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], or Deirdre Delisi [his chief of staff], when we sit down in this room and we’re discussing an issue of the day, I don’t really care who you are. I want to hear what you have to say about it and whether it’s right or wrong.
ES: So for the record, Mike Toomey’s involvement on this issue had no bearing on your position whatsoever?
RP: Here is a point that you all have missed greatly. There is another company that makes the vaccine, GlaxoSmithKline, and I don’t have a clue who represents them, but I probably know that person. I probably had some relationship with him in the last 22 years. It may have been someone who worked in this office or worked somewhere else with me. I had no idea Mike Toomey represents Merck. It might kill Mike Toomey to hear me say that I don’t know his client list. I don’t, and I don’t pay attention to it. I guess there are a lot of people out there who don’t have strong enough ethical standards and they think they would be swayed. [I feel] sorry for them. Not me.
ES: Let me ask you about TXU. You felt strongly about its plans to build coal plants.
RP: I feel strongly about any company that will come and deliver energy for the state of Texas, whether it’s wind, nuclear, solar, coal, or natural gas. We have to have it, and I think that’s the real issue here. I had the chairman of Exelon in here in the last six months, and we’re working on two different nuclear sites with them. There was probably a time when people would have gotten all up in arms that we were for nuclear. Frankly, I think nuclear is the big savior.
ES: Time has passed since Three Mile Island.
RP: It has. On the coal plants, I think TXU did a horrible job of public relations, and they lost it. They lost that battle. But the fact is, they were going to build X number of plants and have 20 percent less emissions than what they have today and deliver 50 percent more electricity.
ES: Wasn’t the point of fast-tracking that we have a pressing need for that many plants?
RP: It’s still there.
ES: Yet in the buyout arrangement, TXU is going to build only three.
RP: That’s not what they said.
ES: I believe that’s what’s been reported.
RP: Not everything that’s reported is always factual.
ES: Well, tell me what’s factual then.
RP: What’s factual is that they said they’re only going to build three of the permitted, requested plants. That does not mean that they’re not going to build a plant somewhere else in the state of Texas. For instance, I would suggest to you, I wouldn’t be surprised at all if TXU goes up into the Panhandle and builds a fossil fuel plant to be a stable source of energy. One of the reasons I like the TXU buyout, frankly, is that the new company has committed to hundreds of millions of dollars of investment into alternative energy sources. I think we will be missing a great opportunity as a state if we don’t go to the Exxon Mobils, if we don’t go to the bigger or smaller companies that are in the energy development business and ask them to join the state in creating an alternative energy effort here that is bigger and better than in any other state. There can be a lot of jobs created and a lot of wealth created by innovation in alternative fuels.
ES: Did the environmentalists who complained about the TXU deal before the buyout announcement have a point?
RP: Let’s get down to the real issue of air quality. It’s not those plants. It’s those cars. When the environmentalists get as serious about stopping a plant as they should be about all those cars, then I think they’ll be honest.
ES: What do you do about that, Governor?
RP: The Trans-Texas Corridor. You know what happens in Houston. You know what happens in Dallas. In the early morning, if you’re flying into Dallas, the dark stuff that is coming up into the air—smog, as we would generally refer to it—starts along Interstate 35. By the end of the day, it’s all over that city. It’s being substantially driven by gridlock.
ES: If that’s true, why did 25 of 31 senators sign a piece of paper saying they oppose your transportation plan?
RP: I don’t know. Here’s what I’ve always asked of people: If you have a better idea, come to the table. Stopping the Trans-Texas Corridor is not a vision. It’s easy to say no. Republicans did it for years; they sat at the back of the House chamber and voted no.
ES: Republicans are doing it today. The state representatives who oppose you on this issue are Lois Kolkhorst, Dan Gattis—these are members of your party.
RP: You’re taking a little snapshot here in time. Check back in June and let’s see what has passed.
ES: On the Youth Commission issue, the big question around the Capitol is, What did Rick Perry know, and when did he know it? There are rumors that word about the dirty doings was being circulated as long ago as 2005. Care to enlighten us?
RP: Because there’s a lot of misinformation out there, you may want to have Deirdre give you the exact timeline. The fact of the matter is, we knew about this probably about the same time you did: when we read it in the Dallas Morning News.
ES: There was no knowledge at the staff level? No knowledge at the agency level?
RP: Here’s what I don’t want to do: I don’t want to say, “Absolutely not.” I don’t like to play the game of “I’m going to ask you a question,” and then you go back and say, “Aha!” You know, Scooter Libby had a little problem with that. I’m not under oath. It’s a good thing.
ES: What I don’t want to do, Governor, is present your answers as showing you as out of touch. Unless, that is, you are out of touch.
RP: The first time I knew about it was when I read about it in the Dallas Morning News. I think you’ll find that to be the correct piece of information.
ES: Correct as in accurate or correct as in the correct procedure?
