Rep. Joe Driver: Unethical But Still Electable?

Correction: This post originally stated that Rep. Joe Driver’s district encompassed part of Collin County. The district is entirely in Dallas County. Apologies—AR

Even if you lost your keys, got stuck at work and your car wouldn’t start—even then, Monday was worse for Rep. Joe Driver than it was for you. Between an ethics scandal and calls for a criminal investigation, we’d have to assume it probably one of his worst days ever.

Then it probably got better when he remembered that the entire debacle likely won’t affect his reelection odds all that much. (On the other hand, I’m still rooting around for my keys without much success.)

Let me start at the beginning: Late yesterday afternoon, the AP reported that the Garland Republican had been “double dipping” on expenses—a practice only slightly less gross than actual double dipping. Driver’s campaign would pay for a trip, and then the representative would turn around and ask the state to reimburse him personally for the same trip. According to the AP story, Driver doubled-billed for at least $17,431 in travel expenses since 2005.

According to the story:
Driver, an anti-tax conservative on the powerful House Appropriations Committee — which oversee how state dollars are spent — said he thought it was OK to bill two entities for the same expenses. He said he routinely pays hotels and airlines with donated political funds and then submits the same expenses to the state — taking the taxpayer money for himself.

In case you couldn’t guess—as Driver couldn’t—representatives cannot submit the same expenses to two different entities, and it may violate both civil and criminal law. But in the article, Driver appears totally shocked that this is a problem. “Now you’re scaring the heck out of me,” Driver told the AP. “It pretty well screws my week.”

The entire thing looks pretty bad. In a statement late last night, Driver said there were errors in his campaign reports and—while he denied misusing state tax dollars—said he would correct the mistakes. But even if he misunderstood the rules, commonsense would seem to dictate that this kind of thing isn’t right. Even a kid knows that if Mom and Dad both each give him money to see the same movie, he’s likely to get in trouble. Driver has been visible at the conservative rallies, arguing on his campaign site that “government must tighten its belt.” It’s hard not to see a certain level of hypocrisy and incompetence, even if there was no malice.

But here’s the funny thing: this entire scandal likely won’t stop Joe Driver from getting reelected.

Remember former Democratic Rep. Terri Hodge? You know, the one who just reported to federal prison for tax fraud? She was re-elected in 2007, despite being indicted. She ran again this year, and only dropped out a month before her primary, when she pleaded guilty to charges. According to many in the district, she likely would have won had she stayed in the race, despite her opponent Eric Johnson’s vigorous campaigning.

While I don’t want to compare the allegations in any way—we’re only just learning about the Driver debacle and it’s not clear if he did anything illegal—it’s safe to say campaigns are rarely won or lost on ethical questions.  Of course accusations can make a big difference in a close race or if the violations are particularly egregious. For instance, when WFAA caught Republican Rep. Linda Harper-Brown driving a car that’s owned by a company with millions in state contracts, her campaign took some major hits. They were already fighting tooth-and-nail, however, since the district is incredibly close—and she still might win anyway.

Driver, on the other hand, has represented his district for 18 years. While District 113 is in the staunchly Democratic Dallas county, consider Driver’s campaign record. He’s won his last few elections with around 59 percent of the vote in 2008 and 2006, 65 percent in 2004 and—wait for it—100 percent in 2000. (For the record, I don’t think I’ve ever gotten 100 percent on anything.) According to July reports, he stands now with over $110,000 cash on hand, compared with his opponent’s $67,000. Until yesterday, I doubt many people had even given the race a whole lot of thought.

Of course, this is Texas politics and anything can happen—Driver’s still the likely winner, but his opponent could still mount quite an offensive. For now, however, we are left to consider why a politician’s ethical conduct doesn’t necessarily have electoral consequences. I’ll throw it out to you guys: what do you think?

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Published at 2:05 pm CST
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