A.R. “Babe” Schwartz, the former state senator who pioneered laws protecting public access to Texas beaches and was near legendary on the island, died Friday in hospice care.
He was 92.
Schwartz represented Galveston in the Texas House from 1955 to 1959, and then in the Senate from 1960 to 1981. A liberal Democrat outnumbered by conservative members of his own party, Schwartz was an environmental protectionist, a civil rights leader and a consumer champion.
Known for his affability and tenaciousness, Schwartz is perhaps best remembered locally for helping to bolster the 1959 Texas Open Beaches Act, a law that guarantees the public’s free and unfettered access to Gulf beaches.
Schwartz filed beach protection bills that made it a misdemeanor for a person to post a “private beach” sign, and sponsored amendments that gave counties the right to regulate traffic and ban littering on beaches.
Beachgoers today can’t understate guarantees Schwartz helped secure, said Ellis Pickett, chairman of Texas Upper Coast Chapter of the Surfrider Foundation.
“If they’ve ever enjoyed a beach in Texas, they need to think of him any time they go,” Pickett said. “He was a champion of the coast.”
Schwartz’s passion for preserving the coast came from his boyhood growing up and surfing on the island, Pickett said. He’s also credited with the legislation that created the Galveston Island Park Board of Trustees, which maintains and manages Galveston’s 30 miles of beaches.
Beyond the coast, however, Schwartz was a dominant liberal political force in Texas in the 1960s and ‘70s. He was an unmatched orator, who fought for civil rights, desegregation and increased funding for education and mental health care, said Glen Maxey, a former Democratic state representative from Baytown, who once worked on Schwartz’s staff.
He was just as skilled in blocking legislation that he felt would be harmful to Texans, Maxey said. He stopped legislation that would have restricted abortion, that expanded wiretapping and that allowed abusive police tactics.
“Everybody looked at Babe Schwartz as the person who was going to raise the issue for the little guy,” Maxey said. “His value wasn’t so much in passing things, it was stopping really bad things from happening.”
Schwartz was the senior member of a group of legislators known as the “Killer Bees,” who in 1979 fled the Capitol and went into hiding to prevent the passage of a bill that would have split the state’s presidential and general primaries, which liberal Democrats feared would have allowed Republicans to vote for former Texas Gov. John Connally for president, and to vote for local conservative Democrats in the general election.
Lt. Gov. Bill Hobby agreed to drop the bill after the gang of 12 remained on the lam for several days.
Aaron R. Schwartz was born on the island July 17, 1926. He was the son of Joseph Schwartz, a Polish immigrant, and the former Clara Bulbe. He was the second son, and the first child in his family born in the United States.
He was called “Baby” as a child and adolescent, because he was the younger of the two Schwartz sons. He declared at 14 he would no longer tolerate that nickname; from then on he was “Babe,” according to his family.
Schwartz grew up in Galveston during the Great Depression. He worked odd jobs to earn money, renting beach chairs and umbrellas at Murdochs and working as a lifeguard on Gulf beaches.
He graduated from Ball High School, and attended Texas A&M University, where he joined the Corps of Cadets. He left school to join the U.S. Navy during World War II. He served on the USS Bennington, an aircraft carrier, in the Pacific Theater.
He returned to Texas, applied to the University of Texas School of Law and moved to Austin.
It was then that he began to work in the legislature, and fell in love with Marilyn Ruth Cohn of Harlingen. They celebrated their 67th wedding anniversary in July.
He was first elected to the House of Representatives in 1954, and was elected to the Senate in 1960. It was a job he lived for, said John Schwartz, one of his four sons.
“He loved every day; he loved it,” John Schwartz said. “He said being a legislator was a perfect job, because he got to learn something new every day.”
As a senator, Schwartz mastered the rules of the legislature and used them to his advantage to accomplish things for his constituents, said Mark Cohen, an Austin attorney who worked for Schwartz in the legislature.
Schwartz wasn’t afraid to take courageous stands on issues he cared about, Cohen said.
“Everyone knew him and didn’t mess with him,” Cohen said.
Once, Schwartz was trying to pass a handful of environmental bills, but they were getting held up in a House committee, Cohen said. It was nearing the end of the session and he didn’t have much time to get the bills passed so he made a bold move. He used his power as a member of the calendar committee to remove every bill from the House’s local calendar, where lawmakers put legislation specific to their constituents, Cohen said.
A group of angry House lawmakers confronted Schwartz in his office, screaming at him and asking why he’d removed their local bills from the calendar.
“He said, ‘Which one of you lives in Galveston?’ Cohen said. “No one raised his hand, so he said, ‘Then I don’t give a damn.’”
His production as a legislator was prolific. In one session alone, he wrote 99 bills, 53 of which made it to the governor’s desk. He was consistently named on Texas Monthly’s Top 10 list of best state legislators.
Schwartz’s tenure as an elected official ended in 1980, when he was defeated by J.E. “Buster” Brown, a Brazoria County Republican who was recruited to challenge Schwartz by a 29-year-old Karl Rove.
He intended to return to Galveston after his loss, he told The Houston Chronicle in 1986. Instead, some of the groups he fought for as senator — including the city of Galveston and the State Association of Texas Harbor Pilots — asked him to lobby on their behalf. He quickly became one of the most sought-after influencers in Austin.
In 2017, Babe and Marilyn Schwartz moved from Austin to Houston to be closer to family.
In 2016, in recognition of his contributions to the island, the city and the Park Board of Trustees named a section of newly expanded beachfront after Schwartz.
“Babe’s Beach” stretches west of 61st Street, and quickly became a popular destination for beachgoers. The park board plans to expand the beach in coming years to make it even larger.
Schwartz’s influence as a politician is felt even today. Galveston Mayor Jim Yarbrough, a Democrat who was Galveston County Judge from 1995 to 2010, joked that he began his career in politics by delivering Schwartz’s push cards in island neighborhoods as a first-grader.
“Galveston is better because of him,” Yarbrough said. “He knew how to get things done.”
Along with his wife, Schwartz is survived by four sons: Bob and Dick Schwartz, twins who live in Houston; John Schwartz, of New Jersey; and Tom Schwartz, of Sarasota, Fla., as well as Bob’s wife, Monya; Dick’s wife, Tina, John’s wife, Jeanne; and Tom’s wife Barb. He is survived by 12 grandchildren and three great-grandchildren and by two siblings, Steven Schwartz, of Galveston, and Phyllis Milstein, of Houston.
Funeral details were not immediately announced.