ES: Because there are people who have compared what’s going on at the TYC to what’s going on at Walter Reed, where you have an agency of the federal government under the president’s control and people are saying that scandalous activities had been widely known for a long time.
RP: But I don’t think people did know about [the TYC]. Here’s where I think you guys are totally missing the story. You have a district attorney in Ward County who was given this information two years ago, and he sat on it—stuck it in a desk drawer. That’s why people ought to be outraged. If he was given a Texas Ranger report that is as heinous as it supposedly is, people ought to say, “Why in the hell is this local prosecutor still in office?” I’m interested in finding whether we have any ongoing problems and in fixing them. That’s the reason I asked Jay Kimbrough, who I have great faith in, to come in [as special master, the chief investigator in the TYC case]. He has a record of fixing broken agencies. As opposed to [House Democratic Caucus chairman] James Dunnam, who doesn’t really have an interest in finding a solution to this. He has an interest in stirring up political, partisan, venomous rhetoric. I’m intrigued that the Legislature has concerns, on the one hand, about the governor having too much authority and, on the other, in this case, not having enough authority. Which is it?
ES: There are some people in the Legislature who believe that conservatorship might have been the better course.
RP: The only difference between conservatorship and the course that we’re taking is that conservatorship requires you to get rid of the board. This board did not do anything wrong that I can find. [Editors’ note: On March 28 Perry reversed course and appointed Kimbrough the TYC’s conservator.]
ES: Do you have any theories about what went on?
RP: I don’t. And I think that to theorize is not particularly wise right now. I want Jay Kimbrough to be on the job, getting it done, not sitting here trying to play Who Knew What When. It is very clear to me that a piece of information was given to the Ward County district attorney, who totally and absolutely failed his constituents and the people of the state of Texas. I’m substantially more concerned about that DA and his lack of professionalism and responsibility than I am about a board being given certain information—and certain information was obviously withheld from them as well.
ES: Are you worried about possible congressional hearings on the TYC?
RP: If people are interested in finding a solution, I’m all for working with them. If they’re just witch-hunting and partisan-sniping, I don’t have time for them.
ES: There really is a lot going on, isn’t there?
RP: It’s a legislative session—we meant for it to be dense. And we initiated some big ideas. That’s good. It’s like when people ask me, “Do you have an interest in the national spotlight?” I’m like, “Absolutely, do I ever. I want Texas to be at the epicenter of a lot of debates.” Not because I want to go to Washington. I have the best job, and I want to stay here in the state of Texas.
ES: Since you brought it up, there’s an awful lot of speculation about you and the 2008 Republican presidential ticket. Are you prepared to say today that you would foreclose on the possibility of running for vice president?
RP: Yes, I am. Not interested. If John McCain asked me, I’d say, “I’m sorry, Senator. I respect you. I love you …” Mayor [Rudy] Giuliani: “You’re a great guy …” Mitt [Romney]: “You’re a fine governor … but you need to find somebody who has a passion to be your vice president. I don’t.”
ES: So you’ll serve out your term.
RP: And maybe run again.
ES: Yeah, I wanted to ask you about that. That’s come up a couple different times. There are people who say, “No, no, no, there’s no chance he’d run again.”
RP: There are people who run their mouths off all the time about what I may or may not do.
ES: So you’re saying—
RP: Absolutely. The first lady and I have had that conversation. She said, “You may want to run again. If there are big issues that still face this state, if you still have the passion and the joy of getting up every day and doing this, why not? You’re good at it. You love it. You make a difference.” And she said, “As I look around, I don’t see anybody better than you.” But that’s my wife.
ES: You’re going to break Lieutenant Governor [David] Dewhurst’s heart when he hears this. You know it.
RP: I break his heart every day. And I might be breaking somebody else’s heart. There are a lot of people who want to be governor.
ES: It might be Senator [Kay Bailey] Hutchison.
RP: It might be Roger Williams, my Secretary of State. It might be Roger Staubach. It might be a lot of people. Why would I say “I’m not going to run again” when we still have substantial issues that are important to me and, I think, important to this state? I’m not exactly an old guy. My health is still pretty good.
ES: When will you make your final determination?
RP: June of ‘09 would be a probable announcement date for me.
ES: Whether or not you run again, you have your legacy to think about. Just as some magazines might be inclined to speculate about the president’s legacy two years before he leaves office—
RP: I’ve seen some magazines that have done that.
ES: —there might be people who wonder now what the history books will say about you.
RP: I’ll let you guys in the magazine business go get ten people to write that, like you did on Bush. I’ve only got so much time in every day that I get to worry about what’s important, and what you may write about me or what my legacy may be is not something that particularly intrigues me. I’ve got a lot of stuff to do. We’ve got roads to build and agencies to fix and health care to be dispensed and cancers to cure. And that’s what I’m focusing on.