Thoughts on the Rosenthal email flap

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The big local political news over the last few days (over the course of a holiday break, travel, bowl games, a server crash, end-of-year work crunch, and other assorted fun) has involved emails send by Harris County District Attorney Chuck Rosenthal to his current administrative assistant.

Chuck Rosenthal

To recap the news (or, by now, “olds”): 1) As part of a federal civil rights lawsuit, a court clerk posted various emails from Rosenthal; 2) Some of those emails included what can only be described as overly affectionate remarks of a personal nature to Rosenthal’s administrative assistant; 3) Rosenthal admits he had an affair with the administrative assistant in the 1980s, when he was married to his first wife, but says the affair did not lead to his divorce; 4) Rosenthal, who is now married, denies that he is currently having an affair with his administrative assistant; 5) The administrative assistant is a longtime employee of the DA’s office, but assumed her current position when Rosenthal took office in 2000; 6) The administrative assistant’s salary exceeds that of some comparable offices elsewhere in the state, but seems in line with that of similar offices in the Harris County area, save for a generous car/gas allowance; 7) The federal judge has resealed the emails as privileged internal communication, asserting they were inadvertently unsealed; 8) The lawyer in the civil rights case is a friend and supporter of Clarence Bradford, who is running for DA as a Democrat, and Rosenthal initially described the incident as “bare knuckle politics”; 9) Rosenthal has since released a statement in which he apologizes for the content of the emails, concluding “I also understand that sometimes things happen for a purpose. This event has served as a wake-up call to me to get my house in order, both literally and figuratively”; 10) According to media report, former Harris County Republican chair Gary Polland has urged the party to find a replacement for Rosenthal in the upcoming race (with the filing deadline literally days away), but has rebuffed an effort to “draft” him for the race; 11) Current Harris County Republican chair Jared Woodfill is, according to media reports, mulling the matter.

Here are some random thoughts on what all this means (feel free to add yours to the comments):

  1. Of COURSE this is bare-knuckle politics (and as Cory Crow suggests, we are likely to see more of the same)! But so what? The problem Rosenthal has is that how his office operates IS a legitimate issue, and overly romantic emails to subordinates who are former lovers (Slampo uses a different term) do not reflect well on the operation of his office. His actions have allowed this to become a political issue.
  2. The content of the emails themselves isn’t going to rest well with social conservatives in Harris County, as Jon Taylor points out. But how the emails reflect on the office’s operation may resonate as an issue with a broader set of voters. This is bad news for Harris County Republicans, who were already going to be hard pressed to maintain their recent dominance of county politics in the next election.
  3. As Professor Taylor also points out, the Harris County GOP will not easily come up with a credible consensus replacement candidate and convince Rosenthal to bow out in the short time remaining before the filing deadline. After all, that would require leadership beyond a town hall meeting or a rah-rah email — and those seem to be about the extent of Jared Woodfill’s leadership abilities, at least as demonstrated thus far in his tenure.
  4. While the operation of Rosenthal’s office IS a legitimate issue, we would hope that the race for the position will still involve discussion of other important issues such as: 1) Rosenthal’s prosecutorial record and experience, 2) Clarence Bradford’s lack of prosecutorial experience, 3) The views of both men on the HPD Crime Lab issue (something Bradford has effectively refused to discuss, despite his significant role in the fiasco).
  5. Will Chronicle columnist Rick Casey, who has blasted Rosenthal on occasion, adopt the position reflected in his recent column that personal foibles in pols are no big deal, so long as said pols deliver the goods for constituents (in Rosenthal’s case, putting away bad guys)?
  6. Should these emails really be considered privileged information, to be sealed by a judge? They’re embarrassing information, to be sure, but it strikes me that if public officials are going to carry on like this using communications equipment supplied by taxpayers, said taxpayers ought to be able to have a look.
  7. However inappropriate the behavior, who knew our DA — the same tough guy who unapologetically sends bad guys to their end in Huntsville — could be such a flowery romantic?

What do you think about it all?

MEDIA COVERAGE: E-Mails Sealed Amid Allegations Against District Attorney (KPRC-2 News), E-mails released detailing DA’s relationship with secretary (AP, via KTRH-740), Rosenthal calls e-mail flap “a wake-up call” (Houston Chronicle), E-mails put DA on the hot seat (KHOU-11 News), Fight over Harris County DA’s emails (KTRK-13 News), Harris County DA apologizes for emails (KTRK-13 News), Fallout from Rosenthal emails (KTRK-13 News), Will Rosenthal survive political fallout from e-mails? (KHOU-11 News).

UPDATE (12/31/07): As reported by the Chronicle, Rosenthal says he’s running, despite a GOP advisory committee request that he bow out. Apparently, he was not intimidated by Jared Woodfill’s big gavel!

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Kevin Whited
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