A year into taking office, Russian President Vladimir V. Putin decided that, as the chief executive of his land, he need not to humor dissent among lower officials. Putin unveiled plans to consolidate the Kremlin’s power by giving himself the power to fire governors and other regional officials, including Moscow’s mayor. The governors, in turn, would then have the power to fire local officials.
The mayor of Moscow was sacked in 2010, after a spat with then-President Dmitry Medvedev. (Putin was then serving as Prime Minister, but was still effectively Russia’s ruler). Of late, governors and other regional officials — in an attempt to curry favor with Putin — have become emboldened in their campaigns to purge localities of any mayor disloyal to the Kremlin. They use the cover of alleged venality, or noncompliance with the law, to remove the people’s chosen representative and give their own replacement.
Enter Gov. Greg Abbott. On Wednesday, Abbott announced his intention to seek the passage of a law through the Texas Legislature that would mandate the removal from office of Travis County Sheriff Sally Hernandez, on account of her reluctance to assist federal immigration officials in detaining and deporting undocumented immigrants who are arrested for nonviolent crimes.
If Hernandez, a Democrat, were removed from office, her replacement would be unilaterally appointed by Abbott, a Republican. Hernandez was elected last November with 62 percent of the vote. Abbott now wants to replace her with one of his own cronies.
The flare-up ostensibly revolves around Hernandez’s intention to scale back cooperation with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, wherein her office would not regularly reveal the immigration status of Travis County denizens detained by local authorities. Exceptions would be granted for serious, violent crimes, or for compliance with a court order.
Abbott lambasts this policy as creating a “sanctuary city,” contending that Hernandez is in violation of the law. Why Abbott has set out to be the supreme arbiter of the law is beyond my comprehension and understanding.
Abbott fired back, noting to Democrats that, “This is not a pronouncement of sound public policy; it is a dangerous game of political Russian roulette — with the lives of Texans at stake.”
Indeed, this is a Russian game, just not the one of which that our esteemed governor was thinking. (Russia Today, the English-language Kremlin news service, has already started reporting on the controversy with enthusiasm.)
I need not determine if Hernandez has violated the law. That is not relevant. When the Kremlin initiated their crackdown on mayors for alleged corruption, I’m sure some were actually venal. But violations of the law need to be prosecuted in the judicial system, not the political one, and they need to be done with due process. It is not Abbott’s prerogative to remove local officials with whom he disagrees, no matter the reason.
President Donald Trump’s ties to Putin and the Kremlin have eaten up many recent news cycles. The Russification of our democracy is indeed an important story. But it is happening in Austin as surely as it is in Washington, D.C.
“It is wrong for the governor to threaten the democratic autonomy of our community when all we are trying to do is keep safe,” State Rep. Gina Hinojosa concluded.
Those words could have just as surely come from Novgorod.
Horwitz is a first-year law student from Houston. He is a senior columnist. Follow him on Twitter @NmHorwitz.