Can Rick Perry Stand On His Own?

With George W. Bush no longer at the top of the ballot for the first time in five elections, Texas can look forward to the most intriguing political year in a generation: four big races, two strong tickets, and a healthy debate over whether this is still a two-party state. Can the Republicans stomp out the challenge, or will the Democrats send the governor and his allies to Boot Hill?

February 2002By Comments

The unveiling of George W. Bush’s portrait in the rotunda of the state capitol on a cold January morning was an occasion for nostalgia. It was Governor Bush, not President Bush, who showed up on the small dais—a man completely at ease, exchanging winks, nods, and salutes with the audience of around 150 invited guests, who were mostly former Bush staffers, their spouses, and high officials and judges. His brief remarks made no mention of terrorism or war and contained only a passing reference to Washington. Instead, he peppered the audience with one-liners (“I want to thank you for taking time out of your day to come and witness my hanging”). Except for the battalion of TV cameras lining the west wall, he might have been just another old pol living in retirement on his ranch.

The event was a variation on an old adage: The more things seem to be the same, the more they change. Everyone knew how different life is for George W. Bush, especially since September 11, but the ceremony unexpectedly highlighted how different things are in the arena he left behind. Even as Bush talked about working with Democrats regardless of party labels, about coming to the Capitol “with one desire: do what’s right for Texas,” the words sounded like ancient history. One only had to look beyond the president to the three men seated behind him to understand why.

Next to Laura Bush sat Rick Perry, one year into his tenure as governor but still a mystery to most Texans. Perry seemed a little uncomfortable during the event: legs splayed, eyes often studying the floor, as if he was aware of the silent comparisons the crowd was making between him and his predecessor. He had not worked with Democrats regardless of party labels; indeed, he had hardly worked with the legislators of either party. Following the session, he had vetoed a record 82 bills, an action inconsistent with the definition around the Capitol of doing “what’s right for Texas.” Next in line was Lieutenant Governor Bill Ratliff, who had been a highly regarded Republican state senator before he was elevated to his present job by a vote of his colleagues after Perry became governor. But when Ratliff tried last summer to get support for a full term in 2002, he found that following in Bush’s footsteps by operating without regard to party labels had made him anathema to influential Republicans. He dropped out of the race.

On the end was House Speaker Pete Laney, Bush’s ally through three legislative sessions. A West Texas Democrat, Laney had introduced Bush before a nationally televised speech in the House chamber in December 2000, minutes after Al Gore conceded the election, giving the nation a sorely needed glimpse of the president-elect’s instinct for bipartisanship. Laney is the last Democrat in Texas in a leadership position, but he will need a miracle to win a sixth term as Speaker next year in the face of what will surely be a solid Republican majority in the House. Laney and Ratliff represent the old order in Texas politics, Perry the new, and it was clear that Bush’s sentiments lay with the former. Yet, the more the president reminisced about the bipartisan political scene he had known here and its contrast to Washington, the more obvious it became that the era he spoke of so fondly is fading.

The defining event of the new era of Texas politics will be the tumultuous and high-stakes election of 2002. Republicans will be going for the shutout—retaining every statewide office and judicial seat, and thanks to redistricting, capturing solid majorities in the state House and Senate, leading to the first Republican Speaker since Reconstruction. To stave off obliteration, Democratic strategists have assembled a strong field of candidates designed to ratchet up the turnout of Hispanic and black voters. But the ethnic-minority candidates favored by party leaders—former Dallas mayor Ron Kirk for U.S. senator and Laredo oilman and banker Tony Sanchez for governor—face tough challenges in their own primaries. Kirk drew Houston congressman Ken Bentsen, a nephew of former senator Lloyd Bentsen, and schoolteacher Victor Morales, who made a creditable showing against Phil Gramm in 1996. Sanchez must do battle with Dan Morales, the former attorney general, whose eleventh-hour decision to enter the race threw Democrats and Republicans alike into a tizzy, like a bunch of ants whose mound had just been kicked over. The game is on.

Any assessment of the 2002 election must start with Perry, who is undeniably the most important figure in Texas politics today. This puts him in elite company over the past half a century. Texans are used to being represented by heavyweights and stars: Johnson, Connally, Hobby, Bullock, Richards, Bush. Perry is neither, but he does hold a crucial job at a crucial time. Early polls showed him far ahead of Sanchez in the race for governor—this was before Dan Morales jumped in—which means that Perry will, in all likelihood, set the course for the Republican party at the moment it becomes responsible for governing the state. Can Texas learn to embrace him?

