I have a certain amount of affection for Rick Perry. His lackadaisical style and common sense approach to governance have served his state well for a long time. The economic success of Texas through bad times for the economy in general has benefited not just the fat cats but all Texans across the economic spectrum. Now, however, his common sense has run afoul of the laws of Texas, which have always sought to limit the power of elected officials — a limitation that Perry endorses as a core principle.
The District Attorney of Travis County, a Democratic enclave in a Republican state, is charged with investigating the ethics of the lawmakers who work in Austin, the seat of Travis County as well as the state capital. This creates a natural tension between a Democratic DA in Travis and a Republican state administration.
The current DA, Rosemary Lehmberg (above), had some personal problems recently — she was arrested for driving around stinking drunk and didn’t behave well in police custody. Many people, across the political spectrum, thought she should resign, but she didn’t — she served her jail time, went into rehab and carried on.
Perry decided to try to force her out of office. He argued that this was a simple matter of good governance, though of course her resignation would also allow him to appoint her successor, a Republican less inclined to tangle with his administration.
What Perry did was veto the funding for the Public Integrity Unit Lehmberg headed — on the face of it a reasonable measure, since it could be argued that Lehmberg’s office had lost the confidence of the public and shouldn’t be entrusted with public funds.
What Perry didn’t take into account was a Texas law making it a felony for a governor to use his power to coerce another public servant. His veto was clearly an effort to coerce Lehmberg into resigning. Her resignation might very well be a good thing for the state of Texas, and would certainly be a good thing for Perry, but Perry was legally prohibited from trying to coerce it.
Hence a real Texas mess. Most Texans would not be inclined to criticize Perry for wanting Lehmberg to resign, calling for her to resign — but there was that law forbidding him from trying to coerce her into resigning, which it seems he did.
Texans want severe limits on the power of elected officials, but they tend to look the other way when they exceed their power for the good of the state. Those two impulses have now come into conflict in a most ironic and spectacular way. It’s all very . . . Texan.