The Return of the Native: Rick Perry as Damaged Goods in Texas

The governor comes back to rule his state after a humiliating and humbling campaign. Already, the locals see him as hobbled in a local political scene where he was once the master.

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Allison Joyce / Getty Images

Texas Governor Rick Perry announces he is dropping his run for the Republican U.S. presidential nomination during a news conference in Charleston, South Carolina January 19, 2012.

Austin, Texas

Sitting in his office on the Dallas campus of Southern Methodist University, political-science professor Cal Jillson is mulling the news of Texas Governor Rick Perry’s departure from the presidential race. The campus is in the heart of the Park Cities area, made up of several well-heeled, independently governed neighborhoods, including Highland Park and Preston Hollow, that serve as the core of the old Texas Republican establishment. The area is home to former President George W. Bush and party stalwarts like Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison, who was clobbered by Perry in the last Republican primary race for governor. Two hundred miles to the west, there was likely little joy in tiny Paint Creek, where Perry was born, but there were probably some smug smiles in the genteel parlors of Highland Park and Preston Hollow. “Chortling, likely,” Jillson says with a laugh. “I am within blocks of Highland Park, and I can hear it from here.”

Texas Republicans, however, were discreet. No public word has been issued by the old guard. But the news that Perry was dropping out of the 2012 presidential race elicited gleeful responses from the state’s Democrats, to say the least. Former agriculture  commissioner Jim Hightower, who was trounced by Perry in his first statewide bid 22 years ago, told the Los Angeles Times, “He’s embarrassed us enough. When he got started, I warned people not to underestimate Perry – he’s a lot stupider than he looks.”

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Many Texans must feel that the governor is returning as damaged goods, with lots of self-inflicted political wounds that he will have to heal fast to be able to effectively govern the state. Last fall, as Perry entered the race and shot up in the polls, Texas Monthly magazine’s veteran political editor advised out-of-state reporters to take Perry seriously, given his wily and successful political history as the longest-serving governor in Texas history. But Paul Burka and other longtime Texas political observers watched in puzzlement as wily gave way to Wile E. Coyote. Perry’s campaign diminished into a poof of smoke with each gaffe or stiff answer. Jillson, who also had advised reporters and pundits to recognize Perry’s political skills, was horrified when he described NATO ally Turkey as a state led by Islamic terrorists. The governor exhibited, Jillson said, an “inability to focus” and “an unwillingness to spend time and effort” on the important foreign and domestic issues in the presidential race.

Today, Texans standing in grocery-store checkout lanes are confronted with the latest cover of Texas Monthly magazine, which names the governor the recipient of the annual Bum Steer award, given to those the magazine believes have been “responsible for the biggest screw-up, gaffe, fumble, stumble, train wreck, or humiliation of the past twelve months.” It depicts a goofy cartoon of Perry, sucking his finger in puzzlement with a Post-it note stuck to his forehead and a list written in ink on his hand, spoofing his failure in a debate to remember which three federal agencies he would eliminate. The caption reads, “Here’s something you won’t forget: You’re our ‘um’ steer of the year.”

Indeed, Perry’s über-Texas persona on the campaign trail left some cold back home. For example, when asked in a debate what he would be doing on a Saturday night if not debating Perry reckoned he would be at the shootin’ range. “The general image of Texas in the national mind is a love/hate thing,” Jillson said, a fact of life that most Texans understand. But Perry’s reinforcement of the stereotype sent eyes rolling and radio talk show hosts pouncing.

Some Texas’ Hispanic voters – as many as 30% have voted for Perry in the past – also found Perry’s embrace of Tea Party immigration rhetoric hard to swallow. Back home in Texas, the governor’s support for the Texas Dream Act, legislation granting in-state tuition to some illegal immigrants, had won him Hispanic kudos and had across the board support. But it drew fire from his fellow candidates in Iowa. Initially, Perry chided his fellow candidates, saying anyone opposing it didn’t “have a heart,” but then quickly retreated in face of boos. Back home, this failure to defend the Texas Dream Act, plus his naming of the controversial Arizona Sheriff Joe Arpaio to his campaign team seemed out of step with his past policies.

