The Rick Perry legacy

Tomorrow, Governor-elect Greg Abbott will take the reigns from Rick Perry and officially become just ‘Governor Abbott.’ For the first time since the Clinton administration, Texas will have a new governor. Indeed, Perry has served in office for more than 14 years, shattering all the old records set by his predecessors.

I’ve been putting off writing about this, because I do not necessarily feel qualified to editorialize about political events that transpired in 2000 or 2001. I was six years old when Perry assumed office, so opining on some of Perry’s first acts would be a lot like my father talking about his experience in observing Dwight Eisenhower or Allan Shivers’ respective tenures in office.

Perry, of course, took office on December 21st, 2000, the day that George W. Bush resigned the governorship in preparation to become president. Perry had served as the Lieutenant Governor since 1999, and previously served two terms as Agriculture Commissioner from 1991 to 1999. He also served two terms in the Texas House of Representatives, from 1985 to 1991, the first two of which as a Democrat.

I’m not going to meticulously go over the ebbs and flows of his time in office, others have done a much better job at that. Rather, I want to examine two ideas about Perry that have always stayed with me from his time in office. Contrary to what some may expect from me, they are actually quite positive.

If this makes sense, Perry is an ideologue –but in a good way. When he first took office, his co-leaders were quite different. The Speaker of the House, Pete Laney, was a Democrat, and the acting Lieutenant Governor, State Senator Bill Ratliff (R-Titus County), was a tremendously moderate Republican who could absolutely not succeed in one of his party’s primaries today (think Nelson Rockefeller, except from East Texas). After the conclusion of the 77th Legislature in 2001, Perry vetoed a record number of bills. Even when compared to Ratliff’s successor, David Dewhurst, Perry was right-wing.

Today, however, Perry is seen as an establishment figure. Bud Kennedy at the Fort Worth Star-Telegram opined that he could run for president as the “anti-Cruz,” a more pragmatic establishment type. Compared to, as of tomorrow, Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick or Attorney General Ken Paxton (or even Abbott), Perry is on the moderate side of his party. Obviously, the governor did not tack to the left in an era when so many others zoomed the other way. On the other hand, Perry has a firmly planted set of core beliefs, which does not change because of partisan winds. Love him or hate him, that’s an admirable quality, one that is less and less common in successful politicians.

Second, Perry — at his core — always appears to have all of Texas at heart. Sure, there was the rampant cronyism/corruption. But any even rudimentary student of Texas political history knows that is the rule and not the exception. Unlike Abbott or Patrick, in my opinion, Perry genuinely believed what he was doing would be good for the average Texan (as much as he may have been mistaken in some instances), not the average Republican primary voter.

I have found myself agreeing more and more with the band of Democrats who feel that Perry’s successors will be considerably worse than him, and we will one day covet the comparable pragmatism in the Perry administration. There is certainly some truth in this, but it is important to not get carried away.

Perry pushed through venal so-called “tort reform” that lobotomized much of our court system, including the resurgence of cruddy legal jurisprudence typically only found in Great Britain. He was instrumental in the horrendous gerrymandering scheme that reduced 90%+ of legislative districts to uncompetitive backwaters. More recently, he vigorously pushed the omnibus anti-abortion legislation that Wendy Davis filibustered and he attempted to coerce an unfriendly prosecutor into resigning by threatening (and following through) to veto funding (this is what he was indicted regarding).

Obviously, Texas can’t get much worse off on many fronts, but on others it surely can. Perhaps most horrifying about Abbott and his ilk is that they have no central moral principles, nothing preventing them from grandstanding and demagoguery in the face of an increasingly extreme minority that monopolizes the political process. When they start demanding book burnings or the rescinding of the bill of rights, Perry would have rightly put his foot down. Abbott and Patrick, to the contrary, I’m unsure about.

Adios, mofo. We’ll miss you (sort of).

An AG race update

The gubernatorial election has obviously received a great deal of publicity this year, as has (to a lesser extent) the lieutenant gubernatorial election. Little ink has been spilled, though, covering the contentious race for Attorney General. The race is between State Senator Ken Paxton (R-Collin County), the Republican, and the fortuitously-named Sam Houston, the Democrat. Houston is an attorney from a City that bears his name, who has previously run for the Texas Supreme Court. Paxton, who has been in the Senate since last year and previously served in the State House for a decade, is one of the most extreme conservatives in the legislature.

