The indictment of Texas Gov. Rick Perry on August 15, 2014 has drawn criticism from pundits, politicians and papers all over the country. Some Democrats have disavowed the indictment, going as far as to claim that launching courtroom attacks against their opponents in the GOP is just not how Democrats operate.
But is that the case? Or have Democrats shown a disturbing pattern of using courtrooms to go after Republicans who pose a threat to them?
The following eight cases suggest that Democrats will wield ethics complaints and courtrooms as weapons against Republicans at strategic moments.
Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, 1993
Travis County District Attorney Ronnie Earle brought several charges against newly elected Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison (R) in 1993. Hutchison had previously won statewide election as state treasurer, and was a rising star in Texas politics. She won a special election by landslide to replace Sen. Lloyd Bentsen (D), who had been nominated to serve in the Clinton administration.
Even in 1993 there was talk that Hutchison was a future governor. As a woman with considerable poise in front the press, Hutchison represented a clear and present danger to the Democrats who hoped to build on Gov. Ann Richards’ success statewide. Hutchison came along at a time when Texas was shifting from a reliable Democratic state to a swing state, to becoming the Republican bastion it is today. A conservative, attractive woman who could even charm the hostile Texas media, Hutchison posed a grave threat to the Democrats at a pivotal moment.
Earle’s indictment, built through the Travis County Public Integrity Unit, alleged that Hutchison engaged in felony misconduct and ordered state employees to destroy evidence while she was state treasurer. Hutchison was essentially indicted over Christmas cards.
Hutchison’s attorneys won a change of venue out of heavily Democratic Travis County, to Fort Worth. The case fell apart at trial.
Result: Full acquittal. The change of venue pulled the flimsy case out of Travis County to Fort Worth, where Earle had to give it up. Hutchison won re-election in 1994 and would go on to serve as senator until she retired and Sen. Ted Cruz (R) replaced her in 2012.
The Democrats were by no means finished with legal shenanigans to try to keep their grip on Texas. Republicans finally won the state House in 2002 for the first time since Reconstruction. That empowered them to draw up the state’s electoral map for the very first time, and in the 2003 legislative session, they did just that, with the help of Rep. Tom DeLay. Democrats knew that they would lose the vote that would adopt the Republicans’ new map — a map drawn within the constraints of the law, but which no longer guaranteed the Democrats a majority in the state’s US House delegation.
Eleven Democrats responded by running off to Oklahoma to deny the House the quorum it needed to pass the map as long as they could.
Democrats would get around to punishing DeLay directly a few years later. Read on.
An obscure Democratic Illinois state senator hoped to vault up to the United States Senate. But a popular local businessman who had been married to a gorgeous Hollywood wife stood in his way. That businessman’s name was Jack Ryan, and he had divorced Star Trek star Jeri Ryan in 1999. Their divorce records had been sealed by a court.
Ryan enjoyed a huge lead in the polls. He was all but a lock to win the Senate race.
But in June 2004, the sealed divorce records suddenly hit the media. To this day, how those records got leaked is a mystery. But it happened in heavily Democrat Illinois.
The records painted a picture of a man who forced his wife to go to sex clubs and asked her to engage in sexual activities as others looked on.
That was enough to force Ryan out of the race. Republicans scrambled to replace him with Ambassador Alan Keyes. Keyes gaffed his way through an awful race, and the obscure Democratic state senator ended up winning by default.
That obscure state senator: Senator, and now President, Barack Obama.
Result: Democrat gain, presidential career launched. Ryan’s forced exit paved the way for Obama’s political career to go national. Obama’s election also was a net gain for the Democrats in the Senate, as Ryan and Obama were running for a seat that had been vacated by Republican Sen. Peter Fitzgerald.
Update: I got a few things wrong in this case. Ryan’s records were released by a California court due to media lawsuits to release them. The same media later refused to vet the beneficiary of that decision, Barack Obama.
Rep. Tom DeLay, mugshot to the left, was the House Majority Leader when Travis County DA Ronnie Earle indicted him on money laundering charges in 2005. Earle shopped the charges to three different grand juries before he finally found one that would indict, and that indictment only came as the clock on the charges was about to run out. The charges involved activities that were not even crimes by law when DeLay supposedly committed them. Money laundering itself tends to be prosecuted in connection with serious crimes like drug trafficking. DeLay’s so-called “money laundering” involved raising money for Republicans running for the House.
