In a month’s time, Rick Perry has held off his most serious primary challenge and forced the Legislature’s hand on taxes and school finance. Hey, he might be a leader after all.
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Rick Perry bade his now-famous farewell to a TV reporter, but the governor might as well have said it to all of his critics—Kay Bailey Hutchison, Carole Keeton Strayhorn, Kinky Friedman, Tom Craddick, David Dewhurst, the media, the Democrats, the bloggers, the rumormongers, the savants of the lobby, and everyone else who has sneered at him for four and a half years: Adiós, mofo. The last laugh is mine. In a span of a few days in late June, Perry’s political fortunes changed from likely defeat for reelection in 2006 to likely victory, from failed leader to, potentially, successful one. Two events enabled this transformation: Hutchison’s announcement that she would seek reelection to the U.S. Senate rather than run for governor—leaving only Strayhorn and a moribund Democratic party between Perry and a record ten years in office—and the Legislature’s continuing failure to lower property taxes. Perry seized the opportunity to summon lawmakers for a midsummer special session to find an alternative source of revenue for public schools. By early July, the governor’s proposals had gained traction at the Capitol, and the possibility loomed that the fundamental question of Texas politics since his party took total control in the 2002 elections—Can the Republicans govern?—for the first time could receive an affirmative answer, either in this special session or a subsequent one.
I can’t believe I’m writing these words. About Rick Perry? This is a chief executive of whom the Hutchison camp liked to say, “Texas needs a grown-up for governor.” A chief executive whose first school finance plan was voted down 126 to 0 by the House in the 2004 special session. A chief executive who has been so disengaged that when politicos try to find something comparable to his current flurry of activity, they have to go back six years, when, as lieutenant governor, he strove valiantly but unsuccessfully to resolve a Senate deadlock over hate crimes legislation. Stories abound about individuals and groups who have met with him on an issue, only to have him filibuster on unrelated topics. All of the criticisms of Perry, from petty comments about his hair to major accusations about his lack of leadership and vision, reduce to a single idea: He throws his energy into politicking rather than governing.
But that negative disguises a positive: When it comes to his own survival, Perry has first-rate political instincts. He is a shrewd judge of situations and of his adversaries’ strengths and weaknesses. Back in 1998, when he was running for lieutenant governor against his onetime Aggie buddy (and possible 2006 opponent) John Sharp, Perry told me that he would win because he was more disciplined—and he was right. Of course, having Governor George W. Bush running for reelection on the top of the ticket helped immeasurably, but Perry ran a flawless campaign in the homestretch, and Sharp didn’t. In preparing for a challenge by Hutchison, Perry’s backers talked bravely about their strategy to win, which was to register new evangelical voters, but their real strategy was to keep her out of the race, to keep the heat on her by getting prominent Republicans to tell her to stay in the Senate rather than run for governor and not to expect their support if she did challenge Perry. Several months ago I wrote in this space (“Kay Sera, Sera,” May 2005) that Perry’s operatives were confident Hutchison would never make the race. I also wrote some rather uncomplimentary things about Perry in the process. I expected that the governor’s team would hate the article, but no: As Dave Carney, his chief political consultant, told me, “You got our message out.”
In deciding to call lawmakers back to Austin this summer, Perry crisply assessed his situation. The Legislature had disgraced itself by failing to reduce property taxes, as virtually all Republican lawmakers had pledged to do. The main reason for the failure was a clash of personalities at the top of the legislative pyramid. In particular, the two presiding officers, Speaker of the House Craddick and Lieutenant Governor Dewhurst, appear to be incapable of engaging in normal give-and-take negotiations. Craddick’s unwillingness to give an inch on the issues he cares about—and he cares about a lot more issues than previous Speakers did—is legendary. Dewhurst is more willing to compromise, but not if the perception is going to be that he got steamrolled by Craddick. And so the two chambers never got close to resolving how to pay for property tax cuts. “We’re a universe apart,” Craddick told me in an interview after the regular session. The situation looked hopeless, with Republican legislators facing a classic dilemma in governing: They wanted to lower property taxes, but they didn’t want to increase other taxes to pay for the cuts.