Paxton, for his part, is a pretty shoddy lawyer who himself is vying for top lawyer job in Texas. As The Dallas Morning News refreshes us on, he is facing possible felony indictment for improperly steering clients in his law firm toward an investment firm that he had a stake in –without properly disclosing as much. The Public Integrity Unit of the Travis County District Attorney’s Office (sound familiar?) is currently investigating this. Now, the general public certainly does not know this, so Paxton is hoping to keep this race rather low profile, so that he may simply cruise to victory on straight-ticket voting. Houston, for his part, is fighting back to try to ensure that does not happen.

At the start of the week, Houston challenged Paxton to a televised debate, in a high-profile speech where he lambasted his opponent for hiding out of sight from the public. Paxton’s campaign has responded by calling the debate-request a “ploy.” Just think about that, we’ve gotten to a point where a request to compare political positions is somehow a ploy.

Anyways, Paxton himself thinks he is sitting pretty before November. The Houston Chronicle reports that his campaign’s internal poll has shown that Paxton leads Houston by 24 points, 52% to 28%. The logistics of the poll and its methodology make the results somewhat suspect, but one would be hard-pressed to find anyone who does not stipulate Paxton’s huge lead in this race in some capacity.

I’ll admit it, I had some serious doubts about Houston’s candidacy when it was first announced last year. He has no political experience whatsoever, and a good name can only take you so far. But Houston has positively surprised me in many ways. His campaign team is impeccable, and they have been running a very effective ground game thus far in the year. Of course, it does help immeasurably that his opponent is equal parts extreme and inept, both of which are qualities making him enormously unfit for high executive office.

I honestly don’t know if Paxton’s alleged transgressions would be a result of incompetence or just him being a crook, and, frankly, I don’t really care. Either way, he shouldn’t be the Attorney General.

Davis’ second TV ad

The Texas Tribune reports that State Senator Wendy Davis (D-Tarrant County), the Democratic candidate for Governor, has released her second television ad, a real barnburner that seeks to connect her Republican opponent, Attorney General Greg Abbott, to the ongoing CPRIT scandal.

The ad, which I have embedded above, is a 30 second spot that interviews a gentleman named “Manuel,” who is a local cancer survivor. He lambasts Abbott for his role on the Cancer Prevention Research Institute of Texas. “But Greg Abbott did his best to keep my prayers from being answered,” the gentleman said after alleging Abbott’s complicity in the scandal.

For those unfamiliar with the CPRIT scandal, it is a rather nebulous political drama that is not easily explained. The board doles out grants and other moneys to outside firms for cancer research. Shortly after its formation in 2007, the Chief Commercialization Officer of CPRIT, Jerry Cobbs, went out of his way to secure an $11 Million grant to Peloton Therapeutics, without completing the necessary business or scientific reviews. Not coincidentally, one of Peloton’s biggest investors was Peter O’Donnell, whose political records show evidence of him donating nearly $250,000.00 to Governor Rick Perry. The Governor, for his part, appointed most of the heavy-hitters involved in CPRIT, along with the Lieutenant Governor and Speaker of the House.

Anyways, Cobber eventually got indicted by a grand jury following a long investigation by the Travis County District Attorney’s office’s Public Integrity Unit. CPRIT otherwise has a few other kinks of impropriety, including (but not limited to) the saga of Charles Tate, as well a high-level scientist on the board who blew the whistle a couple years back about how politics was trumping science when it came to grant considerations.

Now, the reference to the Public Integrity Unit should sound familiar, since its attempted defunding is at the center of the Rick Perry indictment. The more conspiracy-minded Democrats I know swear that the two are inexplicably mixed, and Perry’s attempted ouster of Travis County DA Rosemary Lehmberg was merely a veiled attempt to stymie the progress of prosecutors closing in on his corruption, making the funding veto a Texas-sized “Saturday Night Massacre,” if you will.

The only problem with this is that the facts simply do not support this view. An affidavit released by Perry’s legal team to the public on Thursday shows that the PIU investigation into CPRIT did not target Perry. Still, the whole issue feels a little dirty, which is why its use as the subject material of a television ad is not surprising. But why is it an ad against Abbott?

Abbott, in his official capacity as Attorney General, was an ex-officio member of CPRIT’s oversight board. Considering how much good the “oversight” did, in addition to the fact that Abbott did not attend any meetings of the organization, the Davis campaign has been frothing at the mouth for months for an opportunity to hit him. The Austin American-Statesman compiled a writeup of this line of reasoning back in May.

