As the battle for the Republican Party’s presidential nomination drags on like a serial horror flick – with Mitt Romney trying to convince voters he’s “severely conservative;” Rick Santorum proclaiming how badly he hates queers and birth control; Newt Gingrich hoping there are enough angry old White men out there to put him in the Oval Office; and Ron Paul just sticking around – Rick Perry has returned to the Texas governor’s mansion and melts back into his previous life. Governor “Good Hair” had hoped his Southern – or rather, uniquely Texas charm – would sway conservative voters across the nation like it did in the Lone Star state. Since entering public office as a Democrat in 1984, Perry had never lost a political race; not even a primary – until now. He earned a mere 10% in Iowa’s January 3 primary and skipped campaigning in New Hampshire to focus on South Carolina where I’m sure he thought he could win easily. But, initial polls in one of the most scarlet of Republican states showed he was not the golden favorite. So he bowed out before South Carolinians even headed to the polls and threw his support behind Gingrich.
Now, after the shock and awe of national politics, he’s back home. I must have blinked and missed news of his return flight to Austin. Regardless, Perry might have wished he’d never jumped into this year’s presidential race. Politics at any level has become a blood sport in this nation. Ever since the Watergate debacle, when Richard Nixon’s gross ambitions compelled him to flaunt the law and abuse his authority, the American people have come to expect the worst from their elected officials – and from those who aspire to join them. But, like his predecessor, George W. Bush, Perry hoped he could turn his successful Texas governorship into an equally successful presidency. Success, in this case, is relative.
Either way, it didn’t work, and now Perry struggles to recoup his tattered reputation even from fellow Texans. An Associated Press poll shortly after he left the race showed that 42% of registered Texas voters approved of the job he’s doing as governor – a 10-point drop from just a year earlier – and 45% believed his failed presidential campaign hurt Texas’ image. This latter fact is surprising, given Texans’ sense of independence. We’re not prone to show concern for how others view us. Californians and New Englanders often find this out the hard way.
Now, the Texas Democratic Party – which often looks like a Navajo family living amidst Nazis – is demanding more accountability from a governor who spent 6 months on the road trying to win the GOP nomination. The state’s security tab for Perry’s run stood close to $800,000 at the end of January, but rose as invoices for things like airfare and rental cars came due. It now stands in excess of $1 million, with many of those expenses for overtime pay for law enforcement personnel who protected Perry and his family while on the campaign trail. Texas Democrats want Perry to reimburse the state.
“What a waste of money,” lamented Rep. Jessica Farrar (D-Houston), leader of the Texas House Democrats. “Why can’t his private donors pay for it?”
But, Perry’s camp balks at the prospect, repeatedly claiming that the Texas Department of Public Safety is charged with protecting the governor and his family no matter the circumstances.
“Governor Perry is governor no matter where he goes, and DPS has a policy of providing security for governors and their families everywhere they travel — as they have back several administrations — just as many other states do, and as the federal government does for the president through the Secret Service,” Perry spokeswoman Lucy Nashed told the Texas Tribune last month.
Last year New Jersey Governor Chris Christie encountered a similar problem with personal security expenses, when he took a helicopter to travel to his son’s basketball game; a tab for which he reimbursed the state. Granted, a kid’s sporting event doesn’t command quite the scrutiny as a presidential campaign race. But, there’s a significant principal at stake. Most Texans didn’t ask for Perry to run for president. Even moderate Republicans were satisfied to see him remain as governor and deal with the state’s growing home foreclosure crisis, unemployment and border issues.
There’s another figure I find interesting. In a poll the Dallas Morning News took of its readership last month, 53% of respondents stated Perry should not seek another term in office. He’s already the longest-serving governor in the state’s history; having served since December 2000, when the U.S. Supreme Court decided to stop the Florida recount and declared Bush the winner. Perry won overwhelmingly in 2002 against Democratic challenger Tony Sanchez, taking 58% of the vote. That didn’t surprise anyone. In the aftermath of the 09/11 terrorist attacks, the surge of national pride assured any Republican from the South an election victory. But, Perry – with the sewage mentality that’s become part of political machinations – had maligned Sanchez with “suitcase ads;” alleging the latter had ties to a Texas savings and loan collapse in the late 1980’s (which, if anyone remembers correctly, was a Republican-inspired mess) and vicariously to Mexican drug dealers who had laundered money through the institution. That Sanchez had no direct connection to that particular S&L and absolutely none to Mexican drug dealers was irrelevant to some Texas voters. It seemed even a fair-skinned, blue-eyed, Texas-born, millionaire businessman who speaks perfect English couldn’t beat Perry because the former is surnamed Sanchez.