There is a lot about Perry to like. In casual situations—a ball game, a dinner—he is one of the best companions you could ask for. He tells a great story, interjects a witty observation. But in a more formal setting—an interview, a press conference, a meeting with politicians or supplicants who are not known to be fans—he is wary, unforthcoming, given to canned responses. All politicians ought to be on guard around the media, of course, but Perry’s discomfort is unconcealed. I have seen him go to great lengths not to engage. After the 1999 legislative session, when Bush was running for president and Perry was in line to be the next governor, I asked for a meeting to talk about his views.

We met over lunch in his Capitol office. The conversation started out with Perry talking about having taken his father back to Normandy earlier that summer and then switched to a collection of letters that a GI from Perry’s region had written to his family before he was killed late in the war. Perry knows a lot about World War II, and I’m interested in it myself, but that was not why I was there. Dishes came and dishes went and then an aide walked in, and the conversation was over. I had the feeling that I had been hornswoggled by a world-class filibusterer.

A standard view of Perry has taken root in certain Austin circles, mainly among veterans in the media, the lobby, and the Legislature. It resembles the unflattering view that their counterparts in Washington and New York had of Bush during the presidential campaign: doesn’t know much, hasn’t done much, doesn’t articulate much, doesn’t care about much, wouldn’t have achieved much except for a God-given attribute other than his brain (Bush’s name, Perry’s looks), and leans too far to the right. This verdict underrates Perry, as it underrated Bush. Perry’s strengths are campaigning and the tactical side of politics.

Most politicians who have been around for a while lose their zest for campaigning. Not Perry. I saw him during a couple of appearances when he was running for lieutenant governor, and he oozed enthusiasm—not in his rhetoric but in meeting people. Deep lines in his face enhance the potency of his expressions. Even his hair is enthusiastic; thick and obedient, it stands improbably high above his scalp, holding its position even when brushed horizontal. Campaigning in College Station, he plunged into a group of schoolchildren and talked with (not to) them, patting a head here, giving a grin there, charming their teacher. His style is more like that of a local official who knows everybody than a candidate for high office meeting strangers.

His mastery of tactics doesn’t take place in public view, but you can infer it from the results. Take his response to a potential primary challenge from U.S. senator Kay Bailey Hutchison last spring. Better known and more popular than Perry, Hutchison would have been favored to defeat him. Perry knew that he had to act promptly. He summoned top Republicans to a meeting, made the point that a divisive primary could make it possible for Tony Sanchez to defeat the survivor, and—here is the crucial point—asked for their support right then. What could they do? Hutchison wasn’t an announced candidate. They wanted access to the governor, and he was the governor. No sooner had Perry gotten the support than he followed up by asking a few big donors to call Hutchison and urge her not to run. She decided to stay put.

Bush had little interest in inside politics; he left that to his political consultant Karl Rove. Perry is his own Karl Rove. When another Republican primary battle loomed last fall, this one for the U.S. Senate between land commissioner David Dewhurst, who had previously announced for lieutenant governor and had already run TV spots, and attorney general John Cornyn, Perry intervened to talk Dewhurst out of the race. It’s not easy to get someone with a nine-digit fortune and a long-standing wish to run for the Senate to settle for lieutenant governor, but Perry played it low-key, staying in touch with Dewhurst, restating the case for running for lieutenant governor, reminding him of his commitment, all of which exploited his quarry’s tendency to put off decisions—until finally, so much time had elapsed that Dewhurst drifted into doing what Perry had wanted all along.

As good as Perry is at these machinations, there is more to being governor than acting as a high-level political consultant. Perry indicated so himself when he introduced Bush at the Capitol as a man of vision, of conviction, of heartfelt words. Unfortunately for Perry, each paean to Bush became an unintended pan of himself: Where is the Perry vision? Where is the conviction? Where are the heartfelt words? His first year as governor has not been a disaster; aside from some of the vetoes, he has done no harm. Rather, it has been a missed opportunity to establish and define himself as a politician. Sometimes it seems as if he is more interested, and more engaged, in leading the Republican party than in leading Texas.

