Rescuing Rick

Governor Perry has little to show for four years in office except for a lot of political posturing and the prospect of a tough Republican primary challenge in 2006. Here’s how his new chief of staff can get him—and Texas—back on track.

Dear Deirdre,

I wanted to congratulate you in person on your appointment as Governor Rick Perry’s new chief of staff, but I got behind on a deadline—not for the first time—and couldn’t make it to lunch. So I hope you won’t mind if I convey my sentiments in writing. Your promotion is quite a feat for someone so young (32) and who began life so far from the Texas political wars (Canada). You’ve got quite a reputation around the Capitol for smarts, and that’s with folks who have hardly heard of Duke or Stanford, much less know about your degrees. Along the way you became an American citizen and, better still, a Texan, thanks to your marriage to Ted Delisi. That’s quite a political family you married into: Ted is a consultant with a long association with John Cornyn, our junior U.S. senator—although, if rumors and polls are to be believed, he might soon succeed Kay Bailey Hutchison as senior senator. You may have heard that Hutchison could give up her seat to … What is it that she’s thinking of doing? Oh, yes. Running for governor in 2006, on a collision course with your boss. (You can read all about it on page 120.) And Ted’s mother, Dianne, is a state legislator from Temple who made our Ten Best Legislators list in 2003, due to her successful efforts to secure funding for trauma centers. I’m sure she’s delighted about your new position, and not only because of family pride. Your predecessor, Mike Toomey, did everything he could to obstruct trauma funding before giving in.

Now it’s your turn. You don’t need me to tell you that you’ve got a huge job ahead of you. Your portfolio covers policy, politics, and management, which is about all there is to this business. You’re facing a school finance crisis and another budget crunch. A criminal investigation of alleged campaign finance violations hangs over the Capitol. Polls suggest that Perry might be vulnerable to a Republican primary challenge, especially by Hutchison, possibly by Comptroller Carole Keeton Strayhorn. Even so, I know better than to underestimate him. He’s a tough campaigner and a highly successful fundraiser. His no-tax-increase, hold-spending-in-check record in the 2003 legislative session will resonate with Republican primary voters.

But you know that’s not the whole story. Perry doesn’t command a lot of respect, inside or outside the Capitol. He has positioned himself to appeal to a narrow spectrum of voters—Republican primary voters, period. His school finance plan was rejected by the House last spring without a single favorable vote. He is indifferent to the appearance of his own questionable behavior. Twice he has dipped into campaign funds to take lavish trips, once to the Bahamas, once to Italy, with the cover story that they were work sessions—school finance in the former case, economic development in the latter. He awarded a $40,000 work-from-home state contract to the wife of a lobbyist who is a Perry crony. Worst of all, he told a group of people in Dallas, during a discussion of school finance, not to worry about the state losing the school finance lawsuit, because (wink, wink) he had appointed so many members of the Supreme Court. Dumb and dumber: Not only did he brag about his power and importance, but he also misread his audience. They were on the plaintiffs’ side of the case, not the state’s. Your first objective should be to get the governor to behave in a dignified manner befitting the office.

People around the Capitol say that there is a good Rick Perry and a bad Rick Perry. The good Rick is genial, helpful, and engaged in policy issues when he needs to be. This was the person we saw as lieutenant governor in 1999. He reached out to Senate Democrats to keep negotiations alive on the hate crimes bill; he realized that the House education package was better crafted than the Senate’s and got the upper house to go along; he respected Senate traditions and led 31 prima donnas with a light hand. The bad Rick vetoed a record 82 bills following his first legislative session as governor. The bad Rick reacted to criticism by Strayhorn by asking the Legislature to remove two programs from the comptroller’s office that had recommended $16 billion in savings for state agencies and school districts over the years. Surely he could have found a way of getting even that didn’t hurt the state and the schools, not to mention the arms of GOP lawmakers, which he twisted to get them to carry out his dirty work against a fellow Republican. The bad Rick empowers his staff to hunt down lobbyists who disagree with his proposals and try to get them fired—never mind that his proposals are bad for their clients. One longtime Republican lawmaker described the bad Rick to me as “a malignancy over the Capitol,” but then he added, “There’s a good person in there somewhere.” Deirdre, you have to polish him so the good shines through.

I don’t understand why Perry doesn’t model himself after his predecessor. George W. Bush didn’t try to show how tough he was by vetoing scores of bills. He didn’t try to get lobbyists fired. He didn’t fight with other state officials. He didn’t insist on getting his way every time, as Perry did in school finance, in budget negotiations, in tort reform, in congressional redistricting. But Bush and Perry had different goals, and I’m not talking about the White House. Bush set out to be a successful governor; Perry set out to be a dominating governor. Bush set out to be liked; Perry set out to be feared.

If you can reverse Perry’s priorities—make love, not war—you’ll be a heroine at the Capitol. Remind him every now and then that the governor of Texas, under our state constitution, is not supposed to be powerful. He’s supposed to use the bully pulpit so he can leave the state a better place than he found it. It sounds trite—until a

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