Perry now returns bruised and diminished, taking his place among a gallery of strong talkin’, wide-steppin’ Texas politicos who have ventured across the Red River only to return with their tails between their legs: Former governor John Connally in 1980 and Senator Phil Gramm in 1996. Texas is “boom or bust” for Republicans, wrote Bill Whalen, a fellow at the Hoover Institution, in the Houston Chronicle. The Bush family saw two win the big prize. Connally went on to make a fortune and then lose it; Gramm went back to the U.S. Senate and then became an investment banker. Perry still has two more years in his current term and one legislative session ahead of him. But observers note that he is 61 and, with a net worth of around $1 million, he could opt to pursue financial independence for his family rather than finish his term or simply decline to run for re-election.

Meanwhile, when Perry was away from Texas, the political landscape underwent some subtle, but significant shifts. Perry derives his power from longevity in office, his 12 years as governor have enabled him to appoint his allies to key slots on state boards and atop state agencies. He has shown a mastery for managing the legislative agenda and forging alliances with the two top leaders, House Speaker Joe Straus and Lieut. Governor David Dewhurst, who is running for the U.S. Senate. If he wins, Dewhurst would move on to Washington and have to be replaced by a member of the Texas Senate – giving state Democrats an opportunity to increase their influence. Meanwhile, Straus, perceived as a more centrist Republican than Perry, has indicated he may break with Perry next time around on the state budget. “I think at some point,” he told the El Paso Times in late October as Perry was polling in the teens in his presidential bid, “you can’t cut your way to prosperity.” It is a position not likely to find favor with Perry and it comes as crucial items are being added to the agenda: school finance reform, water and highway infrastructure needs.

Texas has no term limits and Perry spokesman Ray Sullivan said following the drop out announcement that the governor would not rule out another term, nor another run at the presidency. But there are other strong Republicans standing in the queue for the top job in Texas, including Attorney General Greg Abbott. Meanwhile, a few Republicans are beginning to question Perry’s policies and approach, some even agreeing to go on the record, as Texas Monthly‘s Burka reveals in an upcoming magazine piece titled “Is There Life After Rick Perry?” Burka cites one top legislative staffer who says the Texas capitol is now living in a “post-Perry world. The fear is gone.”

The battle metaphors are surfacing in Austin as Perry returns. “The Governor’s appointments permeate state government but blood is in the water,” says Harvey Kronberg, editor of the Quorum Report, a widely read insider newsletter. “Perry is damaged goods, even in Texas,” Kronberg adds, referencing recent Public Policy Polling numbers, discounted by some for their Democratic connections released on Jan. 17, that showed Perry in third place in a potential Texas primary behind Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich.

But Jillson warns writing off Perry too quickly would be unwise and noted the next legislative session is a full year away. Meanwhile business and special interest lobbies “needs him every day” given his control of the state bureaucracy, Jillson adds. One key lobbying group, issued a welcome home to Perry immediately: “Governor Perry has always been good for Texas business, keeping our business climate and economy strong. The Governor has supported policies that have meant thousands of jobs for Texas. We welcome him home to continue his work of making Texas the strongest economy in the country and the job creation leader,” said Bill Hammond, President of the Texas Association of Business.

Perry has until 2014 “to rebuild his political foundation,” Jillson notes, although he doubts Perry will seek another term. “Keep in mind that almost all of our nominees in the last 50 years have been on their second attempt at the White House, so Republican voters tend to like experienced candidates that they’ve seen for a long time,” Sullivan told the Texas Tribune. But big losses have a way of “taking the heart out of a politician,” Jillson says. The handsome, straight-takin’ Texan caught the Tea Party wave and rode it, the wave has crested, Jillson says, and Perry has a lonely ride home. “I certainly think he returns with significant chinks in his armor.”