The Dukes of Duval County: The Parr Family and Texas Politics by Anthony R. Carrozza
The Dukes of Duval County constitutes the definitive account of a political dynasty that dominated South Texas in the first half of the twentieth century, with political reverberations at both the state and national levels. In explaining this machine’s origins a century ago under Archer Parr, the author makes reference to other political organizations, from T. J. Pendergast’s in Kansas City and James M. Curley’s in Boston to those across the border in Mexico, a valuable comparison that would have been even more fruitful if the differences also had been addressed.
The book’s portrait of Archer Parr’s political heir, the legendary George Parr, is ably delineated. A Spanish speaker of native-level ability, George Parr made it possible for Mexican-heritage people to hold most of the Duval County offices, and he dispensed personal favors to them with abandon. At the same time, this largesse derived from graft on a huge scale, most residents lived in abject poverty, and the “Duke” employed goons against any independent organizing in Duval and adjacent counties. The author also makes clear that the Parrs abided by no real political philosophy beyond personal loyalty. Thus George Parr sometimes delivered over 90 percent of the vote for a candidate, only to oppose that person in the next round if the official was perceived to be insufficiently helpful to the Parr regime. In the best-known instance, even though Parr supported Coke Stevenson’s gubernatorial candidacy in 1944—as the author aptly notes, with Stevenson having served as a pallbearer at Archer Parr’s funeral—in 1948 Parr nonetheless delivered predictably lopsided electoral results to Stevenson’s opponent, Lyndon Johnson, famously putting LBJ over the top in the Senate runoff with eighty-seven “found” votes, thereby setting the stage for the most prominent political career in Texas history.
That story is often recounted, but The Dukes of Duval County makes a useful contribution to both Texas and Mexican American history by outlining the rise of the Freedom Party, which increasingly challenged George Parr and his nephew Archie Parr in the postwar years. Also, the author provides the most thorough account of the escalating legal challenges faced by the Parrs (although the narrative would have been better served if the blow-by-blow descriptions had been reserved for the most important trials.) [End Page 124]
Carrozza makes impressive use of newspaper coverage from the Parr era, and virtually all of the relevant collections were consulted (although these archives are not listed in the bibliography), but the book could have provided a more nuanced portrait of South Texas politics —e.g., the arguably less-venal leadership of Tejano bosses such as Manuel Bravo—if related historical studies had been referenced, from David Montejano’s Anglos and Mexicans in the Making of Texas, 1836–1986 (University of Texas Press, 1987) to J. Gilberto Quesada’s Border Boss: Manuel B. Bravo and Zapata County (Texas A&M University Press, 1999).
The Dukes of Duval perceptively depicts George and Archie Parr’s increasingly lashing out at those around them as legal authorities circled them. But while Archie ended up serving jail time, George could not bear the thought of imprisonment; he committed suicide on his ranch, Los Horcones, in 1975. Carrozza concludes by noting, “The time of the old-fashioned ward heeler has passed, replaced by political action committees” (349). Indeed, that important insight merits elucidation, particularly at this moment in our nation’s history when the vast majority of Americans worry that major financial contributions wield outsize influence on our political process.