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Analysis: What’s a botched voter purge between friends?

So a governor of Texas appoints a new secretary of state who immediately gets into trouble with an amateurish attempt to purge the state’s voter rolls of noncitizens — a list of almost 100,000 people that turns out to include lots of legitimate voters on it. Democrats in the Texas Senate smell a skunk and block the appointment. And then the governor adds the busted official to the state payroll for $205,000 a year.

David Whitley might be as nice a human being as the governor and others believe him to be. But before we get all misty-eyed about it, folks, this is Texas politics: How many times have you seen the Greg Abbotts of the world run from friends who are tainted with scandal?

You remember how fast Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick dropped Sen. Charles Schwertner in the grease last year, after a college student complained about unwanted sexting that allegedly came from Schwertner’s phone? Or how many of Carlos Uresti’s legislative colleagues went to his trial and sentencing last year to offer support? Have you never seen politicians rid themselves of donors who get into trouble?

Disassociation is as old a political game as endorsements are — the flip side of the same coin. Birds of a feather, fleas from lying with dogs and so on.

And there, finally, is the point: Abbott doesn’t mind the association, not just with his former and future employee, but with the scandal that bounced Whitley out of a gig as the state’s chief election officer.

In the language of politics, Abbott endorsed that voter roll purge by hiring Whitley just as surely as hiring Colonel Sanders would stand as a testimonial for fried chicken.

As loyalty goes, this is a rare and heartwarming story. Abbott obviously thinks highly of Whitley, and the SOS job is a plum for trusted political allies. Keeping him on after the voter roll blunder is an unusual show of forbearance for a politician.

It would have been easier just to slam the door, or to get a friend somewhere else — Dallas, Houston, El Paso, New Delhi, wherever — to give Whitley a good job and a soft landing.

And this wasn’t your average mistake. Putting the voting rights of tens of thousands of Texans in jeopardy attracted three federal lawsuits and ended with the state agreeing to abandon its efforts and to pay $450,000 in court and attorney fees for the lawyers who sued. Local election officials have to let voters who’d been classified as “possible non-U.S. citizens” and told to prove their legitimacy that their voter registrations are safe.

What would your boss do?

The governor did his best to stick the blame elsewhere — on the Department of Public Safety which generated a list of registered voters who at one time or another had said they were not citizens. Many of those got their citizenship later, however, and the DPS database, never meant to be used for voter verification, turned out to be full of outdated information.

The SOS went with that list, though, with Whitley at the helm, and that effort was enough to get the Senate Democrats to withhold their support for Abbott’s appointee. Abbott tried all the way to the end of the just-ended legislative session to turn them around, but couldn’t muster enough support.

The Democrats did what people in politics (and business, and other activities) often do: They disassociated themselves from Whitley, avoiding any appearance that they approved of his work.

That’s because they’re afraid of the association, and that’s the point here: Abbott’s not afraid of this particular association, and Whitley, the lucky fellow, didn’t have to go a day without a state job.

Good for Abbott, sticking up for a friend at some political risk. But if they are such friends, you have to wonder why Abbott put Whitley in front of the bus in the first place.

Maybe he didn’t think it was a bus.

Ross Ramsey, The Texas Tribune
Ross Ramsey, The Texas Tribune
Ross Ramsey is executive editor and co-founder of The Texas Tribune.


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