You are using an outdated browser.
Please upgrade your browser
and improve your visit to our site.
Waking Nightmare

The Mattress Tycoon Funding the Far Right in Texas

Jim “Mattress Mack” McIngvale likes making viral videos and huge bets on Houston sports teams. He’s also spending big to push the state even further right.

In late December, I drove to Club Westside, a 17-odd-acre athletic facility in west Houston, to see the giraffes. I grew up coming here with family friends who were members back when it was mostly just tennis courts. Today, the club has expanded its offerings, including a lazy river and water park, a gym, an indoor driving range, a solid maple basketball court, saunas, steam rooms, something called “HydroMassage beds,” pickleball, a tiki bar, and—the main attraction—a collection of more than 40 exotic animals.

This club is a lesser-known endeavor of one prominent local family, the McIngvales, founding owners of the regional retail chain Gallery Furniture. The family’s 73-year-old patriarch, James McIngvale, is better known as “Mattress Mack,” the Crazy Eddie–style persona he’s donned for local TV ads since 1983. His wife, Linda, is the animal lover: In 2021, when a Bengal tiger escaped from a residential property, prompting a weeklong neighborhood search mission, she helped facilitate its safe transfer to authorities. (She had also previously given the rogue tiger owner a couple of her Capuchin monkeys.) Together, the McIngvales leaped into the national spotlight in 2022, when Mack won what is believed to be the largest sports bet in history—an estimated $75 million—after the Astros won the World Series.

Many were taken with this eccentric multimillionaire, slight yet boisterous, a seeming everyman whose existence recalled the ’80s-era Sun Belt boom. Few outlets reported that he was one of the region’s most influential right-wing figureheads. Indeed, for nearly 40 years now, Mack and Linda have been Houston royalty, less endowed than some of the oil-rich financiers who prefer to burnish their names on Houston’s museums and think tanks, but far more prominent in the public imagination. One recent mural depicts Mack next to Beyoncé, another Houston native. He claims to be one of few men to have fought both Muhammad Ali (at a promotional event) and the WWE’s “Stone Cold” Steve Austin (for charity). After 9/11, he gifted George W. Bush an American flag–themed couch; more recently, he stocked Mar-a-Lago with mattresses at Trump’s request. He’s today’s front man for the city’s right-wing—more immediately palatable than, say, his longtime friend Senator Ted Cruz—but equally haunted by “the radical left.”

Harris County, the most populous county in Texas and home to the city of Houston, is newly solid blue, and, as such, a major battleground in the state. Leading up to the 2022 midterms, Mack appeared on local TV to talk up rising crime. He threw nearly $900,000—his largest ever local political contribution—into an upstart campaign to unseat Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo, a young Democrat who had ridden the blue wave in 2018, eking her way into the county’s most powerful office. Rather than go quietly when his chosen candidate lost in 2022, Mack bankrolled a quixotic legal battle questioning the validity of the election before backing John Whitmire, a conservative Democrat and his longtime ally, who ran a “smart on crime” campaign for mayor and won by a landslide. “My generation, the ’60s hippies, Lyndon Johnson, the Great Society, and all that, has been an abysmal failure,” Mack said on the right-wing education nonprofit PragerU’s YouTube channel last year. “So before I go out, we’re going to change it.”

You’d be hard-pressed to find a Houstonian who won’t whisper rumors about Mack, but more publicly the ugly bits of his story are often obfuscated—or rather, drowned. The secret to Mack’s success has been his incessant barrage of advertising. “I like television to establish presence and I like radio as a device to close the sale,” he once wrote in a business memoir. (As for newsprint, he uses it to “make a lasting impression.”) “And I don’t like media where I can’t dominate.” In recent years, he’s taken the lessons he’s learned and applied them to right-wing politics.

With all the attention the Koch brothers, Harlan Crow, and oil magnates like Tim Dunn receive for their political spending, families like the McIngvales tend to slip through the cracks, but local fiefs like theirs have a long history of tipping the scales in the South. While not as large as their nationally focused counterparts’, the firewall that they preserve comes down hard on workers’ rights and other local reforms, maintaining the unequal system they’ve benefited from the most. Mattress Mack once compared his political work to that of our country’s Founding Fathers: “Those were not just citizens, those were people who were landholders, who were all very prominent and had so much to lose,” he said. He’s fighting to keep it that way.

