FOR THE PAST TWENTY YEARS, Mike Toomey has loomed large in state government, as imposing and immovable—and some would say as cold—as the pink-granite Capitol itself. First as a Republican legislator, then as the Capitol’s premier business lobbyist, and now as chief of staff to his longtime friend Governor Rick Perry, the intense 53-year-old Houston lawyer has promoted a steadfast conservative agenda with little tolerance for compromise with—or mercy for—his adversaries. These include Democrats, plaintiffs lawyers, opposing lobbyists, and anybody else who stands in his way. His nickname, Mike the Knife, originally referred to his budget-cutting proposals as a legislator but now conveniently describes his propensity to carve up his enemies. With his encyclopedic knowledge of state government and his reputation as a ruthless political operative, he is positioned to help Perry challenge the old saw that the governorship of Texas is a constitutionally weak office. He is unquestionably the most powerful—and the most feared—nonelected person in Texas politics today.
And so, at the beginning of my interview with Toomey in his oak-paneled Capitol office, I was surprised when he mentioned how much he had enjoyed a job he had held to put himself through Baylor University, working as an aide in a treatment center for emotionally disturbed teenagers. Mike Toomey providing solace for troubled youths? The same Mike Toomey who is determined to slash social programs in the state budget, who as a hard-nosed business lobbyist campaigned to defeat lawmakers who dared vote against him, who is credited with getting his enemies in the lobby fired? Had I missed something in my research? I was struggling to conjure a mental picture of Toomey comforting adolescents when he explained: “I was basically in charge of discipline,” he said, fixing his steady gaze on me, “the heavy when the kids got out of hand. I was the enforcer of the rules.”
Of course. The enforcer.
THE STAKES IN THIS FIRST legislative session of the Republican era are sky-high. The state faces a mammoth $9.9 billion budget shortfall, for which the Perry-Toomey solution has been to cut spending rather than raise taxes. Perry is also pushing for a sweeping reform of tort laws that will make it harder for injured people to win big jury awards against business. Sometime in the next few weeks, Perry is likely to find himself in a battle with Lieutenant Governor David Dewhurst, a fellow Republican and the leader of the state Senate, who favors more spending, with the help of “non-tax revenue,” and a more balanced, though still strongly pro-business, approach to tort reform. The winner will determine whether the primary power over legislation in general and the budget in particular remains with the Legislature, as the authors of the 127-year-old state constitution intended, or flows to the governor—a development that was unthinkable as recently as the previous legislative session, in 2001.
The old ideas about Texas government are in jeopardy. They may prove to be relics of a dead political tradition, one that was rural, Democratic, and loosely organized. Today, a new political tradition is being established, one that is suburban, Republican, and tightly controlled. At the heart of that new tradition are Rick Perry and his enforcer, Mike Toomey. With a huge mandate from the voters, unassailable Republican majorities in both the state House and the Senate, and a major budget crisis that justifies gubernatorial intervention, Perry is poised to become the most powerful governor of modern times. And Toomey is providing the brains and the muscle.
In the Capitol game of Clue this year, he is everyone’s favorite suspect: Mike Toomey did it, in the governor’s office, with—what else?—the knife. Why did the Texas Medical Association part company with its longtime lobbyist, Kim Ross, last December? Because Perry told the doctors’ group that his office would not work with them as long as Ross was around. (The TMA backed Perry’s Democratic opponent, Tony Sanchez, in the 2002 governor’s race after Perry, at Toomey’s urging on behalf of two clients, vetoed the doctors’ top-priority bill in 2001.) Why did the State Preservation Board, dominated by Perry appointees, fire its executive director, former GOP legislator Rick Crawford, whose tenure included the construction of the highly regarded Bob Bullock Texas State History Museum? Because Crawford refused Toomey’s request for his resignation, his apparent sin being friendship with Perry’s archenemy, former Democratic House Speaker Pete Laney. Why did several Democratic representatives have a change of heart in late March and vote for a proposed constitutional amendment limiting lawsuit awards? Could it be because the governor’s office informed them that funding for a regional health center in the Rio Grande Valley and a medical school for El Paso depended upon local lawmakers’ support for the tort-reform bill? Many more dark and dirty deeds are attributed to him without proof, as occurred with Karl Rove in the Bush years.
After two decades as one of the leading political operatives at the Capitol, Toomey has accumulated the skill and the will to influence every issue of consequence. And all the indicators are that Perry is ready to let him do so. The two men have been friends since they served in the House together, in the mid-eighties, when Perry was still a Democrat. As their career paths diverged in the late eighties—Perry leaving the Legislature to run statewide for agriculture commissioner as a Republican, Toomey leaving to operate behind the scenes—the friendship became even closer, as Toomey became Perry’s most trusted adviser. (Their relationship transcends politics; Toomey served as Perry’s attorney in a deal involving Perry’s sale of prime residential land to computer magnate Michael Dell for a $330,000 profit.) When Perry stumbled through his first two years as governor, Toomey blamed bad staff work. Eventually, Perry prevailed on him last fall to give up an annual income that is widely thought to have been in the seven figures to take the job as chief of staff.
In addition to unquestioned loyalty, Toomey brings to the job a work ethic that has been legendary since 1985,