In mid-September, Governor Rick Perry traveled to Washington for a fundraiser and a meeting with reporters. It was a routine trip that did not figure to be newsworthy. During a press conference, however, a journalist asked about an execution that had taken place on Perry’s watch in 2004. This was the now familiar story of Cameron Todd Willingham, who had been convicted of the murder of his three young daughters in a house fire that investigators had found to be arson—a conclusion that experts have since said was based on dubious scientific evidence.
Perry responded with characteristic vehemence. “I’m familiar with the latter-day supposed experts on the arson side of it,” he said. He accompanied his unflattering description of the “experts” by making quote marks in the air with his fingers. When the governor returned to Texas, an obscure state board, the Texas Forensic Science Commission, was preparing to hear damning testimony about the case from a highly regarded fire expert. With the press corps in full feeding-frenzy mode, Perry moved swiftly to get control of the situation. Two days before the commission was scheduled to meet, he replaced three of its members, including the chairman (see “ Separated at Death”).
But Perry’s power play at the Forensic Science Commission raises questions that are entirely separate from the Willingham case. How should Texas be governed? Is the state constitution of 1876, which established the governorship as a weak office with few powers, outdated? Does Texas need a strong governor’s office capable of running a state of nearly 25 million people, allowing the chief executive full control over state agencies? Or has the governorship become so strong in the Perry years that the constitution should be changed in a way that prevents the governor from amassing too much power, which is what the framers intended?
Everything that state government does—educating kids, protecting the environment, building highways, regulating insurance companies, operating prisons, even overseeing state-licensed barbers and beauticians—is ultimately the responsibility of boards like the Forensic Science Commission. The governor’s main power comes from the opportunity to appoint citizens to serve on these boards, typically for six-year terms.