After blocking David Whitley's confirmation, Senate Democrats see bills die on Abbott’s desk

A monthslong push from the governor’s office to confirm his longtime aide as secretary of state heated up in the session’s final days. Some Democrats feared retribution for defying the governor.

Texas Secretary of State David Whitley at a state Senate Committee on Nominations hearing on Feb. 7.

In the final days of the legislative session, with a Senate confirmation looking increasingly unlikely for embattled Secretary of State David Whitley, Gov. Greg Abbott ramped up efforts to confirm his longtime aide, calling several Senate Democrats individually to his office to try to change their votes.

Democrats stayed united with a bloc large enough to prevent Whitley from keeping his job — but they feared that there might be retribution.

And then on Monday, minutes before the Senate gaveled out — and minutes after news broke that Whitley had resigned from the post — the Republican governor publicly doled out what some Senate Democrats see as punishment for holding firm. A Senate clerk read out the news: Abbott had vetoed four seemingly uncontroversial bills authored by several of the Democrats whose opposition had doomed his nominee.

“People expected that there could be vetoes coming down the pipeline. It was clearly expressed to them as I understood it from them,” said state Sen. José Rodríguez, the El Paso Democrat who chairs the party’s caucus in the chamber. He was not called for a one-on-one meeting with Abbott, but it fell to him to confirm with fellow Democrats — sometimes as often as twice a day — that his colleagues were still “no”s. “There is the feeling among some of our members that there would be some retaliation and that those bills that were vetoed could be viewed as retaliation.”

The four bills, little-noticed measures that passed with bipartisan support, were not Abbott’s first vetoes of the session, but they came unusually early, longtime lawmakers said. In 2017, Abbott announced his vetoes all at once, two weeks after lawmakers left Austin. Abbott provided specific reasoning for each of his Monday vetoes — but some Democrats are skeptical about his motivations.

Abbott’s office did not respond to requests for comment.

Among the vetoed legislation was Rodriguez’s Senate Bill 511, which sought to address the high incidence of car accidents due to “unsafe tires” by creating a civil penalty for the installation of such tires. Abbott had vetoed a similar bill two years ago, but Rodriguez said his office had worked with the governor’s team to address his issues with the legislation.

“We thought we were okay with the bill this time, but he went ahead and vetoed it anyway,” Rodriguez said. “That’s the risk one takes, but I felt strongly that Whitley was not deserving of being appointed given what he had done and the damage he had caused. It may not be the last we hear of vetoes.”

Whitley, who served as the state’s chief elections official for a brief but explosive tenure, presided over a botched effort to rid the voter rolls of supposed noncitizens by questioning the legitimacy of almost 100,000 voters. Whitley’s office mistakenly flagged 25,000 registered voters who had already proved their citizenship. And it quickly became clear that many more were likely Texans — many of them people of color — who had become naturalized citizens in recent years.

Whitley’s future in the job was derailed by late February when all 12 Democratic senators said they could not support his confirmation. This gave the minority party enough of a margin to block the two-thirds vote necessary to confirm the governor’s appointee if they were all present in the Senate. Without a confirmation vote by the last day of the legislative session, Whitley was constitutionally required to leave his post.

Even with the Democrats’ block, Abbott was pushing for an up or down vote as late as Sunday, perhaps hoping that some Democrats would relent if put on the spot.

Whitley, who has worked for Abbott since the mid-2000s, is said to be a part of the “Abbott family” — so close to the governor that before Whitley got married, Abbott counseled the couple on how to maintain a strong relationship during Whitley’s law school years, according to The Dallas Morning News. Whitley started as an “advance man” for then-Attorney General Abbott, helping coordinate his travel plans, and ultimately rose through the ranks to become the governor’s deputy chief of staff.

The pressure on the Democrats intensified as the legislative session pressed on. Some senators had received calls from business associates, clients and donors, who had apparently been nudged by the governor’s office to encourage them to back Whitley, and they were facing veto threats, said Sen. Borris Miles, a Houston Democrat who did not receive such overtures but said he heard from his colleagues about them.

But with the i’s dotted and the t’s soon to be crossed on Abbott’s top legislative priorities, his office made a final, last-minute push to sway Senate Democrats in the final days of the legislative session, multiple sources said.

And some Democrats whom Abbott hoped to turn were brought in individually. State Sen. Judith Zaffirini, D-Laredo, was called to Abbott’s office on Saturday, where the governor asked her, in a one-on-one meeting, to support his nominee.

“He said he would like for me to vote for David, and I said that I couldn’t — I wished I could, but I couldn’t,” Zaffirini said in an interview this week. “I like David … and he’s a good person. But he made a terrible mistake.”