The indictment had an immediate effect on the Republican Party at the national level. The House GOP caucus has a rule — which the Democratic caucus does not have — that any member of leadership who has been indicted must step down from their leadership position. DeLay had no choice but to relinquish his leadership post. The House Republicans lost one of their most effective fundraisers and strategists as it was headed into the pivotal 2006 mid-term elections. Those elections were coming at the mid-point of Republican President George W. Bush’s second term, a moment when the party in power in the White House traditionally loses seats. Delay’s indictment took him out of action at a crucial time.
Result: Conviction, later overturned. Major political consequences. DeLay’s resignation from House leadership and his conviction helped Democrats form a “culture of corruption” narrative that powered Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) to become Speaker of the House.
But in 2013, DeLay’s convictions were overturned on appeal. By then, his political career was destroyed.
Federal prosecutors charged Republican Sen. Ted Stevens (AK) on a range of corruption charges going into the 2008 election. Stevens had held the seat for 40 years. He was up for re-election and the trial was a fatal blow to his chances. He lost to Democrat Mark Begich eight days after his conviction.
But it was later revealed that two prosecutors withheld vital evidence favorable to Stevens. That revelation came four years after Stevens’ conviction and defeat. The prosecutors got a slap on the wrist for their gross misconduct.
But the Democrats captured the Senate in 2008, as Sen. Barack Obama was swept into the White House.
Result: Conviction, later overturned. Major political consequences. Stevens’ defeat to Begich gave the Democrats 58 seats in the Senate at that moment. But the Democrats would later add two more seats — enough for a supermajority, which they used to pass their controversial Obamacare into law in 2010.
When Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin (R) was selected to be Sen. John McCain’s vice presidential running mate, the 45-year-old was the most popular governor in the United States. She had an approval rating of 60% and had built up a record as a reformer that included taking on entrenched Republican powers in her state. Palin was Alaska’s youngest governor ever, and the first woman elected to that post when she won in 2006. The beautiful young wife and mother was a Republican star on the rise.
Her selection on the GOP ticket changed everything. It made her a national star on the right. But the media and the Democrats launched every conceivable attack on her — her accent, her “hockey mom” demeanor, her appearance, her love of hunting, her family, even her church and a beauty pageant she once participated in — all became targets. But none of it seemed to bother Palin.
McCain lost to Obama in 2008 and Palin returned to Alaska, only to be swarmed by ethics complaints from left-leaning activists and groups. Thanks to a quirk in Alaska law, Palin was personally responsible to pay for her defense. She and her family quickly racked up $500,000 in debt, and the governor’s salary ($125,000 in 2014) was not enough to overcome that. Palin did not come into politics with a vast personal fortune.
At the same time, Palin’s personal email was hacked by Anonymous, and the contents released to the public. Media quickly databased the emails and crowd-sourced a scouring of them. She was even the subject of a look-a-line porn parody movie, as comedian Tina Fey mocked her endlessly on NBC. Fey coined “I can see Russia from my house,” a punch line that many Americans still falsely believe that Gov. Palin actually said.
Result: Resignation, end of her career in office. None of the ethics complaints against Palin resulted in an indictment, trial or conviction. They evaporated when she resigned on the weekend of July 4, 2009, saying that she and her family couldn’t take the strain and the debt anymore. That decision earned Palin the label of “quitter” and further damaged her already suffering image. Nationally, while she has maintained her popularity among Tea Party supporters, she was no longer a force in elective politics. Palin became a commentator for the Fox News Channel and has launched a couple of cable TV shows. As a politician, she may be permanently unelectable.
Even though she did nothing wrong.
The reform-minded Gov. Scott Walker won the Wisconsin governor’s race in the Tea Party landslide of 2010. He moved to shore up the state’s finances by reforming government, including curbing unionized government workers’ power over the purse. That earned him (and a handful of Republican state senators) a recall election, which he defeated, in 2012. Walkers wins and his successful reforms have made him a high-profile Republican and possible presidential contender — and a target.
Milwaukee County District Attorney John Chisholm (D) launched a “John Doe” probe into Walker’s campaign finances in 2012, going back to his tenure in the county government and running all the way to the 2012 failed recall election. The probe was built on the premise that Walker had illegally coordinated with the Wisconsin Club for Growth and other conservative groups. Rumors dribbled out of that investigation for months, hinting of a trial and a dark future for Walker and some of his aides. The media and the leftwing blogs treated every morsel as if it would result in Walker getting frog-marched by police from the capitol to a squad car.
Result: Dormant but not quite dead. On May 6, 2014 US District Judge Randolph Randa told prosecutors to halt the probe immediately. The prosecutors have appealed. John Doe could come back just as Walker considers running for re-election as governor, or president.