It seemed natural for me to ask Perry, at the start of my interview with him shortly before Christmas, how Republican Texas will be different from Democratic Texas. “There will be a little less of the partisan bickering,” he said, leaning his head back. “That’s probably good. I’ve been painted as a partisan, but I’m no more of one than Speaker Laney or any other Democrat state officeholder.” The chemistry that enabled Bush, Laney, and Bob Bullock, Perry’s predecessor as lieutenant governor, to work together went sour when Perry, Laney, and Ratliff met. “The day George Bush left here, the muzzles were taken off,” Perry told me. “I look forward to 2003 to work with people. It will be a lot different with a Republican lite gov and Speaker.” (Ratliff, of course, is a Republican.) The significance of Perry’s observation is that he views himself as a victim, not a perpetrator, of partisan politics.

Much of what Perry talked about in our interview didn’t seem revealing at the time. Only later, after I talked with longtime Perry friends, did a pattern begin to form. When I asked him why he thought he would make a better governor than Sanchez, he gave two reasons. The first was “I’ve had legislative experience, agency experience, executive experience. It’s been a long time since anyone came to office with the experience in government I have had.” When was the last time a Republican has touted his credentials as a government insider? The other was “my life experiences.” We are all the product of our life experiences, but Perry is quite a sentimental fellow, in a good way, and the formative events of his life have affected him profoundly.

The first of these, Perry told me, was growing up on a tenant farm. He comes from a tradition in American politics that goes back to Thomas Jefferson, who held that farmers were the embodiment of American virtue. At home he was taught not to overuse the word “I,” a friend of Perry’s told me, and to this day he doesn’t like to use it in his speeches. Attending Texas A&M was the second formative life experience. Its political manifestation is Perry’s desire to see every family send their kids to college. “Just one in five go to college,” he said. “That’s not good enough.” (No, it’s not, but so far he hasn’t done anything dramatic to get the numbers up.) The third influence came in 1987, when he served on the House Appropriations Committee during hard times. Perry was one of a group of sophomore lawmakers known as the Pit Bulls who were frustrated by bureaucracies and their resistant cultures and wanted to shake them up, an attitude he continues to have today. He regards his appointees as his biggest accomplishment (“That’s how you really impact state government”), and most people around the Capitol would agree. The last of the formative experiences was his decision to switch parties. Like many converts, he will always wonder how he is accepted by the faithful. As a result, the kind of bipartisanship that Bush practiced would be unthinkable for Perry.

Two consistent themes emerged from the interview. One is that insecurity may have affected his performance in his first year as governor. Party switching is not the only possible source. He faces constant comparisons to Bush, he lacks a mandate from the electorate (although, as he points out, he has won three statewide races), and he is from a small corner of the world, something that haunted Lyndon Johnson when he became president. The second is that while Perry is a completely loyal Republican when it comes to politics, he seems more like a conservative Democrat when it comes to government. Which is to say, he doesn’t approach government from an ideological standpoint at all. He looks at politics and he looks at how to make government work. He is still very much the pit bull.

One more piece of the puzzle: During our interview, Perry mentioned that his “favorite movie of all time” is The Wizard of Oz. For him it has lessons that translate to politics. (No, no, it’s not that you can get along without a brain.) To Perry, political power is often an illusion, a little man behind a curtain projecting an image. Bullock inspired awe and fear with his temperamental outbursts, encyclopedic knowledge of state government, and micromanaging of the Senate, but Perry took a completely different approach. “To be lieutenant governor you’ve got to be able to hold hands, stroke, smooth feathers,” he told me. “It’s about being a big mother hen.” Again, you want to say, no, it’s not. It’s about substance, not style. It’s about coming to work every day to look for ways to make Texas a better place, which is what, for all his faults, Bullock did and Bill Hobby before him.