Perry realized that the key to the situation was not pressure from the top but pressure from the bottom—Republican primary voters. He knew that after the legislative session ended, GOP lawmakers would go back to their districts and get an earful from their constituents about how they had failed to honor their promises. And they would not have a good answer. Their fear of voting for new taxes would be overcome by the greater fear that doing nothing would be a threat to their reelection. The same considerations applied to Perry himself; he couldn’t afford to hand Strayhorn, his announced challenger, an issue that resonated with GOP voters. So he brought the Legislature back to the Capitol. Just three weeks after they had been content to see the tax cuts die in the final days of the regular session, GOP lawmakers told the leadership that the long-promised cuts had to happen. Now.
Another factor in Perry’s favor was the other problems that Craddick and Dewhurst faced. In Craddick’s first term as Speaker, he had led the Republican majority on the strength of respect and gratitude for his shepherding the GOP out of the minority wilderness, his help in many members’ campaigns, and his success in passing the long-pent-up Republican agenda. But in his second term, he found himself having to resort to raw power as fissures opened in the Republican caucus during the regular session. Craddick and fiscal conservatives favored limitations on local government spending, but local-control conservatives backed GOP officials in their districts who opposed them. Rural members tended to support public schools and oppose vouchers, in contrast to members from urban and suburban districts, where many students from affluent families went to private schools and others were homeschooled. An alliance of Democrats and apostate Republicans was able to prevail on these issues.
In contrast to 2003, Craddick governed not through respect but through fear—fear that he would use his vast network of contacts in Republican circles throughout the state to find and fund opponents for members who didn’t bend to his will. He had to spend a lot of political capital—in the form of turning arms into pretzels—to get enough votes to pass both the education bill and the tax bill during the regular session. Some members felt that they had been browbeaten into voting against their school districts’ interests or against their personal philosophies. In Craddick’s defense, it would have been hugely embarrassing for major bills to die because he couldn’t get the votes to pass them. But when the session was over, there was considerable unhappiness among Republican lawmakers who resented that they had been forced to cast votes that could cause them trouble in the 2006 primary.
Dewhurst had a similar problem. In 2003, as a newly elected lieutenant governor, he had won the loyalties of senators by asking what he could do for them. This session, he expected them to do for him. Dewhurst wanted bills to pass with as few dissenting votes as possible, in order to build solidarity when the time came to negotiate with the House. Sometimes it worked, as when he negotiated a remarkable compromise on a contentious bill involving asbestos litigation. Sometimes it failed, as when he wanted senators to embrace his ideas on school finance rather than put forth ideas of their own. Like Craddick, he wanted total control, and, like Craddick, he spent political capital to get it, though in a more benign way.
As a result of the two leaders’ management styles, both entered the special session with less goodwill than they had had at the start of the regular session—and Perry knew it. In particular, the disgruntlement of rank-and-file Republican members with Craddick made it difficult for the Speaker to follow his preferred course, which was to wait for the Texas Supreme Court to rule on the constitutionality of the current school finance plan, as it is expected to do later this year. He’s right on the policy but wrong on the politics: His members can’t wait. This circumstance provided Perry with an opportunity that was almost unimaginable, given his long history of lethargic leadership: to challenge the leaders’ plans for raising revenue to fund the property tax cuts with one of his own.
It’s not a great plan. What did you expect, a miracle? This is Rick Perry. It doesn’t accomplish what both Craddick and Dewhurst had hoped to achieve, and what Texas needs, which is a change in the state’s business tax structure, away from corporations and heavy industry and toward professionals who typically are not reached by current state business taxes. Instead, Perry seeks to get new blood out of old turnips: an increase in the cigarette tax, an increase in the sales tax and the application of it to new services (elective cosmetic surgery and automobile repairs), and a closing of loopholes in the current business tax.
But his strength is politics, not policy, and he may have gauged the mood of GOP legislators just right: They don’t want the big fix that their leaders cherish but can’t agree on how to achieve (or even on how to discuss); they just want the little fix that will allow them to go home and say they cut property taxes. And that’s all Rick Perry wants too. One more election, four more years, and then it’s…well, you know his exit line.