RGV senators split on support for Texas Secretary of State

In this Feb. 7, 2019 file photo, Secretary of State David Whitley, left, arrives for his confirmation hearing in Austin, Texas, where he addressed the backlash surrounding Texas' efforts to find noncitizen voters on voter rolls. A key Texas Democrat says he won't back Whitley, Gov. Greg Abbott's embattled choice for secretary of state, whose job is in peril over an inaccurate list of 95,000 voters flagged as possible non-U.S. citizens. (Eric Gay | The Associated Press)

As Secretary of State David Whitley visits the Rio Grande Valley this week to meet with local leaders, support among the Democrats in the Senate appears to wane in the face of his pending confirmation.

Following the outcry over Whitley’s actions to flag potential non-citizens from voter lists, more than 30 civil rights organizations are urging Democrats to block his confirmation.

However, Democratic senators representing the Valley appear split on whether they would vote to confirm Whitley to the office.

Sen. Juan “Chuy” Hinojosa, D-McAllen, said Thursday he would vote against confirming him and indicated that if the vote were held today, Whitley would not have enough votes to continue as secretary of state, a position Gov. Greg Abbott appointed him to in December.

However, he said the Democratic caucus is still in discussions over the issue.

“Obviously voter fraud, voter suppression is a very sensitive issue in that it’s targeted toward suppression of voter minorities,” Hinojosa, vice-chair of the Finance Committee, said. “I think the secretary of state, David Whitley, stepped on a landmine when he did that without verifying and reviewing and checking the list of voters that were sent over by DPS.”

The letter from the civil rights groups, issued Thursday, called Whitley “unfit” to serve in the office given actions taken since his appointment on Dec. 17.

“In that short time, Mr. Whitley has targeted naturalized citizens for disenfranchisement and falsely accused them of committing voter fraud,” the letter read. “This act, which Mr. Whitley admits was done without taking meaningful steps to ensure the accuracy of his accusations, is the latest episode in an ugly history of voter intimidation against racial and ethnic minorities in Texas.”

Sen. Eddie Lucio Jr., D-Brownsville, said Whitley made a “terrible mistake,” which the secretary also acknowledged.

Lucio, chairman of the Senate Committee on Intergovernmental Relations, said that when he met with him, Whitley apologized and admitted he should have addressed the voter lists directly with local elections offices.

“I’m willing to consider accepting his apology and seeing if we can work things out,” Lucio said, adding that he didn’t want to be embattled with the leadership or anyone if he didn’t have to.

Whitley is facing multiple lawsuits over the voter lists review, including a federal lawsuit filed by the League of United Latin American Citizens, one of the groups that signed the letter.

Lucio said he would wait to see what emerges from the lawsuits to make up his mind about whether he would vote for him.

“I certainly want to give him a chance to redeem himself,” he said, noting that if it turned out that Whitley had acted with the intention of “suppressing” or “hurting” anyone, he would not support him.

The office of Sen. Judith Zaffirini, D-Laredo, did not return a request for comment as of press time Thursday.

The leader of the Senate Democratic Caucus, José Rodríguez from El Paso, said Thursday he would also not support Whitley, the Texas Tribune reported.

Whitley needs support from two-thirds of the Senate to secure confirmation. With Republicans making up 19 of the Senate seats, he would need the votes of two of the 12 Democrats.

During his trip to the Valley, Whitley is meeting with “public officials and community leaders, including local election officials and education leaders, with whom he is committed to working to ensure that all eligible Texans can make their voices heard at the ballot box,” Sam Taylor, spokesman for the secretary of state’s office, said in an email.

Whitley met with Cameron County elections officials on Thursday and is expected to meet with Hidalgo County elections officials on Friday.

Remi Garza, the Cameron County election administrator, said Whitley was visiting to examine border trade issues but took time to stop by and look at some of the issues the county was facing with elections.

“We discussed the process and approach that Cameron County has taken with respect to the list — how we’re moving through it and gathering information from our files before we take any direct action,” he said.

Garza said the elections office has broken down the list of potential non-citizens into different groups of individuals that seem to have common connections, and that letters of examination — sent to individuals notifying them that they need to provide proof of citizenship — would be used as a last resort if they were unable to clear up issues with individual registrants.

Cameron County began with a list of 1,622 names but is down to 298 that need further review.

“Secretary Whitley deeply respects the Senate’s role in the nominations process and will continue to seek an open line of communication with senators to address any questions or concerns,” Taylor stated.

Staff Writer Naxiely Lopez-Puente contributed to this report.