Abbott on hot seat in '07 legislative sessionAttorney general's actions on top issues likely to figure in expected run for lieutenant governor
By W. Gardner Selby
Sunday, March 11, 2007
Attorney General Greg Abbott hasn't lingered in the Texas Capitol lately. But his influence looms over lawmakers who one day might be calling him lieutenant governor, or governor.
His recent opinion that county officials are subject to criminal prosecution for releasing records containing Social Security numbers prompted legislators to quickly propose a patch in state law. And his losing fight defending the state against a Medicaid lawsuit is expected to result in an order as soon as next month, potentially costing the state millions or billions of dollars.
Any day now, Abbott is expected to weigh in on Republican Gov. Rick Perry's power to issue executive orders, specifically a February mandate for vaccinating preteen girls against human papillomavirus.
Abbott's office also is reviewing legislation targeting illegal immigrants and overseeing one of at least seven investigations into the abuse of juveniles housed in Texas Youth Commission facilities, high-profile issues in the ongoing legislative session that ends in May.
Huge political stakes could ride on how his advice plays, perhaps affecting the state's ruling Republicans, some of them eyeing bids for higher office in 2010, assuming Perry does not seek re-election.
Abbott, 49, was a candidate for lieutenant governor for several months in 2001 before the attorney general's job opened. There's talk of him trying afresh if Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst seeks another post.
Friends say Abbott, a former state district judge, even enjoys the scut work of politics many officeholders abhor.
Dallas lawyer Deborah Hankinson served on the Texas Supreme Court with Abbott, who was appointed to the court by Gov. George W. Bush in 1995.
"I didn't like raising money," she said. "He likes doing that. He enjoys the strategizing, the campaigning, the fundraising. . . . every aspect. Greg enjoyed every day, whether he was going to be out doing politics or he was going to be working at the court."
Royal Masset, a Republican consultant mindful of Abbott's zest, rates him the GOP favorite to succeed Dewhurst if Perry sets off the political dominoes. Abbott is better known than State Comptroller Susan Combs, Masset said, and hails from Houston, a strong Republican base.
Abbott also enthralls Christian conservatives, Masset suggested. His office defeated a lawsuit that challenged the legality of keeping a monument listing the Ten Commandments on the Capitol grounds. In June, Abbott talked up his defense of the law.
"It doesn't matter what the Clintons and Kennedys do on the East Coast; it doesn't matter what the liberals do on the Left Coast," Abbott told delegates to the Republican state convention. "On the Gulf Coast, our children proudly say the Pledge of Allegiance each morning, the Ten Commandments still stand on the Texas Capitol grounds, and marriage will always be between one man and one woman."
Though Abbott is constrained by the law and his duties as the state's chief civil lawyer, how his advice affects legislative issues could figure in any run he makes for higher office.
This month, his political acuity was tested when he unleashed a ruling on public records and privacy laws.
Fort Bend County Attorney Roy Cordes Jr. asked a year and a half ago whether county clerks who release public documents without redacting Social Security numbers could be subject to criminal charges.
Abbott's answer, saying clerks could be charged, touched off panic. County clerks shut down their document sections, stunning people who rely on the records.
County and district attorneys quarrelled with Abbott's logic. He then distributed a letter saying he was merely interpreting the law, not passing judgment on it. And a few days later, he suspended the opinion for 60 days to give the Legislature time to act. House members have approved a measure removing the criminal penalties and sent it to the Senate.
The episode had some speculating that Abbott satisfied Texans who had privacy concerns while timing the release of his opinion so the Legislature would feel the brunt of criticism and have an opportunity to act.
Abbott boasts two advantages on any legislator considering a run against him: no voting record on legislation subject to nitpicking and a hefty warchest. He started this year with nearly $6 million in campaign cash, more than any other state officeholder.
Over a brisket taco lunch, Abbott recently said he stockpiled money last year in case his Democratic opponent for attorney general, San Antonio lawyer David Van Os, surprised him with a barrage of advertising.