Now it’s off to the races for Perry and the rest of the field, a sprint followed by a marathon: first, the Democratic primary on March 12 (Republicans have no seriously contested statewide battles for the big-four offices), then the general election on November 5. Even before a vote has been cast, this election stands to be remembered as the year when the political world accepted the reality of demographics. The ballot is the future of Texas politics made present tense: Hispanics and blacks are all over the statewide lineup for both parties, and women too (Democrat Sherry Boyles, a former state party official, is running for railroad commissioner while Republicans Carole Keeton Rylander and Susan Combs, the incumbent comptroller of public accounts and the commissioner of agriculture, respectively, are up for reelection). No matter how the races turn out, the result of the 2002 election will have an impact on Texas politics for a long time. It will set the benchmark for Hispanic turnout. It will reveal whether the presence of Hispanic and black candidates in high-visibility races can increase traditional voting activity. It will test the theory that unknown Hispanic candidates in Democratic primaries can defeat politicians with years of experience in office without even mounting a campaign, on the strength of their names alone.

Here’s a closer look at the races for the big-four offices:


With the Democrats holding the slenderest of majorities in the Senate, this battle for an open seat in the president’s home state will get a lot of national attention. Cornyn starts with three advantages. He will be able to outspend his opponent by a considerable margin. He is a made-for-TV candidate with silver hair and senatorial bearing. (In focus groups, says a Cornyn confidant, “you can see heads start to nod as soon as he appears onscreen.”) And he will get all the campaign help from George W. Bush that he needs. If the race is close, Bush will try to convince voters that it is their patriotic duty to send Cornyn to Washington.

The leading Democratic contenders, Bentsen and Kirk, face a dilemma without a solution: How can they run a statewide primary campaign with little money and less time? It’s impossible. As a consequence, the primary will really be two separate primaries, with each candidate targeting the areas of the state where he is strongest—for Kirk, Dallas, upper East Texas, and Central Texas; for Bentsen, Houston, lower East Texas, Corpus Christi, and the Rio Grande Valley—and mostly ignoring the rest. Each will pick up some votes on their opponents’ turf, Kirk from Houston’s black community and from the Democratic establishment, whose strategy for winning in November depends upon having a black candidate on the ticket, and Bentsen from those who recognize the familiar political name (although fourteen years have passed since Lloyd Bentsen last appeared on a ballot). But the main idea is to make sure that your strongholds have a bigger turnout than the other guy’s.

The numbers work in Bentsen’s favor—or at least they ought to. The five big South Texas counties and El Paso constitute a big chunk of the Democratic primary vote, and Houston has more Democratic votes than Dallas. But two obstacles lie in the way. One is that Bentsen, who is well regarded in Washington, has smarts but not much pizzazz while Kirk has both. As political consultants are prone to say, Kirk could turn into a rock star, with grave consequences not only for Bentsen but also for Cornyn. The other problem is the candidacy of Victor Morales. As an unknown in 1996, he drove around in a pickup truck and defeated two congressmen to win the Democratic nomination for U.S. senator. Will that act play twice? If it does and he squeezes into a runoff, he could be a real threat because the high-turnout areas are likely to be in South Texas, where there will be runoffs in local races.

In this race, as in every statewide race except the battle for lieutenant governor, the Republican is the presumptive favorite, and the Democrats’ hope for an upset lies in turnout. But Bentsen and Victor Morales would face an additional problem as the party nominee: If Kirk loses, black voters may be so frustrated that they will stay home in the fall.


Sanchez is the linchpin of the democratic strategy to defeat Perry. Lieutenant governor candidate John Sharp, who lost his 1998 race for that job to Perry, determined that if the Hispanic turnout that year had been as high as it had been in 1994, he would have defeated Perry. But not just any Hispanic candidate would do. Out of power, the Democrats would have a hard time raising money. So the party needed a wealthy Hispanic who could run as a businessman and finance his own campaign and a get-out-the-vote effort that would boost the entire ticket.

That was the theory, but even before Dan Morales entered the race, the best-laid plans were going astray. Sanchez has been the party’s presumed standard-bearer for more than a year, and yet he has been a reluctant candidate. His opponent has had an unimpressive first year in office, to which Sanchez’s response has been … silence. When a furor arose over Perry’s vetoes or when the backroom negotiations over Phil Gramm’s departure became public, Sanchez could have highlighted the differences between himself and Perry but … more silence. Meanwhile, Sanchez’s own image took a beating. “Democratic candidate for governor Tony Sanchez—whose pitch to voters leans heavily on his business record—paid the government $1 million to settle complaints of risky and bad management at his failed Laredo savings and loan,” read the opening of an unflattering story in the Dallas Morning News about Sanchez’s business dealings in the eighties. Sanchez has responded that he ran his S&L basically the same way every other S&L operator in Texas did and a letter circulated by state supervisory officials at the time backs him up. Still, everyone knows that the S&L mess was a disaster, and the defense that everybody did it may not be sufficient.

