Any list of the most powerful politicians to hail from the Lone Star State over the past 50 years would certainly include the three names listed above. Certainly, they are three of the most powerful Republicans to hail from Texas in modern times. Yet former Sen. Hutchison, former House Majority Leader DeLay, and Gov. (seemingly for all of time) Perry also share another thing in common. As of late Friday night, all three have been indicted by grand juries in Travis County, Texas, on so-called “public integrity” charges.
I will not rehash the details that lead to Perry’s indictment. For a complete history, I recommend you read Chris Hooks' post over at the Texas Observer. The purpose of this post is to call attention to a troubling trend in Texas politics. Devoid of meaningful power in the legislature or in Congress, Texas liberals have taken to using the criminal courts as political weapons against Texas Republicans, effectively criminalizing the political process. Not only is this trend manifestly unjust, but it is, in fact, actively counterproductive, especially for members of the Left attempting to win over voters in Texas.
Making the case that Perry has not been the best governor, even to many Republicans, is not difficult. Now, however, the debate will focus on whether he is a felon. Making that case, especially to a conservative-leaning electorate, is a much, much taller task.
To understand how Republican politicians in one of the reddest states in the nation are repeatedly subject to politicized legal harassment by liberals, one must understand a bit of Texas geography. While the majority of the state’s political map is red, Travis County, which includes Austin, is among the 60 most liberal counties in the U.S. What this means is that the Republican-dominated legislature sits in a county governed almost exclusively by liberal Democrats.
That's not, by itself, particularly problematic. Most major cities in Texas are run by Democrats, after all. Yet Austin is not like other major Texas cities. It is the capital and seat of government. As a result, the Travis County district attorney oversees something called the Public Integrity Unit, which investigates the ethical breaches of state politicians.
Sadly, rather than exercise the power to investigate and prosecute meaningful breaches of the law in a fair and even-handed manner, liberal district attorneys have used the power to try to jail their political opponents on charges that have a history of not holding up in court.
The two most prominent examples prior to Perry are the prosecutions of Hutchison and DeLay.
In 1993, Travis County District Attorney Ronnie Earle brought charges against Hutchison for allegedly misusing state telephones and allegedly assaulting a staffer while Hutchison was serving as the state treasurer. After dragging Hutchison’s name through the mud in the media for months, Earle attempted to withdraw the charges on the first day of trial, only to have the court refuse to allow him to do so. The jury returned a “not guilty” verdict that same day. Hutchison emerged from Earle’s overreaching prosecution stronger than ever, and no liberal ever even came close to unseating her from her perch in the Senate.
Earle did not learn his lesson, although the next time he did manage to pick a man who fit the villain role a bit better. For more than a decade, DeLay was the most powerful man in the House and a force to be reckoned with in Texas. He ruthlessly doled out favors to his friends and did all he could to punish his enemies. Earle decided to try to take him down.
Operating on the theory that DeLay violated Texas campaign finance laws during the 2002 state legislative election, Earle began seeking an indictment. So badly did Earle want to take down DeLay that he convened eight grand juries before one finally returned an indictment.
DeLay eventually was convicted (in Travis County), but an appeals court in September overturned that conviction, saying there was no evidence DeLay committed a crime.
Weakened by the drunk-driving conviction that precipitated the conflict between her office and Perry, Rosemary Lehmberg, the current Travis County district attorney, was too disgraced and politically feeble to do anything so brazen as attempt to investigate the governor. So a liberal “watchdog group” called Texans for Public Justice was savvy enough to file a complaint last year. A judge appointed a special prosecutor with ties to Democratic U.S. Rep. Lloyd Doggett to oversee the case and, voila, here we are again.
The weakness of the case against Perry may be the least of the worries for Perry's critics (fair-minded and otherwise). Do not underestimate the political consequences of this indictment: Perry may not be a rocket scientist, but he is among the most effective political actors in the country -- just ask Hutchison how easy it is to beat him.
By attempting to put him in prison, liberals have made the governor a martyr. He can now bid for the White House as a brave hero fighting the Left.
George Fairview is the pseudonym of an attorney working in Austin, Texas.