BY Alexa Ura
All but one of the 12 Democrats in the Texas Senate have publicly confirmed they are opposed to confirming embattled Secretary of State David Whitley, giving them enough votes to block his nomination if they’re all in the chamber when the vote comes up.
The tally of “no” verdicts from Senate Democrats hit 11 on Friday, confirming the minority party’s ability to block his path to confirmation if they all stick together. To be confirmed, Whitley needs a two-thirds vote in the 31-member chamber. But whether Whitley’s nomination will make it that far remains unclear.
This week marked the second time the Senate Nominations Committee punted on voting out his appointment after a brutal confirmation hearing during which Whitley was scrutinized by Democratic senators for his controversial voter citizenship review, which was based on deeply flawed data and seemingly pulled in tens of thousands of registered voters for review because they were naturalized citizens.
“The duties acting Secretary Whitley was appointed to as the Chief Elections Officer requires a high level of discretion in protecting the integrity of our voters in Texas,” state Sen. Carol Alvarado, D-Houston, said in a statement. “Unfortunately, through his actions and those of his office acting Secretary Whitley failed to uphold the expectations of his position. I cannot in good conscience approve a nominee who, contrary to the responsibilities of their position, has caused turmoil and fear among many Texas voters.”
The Brownsville Herald reported on Friday morning that state Sen. Juan “Chuy” Hinojosa, D-McAllen, would also vote against Whitley. And Sen. John Whitmire, D-Houston, whose staffer was flagged by the state for review even though she is a naturalized citizen, confirmed his opposition on Twitter, saying he was a “no on Whitley since the beginning.”
Whitley was meeting with Democratic senators as recently as last week in an effort to muster up enough votes. But Alvarado joined 10 of her colleagues in making clear he’s lost at least a third of the votes in the chamber and that his future in the job is in real trouble.
The chorus of opposition to Whitley’s nomination grew on Thursday when some three dozen civil rights and advocacy groups and the Texas Democratic Party called on Senate Democrats to hold the line against Whitley. Over the course of the day, Democrat senator after Democratic senator came out against his nomination, imperiling his future in the post.
Whitley was appointed to the post by Republican Gov. Greg Abbott in December, who has continues to back his nominee “100 percent,” according to a spokesman. But Whitley was not immediately confirmed because the Legislature was not yet in session.
With opposition mounting against him on Thursday, a spokesman for Whitley touted the secretary’s respect for the Senate’s role on the nomination process and said Whitley “will continue to seek an open line of communication with senators to address any questions or concerns.” His spokesman did not immediately respond to a request for comment on Friday.
Left unknown is whether Sen. Eddie Lucio Jr., who is known for his willingness to vote with Republicans, will join his Democratic colleagues. Notably, Whitley was in the Rio Grande Valley — which Lucio partly represents — on Thursday, visiting with public officials, including local election officials, according to his spokesman.
The uncertainty over Whitley’s path to confirmation — unusual for a gubernatorial appointee — emerged soon after he announced that his office was flagging almost 100,000 registered voters as supposed noncitizens. But that claim quickly fell apart when it became clear the state had marked for review tens of thousands of voters who had already proved they were citizens. Since then, local election officials have confirmed that their lists also include many naturalized citizens.
The state is now facing three federal lawsuits over the secretary of state’s botched attempt to review the rolls. The lawsuits claim the review unconstitutionally burdens naturalized citizens and discriminates against voters of color and those who are foreign-born. A top Whitley deputy has acknowledged his office knew the list of flagged voters would include naturalized citizens. But state lawyers and Whitley’s office have blamed county election officials for any hiccups related to the review.
If Whitley’s nomination is left pending for the rest of the session, he can serve only until the Legislature leaves Austin in late May. After that, Abbott could nominate a replacement who would immediately take over as secretary of state and serve at least until the next legislative session in 2021.
If the Senate votes and Whitley is rejected, he must leave office immediately.