One word: Bridgegate. New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (R) has become a serious Republican presidential contender. He also became the target of a scandal involving a Christie staffer and a political appointee. They closed two lanes on the bridge from Fort Lee, NJ on September 9, 2013 during morning rush hour, which resulted in traffic jams. An investigation followed, but it did not blow up until after Christie had won a second term.
The “Bridgegate” scandal quickly got a name and it swiftly engulfed Christie’s administration. Christie had been one of the most popular governors in the country, but thanks to the wall-to-wall media coverage of Bridgegate has dented his popularity in the state — despite the fact that it has never been tied directly to him at all. Bridgegate came along after Christie had overwhelmingly won re-election as a Republican in a Democratic state, with his popularity on the rise.
Result: Inconclusive, but politically damaging. If Christie runs for president in 2016, Bridgegate is sure to dominate his campaign rollout.
In the current case of Democrats using courts to grab power, the Travis County District Attorney’s Public Integerity Unit is back. The same office that indicted Hutchison and Delay has indicted Gov. Perry for vetoing state funds to that office. This case may be the most twisted of them all.
Perry is Texas’ longest serving governor, having served since 2000. His tenure has seen Texas become the nation’s job creation engine, and at the same time, the Texas Democrats have been less and less relevant. Perry is retiring at the end of his current term, having racked up a perfect record against Texas Democrats — who have spent his entire time in office deriding his intellect and battling his agenda.
Travis County DA Rosemary Lehmberg, Democrat, was arrested for drunk driving on April 12, 2013. She had three times the legal blood alcohol limit, and had an open container of vodka in her car, in violation of the state’s open container law.
Lehmberg was captured on tape abusing and threatening the processing officers, raising the possibility that she could have been charged with abuse of power and assaulting an officer of the law. Perry sought to get Lehmberg to resign by threatening to veto $7.5 million that the state provides to the county to run that office. Lehmberg refused. Perry vetoed the funds. The Democrats in the GOP-dominated legislature never made any attempt to override that veto.
But a leftwing group funded by convicted inside trader George Soros, Texans for Public Justice, filed a criminal complaint against Gov. Perry in 2014. The grand jury, one member of which is a partisan Democratic Party operative, indicted him on August 15, 2014.
The indictment came just months before the election to replace Perry, with Democrat Wendy Davis hoping to upset the state’s red politics against GOP nominee Attorney General Greg Abbott — and when Perry is exploring another run for president.
Since the indictment, Texas Democrats have argued that Perry wanted Lehmberg gone so that he could scuttle a corruption investigation into the Cancer Prevention Research Institute of Texas (CPRIT). The Public Integrity Unit was investigating CPRIT, but the lead investigator has testified under oath that Perry was never a target, and none of his political appointees were ever targets. The Austin American-Statesman has reported a timeline on the CPRIT investigation that completely destroys the notion that Perry wanted to push Lehmberg out for that purpose.
Democrats have also argued that Perry wanted to replace Lehmberg with someone loyal to him. The Austin American-Statesman has destroyed that narrative, too.
Result: Short-term win for Perry, but ongoing and ominous. Perry submitted to the courthouse for his mugshot last week. Having your mugshot taken and released to the world is a terrible day for most people, but Perry turned that moment into a win. It has even been turned into a great poster by artist Sabo.
Perry may leave the governor’s mansion as popular as when he arrived thanks to the indictment, which has made him a sympathetic figure across the country. The political indictment may aid his run for the presidency, at least in the short term.
But the indictment carries a very real threat to him. If convicted, Perry could spend the rest of his life in prison. Perry’s indictment has been derided nationally on the left and the right, but Democrats at the state party and within Travis County were gleeful for several days. Their PACs and shadow party groups like Battleground Texas are fundraising off of the indictment.
Travis County is the most Democratic county in the state. A jury from that county convicted Rep. DeLay. Grand juries from that county indicted Hutchison, DeLay and Perry.
Gov. Perry will not be truly free until the indictment against him is thrown out, or he wins at trial. But the prosecutor says that he doesn’t even expect any trial until 2015, when Perry will probably be running for president.
In conclusion: Gov. Scott Walker, Gov. Chris Christie and Gov. Rick Perry are all possible Republican presidential hopefuls for 2016. All face flimsy allegations and legal investigations as they rise nationally to challenge Democrats for the presidency. Walker and Perry could even face serious jail time. As long he remains under indictment, some of Gov. Perry’s Second Amendment rights are curbed.
Is it a coincidence that all three face these investigations just as they gear up to challenge Democrats for the presidency?