Senior executive editor Paul Burka tells the story behind this month's cover story, "Can Rick Perry Stand on His Own?"
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texasmonthly.com: Why Rick Perry now? Why not wait until we get a little closer to the election?
Paul Burka: Timing is very important in choosing magazine covers. We have seen over the years that the public’s interest in politics rises and falls over the course of the ten months between the early January filing deadline and the November general election. We chose the February issue because it coincides with one of the peaks of public interest, which occurs right after the filing deadline, when the lineups are set and candidates begin to kick off their campaigns. The long period between the March primaries and Labor Day is usually a trough of relative inactivity. Another reason to do the story now is that the role of magazines is to provide context for understanding the news, as opposed to the role of newspapers, which cover the news. Part of the context for this campaign is that Rick Perry is following a very popular governor and is still struggling to establish his own identity. Other reasons for doing the story now: (1) It allows us to cover the Democratic primary races that are an important part of this election season; (2) Toward the end of the election season, the races are moving targets that are hard for a monthly magazine to cover; and (3) Finally, it always helps to have a cover line that seems to go with the timing, and the Valentine’s Day reference of “Will We Learn to Love Rick Perry?” works well.
texasmonthly.com: Do you think the public has learned to love Rick Perry? Why or why not?
PB: He is running well ahead in the polls, but that may indicate that the opponent against whom he is matched, Tony Sanchez, has been slow to get involved in the race, rather than that he has a large personal following. For a year Governor Perry has been in the awkward position of following a popular governor (actually two popular governors) without the benefit of a mandate that comes from winning an election. For him, the objective of this campaign is not only to win but also to build a constituency that is loyal to him. So the answer to your question is, Not yet.
texasmonthly.com: What do you think are Perry’s best traits? His worst traits?
PB: He is extremely personable, and he wants to “do the right thing,” which means make Texas a better place. I don’t want to say that something is his “worst” trait, because that makes it sound like a character defect. But I would say that his biggest problem is timidity, perhaps a lack of confidence, that inhibits him from stepping out as a leader or taking even small political risks. My impression is that many of his friends would say the same thing.
texasmonthly.com: Why do you think Dan Morales jumped into the governor’s race?
PB: Some people say that he is trying to force the hand of the feds, who have been investigating him for years over the disposition of legal fees in the tobacco lawsuit. Politics are like that. Everybody is always looking for a hidden agenda. He doesn’t need a hidden agenda, though. He shows up great in the polls, he has a message (saving the tobacco money for health care), and he has an opponent who hasn’t looked very sharp and whose Democratic credentials are suspect . . . I think he thought he could win, and if he can raise some money, maybe he will be proven right. Politicians don’t enter races to be embarrassed, even if it’s good legal strategy.
texasmonthly.com: Which race do you think will prove to be the biggest upset? Why?
PB: I don’t think that there will be any upsets. Texas is a Republican state now. I’m not sure that there are enough Democrats in Texas to elect anybody on the ticket. I have serious doubts that the hoped-for tidal wave of Hispanic votes will come through, this year at least. If politics were the stock market, I’d be investing in Republicans this year and Democratic futures.
texasmonthly.com: Despite the fact that Texas has seen a rise in minority residents over the years, we haven’t seen a lot of minorities in big races—until this year. Is there a particular reason why this is the year?
PB: Sure. It’s the man who wasn’t there. The year should have been 1990 and the candidate should have been Henry Cisneros. (Imagine what he would have done to Claytie Williams!) If Cisneros had had a successful first term, George W. Bush would still be running a baseball team, and Cisneros would have been the ideal Democratic nominee for president in the millennium against Governor Bush—Jeb, that is. Instead, Cisneros imploded, and the Republicans under George W. Bush fashioned the first ethnically diverse ticket. Bush backed Tony Garza for the Railroad Commission, Michael Williams for the Railroad Commission, and Alberto Gonzalez for the Supreme Court. Rick Perry’s court appointments have followed suit. Now the Democrats are out of power. They need votes and money to win, and that means a higher turnout from their Latino and African American base and a wealthy candidate who can finance his own race. That’s why Democratic strategists like John Sharp, who lost the lieutenant governor’s race to Perry in 1998, came up with the idea of getting a wealthy Latino (Sanchez) to run for governor and an African American (Ron Kirk) to run for Senate. But first they have to win their primaries.
texasmonthly.com: Do you have a different perspective of Perry after working on this story? Why or why not?
PB: I’ve known Perry since he was a state representative, and he has always been someone that I liked being around. He really understands politics. But I have also felt that he was too tied-in with the far-right element of the Republican party. In the course of doing this story, I got a different perspective of him; I came to think of him as still being what he started out in politics as—a conservative Democrat—philosophically, though as I say in my story, he is a 100 percent loyal Republican politically. What did not change was the feeling that he doesn’t care much, or doesn’t know much, or doesn’t feel comfortable, about governing. I used to think that this was due to indifference; now I think it has more much to do with insecurity. But I still think of him as basically a good person who loves Texas.
texasmonthly.com: What was going through your mind when you learned that Dan Morales was running for governor of Texas?
PB: “Uh-oh. It’s one week before we go to press and I haven’t prepared at all for this possibility. How am I going to get up to speed?” That was my first reaction. The second one was, “He could win the Democratic primary, and we didn’t even take his photograph.” The third one was, “This will either make or break Tony Sanchez. It’s either the best thing that could happen to him—a wake-up call—or the worst.”
texasmonthly.com: What do you think is the most interesting aspect of politics in Texas today? Why?
PB: No doubt about this. At the precise moment that the Republicans achieve their long-awaited dream of taking over every aspect of state government, including the Legislature, they will have to try to govern a state headed for fiscal and school finance crises, plus demographics that are turning inexorably against them.
texasmonthly.com: Who do you think will win the Democratic primary for governor? Why?
PB: Morales starts out ahead, and if he can stay competitive in Houston and Dallas media exposure, he will win. If not, and I don’t think he can raise the money to stay competitive, Sanchez will win unless he implodes.
texasmonthly.com: Who do you think will win the race for governor?
PB: Rick Perry
texasmonthly.com: Is there anything you would like to add?
PB: I think Texas is headed for rough times politically. The Republicans are going to want to push their agenda, the Democrats who have been killing it all these years are going to be very angry about it, and I worry that the best interests of the state, which lie somewhere in the middle, will get overlooked.