Once again, the issue with this is that Abbott always made it clear that he disagreed with the ethics of him holding a spot on the oversight board. He protested the appointment, and boycotted the meetings in defiance. The rationale used was that, if allegations of impropriety ever arose on the board, his office should be the primary investigators, something he would not feel comfortable doing if he had been a part of the process.

I don’t know how I feel about this ad, given the liberties it takes with the whole truth. It claims that Abbott was “charged with overseeing” CPRIT, which is a very far cry from the limited position he was ostensibly put in, before deciding to eschew that responsibility as well. I’m curious what the good people at PolitifactTexas will say about it.

Don’t get me wrong, I think the impropriety that occurred at CPRIT is objectionable, and I still think that it is an open question as to whether or not Perry knew of the bad stuff going on over there. But it’s only appropriate to push the sins of an incumbent onto his prospective successor if you are open about it (E.g., “Rick Perry did all this bad stuff. Haven’t we had enough Republican governors?”). There are plenty of skeletons in Abbott’s closets ripe for the picking, the subject material of Davis’ first ad to name one. But this attack just doesn’t pass the smell test.

What I sent to The New York Times

Regarding the indictment of Governor Rick Perry, which has been covered remarkably well by the Texas press corps, a plethora of otherwise reasonable media outlets –The New York Times chief among them– were quick to lambast the indictment as nothing more than political theater. In doing so, they ignored the serious legal background and precedent underlying this case. I drafted up about 950 words on why I disagreed with their editorial positions, and why the indictments are not overly frivolous or litigious. The Times said that their reserve the right of exclusive publication, but to feel free to assume they would not publish after three days, so I waited. I have now sent the article to a couple of sites which do not demand exclusivity (The Wall Street Journal, USA Today, The Washington Times and the Los Angeles Times). I’m aware that no one will publish it, so I decided to share my thoughts here.

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I’m big on Texas politics. I love it so much that I transferred from college at Brandeis University in Boston to the University of Texas at Austin so that I could return to my native State and follow the twists and turns of the full-contact sport known as our political process. And though I consider myself a left-of-center Democrat, I have a big problem with people who rag on Texas in general.

But more than my indignation at detractors of the Lone Star State, I maintain a pet peeve against the dilettante; he or she who feels entitled to write and judge what is going on south of the Red River, despite not being familiar with our laws, our traditions or our history. Sometimes the judgment happens without the author even visiting the State. I have seen this in action a disappointing number of times in the immediate aftermath of Governor Rick Perry’s indictment at the hands of a Travis County (Austin) grand jury.

Alan Dershowitz, David Alexrod, The Atlantic. A plethora of progressive mouthpieces have inexplicably defended Perry against what they foolishly call an unsubstantiated allegation, one that may be frivolous or overly litigious. Rather, the only thing frivolous is these parties’ understanding of the way Texas does business.

This is not about political blowback, it is not about any ongoing investigations into the Governor’s office and it is not even about any specific veto. It is about a threat. Perry threatened a public officeholder, the Travis County District Attorney, with leverage —the denial of funds for her office— unless she did a specific official act: resign.

The DA, Rosemary Lehmberg, has broad power over the entire State because her office, which maintains jurisdiction over the State Capitol and the Governor’s mansion, commands the Public Integrity Unit, best known for an unsuccessful trial against former Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison and a successful conviction against former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (that one is still tied up in appeals). Lehmberg herself is no saint; she was caught driving drunk last year in a videotaped incident that recorded her belligerent and discourteous attitude toward law enforcement. For her part, she pleaded guilty and served about a month in jail, the toughest sentence for a first-offense DWI in Austin’s history.

But this simply is not about the actions committed by a District Attorney. A DWI is not a felony, nor is it a crime of moral turpitude that would necessitate removal from office. She has been no-billed by a grand jury looking into the matter, and a civil trial to determine if she should be removed from office for dereliction of duty ended with a resounding NO.

Perry is not the King of Texas; he is merely the State’s Chief Executive in a system with the separation of powers, not only between branches, but constituencies. The Governor is not the District Attorney’s boss. When Perry says that Lehmberg has “lost the public’s confidence,” where is he getting his information? She has been convincingly elected by her constituents twice, and remains somewhat popular—at least when the alternative is a Perry appointee. It is also worth noting that the Travis County District Attorney’s office only prosecutes felonies (the County Attorney handles misdemeanors), so Lehmberg’s office did not even control the process over her own crime, as many critics have falsely charged.

