Why are Texans so forgiving? Voters elect pols despite corruption allegations

Why are Texans so forgiving?

Whispers of questionable activity, indictments and even felony convictions cannot thwart a die-hard voter or dampen the enthusiasm of an elected official.

Ask Ron Reynolds, the Missouri City Democrat and disbarred lawyer who, despite a conviction on five counts of illegal solicitation of clients, won his primary Tuesday with 61 percent of the vote.

Or ask Montgomery County Commissioner Charlie Riley, who received 43 percent of the Republican primary vote to go to the May 22 runoff. Riley is one of three individuals expected to face trial at some point on charges of violating the state’s Open Meetings Act as the county prepared for a bond election.

A review of convicted and accused elected officials finds that Texas voters can be forgiving, casting their ballots for the person and ignoring misdeeds, be they alleged or confirmed.

While some lawmakers have to be forced out of office, others simply retire in the wake of convictions, forgoing the inevitable scrutiny that will dog them and the dirty political tricks that beset many a campaign regardless of how well intentioned it is.

In many elections, it’s likely that “the electorate knows little about the criminal or civil records and perhaps just do not care,” Allan Saxe, a political science associate professor at the University of Texas at Arlington, said in an email.

Some of these elected officials are acquitted, while others have charges dropped. Still, others are convicted.

The latter can’t keep a good candidate down.

The day he was convicted on 11 federal felony charges, state Sen. Carlos Uresti tweeted, “Early voting for the March 6th primary election is underway now! Turnout so far is high!”

The San Antonio Democrat, facing prison, has vowed to hold onto his Senate seat until end of term in 2020 while he appeals his Feb. 22 conviction. “And he has a good chance of being reelected if he wins his appeal,” said Rice University political science professor Robert Stein.

People vote for candidates with legal problems not just because they are unaware of those problems. Nationally, convicted killers, drug offenders and all around shysters have been elected.

In Texas, perhaps the most famous legally challenged candidate to get voter approval is former U.S. Rep. Tom DeLay from Sugarland.

DeLay’s political career, which began as a state representative in 1978, was grounded after his 2005 indictment in Travis County on conspiring to violate campaign finance laws and money laundering.

DeLay ran for reelection in the 2006 primary with the specter of prison looming. He won his party’s election with 62 percent of the vote but withdrew from the race a month later. DeLay resigned in June 2006. He was convicted in 2010 and the conviction was overturned in 2013.

The fact remains, that despite a whirlwind of news that cast DeLay as a betrayer of the public trust, he won.

“Sometimes they win because of low turnout, and the people who come out to vote are people who really support that candidate,” Stein said.

For an otherwise well regarded incumbent like Uresti, voters may have a personal connection.

“They also may read or hear about the charges and not agree with them,” Stein said. “They look at what the candidate has done for them and they say, ‘well that’s a silly law.’ It’s not so much a case of forgiving, it’s just that they don’t see certain things are objectionable.”

In the case of Riley, those things would include allegations that he conspired to circumvent the Texas Open Meetings Act, or TOMA, in putting together a road bond in 2015. In his defense, Riley contended that TOMA included unconstitutional language that infringed on his First Amendment Rights. A trial court dismissed his indictment, but the Ninth Court of Appeals in Beaumont reinstated it last month.


Riley, who did not respond to a phone call seeking an interview, ran his campaign despite the higher court ruling, promising to run a “fiscally conservative and transparent office.”

State Rep. Ron Reynolds, who did not respond to an email seeking comment, has faced challenges from the Texas Ethics Commission for various failures to comply with state filing laws, as well as legal troubles.

He has shrugged off the beef with the state ethics commission and has vowed to appeal his legal convictions. He was already turned back in his initial appeal, and last month, the same appellate court refused to reconsider. Yet, his colleagues and constituents continue to support him.

As the primary contest drew closer, Reynolds outraised his opponent, Wilven Carter, by a 7-1 margin, with $39,250 raised in the month leading up to March 6.

Reynolds’ cash came mostly from PACs – CenterPoint Energy, Associated General Contractors of Texas, Landry’s Restaurants – and campaigns, including outgoing state Rep. Helen Giddings (D-DeSoto), a fund to keep U.S. Rep. Al Green in Congress and Fort Bend County Commissioner Grady Prestage.

“Reynolds has got a pretty good backing and I think a lot of people don’t necessarily know that he’s got these problems…” said Brandon Rottinghaus, a political scientist at the University of Houston. “It’s probably not the most important thing people think about when they go to vote.”

Tuesday did see the ousting of Dawnna Dukes, the Democratic state representative from Austin, who could muster just over ten percent of the primary votes.

Dukes battled for over a year with Travis County prosecutors who charged her with abuse of office. The state’s case fell apart and charges were dropped in October.

“I’m very much looking forward to interim committee assignments and my reelection in March with your continued support,” Dukes said in a Facebook post after the charges were dropped.

Dukes won reelection in November 2016 with 70 percent of the vote even as the charges, which included altering state travel vouchers to get reimbursement that she was not entitled to, were being finalized. Dukes did not respond to an email seeking comment.

Most likely it wasn’t even the legal escapades that sunk her, noted Austin lawyer Jose Vela, who rang up 40 percent of the vote against Dukes and will face former Austin City Council member Sheryl Cole in the May runoff.

“I didn’t have to make the [legal accusations] an issue in the campaign,” Vela said. “I talked very little about Dawnna Dukes. What upset people was her lack of attendance in the legislature. With the legal charges, they were dropped and people have respect for the legal process. But not showing up? You can’t do that.”

Yet her absenteeism in the legislature was an old story going back to before she was last reelected.

In August 2016, a news story chronicled her extensive MIA status during the 2015 session, showing she was out and about despite claiming she missed her obligations because of injuries suffered in a car crash.

Perhaps voters had enough. Dukes had become unlikeable.

“Ron Reynolds, by and large is liked by his own caucus,” said Jay Aiyer, assistant professor of political science at Texas Southern University.  

“He’s liked by the speaker, he was liked by members of the opposition he’s well regarded as a member. Dawnna Dukes was not well regarded as a member.”

Commit an infraction bad enough, though, and even likeability won’t help you. Former state Rep. Terri Hodge plead guilty in 2010 to federal charges of tax evasion as she was connected to a bribery and extortion scheme that revolved around a housing deal in Dallas.

As part of her sentence, she agreed to never seek public office.

A few years after she got out, though, she sought the vice chairmanship of the Texas Democratic Party. Even the party had enough of her, though; she finished third in the pack.

Steve Miller can be reached at [email protected]



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