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Bill White’s Tax Flap: Keep It Simple, Dude

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Bill White is an extraordinarily thoughtful, nuanced politician. It’s one of the reasons his three terms as Houston mayor were, by and large, boffo. It’s one of the reasons Democrats (not to mention many independents) love the idea of electing him governor. But it’s also one of the reasons to fret about him as a candidate—especially against the blunt instrument that is Gov. Rick Perry’s campaign.

Earlier this week, when the Houston Chronicle‘s R.G. Ratcliffe asked White the most straightfoward of questions—”Will you release your income tax returns back to 2003?”—White gave the Perry team their first opening to begin hammering him with their anything-but-subtle methods. (Hear the audio and read Ratcliffe’s story.)

Any political candidate for statewide office is going to get this tax-return question: It’s about as routine as they come. (Perry has released his returns since the mid-’90s.) But White was oddly unprepared for it, and his fumbling response invited suspicions and opened him up to an all-too-easy line of attack. To wit:

“WHITE: We’ll give you and others information that you ask for about, boy, since 2003, I’ve had most all of that in the financial statements. But I have been, there has been, during much of that time a partnership interest and a partnership return attached to the tax returns. But I’ll provide the various adjusted gross income and stuff like that, and a lot of it, but not those schedules.

RATCLIFFE: Try to explain that to me. Why not?

WHITE: I’m a partner, we’re, other people are partners in those businesses, and those tax returns are proprietary.

RATCLIFFE: But you will release the Schedule A? (Note: this is the schedule that includes items such as home mortgage deductions, property tax deductions and charitable giving.)

WHITE: Or the information in those schedules.

RATCLIFFE: We have Rick Perry’s returns going back to the mid-90s. When Kay became a candidate, she released hers going back to 2001. Is there a way to release as many of those schedules as possible?

WHITE: We’ll take a look at that.

RATCLIFFE: We’ll take a look at it …

WHITE: We’ll take a look at providing the information, if there’s specific types of information, we’ll provide that type of information. A lot of it is contained, a fair amount of it is contained in the personal financial disclosures which I file every year. But if there’s other types of information, be specific, R.G., and we’ll try to get it to you.”

Whether or not White has legitimate reasons for not releasing some of his business-related tax documents—I’m no expert, to say the least, but I believe he does—this was exactly the kind of thing that keeps partisans and consultants tossing and turning at night. It’s not just that White wasn’t prepared for a rote question that was bound to come up. It’s the way he equivocated, stumbled, and opened himself up to a whole round of probably groundless attacks from the circling sharks of the Perry campaign.

Before you could blink an eye, Perry spokesman Mark Miner and the Texas GOP had translated an ungainly response into a—whatever the merits—clever and effective line of attack:

“Bill White has a tax problem—he won’t rule out raising taxes for Texans and refuses to release his own tax returns. His opposition to transparency raises questions about what he is afraid of and what he is hiding regarding his own personal fortune and how he may have profited during his six years as Houston’s mayor.”

The tax issue is minor-league, ultimately, and should be easy enough for the White campaign to quell—as long as White doesn’t resist releasing everything he possibly can. What’s genuinely worrisome for Democrats in this mini-flap is what it says about White as a candidate under the brighter, bigger spotlight of a gubernatorial campaign.

Subtly and nuance would be most kindly welcome in the governor’s office. But the campaign trail that leads there requires sharpness and simplicity. If Bill White can’t master those qualities, we’ll never see what his big, impressively complicated brain might do for Texas.