Van Os ran a low-dollar campaign. Abbott spent nearly $4 million to Van Os' $156,005 and won nearly 60 percent of the vote.
Van Os' biggest donors were labor unions, but Abbott benefited largely from business interests, according to Texans for Public Justice, which tracks campaign finances. Abbott's top donor, Republican benefactor Bob Perry of Houston, gave him $520,265 from 2003 through last year.
Asked about plans for his campaign kitty, Abbott hearkened the freak accident that left him partially paralyzed in 1984. He was jogging in Houston when a tree fell on him.
"We'll wait and see," Abbott said. "I don't know if, by the next election cycle, a tree is going to fall on me."
Within a week or two, Abbott is expected to respond to a request from Sen. Jane Nelson, R-Lewisville, and Rep. Jim Keffer, R-Eastland, on the authority of governors to issue executive orders and if lawmakers have any recourse to overrule them.
At issue is Perry's Feb. 2 order that the Texas Health and Human Services Commission develop rules requiring sixth-grade girls to be vaccinated against HPV, some strains of which can cause cervical cancer. Perry said parents could opt their children out. His order, welcomed by some, touched off a legislative firestorm.
Keffer called the requested opinion "very important — for this Legislature and future Legislatures to know what an executive order is and what it's not."
Nelson said she sought Abbott's guidance without expecting a particular result: "Common sense tells me that (the issue of the mandate) needs to go through the legislative process."
Outside lawyers suggest that governors have a limited ability to issue executive orders, such as after natural disasters. Perry's office defends his action by citing constitutional language designating the governor the state's chief executive.
Abbott could not recall a governor's authority to issue executive orders coming up in his five-plus years on the Supreme Court.
"It's a novel legal issue," he said. "It's an issue that is rarely challenged. It's the kind of thing that there may be more gray than black and white to it."
Last month, lawyers under Abbott did not convince Travis County state district Judge Stephen Yelenosky that Perry had the right to order fast-tracking of permits for power plants in 2005. Yelenosky issued an injunction Feb. 22 saying Perry lacked such authority.
Rep. David Swinford, R-Dumas, has asked Abbott's office to review more than 20 proposals relating to illegal immigrants. The House Committee on State Affairs, which Swinford chairs, intends to hold hearings on the measures this month and again in April.
Swinford said he doesn't want to advance proposals obviously bearing only on federal law. Referring to Abbott's responsibility to defend Texas in court, he said: "It puts him in a spot if we pass this junk. I don't want to spend a lot of the state's money losing these cases."
For inquiries on executive orders and immigration legislation, Abbott's office said his advice will be informal. It will be up to legislators to make it public.
Given the position Abbott holds, it would be a surprise if he didn't leap for higher office in 2010. The five attorneys general since 1973 each ran for another office. Democrat Mark White became governor in 1983. Republican John Cornyn joined the U.S. Senate in late 2002.
Democratic consultant Kelly Fero, a former aide to Attorneys General Jim Mattox and Dan Morales, said, "Most modern AGs find themselves involved in every major issue facing the state. So it's a natural progression for them to try for a higher office that might allow them to define public policy rather than simply defend it."
Abbott, asked a second time to air his ambitions, returned to the accident that put him in a wheelchair.
"I was one of those people — you may be one, too — where I went around thinking things like that happen to someone else. I was oblivious to the notion that anything like that would ever happen to me. My perspective on that has changed. And I know that you never know, as silly as this may sound, you never know when a tree is going to fall on you.
"Because of that, it has changed, in a way, what I focus on. . . . Ask anyone who really knows me, what's the most important thing to Greg Abbott? They'll tell you, it's my family. I miss events all the time so I can do homework with my daughter. And I know that if I don't know when a tree is going to fall on me, I'm looking at how I spend each day and what my priorities are that day."
An aide said he expects Abbott to remain in politics.
"He's 100 percent committed to his family. He's equally committed to forging a better Texas," said Daniel Hodge, Abbott's chief of staff.
Additional material from staff writer Mark Lisheron.