or two outside of Austin didn’t have electricity.
Power company executives stood up at gatherings of business leaders and condemned electric co-ops as socialistic. To them, the Rural Electrification Administration (REA) was an infuriating example of government sticking its nose where it didn’t belong.
Texas Power & Light Company sued to stop all six Colorado River dams from being built. According to Dugger, the utility also went after House Majority Leader Sam Rayburn, Johnson’s political mentor and a fellow Texan. They painted him with the socialist brush for his bullish support of the dams, the REA, and co-ops.
Rayburn liked to tell the story of the Texas Power & Light Company president who asked a local banker how much it would take to defeat Rayburn in the next election. When the banker told the man it couldn’t be done, “he said they had the money to do anything.”
Robert Montgomery, a progressive economist at the University of Texas who had Johnson’s ear, argued that the power companies, like the railroads, the sulfur industry, and the oil refineries, were owned by Eastern financiers. Texas was “their largest foreign colony.” Worse, the power companies were milking rural consumers through unfair electric rates.
In Washington, Johnson worked closely with Rayburn to get the $5 million appropriation passed. Rayburn tucked the appropriation into a Works Progress Administration (the largest New Deal agency) funding bill, and it passed relatively easily. He saw it as a teaching moment for 28-year-old Johnson about “keeping your mouth shut on the floor” and letting the leadership work its magic. (Johnson, Dugger wrote, had prepared a long oration defending the Mansfield Dam, but before he knew it, the appropriation was two pages back and not a word had been uttered against it.)
All six dams were eventually built. Johnson persuaded the LCRA to supply electricity to the Hill Country and helped form two electric co-ops to distribute it: Pedernales Electric in Johnson City (his hometown) and Lower Colorado River Electric (later renamed Bluebonnet Electric) in Giddings.
The power companies never forgave him. “They hated me for these dams,” Johnson once told Dugger in an interview. “They called me a communist.”
Most information for this story comes from The Politician: The Life and Times of Lyndon Johnson by Ronnie Dugger (1982, W.W. & Norton Company). Dugger was the founding editor (1954) of the crusading Texas Observer.