For the past couple of years, we political junkies have watched, some with varying degrees of amusement, many with disdain, as Travis County District Attorney Ronnie Earle pursued partisan retribution against those who would have the temerity to exercise their First Amendment right to free political speech by exposing the voting records of duplicitous legislators in Austin. To most casual observers of the political scene, this has probably been regarded as a side show, characteristic of the pettiness of electoral politics and devoid of any significant principled issues at stake.
However, with the recent indictment of the State’s largest business organization, the Texas Association of Business (TAB), by a Travis County grand jury (at Earle’s instigation and at taxpayers’ expense), this political intimidation and witch hunt has now reached the point of absurdity that should be given serious attention by those who value their constitutional right to political speech. For what we have here is clearly a case of a district attorney interpreting a state law to limit the freedom of speech of a private association.
In 2002, TAB created a scoring system to inform the people of Texas about the truth of the voting records of their elected officials in Austin, many of whom for some time had boasted in their home districts about their support for policies that encourage jobs, economic growth, and prosperity, but whose true legislative voting records belied their representations. This process was scrutinized as to its compliance with election law and approved by attorneys with substantial experience in the field, and at no time did the organization endorse any candidate or make any direct political contribution to, or campaign expenditure for, a candidate.
The question at issue here is whether or not there will continue to be voices independent of the mainstream news media and the “spin machines” of the elected officials that can directly and perceptively inform the voting public on the true voting records of their elected representatives without the threat of partisan, taxpayer funded intimidation.
In the interest of full disclosure, I should tell you that I am a former Chairman of the Board of TAB and continue to serve on its Board of Directors. However, regardless of whether or not we are members of TAB and/or its more than 200 affiliated local chambers of commerce, or even whether or not we are sympathetic to its mission, we should recognize that the principles involved in this case are critical not only to the viability of a venerable and leading voice for public policy that enhances the State’s economic development, but to the viability of the principles of our republican system of government, and that this organization and these principles deserve our support in this battle.