By Aaron Reiss
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In the often Byzantine world of Harris County Republican politics, George Bishop was a player, a behind-the-scenes icon always willing to help, an angel to those seeking elective office. He was a Republican when being one wasn't cool in Texas, when virtually the only recognizable local name in the GOP was the late Albert Fay.
With the party's current domination in Harris County, it would appear that Bishop would be finally savoring the ultimate success of that early and long political investment in the GOP as a growth stock.
Outward indications, a posh country retreat and other trappings of affluence, are evidence of Bishop's arrival to the good life. Bishop, 58, spent the Thanksgiving week with his family -- his wife is respected state District Judge Caprice Cosper -- in the exclusive San Diego enclave of La Jolla, showing his four-year-old son Balboa Park and the zoo.
However, the outlook is anything but comfortable for this former party activist. Bishop is a fallen angel, awaiting punishment and a likely prison term in March on his three-count conviction for evading more than $700,000 in income taxes.
While his many supporters argue about prosecution motives and other aspects of the case, one point is painfully clear: Bishop, who could move with equal grace through the practical world of the courtroom and the ethereal universe of the privileged, is a self-made man who self-destructed.
The rarefied ranks of the wealthy represented a long rise for George Bishop. He grew up in a house along the railroad tracks in Wichita Falls. His father, George Jr., worked as a pepper salesman for McCormack Tea and Spice. He went on to peddle janitorial supplies. Bishop's eventual inheritance from that family estate would total $262.
After graduation from high school, Bishop paid his own way through college. In 1966 he got his law degree from the University of Texas.
Like most voters in Texas in that earlier era, Bishop's family was Democratic. They didn't relate to his early interest in Republican politics.
"They thought it was crazy," he says.
However, even at a young age Bishop seemed to have a keen ability to size up political potential. As a youth, he was active in the Wichita Falls campaign of a fledgling state legislative candidate named John Tower. Tower lost that race, years before he would go on to become the longtime U.S. senator from the Lone Star State.
Bishop continued his party work when he got to Houston, where he was determined to be a behind-the-scenes player and not run for office.
"I decided that you could be a good lawyer or a good politician, but not both," he says. "I saw lawyers who were in the Legislature who I would never have represent me."
A key to his eventual success was that this GOP moderate got along well with Democrats, unusual for some in today's party.
Results of his work are indisputable. A covey of Republican officeholders owe much to Bishop. He was instrumental in early campaigns of Tower for Senate and George Bush the elder. He ran Kay Bailey Hutchison's first race for state representative from a district in Bellaire. And when Paul Eggers sought the governor's seat three decades ago, Bishop led his Harris County campaign.
Former Republican county chair Betsy Lake saw Bishop's influence at work during her tenure. "He was one of the old Republicans who go way back," she says. "When I was chairing, you always spoke with him. But times change. In the last couple of years, you don't hear much about him. But for a long time, he definitely was [a force]."
For a time in his career, Bishop shared a law office with David Hittner, who ascended to a state civil court bench and on to the federal judiciary. Bishop's early law partner William Tipton says that while the public did not see his influence, it was there nonetheless, in spades. "He was very successful," Tipton says. "He was a kingmaker. Candidates had to get his blessing. He has always been powerful in the Republican Party."
And Bishop solidified his status as a GOP insider by reaching back into a tradition of his youth. In 1948, when he was seven years old, the elder Bishop started taking him on bird hunts as a father-and-son affair. In 1967 Bishop revived that ritual with his friends.
He now invites about 20 of his closest associates on an annual October pheasant hunt near Bonesteel, South Dakota. Among the participants are political heavyweights and members of the judiciary here. This year's hunt included appellate justices Michael Schneider and Don Wittig, retired judge Ross Sears and state district judges Tad Halbach and Patricia Hancock.
Other regular Bishop events were his post-Election Night parties, which drew more of the influential crowd. Former U.S. attorney Ron Woods attended some of those events.
"George would help a lot of the Republicans in Harris County," Woods says. "He gave advice; he held fund-raisers. On Election Night he would have many of the candidates at his office. Many of the eventual winners were there."
"There was no invitation list; people just dropped by," says Bishop's longtime legal assistant, Terri Rayburn. "Mr. Bishop has been doing this for so long that people just know to come."