Two for Texas

Why are former Aggie buddies John Sharp and Rick Perry battling so ferociously for the job of lieutenant governor? Because they think George W. Bush could win the White House, and then they'd be number one.

October 1998By Comments

ONE RACE ON THE NOVEMBER BALLOT IS far more important than any other. It could clear the way for George W. Bush to get the Republican presidential nomination in 2000, or thwart his prospects. It could herald a GOP sweep of statewide offices, or lead to a revival of the Texas Democratic party. It could alter political relationships that have been in place so long as to be thought immutable—between legislators and their leaders, between their leaders and the business lobby. The race is not the one for governor between Bush and Democrat Garry Mauro, in which only the size of Bush’s margin is in doubt, but the one for lieutenant governor, between John Sharp, the Democratic state comptroller, and Rick Perry, the Republican commissioner of agriculture. Regardless of how it is identified on the ballot, it is really a second governor’s race: If Bush is elected president, the lieutenant governor will become governor in January 2001.

Yet the battle for lite-guv, as the job is known around the Capitol, has managed to go largely unnoticed by the public. This is hardly surprising. The title “lieutenant governor” sounds as if it ought to describe a banana republic jefe with epaulets on his shoulders. Few Texans know what a lieutenant governor actually does, other than hang around in case a governor is impeached (as James “Pa” Ferguson was in 1917, enabling William P. Hobby to assume the office) or dies (as Beauford Jester did in 1949, opening the way for Allan Shivers). In politics, number two jobs aren’t worth “a pitcher of warm spit,” as Cactus Jack Garner of Uvalde once said of the vice presidency, which he held during Franklin Roosevelt’s first two terms in the White House. (The fourth term would have been better.) Indeed, eight states get along without a lieutenant governor; in many of the rest, about the most exciting day a lieutenant governor has is when he gets to break a tie vote while presiding over the Senate. Texas, however, is different. For as long as anyone in state politics can remember, the lite-guv has been the most important politician in the Capitol. He has life-and-death power over the governor’s legislative program; he makes and breaks the careers of senators; he sets the spending priorities for the state. He has the power but not the glory.

For Sharp and Perry, these stakes are made even higher by their personal relationship, which goes all the way back to their days as students at Texas A&M University in the late sixties and early seventies. They were classmates, squadron mates, and drinking buddies who went on to gain positions of prominence on campus: Sharp as student body president, Perry as yell leader. The political characteristics that differentiate them—Sharp is more substantive, Perry is more gregarious—first emerged in the paths they chose at A&M. For many years they remained close friends, and they may be friends again some day, but for the moment the prospect of wielding power or becoming governor is nothing compared with the allure of beating the other. All spring and summer the two men have engaged in hand-to-hand combat for the endorsement of special-interest groups, battling for individual commitments in an era when votes are won by the hundreds of thousands in media campaigns. This race is part style versus substance and part Republican versus Democrat, but most of all it is really Aggie versus Aggie.

Style Versus Substance

ON A SWELTERING AUGUST AFTERNOON, Rick Perry arrived at the Lincoln Recreation Center in College Station to tout his plan for after-school care at a news conference. It was one of those days that is all too typical for down-ballot candidates, when nothing goes right and no one seems to be interested. Either Perry had arrived early or the school kids who were supposed to be gathered around him were late; in any case, there was nothing for him to do but work the crowd, which didn’t take long because only one camera crew and ten members of the public had turned out. If this bothered Perry, he didn’t show it. He slung his suit coat over his shoulder and traded small talk with center employees.

Finally, about fourteen black children of early elementary school age were led in, and Perry launched into his speech about giving children a place to be after school, preventing crime, and making Texas’ schools the best in America. The words sort of faded into the background, though, because the way he said things was so much more interesting than what he said. Perry is blessed with as lively a face as you will come across in politics. It can be rough and rugged, boyish and impish, earnest and sincere, or various combinations of each. The top half of his face always seems to be smiling, even when the mouth is serious. His speech has its own appealing idiosyncrasies; every now and then he pronounces a word as though he has a mouthful of mashed potatoes—sounding a little like John Connally—so that “dollars” comes out as “dawrlers.” These mannerisms aren’t particularly dramatic in person, but in a television close-up, they reach across a living room and connect with viewers. Rick Perry is the perfect candidate for the media age. The camera loves him.

