Lucky and Good: Rick Perry’s Lone Star Rise to Power

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Erich Schlegel / Getty Images

Texas Gov. Rick Perry speaks at a press conference with emergency personnel after touring an area where homes were destroyed by wildfires on September 6, 2011, in Austin, Texas.

At some point in every major national politician’s life, their history becomes mythology and their persona becomes fixed in the public imagination. Rick Perry, his opponents and many pundits like to say, is a fortunate fellow, a handsome, photogenic cowboy whose charm exceeds his intellectual ability; a man who’s been lucky in his alliances and even luckier in the opponents he has drawn over the years. Had fortune not smiled on him, or if an even more potent force — Karl Rove – had not plucked him from the ranks, Perry would never had risen to become the longest-serving governor in Texas history and the front-runner for the Republican presidential nomination. So goes the conventional wisdom.

But Perry’s story defies this simple explanation. He has exhibited an uncanny knack for sensing the zeitgeist, for understanding the wave of change that swept across Texas in the late 1980s as the Democratic Party’s rural dominance diminished and Republicans spread from Dallas drawing rooms to evangelical churches. Perry, once a Democrat, didn’t lead the GOP’s march to the right. But now he’s at the front of a national conservative parade and, as evidenced by Monday’s debate, wearing a large target on his back, not an unfamiliar position for the longest serving governor in Texas history.

(PHOTOS: Rick Perry’s Life in Politics)

When Rick Perry arrived in Austin in 1984 as a freshman state representative, the Texas legislature was dominated by two factions often at war– dominant rural conservative Democrats faced increasing demands for government services from their liberal, urban counterparts.

Perry quickly found favor with the rural House leadership and aligned himself with a small group of fiscally conservative legislators dubbed the “Pit Bulls.” The group had a reputation for mauling bureaucratic budgets, though they often exhibited more bark than bite. “There was a lot of smoke and fire, but they never actually cut much,” says one former veteran Republican legislator. In fact, in 1987 Perry voted for the single largest tax hike in Texas history under Republican Gov. Bill Clements.

But more importantly for Perry, his time with the Pit Bulls forged crucial alliances. Democrat Ric Williamson, who turned Republican in the mid 1990s, eventually became head of the Texas Transportation Commission; Mike Toomey, a Republican, went on to serve as chief of staff to Clements and to Perry; Democrat Cliff Johnson, a once and future aide to Clements, Gov. George W. Bush and Perry, became a top lobbyist in Austin. Perry also counted among his close friends some of the more liberal Democrats in the House, including the late Lena Guerrero, a liberal Austin Democrat who endorsed Perry for governor in 2006.

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It was Perry’s personality and his ease on the political stage with his fellow “pit bulls” that caught the eye of Karl Rove in 1989 when he decided to talk to Perry about becoming a Republican and running for agriculture commissioner. “The genius of Karl Rove,” says the veteran legislative insider, “is not so much running campaigns — the nuts and bolts — but the genius is being able to handpick someone who is going to win.” And Perry did win in 1990, upsetting the white cowboy hat wearin’, twangy-talkin’ populist Democratic incumbent Jim Hightower. Despite top-of-the-ticket victories for Democrats like Ann Richards, Jim Mattox and Garry Mauro, the great shift toward Texas Republicanism had begun.

The myth of Rick Perry’s luck goes back in large part to his 1998 campaign for lieutenant governor. After two successful, low key terms as ag commissioner, Perry ran against Democrat John Sharp, a former comptroller and Perry’s partner in college hijinks at A&M. Sharp, a master politician, narrowly lost the election after last-minute flooding paralyzed Victoria, Texas, his hometown and political powerbase.

Succeeding legendary Lieutenant Governor Bob Bullock, Perry stepped into what was in many ways a challenging, less than satisfying job – handling 31 Texas-sized egos in the state senate while playing second fiddle to Governor George W. Bush. He “did a brilliant job, allowing the Senate to run itself,” says the Austin insider, and even excelled in his lesser role under Bush. But when Bush resigned to take up the presidency and Perry took over the governorship, things fell apart. Perry didn’t have the pedigree or bravado his predecessor used to win over Democratic House Speaker Pete Laney. The new governor, according to a key insider, clashed was denied a seat at the table by the top two statehouse leaders, including moderate Republican Lt. Gov. Bob Ratliff, elected by the Democrat-dominated state senate to replace Perry when he moved on to the top slot.

“When Perry gets pushed into a corner, he doubles down,” says Kathie Miller, executive director of Texas Freedom Network, a liberal watchdog group. After the first frustrating legislative session had ended, Perry issued more than six dozen vetoes in what came to be known as the Father’s Day Massacre, the largest group of vetoes ever issued by a Lone Star governor. It was a shot across the bow to the leadership.

Still, the critics dismissed Perry as a lightweight who had lucked into office. In January 2001, the Austin Chronicle ran a column headlined “Ten Reasons Rick Perry Won’t Be Elected Governor.”

