Guv Story

Rick Perry’s most important legacy is that he accomplished something that no other governor was able to do: Completely change how government works.

July 2014By Comments

Illustration by Thomas Fuchs

In December 2008 I interviewed Rick Perry over lunch at a small Mexican restaurant in East Austin. We dined on typical Tex-Mex fare, and Perry was in high spirits as he recounted his latest triumph: persuading Caterpillar to move one of its main manufacturing facilities to Seguin. Perry has always been animated when I’ve talked with him, and that afternoon was no different, as he shifted in his chair or tugged on the cuffs of his pants or changed the subject in mid-sentence. But I’ll never forget when he leaned forward, looked me straight in the eye, and gave me a conspiratorial wink. “Do you know how many governors would have liked to have made that announcement?” Perry asked with a grin. He paused for effect. “All of ’em!”

The governor’s celebration of his recruitment of Caterpillar, which meant the creation of 1,400 jobs, revealed a side of him I hadn’t seen before: he likes to show off, even for an audience of one. But our conversation also confirmed what I had long known: Perry had identified the state’s economy as his highest priority, and he intended for it to be an important part of his legacy. One of his most revealing decisions was to ask state budget writers to establish two multimillion-dollar funds to be used for recruiting businesses: the Texas Enterprise Fund, designed for closing deals that would bring companies to the state, and the Emerging Technology Fund, for investing in high-tech start-ups and recruiting researchers to our universities. Critics on both the far right and the left have called them slush funds and argued that government shouldn’t pick winners and losers. During his administration, “government” and “Rick Perry” have been one and the same.

But what cannot be overlooked is how well the Texas economy has performed during Perry’s tenure. Indeed, in April of this year Toyota announced that it was moving portions of its corporate headquarters from California to Plano, and as I was writing this column, Perry received more good news: Caterpillar revealed that it was shutting down a plant in South Carolina and shifting its operations to the facility in Seguin. In the area that mattered most to Rick Perry—the economy—his success is unequaled among Texas governors.

So is his power. When Perry leaves office, in January 2015, he will have served nearly twice as long as any other governor in Texas history. I never could have guessed that would happen when I first met him, in the mid-eighties. At that time, he was a backbench Democratic representative who would go on to make his reputation on the Appropriations Committee by asking tough questions about government spending. Given the trajectory of state politics in those years, he had two choices as a conservative Democrat: drop out or switch parties. So with the help of Karl Rove, he went from a D to an R, and in 1990 he challenged the incumbent agriculture commissioner, Jim Hightower. Rove scraped up enough money to run strong television spots that attacked Hightower (including one that associated him with flag burning), but he also used them to introduce the Texas A&M graduate from Paint Creek to the rest of the state. Perry proved to be a natural on television (David Weeks, a media and public relations consultant and a longtime friend of Perry’s, once told me, “The camera loves him”), and he upset Hightower the same year that Ann Richards beat out Clayton Williams for the Governor’s Mansion. 

Perry won reelection in 1994, prevailed in a squeaker against Democrat John Sharp for lieutenant governor in 1998, and became governor in December 2000, when George W. Bush won the disputed election for president. Politics is about timing and luck, and Perry has been blessed with both. Few politicians have had his instinct for being in the right place at the right time. Had he not run a disastrous national campaign in 2012, there’s a good chance we’d be calling him President Perry right now.

Texans are used to being represented by heavyweights and stars, but despite that story-line, Perry has never really qualified as either category. The late writer Molly Ivins stuck him with the moniker Governor Goodhair, and he certainly hasn’t run in the same company as Connally, Richards, and Bush. Yet Perry has accomplished something that none of them did: he has completely changed how state government works. Under previous governors, the bureaucracy functioned through boards and commissions made up of private citizens who were appointed by the governor—or were holdovers from a predecessor’s administration—and operated more or less independently. For decades, the boards and commissions were the ultimate decision-makers in the executive branch. Earlier governors had allowed their appointees to pursue their own agendas; for example, Bush once told me that his instructions to board members were simple: “Stay out of the newspapers.”

These days, however, there is only one decision-maker, and it is Rick Perry. The old system has evolved into a cabinet form of government, more or less, with the governor in complete control of every state agency. Government in Texas has become a Monopoly board on which every square is controlled by the governor’s office.