John Sharp is the opposite type of politician, someone who can make the details of state government sound interesting in a speech but doesn’t have charisma on TV. In person his round face and constant grin make him seem as if he is thoroughly enjoying himself—even in the middle of speaking—but onscreen the grin looks sardonic, while his deep-set eyes give the impression that he is tired, or perhaps just feigning a lack of interest, like a clever card player. When the two candidates have spoken to the same groups, such as the Texas Farm Bureau or the Texas Medical Association, Sharp has gotten the better reviews. He has the knack of turning a speech into a conversation. “I want to talk to you about why government makes you mad,” he told a group of propane dealers in San Antonio. “Government doesn’t act like you do. If government needs more money, it just gives itself a raise. But if you need more money because your daughter is going to the University of Texas, where you didn’t want her to go in the first place”—most of the propane dealers were from small towns—“you can’t give yourself a raise. You have to work harder, save more, and spend less. We’ve been trying to get government to act like you do.” The message went over well, though something about Sharp’s delivery seemed off. The reason, I learned later, was that he had put a dip of chewing tobacco in his cheek before the speech, which the good ol’ boys in the audience noticed, even if I didn’t.

Sharp’s big advantage in this race is his record. This is no insult to Perry; rather, it reflects the difference in the agencies that the two rivals have headed since 1991. Perry has run the agriculture department without any blemishes—he has reduced the number of employees, kept expenditures flat, and eliminated more than two hundred regulations—but his is primarily a marketing office, a cheerleader for Texas farm and ranch products, with a few regulatory duties (gasoline pumps, agricultural pesticides) thrown in. In power and prestige, the agriculture department is at the other end of the spectrum from the comptroller’s office, which since the early seventies has evolved from a sinecure for green-eyeshade types to the nerve center of state government. Knowledge is power in politics, and somewhere in the computer memories of the comptroller’s office rests all the information about Texas, its government, and its taxpayers that anyone would care to know.

Sharp has made the most of this power. When the state faced a fiscal crisis in 1991, his first year in office, the entire budget-writing process was put on hold while he looked for ways to save money. Eventually he came up with $5 billion worth of suggestions, and the Legislature accepted enough of them to avoid having to pass a tax bill. Since then the process has been repeated in every legislative session, and now Sharp can claim that his proposals have saved the state $8.5 billion. Perry’s supporters attack that number, arguing, for example, that much of the savings was the result of accounting tricks, such as delaying payments to school districts for a week, into the next fiscal year. But the alternative was a tax increase or deep spending cuts. The accounting “tricks” bought time for economic and population growth to produce enough tax revenue to erase the cash flow shortage. Sharp also found ways for Texas to qualify for more than a billion dollars in new federal funds, something legislators had been trying to do for years. His office developed the Lone Star card for welfare recipients that reduced fraud and the Texas Tomorrow Fund that allows parents to prepay the cost of their child’s tuition at state universities at current prices.

As recently as eight years ago, when Bob Bullock was comptroller and successfully ran for lieutenant governor, record and experience were all that were necessary to be elected. (Bullock, who opted not to run for reelection this year, is even less of a made-for-TV politician than Sharp.) Lobbyists and business leaders have traditionally relied on the lieutenant governor to keep the Legislature from spinning out of control. They determined who got campaign contributions, and outsiders (especially Republicans) need not apply. But Sharp’s opportunity to move up has occurred at the exact moment when the old order is on the brink of collapse. More and more, the determining factors in 1998 appear to be personality and party—and those strengths belong to Rick Perry.

Republican Versus Democrat

THIS IS THE YEAR TEXAS REPUBLICANS have been waiting for. All the fortunes of politics appear to be aligned in their favor: the unraveling of Bill Clinton, the popularity of George W. Bush, the catastrophic candidacy of Garry Mauro, and a huge advantage over the Democrats in fundraising. A GOP sweep of all statewide offices and both houses of the Legislature is getting more likely every day. The danger for Democrats is that their loyalists will be so dispirited that they won’t even bother to vote.

Republican candidates may be getting to the point where they hold an advantage once held by Democrats: Voters who know nothing about two candidates except which party they belong to tend to pick the Republican. Even when they recognize the Democrat, they may prefer an unknown Republican. Sharp holds a twenty-point advantage over Perry in name identification, but Perry has a small lead in most polls.

