The One That Got Away
How Rick Perry turned into my Moby Dick.
Call me Ishmael. Or call me crazy. But I already miss Rick Perry.
Democrats mocked him as Governor Goodhair and Governor Oops, Slick Rick and Tricky Ricky, all the while losing elections, limbs, and legislatures to our great white whale. In our fallow period, no hero, scandal or idea has unified Texas Democrats as much as Perry. But he is abandoning us to seek redemption elsewhere, leaving us in Texas with our harpoons in our hands, denying us one last chance from hell’s heart to stab at him.
The legislature has gone home. The campaign season has begun. For the first time in my adult life, Perry’s not going to be on the ballot for a statewide office. As a Democratic political consultant, I have helped elect or re-elect more than thirty members of Congress. I had a hand in winning governorships in red states, including Oklahoma and South Carolina. But Rick Perry eluded me and everyone else who pursued him. He leaves the hunting grounds as both an unattained prize and an unfulfilled purpose.
Texas Democrats weren’t always like this. We used to occupy rival nation-states led by Ann Richards and Bob Bullock, later John Sharp and even Garry Mauro. As governor, George W. Bush co-opted our leaders and disoriented our ranks. By the time he ran for president, making partisan attacks was considered impolite in Austin. Texas Democrats were a disorganized and disoriented bunch. In some ways, this was a high-water mark.
Perry ascended to the governor’s mansion with less time and effort than is usually required to pay off one’s college loans. And like college loan payments, he kind of snuck up on us. After all this time, it’s hard to remember when that “grand, ungodly, godlike man” became the star we trained our sextant on because at first, he was just there.
I did not set out in my quest to beat Rick Perry. Some political causes are born monomaniacal. Some choose monomania. Others have it thrust upon them. Just as Ishmael gradually discovered the hidden purpose of the Pequod’s voyage, I was slow to discover that getting rid of Rick Perry wouldn’t be so easy.
Frankly, none of us took him seriously at first. We laughed when he had the Senate chamber closed so he could practice gaveling like a real lieutenant governor. When he took over for Bush, Texas Democrats had an image fixed in our minds of a party-switcher who was definitely vulnerable in 2002.
Why did we spend the last decade seeking revenge? He has injured our body politic so often that it’s hard to remember when he first took our leg. Listing his offenses—mid-decade redistricting, cutting services for the middle and working classes to pay for tax cuts for the wealthy, cronyism that redefined business-as-usual—only retroactively rationalizes our fixation on Perry.
Before “oops,” before “Adios, mofo,” there was “Why don’t you just let us get on down the road?” His attempt to bully a female DPS officer into not ticketing his driver for speeding looked as callow as we thought him to be, but also entitled to power he hadn’t exactly earned. In another’s hands, the Trans-Texas Corridor would have seemed ambitious. Perry proposing once-in-a-generation reforms to the state’s highway system looked presumptuous. And vetoing 79 bills on Jun. 17, 2001—a record—came across as dictatorial, capricious, and petty. We felt he didn’t deserve the office and didn’t know what to do with it.
Behind the bad governing, we didn’t notice Perry’s premeditated political ferocity. Like Moby Dick attacking the boats instead of swimming away, he reveled in political attacks. When the Dream Team lost, we chalked it up to 9/11 and to Tony Sanchez’s faults, not giving credit to the assassin’s creed that characterized Perry’s team. We still thought we could out-smart him.
Effective governance continued to elude him as negative assessments of his reign of error began to take hold among Texans. I took my first shot at Perry in 2006 when I managed the gubernatorial campaign of Chris Bell, a Democrat looking for luck in all the wrong places. The Democratic donor base thought it could beat him with Comptroller Carole Strayhorn, a Republican running as an Independent, a fantasy Kinky Friedman shared. Perry exploited the three-way split in his opposition. It doesn’t matter how many whaling boats we set after Rick Perry. He was still a pissed-off whale.
Perry’s animal cunning was never as perfect as it was when he faced his two greatest foes at once, Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison and Houston Mayor Bill White. On April 15, 2009, tea party rallies took place all across the country. Perry was the most prominent politician to embrace them. His opponents thought he’d lost it when he fielded that question about secession, when in fact he’d struck the right note for a radical time. The race played itself out, but it was already over.
I took my last shot at Perry when he ran for president. With coauthor James Moore, I sold the idea to write Adios, Mofo: Why Rick Perry Will Make America Miss George W. Bush. Thinking I had finally outsmarted Perry, I imagined television appearances, best-seller lists and speaking gigs. When he dropped in the polls, our publisher dropped our book deal. Even when he lost, he still beat me.
But the Republican primary had exposed his weakness. He couldn’t defend himself on immigration to nativist Republicans. The “oops” moment capped a short campaign when he looked uncharacteristically unprepared, defensive, and weak. Republicans in Texas felt comfortable challenging his rule openly for the first time, exposing cracks in his base. A poll showed Texans wanted someone new for governor by a two-to-one margin. For the first time in a decade, Perry looked ready to lose.
And then he announced his “exciting future plans.” Moby Dick seeks us not. It was always Texas Democrats who madly pursued Perry, and he leaves us “living on with half a heart and half a lung” with an “intangible malignity” that is “all truth with malice in it.” Perhaps in swimming away Perry has spared us, but it feels like he’s stealing our last chance to beat him. Whether with Wendy Davis or the Castro twins, Texas Democrats will come back, but we will never be as united as when we had Rick Perry to drive us all mad together.