On Thursday, a warrant was issued for the arrest of state representative Poncho Nevárez, a Democrat from Eagle Pass, a week after the lawmaker suddenly announced he wouldn’t be running for reelection. Two months ago, Nevárez was leaving the Austin airport when he dropped a sealed envelope, marked with the official letterhead of his office. Inside were two grams of cocaine, divided into four small bags. He faces a third-degree felony charge of drug possession, punishable by up to ten years in prison.
This would be a big deal if it had happened to any officeholder. The indefinable, only-in-Texas quality that suffuses so many of our scandals was enhanced by the fact that Nevárez, one of the most prominent border Democrats, is the chair of the House Committee on Homeland Security and Public Safety, which is to say that he’s the lower chamber’s go-to guy on a lot of criminal justice issues. (And he had a reputation of being pretty pro-law enforcement, at that.) In a year full of unforced errors by state lawmakers, Nevárez messed up about as hard as one can.
Nevárez has a reputation of being punchy, and at times arrogant, qualities that have won him both fans and detractors among his colleagues. (We named him one of the worst lawmakers of 2019 for those reasons and more.) But in an uncharacteristically earnest and humble statement, Nevárez wrote after the news broke, “I do not have anyone to blame but myself. I accept this because it is true and it will help me get better.” He felt grateful he had been caught, he said, because “grief and addiction had been consuming me,” and it came as a relief to know that he could finally seek treatment. “I apologize to each and every person that feels I have let them down,” he said. He was coming home.
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Two things are true at once: Nevárez broke the public trust in a condemnable way, and addiction is a disease. It’s right that Nevárez is stepping down to tend to his health, and it also seems laudable that he’s owning up to it. (Granted, the nature of the thing doesn’t leave him much room for denial.) But in the aftermath, an interesting debate has opened up in Lege circles about how we should think about what Nevárez did, and what we should expect from public officials.
Nevárez had a lot of fans in the House, many of them Republicans, who lined up after he announced his retirement to issue him well-wishes for the future, even after rumors that something more serious was amiss had started to bubble in Austin circles. That warm send-off for Nevárez rankled a lot of conservatives, who were already irritated by the relatively soft touch way many Republicans treated now disgraced House Speaker Dennis Bonnen, who is retiring for his own convoluted scandal.
One version of that criticism was expressed by longtime right-wing activist Michael Openshaw, who tweeted that “politics has become about being ‘friends’, not ‘colleagues’. It needs to be more of a working relationship, where ethical conduct is demanded & expected. It needs to be a lot less like a social club, where members overlook such & surrender their own values out of camaraderie & a desire to ‘belong’.”
— Michael Openshaw (@mopenshaw) November 15, 2019
There are at least two different critiques here—both of which many people likely find salient. One is about the Legislature as a club, whose members are Democrats and Republicans—people who work closely together and gain respect and empathy for each other. Some of that collegiality is necessary to make any lawmaking body work, and is even to be encouraged. But just as familiarity can breed contempt, it can also foster corruption. Take it too far, and the Legislature becomes a good old boys’ club or, in its modern incarnation, a good old persons’ club, in which a culture already prone to the corrupting effect of the lobby is reinforced by the feeling that “we’re all in it together.”
The other is a more ideologically driven complaint. Part of the critique the Republican right has long held about the Republican moderates in the Lege is that the moderates are much more susceptible to that corruption. The effort to primary the moderates out of office is as much about ideology as it is about cleaning house, or their perception of what cleaning house means. And they have a point!
To Openshaw’s critique, conservative activists added their own. “The Democrats are our enemies,” said Tony McDonald of Empower Texans. “We need to crush them, not play grabass.” (He means that Republicans should be making hay with Nevárez’s problems, not keeping mum or wishing him well.) Former state senator Konni Burton called for Nevárez’s immediate resignation, along with Bonnen’s, calling both men “stains on an already strained & reviled governmental body.” So on and so on.
The Democrats are our enemies. We need to crush them, not play grabass.
— Tony McDonald (@TweetTonyMac) November 15, 2019
I hope that all House members step up now to demand that House Rep & Homeland Security Chair Nevarez & Speaker Bonnen both resign immediately. Cocaine possession & a back room quid pro-quo are stains on an already strained & reviled governmental body. #txlege
— Konni Burton (@KonniBurton) November 15, 2019
There are three basic factions in the Legislature: center-right Republicans, right-wing Republicans, and Democrats. In truth, it’s difficult to make the case that any of them is less disreputable or dysfunctional than the other. What differs is the kind of corruption. There are three flocks, and each have their own bent-winged members. Members of each flock are more forgiving of their own odd birds than others. When their compatriots are found guilty of something, they cite the crimes of the other team as a reason not to do anything.
Anecdotally, hanging around the Lege, it seems like Democrats are overrepresented in the category of drug- and sex-related offenses—problems of personal behavior, you might say. The center-right guys aren’t immune to those problems, but their offenses tend to be connected to the fact that they hold all the wealth and power, and they cling to it, like Speaker Bonnen. They’re often avatars for the lobby, in a way that’s dirty, if not illegal.
And then there are the right-wing Republicans, Openshaw’s faction. East Texas senator Bob Hall was accused by his ex-wife of physically and sexually abusing her, but today he’s a comrade in good standing. Jonathan Stickland told jokes about marital rape on a football forum. Documents from state representative Kyle Biedermann’s child custody hearings revealed a lot of disturbing and icky behavior, among them that he’d ordered by a judge to no longer sleep nude with his four young daughters. (Biedermann disputed the accusations at the time, and his ex-wife in 2016 condemned the release of the court records.)
Ask conservative activists about this stuff and they’re likely to hand-wave it away. At the 2014 Texas GOP convention, I asked a conservative organizer about Hall’s past. They responded by saying something like “Well, all I know is he loves his current wife very much.” Democrats are slow to condemn their colleagues who’ve committed sins, and the culture of casual corruption among more powerful Republicans hardly garners mention in the chamber.
The thing is, it’s not very brave or bold to call out wrongdoing in the other camp. In fact, it’s politically useful to do so, as McDonald indicated. What’s harder, and even courageous at times, is to call out misdeeds from those on your team. We could use a lot more of that.
Every Democrat working in Austin knows a state lawmaker who’s doing things they shouldn’t; every moderate Republican knows someone who’s trading influence for cash in a way that’s unseemly; and every conservative knows a comrade in arms who has a mess to clean up at home before they should be telling anybody else what to do. If you want to clean up Austin, start with your friends.