AUSTIN — Retired Dallas Morning News Austin bureau chief and senior political writer Wayne Slater, who chronicled two Texas governors’ rise to national prominence and co-wrote two books about George W. Bush adviser Karl Rove, died Monday in an automobile accident in Williamson County. He was 74.
Slater died in a head-on collision, two friends confirmed. A two-car fatal accident occurred at about 10:33 a.m. Monday near Slater’s home in Florence, said Sgt. Deon Cockrell of the Texas Department of Public Safety. Cockrell said he had not confirmed that Slater was the deceased accident victim.
Slater personally liked, though he sparred with and oversaw tough coverage of, former Govs. Ann Richards, a Democrat, and George W. Bush, the scion of a dynastic Republican family who in the 1990s, it turned out, was on his way to the White House.
Later, Rove, the 43rd president’s top political strategist both in Austin and Washington, became the subject of two books by Slater and former state Capitol TV reporter James Moore, Bush’s Brain and The Architect.
In 1985, Slater, by then a veteran Associated Press reporter, joined The News’ Austin bureau as a reporter. The paper, then locked in a fight for survival with the Dallas Times Herald, was eager to elevate coverage of Texas, and especially state politics.
“I rated our bureau third-best in Austin, when we started to rehab it,” recalled former Dallas Morning News editor in chief Robert Mong, who was assistant managing editor at the time. G. Robert Hillman was brought in from The Journal-Herald of Dayton, Ohio, as bureau chief, Mong recalled. “Hillman knew Slater and really liked him, so we went after Slater.” Soon, metro reporters Terrence Stutz (education) and Sam Attlesey (politics) were dispatched from Dallas.
“We did come out of it with the best bureau,” Mong said.
Slater extensively chronicled the Texas Legislature’s multi-session rollback of the ability of workers, accident victims and medical patients to sue employers, manufacturers and health care providers for personal injury and to tap worker’s compensation benefits. Rove had been a key behind the scenes player in reversing the clout and fortunes of trial lawyers, who had helped to elect a favorable Texas Supreme Court and were a bedrock of the Texas Democratic Party’s finances.
After he became Austin bureau chief, in late 1987, Slater focused on the unlimited contributions to high-dollar state political campaigns. He tapped into emerging computer technologies, persuaded Dallas editors to let him hire research assistants and created the first searchable database of state campaign finance, years before the Texas Ethics Commission achieved the same.
Later, Slater reported extensively on the rise of the Christian right and the use by federal grant money by then-Attorney General, now Gov. Greg Abbott, to prosecute irregularities in collections of mail ballot, mainly by defendants in Northeast Texas who were African American.
In the 2014 governor’s race, the last he covered before retiring at the end of that year, Slater wrote a long story debunking aspects of the personal narrative spun by the Democratic nominee, Wendy Davis, Abbott’s opponent. Davis had depicted herself as overcoming humble origins.
Slater, who covered George W. Bush’s entire tenure as governor, spent 16 months full time on the road for The News as Bush ran for president the first time. No Texas governor had ever won the White House. Slater relished serving as an interlocutor, introducing the nation to Bush’s record in his first elective post – and the nuances of how Bush’s born-again conversion to Christianity as an adult influenced his conservative political outlook.
Clear, concise writing and rigorous reporting were Slater hallmarks. A quick wit and snappy dresser, he loved appearing on national TV network shows – and even deigned to do “hits” on cable networks. After he retired in December 2014, he served as adjunct professor of public affairs at the University of Texas at Austin. Slater taught about political campaigns, as portrayed in American film, TV and novels. He also taught about religion and politics.
In 2015, he told his hometown newspaper in West Virginia, The Parkersburg News and Sentinel, that the two favorite races he covered for the Dallas newspaper were Richards’ victorious run for governor in 1990 and the succeeding gubernatorial election, when Bush defeated Richards for re-election in 1994.
“Ann Richards was the best speaker in a room,” he recounted. “She was astonishingly funny, smart.”
In 1994, Bush ran a “brilliant” campaign, never attacking Richards personally, Slater was quoted as saying. Bush was engaging and friendly, he recalled. “You could not hate George Bush. You might not like his politics.”
Mong, the former editor of The News who is now president of the University of North Texas at Dallas, said Slater “had staying power” as the paper’s lead reporter in Austin.
“He was relentless in going after a story,” Mong said. “He broke a lot of stories because people trusted him and liked talking to him.”
Wayne Robert Slater (Bush later corrupted the Wayne R. Slater he’d seen into a nickname for the reporter, “Wayner”) was born in 1947 in Lubbock, where his father Howard was obtaining an engineering degree from Texas Tech University. When Wayne was in first grade, Howard Slater and his wife, Ouida, moved the family to Parkersburg. There, Howard, a mechanical engineer, worked in DuPont Company’s plastics plant on the Ohio River.
Wayne Slater met his future wife, Dianne Guff, at Parkersburg High School. They both went on to West Virginia University, where Wayne earned a journalism degree. He started as a reporter at The Parkersburg Sentinel from 1971-1973 before spending 10 years with AP, in Charleston, W. Va., Kansas, Illinois and Colorado.
Slater is survived by his wife, Dianne; their son Todd C. Slater of Round Rock and his wife, the former Kristina Mayhugh; and three grandchildren. Arrangements were pending.