Sanchez’s supporters have downplayed their candidate’s hibernation because, they say, the game isn’t won in the first quarter; it’s won in the fourth quarter, when voters are paying attention. Surprise! When Dan Morales filed against Sanchez, the fourth quarter arrived early. The Morales challenge, if Sanchez can survive it, may be the best thing that could have happened to him. Morales is to Sanchez what John McCain was to George W. Bush—the kick in the pants that transformed a candidate from someone who expected to win into someone who couldn’t stand to lose.

A Harvard-educated lawyer, Morales is a formidable opponent. He can run to Sanchez’s left by saying that he is the real Democrat in the race, alluding to Sanchez’s lavish financial support of Bush as a candidate for governor and president. At his initial press conference, Morales served up a more memorable soundbite than anything Sanchez has uttered all year: Referring to the $17 billion settlement that he won for the state in the lawsuit he brought against tobacco companies while he was attorney general, he said, “If the Legislature sends me an appropriations bill which does not adequately protect our tobacco money for our kids, I will take this pen and I will veto that bill quicker than you can light up a Marlboro.”

But this statement comes with a giant asterisk. Morales has been under investigation by his successor, Cornyn, and by federal officials for allegedly attempting to cut a friend in on the legal fees from the lawsuit, to the tune of a quarter of a billion dollars. (The lawyer, Marc Murr, has since renounced his claim to any legal fees.) If Morales wins the nomination, the most important person in the governor’s race may be Johnny Sutton, a Bush appointee as the new U.S. attorney in San Antonio, who must decide whether to proceed with the three-year-old investigation or shut it down.

The primary shapes up as a classic battle of money versus name but with totally new rules of engagement. Could it make a difference, for example, that Sanchez is a native Spanish speaker while Morales had to work on improving his Spanish while in office. Sanchez must think so; he’s challenged Morales to debate en español. At least he’s taking off the gloves.

Morales will start out in the lead because he is better known—but name identification can be bought if you can afford it, which Sanchez can (he is said to be worth at least $600 million), and if you’re willing to spend the money, which Sanchez had better be. Morales will have to raise some money—not a lot, but enough to keep his name and record before the public. If he can’t, Sanchez should overtake him. If Morales can get on television, look out. Sanchez’s media spots had better be good, really good, because Morales is a great TV candidate. But in the end, what puts Sanchez over the top may turn out to be old-fashioned organization rather than media. The Democrats’ entire strategy for winning in November depends on being able to fund a top-to-bottom campaign. That’s why the party establishment has to stick with Sanchez.

Perry has consistently led Sanchez by thirty points in polls, and he will have all the money he needs. That is a hard combination to beat, and yet accidents happen all the time: Ask Mark Green, who blew a huge lead in the recent New York City mayor’s race to a wealthy businessman who had never run for office before. If you could put together Morales’ political skills with Sanchez’s money, Perry would be at risk. He has some problems that could prove damaging in a close race. He must contend with the enemies he made with his vetoes, particularly health-care providers who are still irate over his rejection of a “prompt-pay” bill aimed at forcing insurers to pony up more quickly. Democrats have some hope of creating fire from the smoke over Perry’s contributions from Enron employees and executives and the flap involving his appointment of Enron official Max Yzaguirre as chairman of the Public Utility Commission. But Republican strategists don’t believe that the race will be close. Perry’s shortcomings will not matter if the Democratic raise-the-turnout plan doesn’t work, and Republican number crunchers think that it doesn’t have a prayer. Texas is more Republican than it was in 1998, which means that the number of new voters the Democrats need to overtake the Republicans is beyond the probable. But not the possible.

Lieutenant Govenor

No primary races here: It’s Dewhurst against Sharp. Republicans expected Dewhurst to be their weakest link. A lot of people in his own party find him to be distant and hard to work with. Taking advice is not his strong point. Sharp, on the other hand, built a record as a fiscal conservative as state comptroller. He will have substantial business support. So Republicans and Democrats alike were stunned when an early poll showed Dewhurst with a seventeen-point lead. What’s going on? One explanation is that Dewhurst had already begun his strategy of burying Sharp with money by running an early series of TV spots. Another is Dewhurst’s association with the war effort (he lobbied hard for Perry to appoint him head of the Governor’s Task Force on Homeland Security). Another is that the poll is just plain wrong, which some private polls tend to suggest.