When 2002 and his first electoral test as governor rolled around, Democrats were convinced Perry could be tumbled. His old friend and former challenger John Sharp put together what was viewed, by some, as a political dream team — Tony Sanchez, a South Texas oilman and banker for governor, Sharp for lieutenant governor and Ron Kirk, the African American mayor of Dallas, for U.S. Senate. Money poured in from major Democratic donors and Sanchez pulled $60 million from his own pocket. No matter, Perry beat Sanchez by 18 points. His opponents chalked it up to dirty campaigning, post-9/11 patriotic fervor, and, naturally, Rick Perry’s luck.

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Desperate to stem the tide of Republican gains, Democrats looked to 2006 as an opportunity. Comptroller Carole Keeton Rylander, a politically ambitious former mayor of Austin, a sometime Democrat who had won statewide office as a Republican, began to put together a gubernatorial campaign soon after the 2002 election. A corn pone politicker of the Ann Richards school, Rylander called herself “one tough grandma” and took to calling Perry a “phony conservative.” Writer, musician and all around character Kinky Friedman jumped into the fray. Democrats nominated former one-term Congressman Chris Bell, a well-funded former trial lawyer. Austin insiders whispered of an establishment conspiracy to clip Perry.

Governor “Good Hair,” as Perry was dubbed, took another public drubbing for his intellect, his failure to support schools, his toll roads and so on. But he won with 39% of the vote. Democrats were disappointed, of course, but warmed by the thought that 39% was not insurmountable. Republican rivals with an eye on Perry’s job were similarly cheered. But the numbers were misleading. Given a Chinese menu of choices, many voters had tried something new, but Perry held the core. In fact, Perry’s command of the Republican base had strengthened with each statewide race he ran.

That 39 percent victory seemed to set the stage for US. Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison’s long-anticipated homecoming. Hutchison, who had cracked statewide office as treasurer thanks to Rove’s vision in 1990, had racked up some of the biggest Republican victories in Texas during her 1994 and 2000 runs for the US Senate. A darling of the establishment wing of the Texas GOP, Hutchison had been making noises about a gubernatorial run for several years and 2010 looked like a prime opportunity. But the popular senator and some of her prominent backers — including former Vice President Dick Cheney — did not see the Tea Party wave coming. Rick Perry did and he trounced the senator in the spring, then defeated his Democratic opponent, former Houston Mayor Bill White, in the fall 55 percent to 42 percent.

Texas politicians have a fondness for the big and the bold, no matter their party, and Perry is no exception. Unlike George W. Bush, Perry isn’t regularly photographed jogging or cutting brush. (There is little brush to cut at his father’s dry cotton ranch or in his manicured neighborhood in West Austin.) He is said to like motorcycles, but there is no picture of him straddling a Harley as Ann Richards famously did on the cover of Texas Monthly. Instead, when Texans do see Perry in the news, he is likely to be “in command” and larger than life as he was during recent Texas wildfires.

For outsiders looking in, the handsome governor with the crisp blue shirt, pressed jeans and boots and the ready smile is all they see. Insiders know another side of the longest-serving governor in Texas history. He can be relentless and aggressive, even impulsive one insider says. “Perry is susceptible to wanting to make his mark,” the veteran former legislator says. And when old friends bring him grand schemes, he has succumbed to the siren call of a Perry legacy. Old friend and fellow Pit Bull Mike Toomey brought introduced him to the HPV vaccine from Merck and he bought into that legacy-building opportunity, mandating inoculations for middle school aged girls with an executive order and inviting the wrath of the right.

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Perry’s ambition continues to be apparent in the legislation he pursues. Just this year, Perry pushed for a mandatory sonogram bill, a voter ID bill and a sanctuary city immigration bill that called for local police to ask for proof of citizenship even in routine minor matters – just the kinds of social conservative measures that resonate with the national Republican base and the Tea Party. In the past, similar bills had languished in the Texas legislature thanks to sensitivities on both sides of the aisle about the state’s deep Hispanic roots. Perry’s inclusion of the sanctuary cities bill in the agenda for a summer special session was a clear signal, Kathie Miller says, that he had his eye on a national run.

The bill did not pass in the end, prompting cynical observers to note that opposition came from big business interests with ties to Perry, including Houston homebuilder and Republican mega donor Bob Perry (no relation.) Bob Perry’s lobbyist Bill Miller told reporters his task was to tweak the bill, not kill it.

But die it did. A strange occurrence in a legislature where Republicans hold a supermajority. Gov. Perry and other state leaders, some with an eye on re-election, others with an eye on a Washington gig, formed a circle and pointed fingers. Perry threw a Republican senator under the bus, saying he had refused to save the measure by tucking it into another bill headed for passage. Some on the Tea Party fringes complained, but as Mark P. Jones, a Rice University political science professor noted, Perry had once again landed on his feet, displaying his “acrobatic abilities by strongly supporting legislation to prohibit the presence of sanctuary cities in Texas while at the same time avoiding having to sign that same legislation into law.” Once again, Perry watchers were left to wonder — what is that old Rick Perry luck? Or what is yet another example of Perry’s political skill?