On Monday, two of her bills were vetoed — one to increase transparency at the State Commission on Judicial Conduct and one to allow for specialized courts for guardianship cases. Both had passed both chambers with near-unanimous support and were championed by Republican sponsors in the House.

“I was surprised to see them vetoed, and I was surprised to see the veto so early,” Zaffirini said, and she “disagreed” with the reasoning Abbott gave.

In the veto statement for the guardianship courts bill, the governor wrote that “the answer to a perceived problem cannot always be to throw more state money and bureaucracy at it” — but the bill does not spend state money, an independent analysis by the Legislative Budget Board shows.

In the other, Abbott called her bill unnecessary because “it would require the [agency] to take actions that it can already do without a statutory change” — but the purpose behind the legislation was to urge the commission to be more transparent than it had been willing to be in the past, Zaffirini said.

But Zaffirini, who declined to offer more specifics about her private conversation with the governor, said she doesn’t believe Abbott intended his vetoes as retaliation.

“That was the message that people received — I don’t know if it was sent. I don’t know if that was the intent, but the timing certainly raises everyone’s suspicions,” Zaffirini said. “But I can’t imagine the governor thinking that way. I just can’t.”

Miles, who said he wasn’t facing threats of vetoes, said tit-for-tat menacing would seem out of character for Abbott — a governor the Democrats say is generally professional. But he confirmed that some of his colleagues had clearly been targeted with pressure.

“Yes, there were runs at individual members, and we had to secure them and let them know this was not something we could go on without,” Miles said. “There were some threats of vetoing bills.”

On Sunday evening, the day before the Legislature had to gavel out, Rodríguez said the Senate GOP Caucus Chair, Paul Bettencourt, came by to test the waters.

“At one point, he came over and said, ‘Would y’all be okay with the lieutenant governor calling up Whitley to take an up and down vote? He doesn’t want any questions or speeches. We know you have him blocked, but the governor wants a vote on it,’” Rodríguez recalled.

Rodríguez told Bettencourt that if a vote were called, he and other Democrats were prepared with “pages and pages” of questions, enough to delay for hours — effectively killing the bills still sitting vulnerable on the calendar on the last day the Senate could approve legislation.

Ultimately, no vote was called.

The push for a Whitley vote had been so intense that Senate Democrats spent much of the legislative session on edge, checking in with each other before leaving the floor to ensure they always had enough Democrats present to block a two-thirds vote. They had even prepared contingency plans, though Republican senators and Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick had said they would respect absences related to certain personal and family matters, senators said.

“On key votes, Lt. Governor Patrick’s policy has always been to honor the requests of senators who needed to be away to attend family events — graduations or funerals — or who were ill — but not a simple absence,” said Sherry Sylvester, a senior aide to Patrick.

Several Senate Democrats had in fact needed that respite.

Sen. Royce West, D-Dallas, had to leave Austin in mid-March to attend a funeral for his father. Miles had to be out of the chamber for his daughter’s graduation.

Zaffirini — who in her 32 years in the Legislature has missed a niece’s wedding, as well as the moment her son walked across the stage at graduation, in order to cast votes in the Senate — said that agreement was unusual and “very much appreciated.”

“Throughout the session, all the Democrats kept worrying about a surprise. Republicans kept assuring us that there would be no surprise,” she said.

Despite that agreement, state Sen. José Menéndez had been ready to skip his son’s fifth grade graduation in San Antonio on Friday amid the increased pressure to confirm Whitley.

On Monday, the governor’s vetoes made for a sour end to an otherwise celebratory last day. Senators had for the most part spent the day making congratulatory speeches — first electing one of their colleagues, Joan Huffman, to a ceremonial post as president pro tempore, and later honoring Secretary of the Senate Patsy Spaw for 50 years of service in the upper chamber.

The lieutenant governor had just appointed a committee of senators to inform the governor that the Senate had completed its business and was ready to adjourn when a message from the governor interrupted the pomp and circumstance.

“Well, that was the good news. Here’s the bad news. The following message from the governor. The secretary will read the message,” Patrick said.

Flipping through the governor’s four veto statements, Spaw listed out the bills by Democrats that had met their demise even before the legislative session ended.

“Since you remained gathered in regular session and continue to conduct formal business, I am delivering these disapproval messages directly to you,” Spaw read.

The early vetoes left senators confused and caught off guard — especially those who didn’t know, until the message was read out on the Senate floor, that their bills had died by the governor’s pen.

“I just had a bill vetoed. It was a county bill,” a surprised West announced to a group of reporters swarming him after adjournment for a comment on the Whitley news. “That’s an unusual move.”

Patrick Svitek contributed to this report.