Dispute over resignation letter holds up special election to replace state Sen. Sylvia Garcia

Texas Sen. Sylvia Garcia, D-Houston, speaks with Evan Smith at a Texas Tribune event at the Austin Club on April 19, 2018.
Texas Sen. Sylvia Garcia, D-Houston, speaks with Evan Smith at a Texas Tribune event at the Austin Club on April 19, 2018.
Bob Daemmrich/BDP, Inc.

It has been about three weeks since state Sen. Sylvia Garcia submitted a letter declaring her “intent to resign,” but whether it qualifies as an actual resignation has fallen into dispute — and threatened to upend the timeline for Gov. Greg Abbott to call a special election for the Houston Democrat’s seat.

The state senator is widely expected to be headed to Congress next year. She won the March primary to replace retiring U.S. Rep. Gene Green, D-Houston, and while there’s also a Republican on the ballot in November, she is expected to cruise to victory in the bright-blue district.

In a letter Garcia shared July 23 on Twitter, she told Abbott she intended to resign effective Jan. 2, 2019, and asked him to schedule the special election to coincide with the Nov. 6 general election.

The race to fill Garcia’s seat in Senate District 6 has already taken shape, with state Reps. Carol Alvarado and Ana Hernandez, both Houston Democrats, having launched campaigns months ago.

Still, Abbott has held off on calling a special election as his office and Garcia’s remain at odds over the validity of her letter. Abbott’s office does not believe Garcia’s use of the phrase “intent to resign” is good enough to trigger the process by which the governor can call a special election, while Garcia’s staff believes there is nothing wrong with the letter.

The clock is ticking on when Abbott can call the special election so that it coincides with the November general election. If he does not do it before Aug. 24, the next uniform election date on which he could call it is in May of next year. Still, he retains the option of calling an emergency special election that could occur take place on some other date.

In questioning Garcia’s letter, Abbott’s office attributes its reasoning to a 1996 Texas Supreme Court case — Angelini v. Hardberger — that involved a similar situation. Abbott was a judge on the court at the time.

“The governor’s position is that ‘intent’ to resign is insufficient to constitute an official resignation,” Abbott spokeswoman Ciara Matthews said in a statement. “The governor has made clear the only thing the Senator must to do to submit an effective resignation is delete the word ‘intent.’ The ball is in her court.”

Garcia’s office notes that her letter is very similar to the one former state Sen. Leticia Van de Putte, D-San Antonio, submitted to then-Gov. Rick Perry when she resigned in November 2014 to run for San Antonio mayor. That letter also used the phrase “intent to resign.” Perry scheduled a special election without any controversy, and Abbott, who took office in January 2015, called the runoff.

“It’s Sen. Garcia’s position that she has submitted a lawful, effective, valid resignation, and it was based on precedent, as recently as 2014, when Sen. Van de Putte submitted a letter of resignation almost identical to Sen. Garcia’s, and [Gov.] Perry called an election, and Sen. Van de Putte fulfilled the duties of her office until a successor was elected,” said John Gorczynski, Garcia’s chief of staff. “And we expect Gov. Abbott to call an election and set an election date by Aug. 20 because a resignation has been submitted and the governor hasn’t said anything to the contrary.”

Gorczynski and Abbott’s chief of staff have exchanged letters on the topic, though they do not appear to have made much headway, according to correspondence obtained by the Tribune. In a letter dated Friday, Gorczynski asked Saenz if Garcia “removes the word intent from the previously submitted letter and submits it, when will the Governor call an election to fill her position?”

Saenz responded with a one-sentence letter three days later: “The Governor has no authority to call a special election until Senator Garcia submits a valid and unequivocal resignation.”



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