However, four years have passed since Sharp was in office. Few remember that in his eight years as comptroller, he proposed ways to cut spending without affecting services, developed the Lone Star card to inhibit welfare fraud, and established a prepaid tuition plan for Texas colleges. He can try to remind them, of course, but Dewhurst is sure to point out the holes in Sharp’s record as part of the bury-him-with-money game plan. That’s why Sharp is putting his faith in the turnout strategy that he devised.

Sharp’s biggest advantage is that he has always had substantial Republican support, or more accurately, substantial support from business leaders who typically vote Republican. Between the hoped-for increased turnout and his crossover constituency, Sharp has a better chance to win his race than any other Democrat.

But the new lieutenant governor may find that the prize isn’t worth as much as it used to be. Although traditionally the job has been regarded as the most powerful in the Capitol, the lieutenant governor’s powers to control debate and appoint committee chairs and members are not embedded in the state constitution; they can be taken away at any time by the Senate. That’s not likely to happen, but the current crop of senators is not going to let a lieutenant governor decide unilaterally who the committee chairs are going to be or what bills pass and what bills die. In short, power in the Senate is becoming decentralized, and neither Sharp nor Dewhurst is going to be able to reverse that trend. What hasn’t changed is that the position still provides its occupant with a bully pulpit, which Sharp could mount during policy disputes to bedevil Perry.

Attorney General

Remember the conundrum of whether a tree falling in an empty forest creates noise? That’s the problem facing Republican Greg Abbott, until recently a member of the Texas Supreme Court, and Democrat Kirk Watson, the former mayor of Austin, the rivals in the attorney general’s race. They have plenty to make noise about; the question is, Will anybody else hear it? It’s hard to get people to pay attention to the AG’s race in ordinary years, which is why so many candidates resort to TV spots showing them slamming prison-cell doors—an effective but disingenuous ploy, since the overwhelming amount of the workload has nothing to do with reducing crime. In an election year featuring ultra-high-profile races for Senate, governor, and lieutenant governor, Abbott and Watson won’t get much attention or airtime at all (though Watson made headlines January 10 when he announced that he’d raised $2.3 million since kicking off his campaign last August). That’s too bad, since these are two high-quality politicians and lawyers with personal stories that touch on tragedy: Abbott was partially paralyzed when a tree fell on him while he was jogging, and Watson is a cancer survivor.

The lack of attention works to Abbott’s advantage, since he belongs to the state’s dominant party. Past races for the Supreme Court and the Court of Criminal Appeals have demonstrated that when voters are dealing with the legal system and don’t know much about the candidates, they tend to choose the one with an R by his name. The Abbott camp will seek to preserve this edge with a simple description of their opponent that amounts to just four words: liberal Austin trial lawyer. The Watson forces will counter by trying to make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear by asking, Who do you want fighting for you? The idea is to spin the choice as between a seasoned courtroom lawyer, one who will go after badly run nursing homes and child-support cheats, and a judge who sat on the sidelines. If Abbott or Watson finds that his initial message isn’t getting across, he can always resort to slamming cell doors.

On the day perry kicked off his campaign for governor, he was surrounded by signs bearing the slogan LEADERSHIP EXPERIENCE VISION. Sigh. Is it too much to ask that the signs come after the leadership and vision instead of before? And maybe it would be a good idea to have a slogan that delivered a message, something that allowed an onlooker to infer leadership and vision without being force-fed—like, say, “Leave no child behind.” Perhaps it is unfair to keep comparing Rick Perry to a governor on his way to becoming president. Yet he seems to invite the comparison that dooms him.

Among the issues that will be settled by this election, therefore, is one that is personal to Perry: Can he live up to his own signs? He can play safe, wrap himself in platitudes, rely on his handsome face—and make himself irrelevant, win or lose. Or he can set an agenda, address the big issues facing the state, and prepare the way for his party to govern. Only if he does the latter will Rick Perry finally be able to stand on his own.

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