Mack was never the everyman he claims to be. His father was, Mack says, an “entrepreneur/finance wizard” and philanthropist who owned and managed an insurance company. His mother came from the Alabama Shoals, where her father ran a cotton ginning company. He was born in Starkville, Mississippi, but raised in a wealthy suburb of Dallas. Shortly after Mack abandoned his studies at the University of North Texas, he expressed interest in starting a health club. In 1974, his father then purchased the rights to market Nautilus exercise machines in the Southwest for around $210,000 (more than $1 million today) and gave him and his five siblings a stake. With the help of his father’s contacts, Mack quickly accumulated 100,000 members in Dallas by promising steep group discounts. The only problem: Many of the discounts never materialized. Texas sued Mack for deceptive trade practices in 1978. As part of the settlement, he had to post $40,000 in escrow to pay off former members. He declared bankruptcy and left Dallas with his wife, Linda, a former health club employee.

Deception, bankruptcy, a lawsuit—none of it mattered. During Houston’s oil boom in the 1980s, he sold “aspirational furniture,” to borrow from Texas Monthly’s Mimi Swartz, “furniture for all the blue-collar workers who made Houston what it was.” Mack regularly inflated his sales figures by 10 percent or so to the trade press; he insists he took $5,000 and produced $1 million in the first year. In less than a decade, he created and ran two large companies with his family’s help, bouncing from bankruptcy to unimaginable wealth in a matter of years. But it’s exceedingly unremarkable for a child of a wealthy magnate to become one. Mack’s story was hardly inspirational on its own, so he started spending big to gain the public’s attention—and sympathy.

Mack first learned this lesson thanks to a court order. In 1988, after a 300-pound (but still malnourished) lion on one of Mack’s subsidiary properties mauled an eight-year-old girl, fracturing her skull, a judge ordered a series of public service ads. If this was meant to draw penance, it backfired. Through these ads, Mack was able to cultivate a “good-guy image,” per Forbes, and his annual sales rose nearly 70 percent in two and a half years. There were obvious benefits to maintaining this new persona. “Once you start spending advertising money, you can never spend enough,” he once wrote. “There is no reservoir of public goodwill that maintains itself when you are not there in front of them.”

Over and over, Mack spent big in charity auctions, gave away furniture and food, and rushed with supplies into communities ravaged by hurricanes. These charitable gestures created their own local news cycles, what Mack has termed “accidental marketing.”

For decades, Mack has been one step ahead of bad press, using his vast wealth to his own benefit and occasionally helping others along the way. But these efforts ring hollow when their ancillary benefits are taken into account. They’re part of Mack’s larger marketing apparatus and feel especially hypocritical, given his political spending on politicians hell-bent on punishing the poor. Nor does this charity extend to his employees, whom he once compared to “starving refugees” because they hid food in little corners of the store to eat in rare free moments. He once fired 20 percent of his workforce just before Christmas for flunking drug tests, and in 1990 he was sued for overseeing a hostile work environment, where at least one woman claimed she faced sexual harassment. In another lawsuit, one former employee alleged he was fired for testifying on behalf of his wife, who faced sexual harassment. The lawyer who represented Gallery Furniture is today’s mayor of Houston, John Whitmire.

As Mack’s profile within Houston grew, so did his political ambitions. He began calling himself a “capitalist with a minor in social work.” In the 2010s, Mack fell in with the Tea Party movement, appearing to speak alongside Andrew Breitbart and Laura Ingraham to decry “handouts” from the Obama administration. A flashing marquee in his flagship channels Ayn Rand, reading: WE NEED FREEDOM TO SHAPE OUR FUTURE.… WE NEED PROFIT TO REMAIN FREE! More recently, in a belligerent ad targeting his current foe, Judge Hidalgo, Mack declared he had a “humanitarian legacy rivaled by none,” which “won the hearts and minds of millions.” He called Hidalgo “Biden-esque” (derogatory) and lambasted her “penchant for social justice and equity”—all because she referred to him as a “furniture salesman” in her victory speech.

Mack’s political spending is part of an effort to prove he’s more than that. In 2019, on a local right-wing radio station, Mack said he was “more interested in legacy now than” he was at age 20, which might explain his increased interest in local politics, where he can have the greatest impact. People will remember his unconventional ads, at least for a time. The politicians he bankrolled would sing his praises, too, until they’ve found a new financial backer. Mack’s growing political influence is a tale as old as time: a rich man trying to shape a world that will live on without him.

But morbidly, as I strolled through Club Westside, I wondered who would inherit the giraffes when he’s gone—his wife? One of his children? And those people who relied on his flashy charitable gifts—who would help them then? When the next hurricane inevitably hits, whose store will people sleep in? Why does it have to be a store, anyway? (I didn’t, at this moment, remember that a Texas Republican had run the state agency that denied $1 billion in flood relief to the city.) Houston was built on a swamp; it wouldn’t be the first time that someone’s little fiefdom sank, disappeared, became the stuff of memory. As Mack well knows, without constant preening, a popular image can only last so long.