The 2006 governor’s race proved a bit more challenging for Perry. The national GOP was on the defensive, following the government’s pathetic response to Hurricane Katrina and growing anger with the Iraq War. Perry faced 4 rivals: Democrat Chris Bell, an attorney; Libertarian James Werner; independent Carole Keeton Strayhorn, the state Comptroller who billed herself as “one tough grandma;” and independent Richard “Kinky” Friedman who wanted to become Texas’ “first Jewish – cowboy – poet.” I voted for Friedman because I was still angry with the Democratic Party’s pansy attempt to unseat Bush 2 years earlier, despite the mud-slinging and name-calling dished out by the GOP. When I told some friends about my decision, they looked at me like I’d said I was joining the “Ronald Reagan Glee Club.” Perry won, but with only 39% of the vote. Bell garnered nearly 30% and Keeton Strayhorn and Friedman each got more than 10%; tallies that made the state’s Republican and Democratic parties take notice.
The 2010 Texas governor’s race turned out less dramatic and quirky. It was a seemingly straight Republican – Democrat ticket, with former Houston mayor Bill White being Perry’s only real adversary. It’s only highlight came when Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison tried to snatch the governorship from Perry. But, Perry succeeded in painting Bailey Hutchison as a true Washington insider; a curious proclamation coming from one staunchly conservative Texas Republican against another. Perry trounced Bailey Hutchison in the March primary and won with 55% of the vote; in part because White couldn’t seem to form a cohesive campaign, but also because of the growing influence of the “Tea Party.” Perry seemed to be more self-assured, however, as he didn’t agree to debate White and the other 2 candidates. Perry appeared to view his role as divinely-inspired; that he somehow had been ordained to be Texas governor – and would hold onto the job like a pope. The day after his 2010 win, the Dallas Morning News declared that Perry was set for the “national stage,” which many of us feared. But, Perry would have none of it and repeatedly claimed that he wouldn’t seek the presidency. Then, he went back on his word and, in an August 13 speech to some 700 conservative activists in South Carolina, announced he would run for president. Again, I’m sure he felt divinely-inspired – until all hell broke loose around him. He ended up making an absolute fool of both himself and – to some extent – the entire state of Texas and can’t find anything good to salvage from it.
If there’s a ‘lessons learned’ type of scenario here, it’s rather simple – don’t get too full of yourself. George W. Bush, for example, was accustomed to Texas Democrats in the Austin state house; people who were often just “DINO’s”: Democrats in Name Only. The southern Democrats of yesteryear are the Republicans of today; remember, Ronald Reagan and Strom Thurmond had begun their political careers as Democrats. But, when Bush got to Washington, he faced the Kennedy and Pelosi type of Democrats; the east and west coast liberals who didn’t take kindly to his southern-style patriotism. Perry, in a way, experienced the same kind of sanguineous bathwater; there’s another world outside of Texas, and not everyone will love you!
Now, Perry sinks back into his duties as governor of the 2nd largest state in the union – perhaps trying to be as obscure as a public official can be – and faces a constituency that isn’t as adoring as before; a constituency that questions his motives and ambitions. As a life-long Democrat who’s voted Republican only once (and still regrets it), I’m naturally not fond of Perry – but not just from a party affiliation standpoint. Texans like their characters – especially in politics – and Perry certainly delivered. But, he may have delivered too much of stereotypical Texas to the nation during his presidential jaunt. After the dismal presidency of George W. Bush, I’m certain the American populace isn’t eager to see another Texas governor in the Oval Office – at least not for a while. But, they definitely don’t want someone like Perry who couldn’t remember the legal voting age, the date of this year’s presidential elections and – gosh, there was something else. Oops! There’s an old country song with the refrain, “God bless Texas.” After living through more than a decade of Perry’s leadership, I have to pleadingly paraphrase, “God, please bless Texas!”