Sharp says that voters know and approve of the things he has done; they just don’t know he did them. “I’ve got to connect up the dots,” he says. He plans to spend more than $5 million on television, a gargantuan sum for a down-ballot race, to get the message out. Perry’s media strategy is to match Sharp in expenditures, focus on a couple of issues such as education and crime, look great, and end with a low-key plea: “If you agree with me, I’d like to be your lieutenant governor.” But his larger strategy is to freeze the ball: Stick to a few simple issues, don’t make any mistakes, grab Bush’s coattails, don’t make any mistakes, and let the clock run to November 3. It is a front-runner’s game plan, and GOP strategists are totally confident that it will work. The math is all on Perry’s side. If the turnout is 4.5 million—100,000 more than voted in 1994—and Bush gets 60 percent of the votes, he will pile up a 900,000 vote margin. To defeat Perry, Sharp would have to persuade 450,000 voters to abandon the GOP. If either the turnout or Bush’s margin is higher, Sharp will be have to reverse more than 500,000 votes: possible, but not likely. The best scenario for a Sharp victory is a low turnout among Republicans because of overconfidence: again, possible, but not likely.

Relations between the Bush and the Perry campaign staffs have been less than smooth at times. Perry’s camp complained when Bush hired Mark McKinnon of Austin, a former Democratic consultant, to handle the governor’s media campaign; Bush’s camp was miffed by a draft of a press release from the Perry campaign saying that Perry was happy to have Bush as a running mate. (It’s supposed to be the other way around.) More tension arose when Bush didn’t accept Perry’s recommendation for a judicial appointment. But Bush and Perry need each other too much to get mad. Perry, whose campaign hasn’t husbanded its money as well as Sharp’s has, needs Bush to help raise more money so that he can match Sharp on television. Bush has to have a Republican lieutenant governor so that his potential presidential rivals can’t use against him the argument that if he is elected president, he would have to turn over the governorship of the second-largest state to a Democrat. How important is this race to Bush’s future? Important enough that his father, the former president of the United States, has developed a deep interest in the Texas lieutenant governor’s race and is actively raising money for Rick Perry.

Aggie Versus Aggie

JUST AFTER LABOR DAY, SHARP’S FIRST TV spots began running in major markets. The first-strike strategy came as a surprise to Perry’s handlers, who had expected their opponent’s TV blitz to start in early October. This kind of ploy is a Sharp trademark; he loves to throw his rivals off balance and make them obsessed with what he is going to do next. In the early phase of the campaign, Perry took the bait. He put his energy into fighting for endorsements instead of getting up to speed on state issues. Reporting on Perry’s appearance at the Texas Farm Bureau’s state convention last fall, the newsletter of the conservative Lone Star Foundation described his talk as “top-heavy with sincerity and slogans and light on ideas concerning the office he seeks.” The commissioner of agriculture ended up losing the endorsement of the Farm Bureau.

Those directionless days appear to be over: Within a day of Sharp’s opening media salvo, Perry answered with media spots of his own. “Running for statewide office is the hardest thing I’ve ever done,” he told me. “I thought the freshman year at A&M was tough. Air Force flight training was tougher. Their job is to wash you out. But nothing I’ve ever done takes more discipline and focus than running a statewide race.”

The need for discipline and focus is not likely to dissipate after Election Day. Neither Sharp nor Perry can count on having the degree of power that Bob Bullock, and before him Bill Hobby, exercised. The powers of the lieutenant governor are not written in stone. No law bestows upon the lite-guv the right to name committee chairs, to appoint the membership of committees, to determine what senators can pass bills on what days. These powers are customary, and customs can change.

One custom that changed in 1997 is that the Senate majority became Republican for the first time in this century. The GOP caucus is unlikely to seize the powers of the lieutenant governor for itself, but it will be able to win concessions nevertheless. The wishes of a large bloc of senators with a common bond are something that no lieutenant governor can ignore. Formally the lieutenant governor’s powers will remain unchanged; in practice, some degree of the lite-guv’s power has already flowed out of his office to be absorbed by individual senators. Sharp or Perry will need to be extremely skillful (or extremely docile) to be effective. Whoever wins is likely to have some rough going in the 1999 legislative session.

And perhaps the winner will find the 2001 session a lot more to his liking: If George W. Bush makes it all the way to the White House, Rick Perry or John Sharp will become the next governor of Texas.

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