Attention has justifiably fixed on the crimes, ethical lapses and sexual harassment allegations leveled against state Sen. Carlos Uresti. What the barrage of publicity since his conviction on 11 felony fraud and conspiracy charges last week has overlooked is his 20-year career in the Texas Legislature.
Uresti, D-San Antonio, could exercise his right under Texas law to keep his Senate seat until the appeals of his convictions are exhausted, a process that could keep him in office through the 2019 legislative session.
He would do so without the support of Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick in the Senate, who has already ordered Uresti be stripped of his four committee assignments, and his own Senate Democratic Caucus, which has urged him to resign.
Politicians in the district like state Rep. Roland Gutierrez, D-San Antonio, recognizing the rarity of this kind of opening in the Senate, are lining up to take Uresti’s place. It’s time, Gutierrez said for constituents and taxpayers to “move forward and turn the page.”
For most voters, the page is from a tragedy opened when federal investigators arrested Uresti on fraud and bribery charges last May. The tragedy includes a chapter on sexual harassment allegations made by a former female Capitol reporter to The Daily Beast as the #MeToo Movement caught fire in December.
This has allowed for a full accounting of Uresti’s exploits with the opposite sex, several of whom were or are married to him. Most consequential was a sexual relationship Uresti denies with Denise Cantu, whose investment of a big legal settlement obtained by Uresti in the senator’s company was the centerpiece of the federal case against him.
Lead prosecutor Joseph Blackwell characterized Uresti during his trial as having “exploited” an “emotionally vulnerable, shattered young lady” for “his own financial gain.”
This stark image is bracketed by replays of a YouTube video that shows Uresti and his second wife, Lleanna, doing a Dancing With the Stars-disco-turn at their wedding reception in 2013 and a video surreptitiously showing Uresti nuzzling with a lobbyist in 2015 in an Austin bar.
This, regrettably, is what Uresti will be remembered for, Leticia Van de Putte told the Rivard Report. Fellow San Antonio democrat, Van de Putte, who served in the Senate from 1999 to 2015, said, “I’m heartbroken at the situation. I know Sen. Uresti … has been an amazing champion for abused children. I worked with him on a number of efforts, he’s done great work in the Legislature.”
It’s unclear, however, how effective Uresti has been legislatively.
The Texas Monitor on Tuesday contacted more than half a dozen academics, journalists and operatives who follow Texas politics. Cal Jillson, at Southern Methodist University, one of the most quoted political analysts in the state, when asked to break down Uresti’s record, found the question too detailed to answer.
Henry Flores, a political science professor and a former advisor when Uresti attended St. Mary’s University in San Antonio, did not respond to a request for an interview. Flores, who helped Uresti run his successful 1997 campaign for the House told the San Antonio Express News last week, “We teach them ethics here. It’s part of the curriculum, part of the core of the political-science major. So to see a former student go off the rails like this is a little bit disappointing.”
For someone with a lock on a district of 800,000 people, that is 35,000 square miles larger than 12 states and 82 countries, Uresti managed to go about his business for two decades without drawing much attention to his taxpayer-underwritten job by the people paid to do it.
Take the Texas Monthly for example. Their biennial lists of best and worst legislators are either taken as gospel or as badges of honor for their wrongheadedness. But in 20 years Uresti never made either list. His only mention came in 2015 when he was among a handful of legislators deemed furniture, “a designation for lawmakers whose level of participation in the legislative process was indistinguishable from that of their desks and chairs.”
While Uresti won assignments to consequential Senate committees over the past six sessions, leadership never saw fit to make him a committee chairman.
“He was always on the team, a good team player, but I don’t think anyone is ever going to mistake him for the star quarterback,” Harold Cook, an Austin political analyst with deep ties to the Democratic Party, told The Texas Monitor today.
“I do agree with your observation that Uresti is probably regarded as something of a back-bencher,” Dave McNeely, who covered Uresti and the rest of the Legislature for decades with the Austin American-Statesman, told The Texas Monitor Tuesday.
His voting record shows unwavering support for children’s issues (he was, until his conviction, vice-chair of the Senate Health & Human Services Committee), something Cooks says Uresti genuinely cares about. He consistently backed military (he was a Marine Corps captain) and senior citizen legislation.
But like House Bill 7, strengthening licensing and oversight of child care facilities in the last legislative session, which Uresti took sole credit for getting through the Senate, many of the bills Uresti backed were written by other legislators. And like HB 7, which passed by a vote of 140-0, they were hardly controversial.
Better known was his reliable introduction in every session a bill to raise the legal age for cigarettes, bills hopelessly doomed by his colleagues’ unwillingness to forego the more than $40 million annual revenue stream from cigarette taxes.
Uresti is expected to be sentenced June 25. Resignation or not, taxpayers are, by Texas law, on the hook for Uresti’s government pension, which has been estimated at $80,000 a year, a figure he can nudge higher the longer his appeal lasts.
He also faces up to 12 years in prison, millions of dollars in restitution if the judge see fit to grant it, and legal disbarment.
When last he spoke to the media, Uresti said before deciding anything, he intended to talk things over with his family.
Given the legal trevail for Uresti ahead, Cook said voters in the district would be much better served if Uresti resigned as soon as possible, particularly voters outside of his south San Antonio stronghold.
“When he beat Frank Madla (in the 2006 Democratic primary), and people in the western part of the district really liked Frank Madla because got out to the people in this outlying counties, that’s probably the last time a lot of those voters ever saw Carlos Uresti,” Cook said.
Cook said he isn’t sure what path Uresti will take, but if he is still a senator in January, the Senate will almost certainly have at least the necessary two-thirds vote to expel Uresti.
“That’ll be too bad, because if that happens,” Cook said, “that district will be represented by exactly zero people.”
Mark Lisheron can be reached at [email protected]