Connally was 16 when he enrolled at the University of Texas in the fall of 1933. Two years later, a local newspaper publisher introduced him to Lyndon Johnson, an ambitious congressional aide who’d recently been named head of Franklin Roosevelt’s National Youth Administration.
Connally was admitted to the Texas bar in 1938, along with college friend Robert Strauss. Both had worked in the 29-year-old Johnson’s 1937 special election campaign to fill a vacancy in the House of Representatives. In 1939, Johnson made Connally his top assistant.
In 1948, Connally was a principal player in the infamous South Texas ballot-box scandal that got Johnson elected to the U.S. Senate by 87 votes, earning for Johnson the nickname he never lived down: “Landslide Lyndon.”
Connally went to work for Austin lawyer Alvin J. Wirtz, an LBJ insider who had helped set up Johnson’s wife Lady Bird in an Austin broadcasting empire, allowing the Johnsons to maintain the fiction that she, not Lyndon, was making millions on advertising bought by his political benefactors. When Wirtz died suddenly in 1951, Connally was hired by Sid Richardson and became a Del Charro regular.
Together, the new board members would face a two-front war, against the state of California on the one hand and the U.S. Internal Revenue Service on the other.
In 1962, the IRS revoked the tax-exempt status of Boys, Inc., and ordered it to pay four years’ worth of back taxes, a total of $729,234.90, plus interest. That fall, Jim Mills, a freshman assemblyman from San Diego, introduced a bill to prohibit Boys, Inc., from renewing its lease on the track — scheduled to expire in 1969 — without a public bid.
The Texans sued the IRS in Federal District Court in Dallas, which ultimately ruled in their favor. The IRS did not appeal. To take on Mills, they turned to one of Murchison’s favorite fixers. His official title was secretary of the Senate Democrats under majority leader Lyndon Johnson, but Bobby Baker, a country boy from South Carolina who had started out as a senate page, was by turns a bagman, procurer of carnal pleasures, master of the payoff, and possessor the darkest personal secrets of virtually every member of the senate.
Clint and his sons had done much business with Bobby, including a commission deal with the Murchison-owned Haitian-American Meat and Provision Company, commonly known as Hamco.
“Though in 1960 the Murchisons backed Richard Nixon for president and gave him Lord knows how much money, they had Tommy Webb, a former FBI agent, bring a bet-copping $10,000 in cash for the Kennedy-Johnson ticket,” Baker wrote in Wheeling and Dealing, his 1978 memoir with Larry L. King.
“The loyal courier Webb and I flew to New York City where, outside an office building owned by the Kennedy family, we traded handshakes with Bobby Kennedy and then handed him the money in a white envelope. He whisked it to the safety of his inner coat pocket and, as with so many people to whom I made cash deliveries, seemed eager to see our departing dust.”
Baker, who set up a vending-machine company called Serv-U with two of mobster Meyer Lansky’s associates and who later went to prison on a tax rap, was said to be a Del Charro regular during racing season, hanging around the bar with senators he kept supplied with high-class hookers. As always, Hoover was taking notes.
In the spring of 1963, the industrious Baker traveled to California to help save the Murchisons’ ever more tenuous hold on Del Mar. “Gov. Edmund G. Brown disclosed today that Robert G. Baker made a special trip to California last May in an effort to protect a racetrack monopoly in San Diego,” United Press International reported.
Brown, who told the wire service that Baker had been accompanied by Clint Jr., said he “believed that Mr. Baker was intervening on behalf of the Murchisons because of the financial support the family had given the Democratic Party.”
But Brown wanted his pal and campaign contributor Johnny Alessio to take over the track. Spurning Baker, the governor said he “favored the bill and wanted it to move. I believe that the track should be leased to the highest bidder if others are available.” The story went on to report that “Governor Brown noted that Mr. Baker had said the appointment was set up by Vice President Johnson. The governor said this was not true, and that Mr. Baker had acted independently.”
Jim Mills, the bill’s author, is now 83 years old and lives in Coronado. He doesn’t recall Baker’s role, but he distinctly remembers the power Alessio exercised with Brown. “Johnny Alessio raised a lot of money for Pat Brown and had a lot of influence. In addition to the Del Mar bill, Alessio [who owned the Hotel del Coronado] also got Brown’s backing to build the bridge between San Diego and Coronado.”
Brown signed the Mills bill in June 1963. The days of the Murchison family’s control of Del Mar were nearing an end. The L.A. Times headlined it “Texans Want Out at Del Mar.” By the time the story appeared on Dec. 6, 1965, Clint Sr. was wheelchair-bound, and his sons John and Clint Jr. — who founded the Dallas Cowboys and become a notorious playboy — spent little time at the track and had little interest in the Del Charro hotel. Murchison senior would die on June 20, 1969. The hotel was sold and torn down for condos in the 1970s.
In December 1966, the 22nd Agricultural Association board voted 8-1 to give a 20-year Del Mar operating lease to Johnny Alessio, the onetime shoeshine boy who ran Tijuana’s Caliente racetrack and its bookmaking operation. The crony of both Democratic Gov. Edmund G. Brown and San Diego’s Republican kingpin C. Arnholt Smith, Alessio, who would later go to jail for income tax evasion, was suspected of using his considerable political influence to sway the decision — especially since the amount of his bid was second to one made by the San Diego Turf Club, reported the New York Times.