Perry Sidesteps Willingham Again

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On Friday, I wondered if any of the media panelists at the second GOP gubernatorial debate would ask Rick Perry about the case of Cameron Todd Wilingham.

It seemed the perfect time because the Forensic Science Commission was meeting that very day for the first time since last fall’s controversy. You couldn’t ask for a better news hook.

The answer—as you may know—is no. Willingham wasn’t discussed. (If you haven’t seen it, my colleague Bob Moser has a terrific analysis of the debate here.)

Willingham, a likely innocent man, was executed in 2004 under Perry’s watch. (Background on the case is here.)

We’ve now had two debates, two full hours of political and policy discussion with the GOP candidates for governor and neither Willingham or the Forensic Science Commission have been mentioned even once.

I have to say I’m somewhat surprised by that. We’re not talking about some esoteric topic here. Just three months ago, Willingham and the Forensic Science Commission was the major story in Texas politics.

It appeared the governor was engineering a coverup, having replaced three members of the Forensic Science Commission in September just days before a major hearing in the agency’s investigation into the case.

For a three-week span last fall, every media outlet in the state was running at least one Willingham story a day. The media was in a frenzy. There was a contentious press conference in which Perry was peppered with questions about Willingham and little else.

It was the biggest scandal for Perry since the controversy over the HPV vaccine, which, by the way, the governor was asked about during the debates (an issue that’s now three years old).

The Willingham story went national. Anderson Cooper devoted a half-dozen long segments to the Willingham case. So did MSNBC and The New York Times.

Yet now, just a few months later, one of the biggest stories in Texas politics last year doesn’t garner a single mention in the gubernatorial debates.

Last fall, my friends and family outside Texas kept asking me, “What is Rick Perry thinking?” They had heard about the Willingham scandal and couldn’t understand why the governor would engineer what they saw as a clumsy coverup. Didn’t he know how bad it looked? I told them that Perry was betting on the scandal going away. He hoped to scuttle the investigation and was counting on everyone (his opponents, the media, voters) ignoring it once the campaign got going.

That strategy worked.

So kudos to Rick Perry and his staff. He apparently has survived a potentially humiliating political scandal—in which, according to the available facts, Perry was provided mitigating evidence before Willingham’s execution, let the execution go forward, then later halted an official investigation into the case. That kind of controversy might have destroyed a weaker politician.

It’s possible the Willingham issue will resurface in the general election, but I doubt it. Bill White doesn’t seem fired up about it. And, after these recent debates, it seems some of the most prominent political reporters in the state don’t care much about it either.

Dave Mann has been with the Observer since 2003. Before that, he worked as a reporter in Fort Worth and Washington, D.C. He was born and raised in Philadelphia. He thinks border collies are the world’s greatest dogs, and believes in the nourishing powers of pickup basketball.