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.

November 2004By Comments

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 governor comes along who doesn’t do it. This doesn’t mean that your boss has to be for bigger government. It does mean that he has to be for better government—and in Texas, that starts with better schools, from prekindergarten to postdoctoral research. But in the special session on school finance, he would not propose any new funding for public education except from slot machines, a “solution” that had about as much chance of paying off as, well, a slot machine.

I don’t know what happened to the principled rural conservative I remember from his legislative days. As governor, Perry has fallen under the spell of red-meat right-wingers, folks who believe that the highest aim of government is to reduce taxes until health care programs and public schools are deprived of revenue to the point that they have to start cutting their budgets. One of our mutual friends who is close to the governor gleefully calls it “starving the beast.” There’s a sizable red-meat constituency in the Republican party, to be sure, but the mainstream still cares about the future of the state—the kinds of things Perry said he cared about when he became governor, like improving our universities and helping the economy of the border. When the governor pandered to the red-meat crowd by including limitations on local government spending and revenue growth as part of his ill-constructed school finance package, Republican local officials objected strenuously.

The dilemma you face is as old as politics: how to strike the balance between campaigning and governing. So far, in the four years that Perry has been governor, all of the emphasis has been on the campaign side. He hardly engaged in the 2001 legislative session, his first as governor, devoting his efforts instead to lining up enough support among Republican heavyweights to block a challenge by Hutchison in 2002. Since then, his legislative program has been a transparent effort to align himself with his big donors (the toughest tort reform law in the country) and the red-meat right (deep budget cuts in health care; financing highways with tolls, thus alleviating the need to raise gasoline taxes; deregulating college tuition to put the burden on parents instead of taxpayers; and lowering local school property taxes without providing any additional spending for education from current tax revenue). To make matters worse, the things he wants to do are often wrongheaded, like financing education with one-armed bandits and two-armed topless dancers and placing tolls on roads that are already built (and telling local folks that if they object, they can kiss any money for new roads good-bye). I do give the governor credit for putting an emphasis on creating jobs, especially with that new Toyota plant in San Antonio and the Texas Instruments deal with UT-Dallas, but your own experience proves that the best long-term jobs program is education from first-rate universities. Tuition deregulation helps, but more state support is essential.

The highest and best use of the governor’s office is not simply to avoid anything that could cost him a single Republican primary vote. It is to lead. You know what’s going on out there in Texas. In the schools are hordes of at-risk kids, almost two million of them Hispanic, whom we have to keep healthy, have to keep in school, have to educate in English, have to provide with good teachers, have to send to first-rate colleges—or else, let’s face it, our state is going down the tubes. And with it will be the Republican party, unless they stop sticking their heads in the sand.

The reason that I’m excited and optimistic about your becoming chief of staff is because I believe you see the big picture—that there is more to politics than getting reelected and amassing power. There is also that nagging but oh-so-important question: To what end? The odds are that Rick Perry will end up being governor of Texas for ten years, almost two years longer than anybody else in history. When the day comes that he finally leaves office, what will he—and you—have to show for it?

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