Austin is a liberal oasis in a state spawning such ultra-conservative menaces as Tom DeLay and Ted Cruz.
It is a great town for music, sour cream-topped enchiladas, high-tech entrepreneurship and indicting Republicans.
As the state capital, Austin elects a district attorney, always a Democrat, who gets to run a special Public Integrity Unit. This special unit is tasked with investigating alleged misdeeds by state government leaders, nearly all Republicans any more.
It’s about the only power that Democrats in Texas have left.
It’s sort of like the Hillcrest neighborhood of Little Rock getting a special police force authorized to bring charges against the political activities of Republicans at the state Capitol.
In 1993 a grand jury in Travis County, which includes Austin, indicted newly elected Republican U.S. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison.
She was charged with assorted malfeasances as state treasurer, an office she’d held immediately before winning the special U.S. Senate election. At her trial the Democratic prosecutor said he wasn’t ready and the judge threw out the case.
In 2005 a grand jury in Travis County indicted DeLay, the former House Republican leader in Washington.
The charge was laundering corporate contributions to elect state legislators who would draw congressional districts as DeLay wanted.
An appeals court threw out the case.
So now it is Texas Gov. Rick Perry’s turn.
Perry is a simpleton Republican governor who might yet contend for the presidency that was recently occupied by another simpleton Republican Texas governor.
The charge against Perry essentially is that he committed hyper-partisanship and bullying politics in the performance of the governorship.
He seems rather clearly to be guilty of that.
But the charge probably should not be treated as a crime unless we are prepared to jam court dockets and build more prisons.
Hyper-partisanship and political bullying need to be reformed by better candidates mandated by better voters, not by criminal charges.
This indictment seems to take neither politics nor crime with sufficient seriousness.
That’s so even if, as in Perry’s case, it is possible a couple of state laws could be stretched a bit to apply to his actions.
Perry’s case also is a little different in that the indicting grand jury was led by a well-regarded special prosecutor from San Antonio. The special prosecutor says the law is the law and that this is serious business.
Still, a little discretion might have been called for—by this fellow from San Antonio just as by Kenneth Starr several years before. I long for a special prosecutor who would say, “I ain’t got nothing. I’m outta here.”
Perry is not accused of stealing money. He is not accused of any violent or destructive or oppressive act against property or person.
So what is he accused of? I’ll have to tell the story.
What he did was threaten to veto—and then actually veto—a line item in the budget for the Travis County district attorney’s office.
It happened to be the line for this Public Integrity Unit, which happened at the time to be investigating the propriety of grants under a cancer-fighting program Perry had started and favored.
It was alleged that friends of Perry were getting money dubiously.
Perry declared that he would veto the Public Integrity Unit line in the budget unless the district attorney—a woman named Rosemary Lehmberg—resigned over getting a DWI.
She’d blown nearly three times the legal limit after getting stopped while driving with a bottle of vodka in the seat with her. She behaved quite embarrassingly on a video taken at the sheriff’s office that night. She stuck out her tongue and simulated gunfire with her thumb and fingers and kicked her cell door. She demanded that she be uncuffed and that the sheriff be called to spare her a night in jail.
She didn’t resign. Democrats rallied to her side, not from affection or substantive support, but only because Perry would name her replacement and put in a Republican to oversee investigations if she departed.
The county commission came up with some money after the Perry veto to keep the Public Integrity Unit in operation. The unit went on to bring charges for fraudulent grant disbursements against a former director of the cancer-fighting agency Perry had championed.
It’s kind of a no-harm, no-foul deal.
A governor may veto line items in Texas. And any governor possessed of veto power may legally make the threat of it. It’s governing politics.
But on Friday a grand jury in Travis County, working with the special prosecutor from San Antonio, indicted Perry for abusing his power.
The specific abuse under the law? That would be threatening the veto—not actually executing it—to try to extract the resignation of a DWI-convicted district attorney who was a political opponent and oversaw a unit investigating an agency he liked.
Indictment defenders say the threat was the crime in that it sought to blackmail, in a way, the local district attorney.
But the district attorney’s arrest and drunken behavior provided fair reason enough for Perry to exert leverage to try to force her out. He cited a loss of public trust in that the prosecutor shouldn’t be doing a crime.
That he vetoed money for a unit investigating a public cancer-fighting fund he had started—and that he tied continued funding for that unit to the ouster of a DWI-convicted political opponent who was investigating his pet program … well, that surely was political behavior worthy of criticism.
But the unit was kept up and running. It went on to generate a criminal charge surely more valid than this one brought against Perry.
This charge against Perry most likely will be dismissed.
It should not harm Perry’s presidential aspirations. Being all hat and no saddle is what doomed Perry in 2012. And that is what would doom him again.
A footnote: All hat and no saddle refers to one who boasts of cowboy deeds exceeding one’s actual ones—or, metaphorically, anyone boasting of deeds exceeding actual ones.
Meantime, I’d recommend that the good folks in Austin go a little easier on the vodka and the indictments.
John Brummett’s column appears regularly in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Read his blog at brummett.arkansasonline.com, or his @johnbrummett Twitter feed.