Former Rep. Ralph Hall, a Texas Republican best known for switching parties near the end of his 17-term career from 1981 to 2015, died Thursday at the age of 95 at his home in Rockwall, Texas.
Hall’s change of party allegiance in 2004 was met with little surprise from his Capitol Hill colleagues, as he had always been one of the most conservative Democrats in Congress.
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Hall served as a longtime member of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, and eventually left the panel to become the chairman of the House Science Committee in 2010, when Republicans gained a majority in the lower chamber. At the time Hall first became the chairman, he was the oldest serving member of Congress at the age of 87.
While still a Democrat, Hall even endorsed George W. Bush, a fellow Texan, for the presidency in 2000. After Bush won the election, reports surfaced that the new administration was seriously considering Hall for the post of Energy Secretary.
Hall had always been a thorn in Democrats’ side even before he changed parties. In 1985, he voted “present” rather than support then-Speaker Thomas “Tip” O’Neill’s, D-Mass., reelection. And in 2002, Hall told Republican leaders that he would seriously consider backing J. Dennis Hastert, R-Ill., for Speaker if he had the deciding vote.
Some political observers first thought that Hall would switch parties after Republicans took the majority in the House in the historic 1994 wave election. Instead, he helped create the fiscally conservative Blue Dog Coalition within the Democratic caucus.
When Hall finally did switch parties, it was spurred in part by Congressional redistricting. In 2003, in drawing a new congressional map, the Republican-controlled Texas legislature established Hall’s district in such a way that it favored the GOP. Faced with difficult reelection prospects, Hall registered as a Republican shortly before the filing deadline in January 2004.
When Hall announced his new status as a Republican, he cited the fact that he had often voted with Republicans throughout his tenure, as well as his support of President Bush.
“I have voted with the Republicans most of the time. The country is at war. When the country is at war you need to support the president. Some of my fellow congressmen have not been doing that,” Hall said.
But he acknowledged that some would not view his party switch as favorably.
“I talked with some of my family. Some agreed, some did not. My wife didn’t agree. She’d rather I quit than switch parties,” Hall said.
Three years later, Hall’s name surfaced in headlines again when Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW) accused him, along with 71 other House members, of using campaign funds to pay relatives or their employers.
Hall defended hiring his daughter-in-law: “I’m not sure that it’s a good thing to do, but it’s a safe thing to do.”
A World War II veteran, Hall’s first cut his teeth in politics when he won election as county judge of Rockwall County in 1950. While serving, he attended law school at Southern Methodist University.
In 1962, Hall won election to the Texas state Senate, eventually attaining the position of president pro tempore by the time he left in 1972.
Hall stayed out of the public arena for eight years by working in the private sector as the president and CEO of Texas Aluminum Corporation and general counsel of Texas Extrusion Company. He ran for Congress in 1980 when then-Rep. Ray Roberts, R-Texas, a ten-term incumbent, announced his retirement. The margin foreshadowed Hall’s legacy of policymaking on the fence: He won 52 percent of the vote in what would be the closest election of his political career.
In 2013, Hall announced his 2014 reelection campaign would be his last. It wasn’t in the cards, however, as Hall lost in a runoff election to former Rep. John Ratcliffe, R-Texas.
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When asked what he would do following his loss, he told Fox News he may “go work at Wal-Mart. I have to have a job.”
The “old-time conservative Democrat” had a scare in 2014 while he was serving out the remainder of his final term. At the age of 91, Hall was in a car accident in October while he was back in Texas for the weekend. He was airlifted to a hospital but recovered after suffering a hip injury and minor cuts and bruises.
Hall’s wife, Mary Ellen Murphy, died in 2008 at the age of 83. The two were married in 1944. They are survived by their three sons, Hampton, Brett and Blakely.