Double-billing taxpayers for travel expenses, driving a luxury car owned by a state transportation contractor and repeatedly failing to pay taxes won’t put a House lawmaker in good standing with the ethics police. But whether a scandal is enough to get an incumbent ousted from office is anybody’s guess.
State Reps. Joe Driver, R-Garland; Linda Harper-Brown, R-Irving; and Charles “Doc” Anderson, R-Waco, are all hoping the headlines dogging their re-election bids won’t follow them to the polls. Their Democratic opponents are reveling in their misery at every campaign stop and photo op. Meanwhile, two incumbent Democrats fell to scandal this spring, and a third was tripped up two years ago, though he clawed his way back this year.
Political consultants on both sides of the aisle say that whether such seats flip-flop comes down to the three T’s: timing, turnout and tradition. How recently the news stories struck, how many voters show up on Election Day and how long the lawmaker has been in office all contribute to whether a scandal-plagued incumbent can ride it out for another term.
“It can kill you, or you can skate by. Every situation is unique,” says Dean Rindy, a Democratic media strategist. “It depends on how much local media is pounding the story, how much scandal competition there is among other politicians at the time, and how complicated the details are.”
Spinning the scandals
Harper-Brown’s race was a toss-up two years ago, when she won by just 19 votes. Since then, the House Transportation Committee member has gained the unfortunate nickname “Linda Harper-Benz” following news reports that she was driving a 2010 Mercedes E550 owned by her husband’s employer, a contractor with business at the Texas Department of Transportation. Harper-Brown has returned the vehicle but adamantly denies any wrongdoing. She says voters are disgusted by the negative attacks and are rallying around her. But her Democratic opponent, Loretta Haldenwang, has worked hard to keep the scandal in the headlines; earlier this month, she showed up at Harper-Brown’s office — media entourage in tow — to demand the incumbent return more than $11,000 in mileage reimbursements she claimed for wear and tear on the vehicle. “People want to hear about the issues — they don’t want to hear personal attacks,” Harper-Brown says. “They’re hammering on with all the negativity while I’m trying to discuss issues.”
On the other side of Dallas County, Driver’s in hot water after admitting he pocketed at least $17,000 in taxpayer funds for travel expenses that he had already billed to his campaign. Driver says he got bad ethics advice and has now repaid everything he owed. But that may not be where the story ends. The Travis County district attorney, who has purview over the state ethics investigations, has confirmed she’s looking into the case, which means criminal charges could follow. The Driver campaign says that’s highly unlikely — and that extensive polling since the news broke shows he will still win handily. “Being a lifetime resident here, I think people have known me for so long and realize a mistake was made,” Driver says. “People do make mistakes. Which is why we stepped up and acknowledged it.” Driver’s acknowledgment came after The Associated Press discovered his creative accounting.
Speaking of accounting, Anderson, a Waco veterinarian, has been hit in the last year with two federal liens for failing to pay about $70,000 in back taxes. Anderson has said that the liens were the result of a dispute with the IRS and that he has paid them off in full. Former Democratic state Rep. John Mabry — whom Anderson defeated in 2004, the first cycle after 2003’s mid-decade redistricting — could stand to benefit from the incumbent’s black eye. But Todd Smith, a GOP consultant working with Anderson, says he thinks his candidate has a strong hold on the district. Opponents “are just regurgitating the same story they laid out six months ago, and it doesn’t seem to be having any impact in the district at all,” Smith says. “Doc’s working like he’s 20 points behind, but we feel very confident about where he is in the race.”
Getting away with it
Whether these scandals affect the outcomes of any of these races remains to be seen. Harper-Brown’s race was going to be close regardless; she’s a longtime fixture in Irving, but her district has become increasingly Latino and working class, dynamics that often hurt Republicans. Driver’s double-billing broke late in the game — and Jamie Dorris, the Democratic candidate in the heavily Republican 113th district, was endorsed by The Dallas Morning News despite being a political novice who currently lives with her parents. In Waco, the jury’s out on whether Mabry, a Democrat, can return to office in largely Republican McLennan County.
Dallas County GOP Chairman Jonathan Neerman says Driver and Harper-Brown will both probably be safe because they’re well known in their North Texas districts and have a long history of service to the state. “My concern is what impact [the scandals] will have on the rest of the Republican ballot in this county,” he says. “There may be people who used to be traditional straight-ticket voters who won’t vote for a particular candidate anymore. That increases the risk of losing people all the way down the ballot.”
A trip down bad-memory lane offers little firm guidance on which types of scandals lead to lost elections and which aren’t deal-breakers after all.
In some cases, money matters. Former state Rep. Gene Seaman, R-Corpus Christi, lost a 2006 re-election bid after he claimed homestead exemptions on properties in two different cities. That same year, then-state Rep. Toby Goodman, R-Arlington, lost his seat after it was discovered that he used campaign funds to rent Austin living space from his spouse.
But other House lawmakers who did the same thing in what became known as the “rent-to-own” scandal — state Reps. Rob Eissler, R-The Woodlands, and Vicki Truitt, R-Keller, to name two — survived their re-election bids. Meanwhile, state Rep. Dawnna Dukes, D-Austin, saw little fallout in her 2008 race despite improperly reporting nearly $90,000 on her campaign finance reports and being sued in 2006 for failing to pay her marketing firm’s property taxes.
Kickbacks, taxes and another man’s wife
More-personal ethics lapses, on the other hand, almost routinely lead to overthrow — though they’re not always permanent. Former state Rep. Borris Miles, D-Houston, suffered a big loss to former and current state Rep. Al Edwards, D-Houston, in 2008 after an infamous party at which an intoxicated Miles kissed another man’s wife and brandished a gun. This year, despite that history, Miles defeated Edwards in the Democratic primary and is headed back to the House.
In 2002, former state Rep. Rick Green, R-Dripping Springs, was narrowly defeated by state Rep. Patrick Rose, D-Dripping Springs, following Green’s lobbying of the Texas Department of Health on behalf of the ephedrine manufacturer Metabolife International and reports that he used his Capitol office to film an infomercial for a dietary supplement. Green attempted a comeback this year, running for the Place 3 seat on the Texas Supreme Court, but was defeated in a runoff by current GOP nominee Debra Lehrmann.
Former state Rep. Tara Rios-Ybarra, D-South Padre Island, lost her seat to South Texas businessman J.M. Lozano in the March primary following revelations of her affair with a married real estate developer who raised money for her campaign. Three months later, Rios-Ybarra, a dentist, was charged with three counts of making payments to a non-licensed physician, part of her alleged involvement in a scheme to receive kickbacks by referring an oral surgeon Medicaid patients.
Then there's former state Rep. Terri Hodge, D-Dallas, who appeared headed for defeat in the March primary following allegations of involvement in a city corruption scandal. She bowed out of the race in February to plead guilty to lying on a tax return, handing the race to newcomer and now state Rep. Eric Johnson, D-Dallas.
Rindy, the Democratic strategist, sums it up well: “The simpler the scandal is,” he said, “the worse off you are.”