- The Dukes of Duval County: The Parr Family and Texas Politics by Anthony R. Carrozza
To say all politics is local seems a tired maxim until you read an example as straightforward as this: Lyndon B. Johnson rose to the presidency because Texas governor Coke R. Stevenson refused E. James (Jimmy) Kazen's appointment as district attorney in Laredo, Texas. Anthony R. Carrozza's The Dukes of Duval County: The Parr Family and Texas Politics makes this case while also covering so much more. Carrozza chronicles three generations of a twentieth-century South Texas political machine represented, in turn, by Archie, George, and Archer Parr. Duval County's borderlands saga may be regional in its particulars, but the Parr story also informs a national history encompassing William M. Tweed's New York, Richard J. Daley's Chicago, and Huey P. Long's Louisiana.
From Archie Parr's 1898 election as county commissioner until George Parr's 1975 suicide, the Parr family controlled Duval and its adjacent South Texas counties. As with other political machines, patronage and largesse from public coffers, on the one hand, and the threat of violence or isolation, on the other, created a base for these Anglo politicians in a majority Mexican American region. The central event making the Parrs of more than local interest was the 1948 Senate election in which U.S. representative Lyndon Johnson squared off against Coke Stevenson. Johnson had learned from his 1941 Senate loss the value of county machines that might deliver votes to order. George Parr's frustration with Stevenson for passing over machine ally Kazen made Stevenson vulnerable to LBJ. In the end, the election's margin boiled down to eighty-seven votes out of nearly a million. Most of those came from Box 13 in Parr-controlled Jim Wells County, where, apparently, some voters signed up in alphabetical order with identical handwriting. Though LBJ's victory gave George Parr leverage over a national figure, the event drew undue attention to the county's political corruption, including voting irregularities, embezzlement, tax evasion, and even assassination.
In the 1950s, increased scrutiny meant that George Parr and his allies were rarely far from a courtroom, and the book's second half reflects this fact. Carrozza excels in the use of legal documents to trace the Parr story in these years. George had been jailed briefly in 1936, and, though he found himself sentenced often after that, those convictions were always overturned on appeal. One politician compared him to the region's mesquite brush: "'you can chop it, you can burn it, but the roots go way down deep, and it'll keep coming up again'" (p. 185). However, charges continued to mount. George's nephew and heir apparent Archer Parr seemed less inclined to engage in bare-knuckle county politics, opting for the life of a playboy. An increasingly erratic George continued to fight, but in April 1975, after federal authorities finally secured a conviction, he took his own life rather than surrender.
The book's legal focus places its later chapters adjacent to the true crime genre and may crowd out other potential narratives. The Parrs' personal lives, voters' perceptions, and contemporaneous Mexican American civil rights activity, though referenced, could play a larger role here. However, to [End Page 212] foreground these stories would make for a very different project. What Carrozza delivers is a masterful dissection of how graft operates and a primer on bringing that graft to account. Decades of criminal activity finally came to an end through a combination of sustained federal attention and cooperative witnesses. As such, The Dukes of Duval County is not simply a welcome addition to the political history of Texas; it is also a work of contemporary relevance. Carrozza's work stands as an excellent regional history with national consequences and should be the definitive work on the Parrs for years to come.