Leonard Pitts Jr.: Perry v. Lehmberg
And the veto that illuminated an unsettling trend
By Leonard Pitts Jr.
A truism: Almost nobody looks good in his booking photo.
That said, the 47th governor of Texas, one James Richard Perry, certainly gave it his best shot when he faced the camera at the Travis County Courthouse last week. The resultant image is … not terrible. Perry is caught somewhere between a tight smile and an outright grimace, his mien taut with confidence and seriousness of purpose.
Gazing on that photo, one cannot help but suspect that a transparently political indictment designed by his Democratic opponents to cripple this presumed presidential aspirant might actually help him instead. One is not usually disposed to think of Texas’ swaggering governor as a victim, but darn if this indictment hasn’t turned the trick.
Of course, if Democrats in Texas have done the Republican governor an inadvertent favor, they sure haven’t done the country one. What is this thing lately of political parties using the courts as weapons of political destruction, trying to win judicially what they could not win at the ballot box?
A few words of definition before we proceed. The reference here is not simply to lawsuits and prosecutions with political import. Obviously there has been no shortage of those. But the sins and alleged sins of Rod Blagojevich, William Jefferson, Larry Craig, Bob McDonnell, Tom DeLay and others — money-laundering, corruption, disorderly conduct — are at least recognizable as crimes.
By contrast, Republican Speaker of the House John Boehner is suing President Obama for issuing an executive order. Faced with mulish obstructionism from the GOP, Obama chose that route to make a technical change in a law — the Affordable Care Act — Boehner’s party hates. Now here’s Perry, indicted on felony abuse of power charges that could theoretically send him to prison for over a century. His crime? He issued a veto.
Here is the backstory: The district attorney of Travis County, Democrat Rosemary Lehmberg, was arrested last year for drunk driving. Video captured her being belligerent toward police. Perry called on Lehmberg, who oversees the state public integrity unit, to resign, perhaps so that he might appoint a friendly Republican successor to head an agency that has been a thorn in his backside. Lehmberg refused, so Perry vetoed $7.5 million in state funding for the integrity unit.
Neither principal in this sordid episode emerges covered with glory. Lehmberg’s behavior suggests the opposite of public integrity; she should have resigned. And Perry’s veto smacks of scorched earth, bully-boy politics, which is not pretty. It is also not a crime.
Things were not always thus. Once upon a time, the losing party felt itself bound to accept the will of the electorate with some modicum of grace. You weren’t happy about it, but you embraced the role of loyal opposition and bided your time until the next election in hopes your fortunes might change.
But that’s so 20th century.
For six years, the GOP has been trying to undo the election of 2008; Boehner’s lawsuit is only the latest of their many loopy schemes. Now, if Travis County is any bellwether, at least some Democrats are doing the selfsame thing.
It is behavior that should give all fair-minded Americans pause, regardless of party affiliation, for it illustrates with stark clarity the sheer brokenness of our political system. Flooded with corporate money, gerrymandered beyond any semblance of reason, it limps along prodded by those whose devotion to the “game” far outweighs any devotion they might have to that quaint relic we once called the public good. Now there is this misuse of the courts for political payback, this attempt to criminalize ordinary political activity.
The public should take note. Elections have consequences, folks used to say.
Overturning them does, too.
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