When Rick Perry flipped his middle finger at every newspaper editorial board in Texas, refusing to submit to the process of answering questions and asking for endorsements, the rationale was clear and—in a coldly calculated, screw-the-public sort of fashion—logical. Does anybody actually base their vote on what The Dallas Morning News or the Houston Chronicle recommends? Since practically nobody under 50 reads a newspaper anymore, the impact is marginal at best. And in the case of marquee races like Perry vs. White or Edwards vs. Flores, most people who are inclined to vote already have ample alternate sources of information—and misinformation—upon which to base their choice.
With less-hyped races, though, endorsements can still have a little oopmh. When it comes to voting for the (sadly) obscure offices of attorney general or lieutenant governor or Railroad Commissioner (um, remind me—what the heck is a Railroad Commission?), most folks are looking for some informed guidance. Which makes it a damn shame when they get an endorsement that misinforms and misleads.
David Dewhurst, running for his third term as lieutenant governor, has been one of the most ineffectual men (yep, all men so far) to occupy what is supposed to be the state’s most powerful office. Moderately conservative in his politics (so far as anybody can tell), the elusive Dewhurst has pandered shamelessly to right-wing extremists. Remember how he shut down a drama class’s performance of the play Corpus Christi (which he’d never seen nor read) at Tarleton State University? In the 2009 Legislative session, Dewhurst was most notable for his absence; Senate business was conducted without him for long stretches, as Sen. Kevin Eltife, R-Tyler, ran the show and Dewhurst reportedly immersed himself in the far more important matter of planning his impending wedding. But while he was there, both in 2007 and 2009, he made it count in the worst possible way, grandstanding on the pet right-wing (non)issue of Voter ID and bringing partisan rancor into a chamber that is usually far more collegial and purposeful than the state House. Dewhurst does damage even when the Senate is out of session; four months before this election, he took the unusual step of shifting a bunch of Senate appointments around to empower right-wingers—and exclude the chamber’s Republican redictricting expert, Sen. Jeff Wentworth of San Antonio, from the redistricting committee.
If Dewhurst was going to become an effective lieutenant governor, you have to think he’d have figured it out over eight years. But not if you’re the editorial boards of most Texas dailies, which have recommended that voters choose him over his Democratic challenger, retired AFL-CIO vice president and progressive populist Linda Chavez-Thompson.
The standout, in terms of pure nonsense, was The Austin American-Statesman, whose editorial board slapped together what is surely one of the goofiest endorsements ever inked onto newsprint. It’s one thing to support Dewhurst because of his considerable experience and knowledge (often unapplied, but still there) of how things work in Austin—and that’s been the rationale for most of his endorsements. It’s another to claim, as the Statesman does, that Dewhurst “avoids cheap political theatrics.” His cheap Voter ID theatrics have seriously crippled the Senate’s ability to do its job for Texans. And Dewhurst has signed onto the frivilous and expensive ideological lawsuits of Attorney General Greg Abbott, supporting Arizona’s unconstitutional immigration law and opposing the EPA’s efforts to make Texas regulate the environment.
The other basis for the Statesman‘s endorsement? Dewhurst told the paper, in his editorial-board interview, that he would “like to be remembered as a statesman.” And from here, it gets weirder:
Cynics might scoff, but we think that kind of thing is easy to say but hard to accomplish. Dewhurst is far from perfect, and there are plenty of issues on which we disagree … Nonetheless, we don’t doubt the sincerity of his wish to be regarded as a statesman. Dewhurst is a work in progress, but he is dilligently trying to get there. Dewhurst deserves another term.
So: Because the Statesman intuits that he’s “sincere” about wanting to become a completely different lieutenant governor, he has earned a third shot at it?
The Statesman‘s argument against Chavez-Thompson was no better: “[W]e doubt that she could manage the 31-member Senate dominated by Republicans who might be tempted—or emboldened—to buck a leader from the other party when a series of challenges facing the state demands as much cooperation and collaboration as that body can muster.” So first we have a cheap insult: This little lady is out of her league. (No matter that Chavez-Thompson was justly known for both her organizing skills and her toughness as a labor leader.) And to make matters worse, the Statesman appears to be saying that only Republicans need apply for the job.
All in all, it’s the single best argument I’ve seen for abolishing endorsements altogether. (In case you’re wondering, the Observer is not allowed to endorse, if we want to keep our non-profit status, which we darn sure do.)
But then came a surprising endorsement that almost redeemed the form (almost). The once-predictable Dallas Morning News pried its readers’ eyes open by giving the nod for attorney general to Democrat Barbara Radnofsky, the dogged and whip-smart attorney from Houston, over two-term incumbent Republican Greg Abbott. Here—not least because of the surprise factor—was an endorsement that just might carry a little weight. Probably not enough to help Radnofsky win, but that’s partly why it was such an admirable endorsement: Abbott is almost certain to be re-elected, but the Morning News wasn’t swayed by the prospect of burning its bridges to a powerful politician. In this case, at least, it played the role that a free press is supposed to play in a democracy. Even more than Dewhurst, Abbott has made his office a step-ladder for his political ambitions, wasting taxpayer money on those frivilous lawsuits against the federal government—and the DMN called him out on it.
The Morning News has become an indispensible source of political reporting in the state—a welcome departure from the paper’s reflexively conservative past. Maybe it’s no coincidence that the one daily in Texas that’s actually improved the quality of its statewide reporting—read its fine investigations into Perry’s misdeeds here and here and here —is also showing at least a dollop of independent thinking when it comes to endorsements. When you give a hoot about facts, and commit yourself to watchdogging elected officials on behalf of the people they’re supposed to be serving, you’re surely less likely to fall back on Statesman-like cliches and purely partisan arguments.
Kudos, then, to one editorial board at one Texas newspaper—not because the DMN gave Radnofsky the nod, but because it made a tough call for legitimate reasons and explained them cogently.