The irony is that Perry, who professes his belief in limited government, has greatly expanded the power of the governor’s office beyond what the authors of the constitution intended. Because of the sheer length of his administration, he has been able to appoint every single position—more than 7,700 since 2000. That is unprecedented. Traditionally, in the battle between the office of the governor and the Legislature, the Lege almost always won—in part because the governor typically didn’t hang around that long. In fact, it wasn’t until the 1974 election cycle that the governor’s term of office was expanded to four years from two. So while it’s true that Connally won three terms as governor in the sixties, he served only six years. You have to hand it to the Reconstruction-era writers of the constitution: they didn’t trust government either, so they spread power around in such a way to make sure that politicians—pardon me for this—didn’t mess with Texas.   

During my career, I covered Connally in the late seventies when he ran for president (after having switched from D to R, a familiar trend), but as governor I knew him only in the historical sense. I had the idea that he was the wisest of our governors and remained a level above his contemporaries, both in skill and ego. He understood the coming Sun Belt boom, and he believed that investment in higher education would transform Texas, not only because of its intrinsic value but also because of its impact on economic growth. At that time, the state was in danger of losing jobs to California, and investing in an educated workforce was the best way to grow businesses in Texas.

Of the governors I have covered while they were in office, going all the way back to Preston Smith, I believe that Bush was the best. He was well liked by members of both parties, worked closely with Democrats like Pete Laney and Bob Bullock, and presented a clear vision for what state government should do. I remember late-night sessions at the Legislature, with Bush roaming the halls of the Capitol, seeking out members and throwing his arm around their shoulders. When I reflect on that era, what stands out is that the government worked—not perfectly, by any means, but effectively. 

The goodwill and bipartisanship that had characterized the Bush governorship evaporated almost instantly after Perry assumed the reins. When I interviewed him during the early days of his administration, it was clear that Texas politics was going to function very differently than it had during the Bush years. Perry embraced the new regime. “The day George Bush left, the muzzles were taken off,” Perry told me in an interview shortly after he took office. What he meant was clear: there was a new sheriff in town. With the Democratic party reduced to a shell of its former self, Texas in the Perry era quickly became a one-party state, and it has been so ever since.

Despite his long occupation of the governor’s office, Perry has few tangible accomplishments to show for his time as chief executive. Have public schools improved during his tenure? No—the funding crisis hasn’t been resolved, and no bold vision has been presented to solve the challenges and complexities of the modern classroom. Has health care been a Perry priority? No—not when 150,000 kids were removed from the Children’s Health Insurance Program after the budget crunch of 2003, and we blithely turned our backs on federal dollars for Medicaid expansion in 2013. Has transportation? No—highways have remained critically underfunded, and his most notable initiative, the Trans-Texas Corridor, blew up in his face and threatened his career. Has the political conversation grown more civil under Perry? Don’t even get me started—never has the state been so polarized, never has power been concentrated in the hands of so few, never has the tone been so hostile. Bush may have used the Governor’s Mansion as a springboard to the White House in 2000, but today he couldn’t even survive a primary in his own hometown. Bush’s party isn’t recognizable anymore, and the state is worse off because of it. 

What further distinguishes Perry from previous governors is that he has displayed little interest in improving the state’s public services, the two most important of these being public education and health care. In past years, the Legislature and Perry might have gotten crosswise over his indifference toward state services. But Texas is enjoying one of the greatest oil booms ever, and there is ample money in the treasury and the Rainy Day Fund to do whatever legislative leaders might want to do. It is a question of priorities.

Rick Perry could have been the state’s greatest governor. He came to power at the ideal time: almost the exact moment Texas became a Republican state and just as the shale boom was at its peak. He was the unchallenged leader of his party, his state was the envy of the business world, and an unprecedented oil boom was piling up huge surpluses. All those riches could have been put to use improving state services, or raising teachers’ salaries, or providing coverage to the uninsured, or recruiting top faculty to the state’s universities, but Perry remained unmoved by the possibilities. For years, long-festering needs went ignored. It was the waste of a birthright. Years from now, people will look back on this period of Texas history and ask, “What did Rick Perry do as governor that made Texas a better place for all Texans?” The answer, I regret to say, is “very little.”

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