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?

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

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