At the end of the day, however, what Lehmberg did is a complete red herring. It has absolutely no basis for justifying what Perry did or changing the pertinent law or precedent on the matter. This issue is not about her, it is not about the veto, it is about threat. That very simple fact bears repeating because it appears that no one in the ostensibly credible national press can remember that.

To better illustrate this point, the same principle of Perry’s illegal act should be taken to an absurd extreme. Take the ongoing spat between Perry and William Powers, the President of the University of Texas at Austin. What if Perry demanded Powers’ resignation, perhaps using the cover of the phony scandal embattled Regent Wallace Hall supposedly uncovered regarding law school admission, or else he would cut off funding? What would the State do then? Thankfully, there is a precedent.

Texas impeached one Governor nearly 100 years ago for eerily similar circumstances: James “Pa” Ferguson, a populist Democrat. Ferguson, who like the current Governor was a fervent opponent of the University of Texas, vetoed virtually all of the University’s appropriations after unsuccessfully trying to fire Regents and Professors at UT-Austin. Once again, it was not the veto so much as it was the threat. Ferguson used his power inappropriately in order to meddle in another public official’s business. This should sound familiar.

This has always been —and is— what the scandal centers upon. The legal basis is sound and holds lengthy precedent. When prominent legal minds attempt to chime in on this issue without being familiar with the underlying case, it hurts everyone who is exposed to misinformation.

The Travis County DA’s office’s public integrity unit, it should be freely stipulated, can sometimes generously be described as partisan hacks. Lehmberg’s predecessor, Ronnie Earle, engaged in a witch hunt with very little proof against Hutchison, and the office has been a bit trigger-happy investigating every misstep taken by Perry. But since this controversy has revolved around the DA’s office which normally investigates these cases, Lehmberg and her office recused themselves from all proceedings.

A Republican Judge out of San Antonio, Bert Richardson, appointed a non-partisan Special Prosecutor, Michael McCrum, last year to investigate the complaints lodged against Perry. Call it what you will, this is not a partisan witch hunt. Indeed, it is far from it.

A Lehmberg-gate update

The Houston Chronicle infuses yet another detail into the ongoing saga about Rick Perry, Rosemary Lehmberg and the grand jury. If you are unfamiliar, you have come to the right place! Let me bring everyone up to speed in the next few paragraphs.

Rosemary Lehmberg is the District County of Travis County, where Austin (the State capital) is. By virtue of housing the seat of government, this specific DA’s office has unparalleled power to investigate State officials through an office known as the Public Integrity Unit. This group is funded both through local funds and state funds, thus making Lehmberg arguably the most powerful elected Democrat in the State of Texas. Needless to say, the PIU has always been a thorn in the side of the (all Republican) statewide officials.

Then, early last year, Lehmberg got a DWI. To answer your question, it was certainly as bad as you’re thinking. She was belligerent, had an open handle of vodka in the passenger seat, and blew twice the legal limit on an intoxalyzer. Needless to say, most people were pretty outraged and demanded her resignation. The partisan problem with this, however, is that Governor Perry would appoint Lehmberg’s replacement until a special election (her term is not up until January of 2017). Accordingly, a bit of a tense situation built up between the two officeholders.

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Rosemary Lehmberg gets off

KVUE reports (the Austin-American Statesman also had an article, but the paywall just ticks me off) that Rosemary Lehmberg has successfully persisted through a removal trial. As I mentioned briefly on Monday, this stems from a complaint citing a little-known Texas statute authorizing removal from office for “intoxication.” Yes, prohibition really is one of those gifts that keeps on giving. Rosemary Lehmberg, of course, is the District Attorney of Travis County who was arrested earlier this year for drunk driving. She later pleaded guilty to the offense, spent some time in jail before temporarily checking herself into rehab for alcoholism.

The trial, which lasted three days, featured most of its testimony from the prosecution. They largely focused on the crime, as well as what the article calls “testimony from her therapists,” which I am sure pertain to alcoholism and her alleged inability to successfully conduct herself in a place of business.

Lehmberg’s defense largely depended upon testimonials from her office and others with a say in how her professional duties are carried out. The witnesses, which included a CPS officer, the DA First Assistant and a local Judge, all echoed the same belief that the alleged alcoholism has not and would not impair her work at the Courthouse.

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