Evan Smith: When I interviewed you during your reelection campaign last fall, we talked about the likelihood that you wouldn’t get a majority of the votes cast, and you said, “Whatever percentage I get on Election Day, on the day after Election Day I’m going to be 100 percent governor.” Yet since your inauguration in January, we’ve seen the blowup over the human papillomavirus vaccine, in which the people attacking were primarily Republicans; the scrutiny over your fast-tracking of TXU’s proposed coal plants, and again, Republicans are as agitated as Democrats; and now the Texas Youth Commission scandal, which is still unfolding but some folks want to associate it with you as well. Is this the start you intended to get off to? Are you the 100 percent governor you said you’d be?
Rick Perry: Every issue that they’re talking about, we instigated.
ES: “They” meaning the Legislature.
RP: Or the media, the citizenry. We instigated, with HPV, a national debate, and I think appropriately. As a matter of fact, the more I know about this disease, the more I know that we are absolutely, unequivocally correct. I don’t think anyone had any idea that it was as widespread or as costly. I tell my Republican friends, “If you want to focus on the good old fiscal side of it, we spend $350 million per biennium on this disease with cancer treatments and hysterectomies and the cost to the state.”
ES: But the objection wasn’t so much the money as the state’s imposing its will.
RP: We impose every day. We impose on how fast you got here. We impose on how we build roads. We impose on what courses a child takes at school. What I’m substantially more concerned with is that ten years from now, I’m going to run into a 25-year-old woman at the grocery store who’s dying of cervical cancer and have to explain to her why I had the ability and the authority to mandate that vaccine, to make that vaccine available, but didn’t have the courage to do it.
ES: What do you tell your Republican friends who have a moral issue with HPV—the ones who say, “The governor is encouraging and enabling young girls to have sex”?
RP: It’s my responsibility to teach my daughter the morals of her life, and I think it’s that way with everyone. If we had developed a vaccine to prevent lung cancer, I don’t think a lot of people would say, “Oh, hell, let’s start smoking.” I don’t think this is going to promote a sexually active lifestyle—this is about a disease. I respect their position. I just happen to think it’s wrong.
ES: A number of Republicans in the Legislature have been critical of the way you and your staff handled the rollout of the issue. Anything you’d like to go back and redo?
RP: I’ll leave everybody to their own Monday morning quarterbacking. I have to lead the state.
ES: You know, surely, that the Legislature has a point of view on the balance of power. Constitutionally speaking, this has always been a “weak governor” state. You can take any position you want, but the Legislature is supposed to do the heavy lifting on issues.
RP: I’ve been [at the Capitol] for 22 years, so I know you’re correct. I know how things work. I didn’t just get up at my State of the State address and say [for the first time],“We’ll mandate HPV.” I’d already said it back in September, though it didn’t get a lot of coverage. To do it [in the State of the State] got everybody’s attention, created exactly the type of media focus and legislative focus [we wanted]. I knew that the Legislature was in town. If they thought that this was bad public policy, they’d have 140 days to debate it openly and vigorously. Which, I suspect, is what they’re going to do.
ES: One of your close advisers told me within the last week that the HPV deal was dead. You’re not prepared to say that yourself?
RP: No. And the reason I’m not is that I’ve looked too many young women in the face who are dying of cancer. That’s what this is about.
ES: Did the press make too much about your former chief of staff Mike Toomey’s involvement in this as a lobbyist for Merck, one of the manufacturers of the vaccine?
RP: The press always makes too much about people’s involvement. When your opponents by and large don’t have a better idea, or they don’t have the courage to stand up to you, they try to deflect. One of the things that’s always been a bit frustrating to me, Evan, is that ever since I started running for major statewide offices, in 1997, my opponents have always tried to say, “Rick Perry has ethical lapses.” I know I’m not supposed to repeat negatives, but I brought this one up myself. The fact is that if I were ethically challenged, I would have been investigated, convicted, and out of office by now. I’ve been highly ethical in the way I run my office. We have the most ethical revolving-door policy that the governor’s office has ever had. I just think this is a drip-drip-drip story of some guy who worked here however many years ago representing a client.
ES: With all due respect, Governor, he’s not just “some guy who worked here however many years ago.” He’s a very powerful man.
RP: Very powerful in what sense?
ES: He’s a very powerful lobbyist. You know that.
RP: No, he’s not. He’s just another guy. Mike Toomey or Cliff Johnson or, you know—name the names—are just, as far as I’m concerned, people who live in this town and represent their clients.
ES: Once they’re gone from your office, they’re equal to everyone else.
RP: They’re equal when they’re here as well. Whether you’re Robert Black [the governor’s press secretary], Josh Havens [one of his press aides],