For years Republicans have controlled every lever of Texas politics — every statewide office, both houses of the Legislature, the state Supreme Court. Every nexus of power, that is, but one: the capital city.
Liberal Austin has made itself a painful exception to Republican rule. The big college town where Whole Foods got started is home to the grand jury that indicted former Republican Gov. Rick Perry while he was in office and to judges who authorized a gay wedding and struck down abortion restrictions and GOP cuts to public schools.
Finally, though, the Texas Legislature has put its boot down. Republican Gov. Greg Abbott this month is signing laws that will draw power away from solidly Democratic Travis County and weaken its local jurisdiction over state business done inside its borders. Political corruption cases will now be steered to the hometowns of the accused and Travis County judges, who are all elected Democrats, can now no longer singlehandedly upend major legislation.
“I understand that some of the Travis County politicians jealously wanted to hold onto this unfair advantage, but they shouldn’t be able to,” said Republican state Rep. Mike Schofield, who sponsored the changes in the Legislature and is a former Perry aide.
The outspokenly conservative Perry once called Austin “the blueberry in the tomato soup.” The booming city, propelled by its thriving technology and entertainment industries, nurtures an oddball charm and progressive politics — taking the lead on banning plastic bags and guided by a slacker slogan that urges locals to keep it weird, man.
Meanwhile, voters in the rest of Texas keep sending more and more Republicans to run the Capitol downtown. Democrats virtually sweep elections in Travis County, but in statewide races they’re 0-for-113 since 1994.
One of the new legal changes defangs the state’s Public Integrity Unit that had jurisdiction over political corruption cases. Because the unit runs out of the Travis County District Attorney’s Office, conservatives have long grumbled that it wields a partisan hand. The complaints escalated to outrage when former Republican House Majority Leader Tom DeLay was convicted of money laundering in 2010.
But the final straw was Perry, who’s now launching his second run for president under the cloud of a criminal indictment. He was charged last year with abusing his power after vetoing the unit’s funding in 2013 in a dispute with Travis County District Attorney Rosemary Lehmberg, an elected Democrat. Perry has pleaded not guilty.
Henceforth, political wrongdoing will be investigated by the Texas Rangers, and the accused will face trial in their hometowns instead of Austin.
“We lost funding for very important functions because of a bunch of political rhetoric that was false,” said Travis County Assistant District Attorney Gregg Cox, who runs the unit. He added: “They have politicized the judicial branch at this point. The judicial branch should be free from political influence.”
Cox said that only three cases in the last 15 years would’ve been taken away from his unit under the new rules — and two of the accused were Democrats. Even DeLay would still be prosecuted through his unit today, Cox said, because the changes only apply to state officials.
Republicans also overhauled how state courts will handle lawsuits over school finance or voting maps — two of the biggest decisions legislatures make. Last year an Austin judge struck down the state’s school finance system, dealing GOP lawmakers a setback over funding cuts orchestrated in 2011. The new rules will put three-judge panels over those major cases.
Two of the judges on the panels will be picked by the Texas Supreme Court, which is entirely Republican. Richard Gray, the lead attorney for more than 600 school districts suing Texas, says he thinks the intent was to make it “more difficult to try school finance cases.”
Republicans say far-reaching decisions shouldn’t fall to one judge and deny trying to stack the deck.
“Assuming a lack of integrity on the part of the chief justice of the Supreme Court is over and above the line,” Schofield said.
Bedraggled Texas Democrats aren’t happy, but are mostly surprised it took this long.
“If Republicans wanted to celebrate Christmas in April,” Democratic state Rep. Trey Martinez Fischer says, “they have the votes.”
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