Being a governor seems to be risky business these days.
Take the former chief executive of Virginia, for instance. Robert McDonnell and his former Redskins cheerleader wife are in the midst of a mildly sensational trial over charges they sold their influence for $165,000 worth of favors from a wealthy (well somewhat) businessman.
And of course there is Illinois, which seems to have a penchant for ending the political careers of the state’s top elected officials by sending them to the slammer.
But there’s nothing like Texas when it comes to treating what most consider the normal business of politics as a major crime, especially when the prosecutor is of the opposite party persuasion. That appears to be what happened to Gov. Rick Perry, who is facing charges that vetoing funds of a county prosecutor’s office constitutes a felony that could send him away for more than 100 years if he were convicted, which seems highly unlikely.
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For the record, I’m not a huge fan of the three-term Republican governor, whose ambitions are once again pointed toward 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. But having covered local, state and national politics for nearly 60 years, I do know a roust when I see one, even when the person or party trying to pull it off expresses wide-eyed innocence over such allegations.
The “who, us?” disclaimers by the Democrat-controlled prosecutor’s office in Austin – a place that is no stranger to such shenanigans – on the very face of them are an insult to the intelligence of the lowest IQ on the University of Texas football team.
To quickly refresh your memory (it shouldn’t take long since the event just happened), a grand jury indicted Perry on criminal allegations that he misused his office by vetoing the budget Travis County District Attorney Rosemary Lehmberg uses to investigate corruption. She had been arrested for drunken driving and made more than a little spectacle of herself in the police station. She refused to quit and Perry exercised the veto of state funds. His reason seems plausible. She isn’t responsible enough to administer the money.
That may or may not be true, but folks are left with this to chew on. She certainly didn’t act that way as she got processed by the cops, who confiscated an open bottle of vodka in her car. Her protests reached the level one might expect from a person of her station who has indulged a bit too much.
To understand this mess one needs only to realize that the DA’s office in Austin, the state capital, is a minority Democratic Party island in a conservative Republican sea that covers most of the state. The office also is the scene of past similar escapades, none of which has been successful. Former U.S. House Republican leader Tom DeLay was indicted and convicted by then-prosecutor Ronnie Earl on charges of misusing campaign funds. The conviction was overturned. Earl previously had indicted U.S. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchinson, a Republican, alleging she had misused state resources when she was state treasurer. The case ended during the first day of trial.
With this record, it would be difficult for most observers to believe the charges against Perry are anything but politically motivated. Perry, meanwhile, calling the indictment a “farce,” has made it clear it won’t deter his efforts to examine the possibility of seeking the Republican nomination for president in 2016.
That prospect for the decidedly conservative governor who made a mess of the opportunity two years ago has never seemed all that bright to me, although he has worked to change his image, even trading his cowboy boots for loafers. Despite the fact that the legal problems are based on such a shaky premise that a veto is a criminal act, the mere problem of defending against them could slow down his White House efforts.
It probably was inevitable that Perry, who has had more control of the state’s power structure probably than anyone who previously held the job, would finally run into a concentrated effort to derail him after 14 years, even if it seems to me to be more of a nuisance action than one based on any real offense.
One of the state’s leading Democrats was quoted as saying the action against Perry is a reminder “that there ain’t no cowboy that can’t be thrown.”
Dan K. Thomasson is a columnist for McClatchy-Tribune and a former vice president of Scripps Howard Newspapers.