Rick Perry built his career as the longest-serving U.S. governor using the “bird-hunting rule of Texas politics,” fellow Republican Bill Ratliff said.
“You shoot at anything that flies,” said Ratliff, who has known the governor since Perry was in the state Legislature in the 1980s. “And you claim anything that falls.”
Perry, 61, who once gunned down a coyote with his .380 Ruger while jogging, has said he’s “thinking about” a bid for the Republican nomination for the White House. A former Democrat who ran Al Gore’s 1988 presidential campaign in Texas, Perry has never lost a race in the second most-populous U.S. state. Re-elected three times, he has been governor for a record 10 years.
“Of all the people likely to jump in, he could have an effect,” said David P. Redlawsk, Rutgers University politics professor in New Brunswick, New Jersey. “Polling shows there is unhappiness with the Republican field,” he said. “He could pull them together.”
Perry, who in April 2009 didn’t dismiss a suggestion that Texas could secede from the union to escape U.S. mandates, may rally followers of the Tea Party movement to his side. He based his 2010 re-election campaign partly on anti-Washington themes.
“I am proud to call myself a conservative, not just because I’m from Texas, but because conservatives have won the war of ideas,” Perry told a political gathering in New York City this month. His stances have attracted followers including Ted Nugent, the guitarist and gun-rights advocate, who played at Perry’s 2007 inaugural celebration. The performance drew criticism from Republicans because of a Confederate flag adorning the musician’s shirt and Nugent’s coarse language.
The governor’s 2010 book, “Fed Up,” attacks expanding federal power. In a Fox News interview with Neil Cavuto this month, Perry suggested that he regards himself as a visionary.
“A prophet generally is not loved in their hometown,” Perry said when asked why he is sometimes unpopular in Texas. “That’s both biblical and practical.”
Perry declined a request for an interview through Catherine Frazier, a spokeswoman. He said May 27 he would consider running for the Republican nomination once the Texas Legislature is out of session, the San Antonio Express-News reported. The Legislature is scheduled to adjourn today.
Raised on a West Texas farm that lacked running water, Perry followed his father, Ray, into politics in 1984, winning a seat in the state House of Representatives as a Democrat. Switching parties in 1989, he rose to lieutenant governor and succeeded George W. Bush when Bush was elected president in 2000.
Adjusting His Message
Perry has won at the polls by reading the political wind and adjusting his message, said Ratliff, a former lieutenant governor. In one example, starting in 2007, Perry criticized Bush over a growing mountain of federal debt. Yet since 2009, state agencies and colleges and universities have received $13.1 billion from President Barack Obama’s economic-stimulus initiative, according to a comptroller’s report.
Texas has racked up the largest growth in jobs and population among U.S. states while amassing a deficit estimated to be at least $15 billion for the coming two years. The state created more than 251,000 jobs in the 12 months through March, U.S. Labor Department figures show.
The population surged by about 3.9 million in the past decade, giving the state four new seats in Congress, the biggest gain for any state, U.S. Census Bureau figures show. Since December 2000, payroll jobs in Texas have grown by more than 1 million, while total U.S. employment was little changed, said Richard Froeschle, deputy director of Labor Market and Career Information at the Texas Workforce Commission. He said the state has led the nation in nongovernment employment expansion in three of the past four years.
“A lot of the job growth in Texas has occurred in lower-wage industries, which is problematic but also no different than in other states,” Froeschle said in an interview. Industries adding the most jobs over the decade include temporary agencies and health-care companies, he said.
“People and companies are coming to Texas because of good public policy that includes low taxes,” said Merrill Matthews, a resident scholar at the Institute for Policy Innovation, a conservative research center in Dallas that advocates for lower taxes and smaller government.
While Perry has traveled to U.S. cities, including New York, touting his state’s business-friendly environment, corporate leaders are campaigning against plans to cut higher-education spending while short-changing primary and secondary schools by $4 billion in the two years that begin in September.
‘Risky’ Spending Cuts
Executives including Ed Whitacre, a former chairman of Dallas-based AT&T Inc., have said that taking that much out of school funding may make the state less competitive internationally and domestically. Texas ranks 43rd in graduation rates among U.S. states, according to the Legislative Budget Board in Austin.
“For Texas to cut $4 billion from public-school funding now, when a better-educated Texas can be a bulwark against future recessions, seems unwise, not conservative and, in fact very risky,” said Charles C. Butt, chairman of H.E. Butt Grocery Co. in San Antonio, in a letter published June 10 in the Houston Chronicle.
Under the budget passed by lawmakers for the 2012-2013 fiscal years that begin in September, public schools have started firing teachers and boosting class sizes, while colleges and universities will get $1.2 billion less than in the current biennium. The spending plan, which doesn’t raise taxes or use reserve funds, has prompted a group that includes 250 business executives from different industries and political parties to advocate against weakening higher education.
The governor has appointed regents favoring research restrictions to oversee the University of Texas and Texas A&M University, the state’s top schools for research. Perry, an A&M graduate, also has sought the creation of degree programs that would cost students $10,000 or less to complete.
“We’re faced with serious questions about the validity of academic research when the rest of the world is aspiring to our model,” said Charles Tate, a member of the education-advocacy group.
“People are justifiably concerned that serious damage may be done,” said Tate, a private-equity investor who started Capital Royalty LP in Houston and has given to Perry’s campaigns.
Perry, a fifth-generation Texan, rose from his parents’ tenant cotton farm in Haskell County near Paint Creek, about 200 miles (320 kilometers) northwest of Dallas, to attend Texas A&M in College Station, majoring in animal science. His father served in local government as a county commissioner and school board member, according to the governor’s official biography.
After college, Perry joined the U.S. Air Force to pilot C-130 tactical aircraft in the U.S., Europe and the Middle East.
Limited government with low taxes are deeply held beliefs for Perry, according to people who know him, including Greg Biehle, an Austin veterinarian and a friend since college.
“His convictions are very strong and he doesn’t back away from a fight,” Biehle said in an interview. His politician friend often takes the time to talk to people one-on-one and has “an affinity with senior citizens,” the veterinarian said.
Biehle, who has taken care of Perry’s dogs and gone on dozens of hunting and fishing trips with him, said the governor has an “amazing knowledge” of military history. Perry left the Air Force as a captain.
“When we’re sitting around a campfire, the conversation usually centers on family issues,” Biehle said. Typically, discussions involved their children’s activities in school, in church or in the community and challenges they faced, he said.
Perry and Anita Thigpen, who met at an elementary school piano recital, were married in 1982 and have two adult children. Anita worked in health care after graduating from college with a nursing degree and earning a master’s in the subject.
Perry’s thoughts of running for president have become more evident in recent months, Biehle said. “There was a time when I really thought he would not run, but certain directions that the country has taken have really bothered him,” he said.
In 1984, Perry ran for and won a seat in the state House of Representatives as a Democrat. Re-elected in 1988, he led Gore’s campaign efforts in Texas when the then-senator from Tennessee sought the Democratic presidential nomination that year.
Soon after, Perry followed the example of Phil Gramm, then a U.S. Senator, and became a Republican, joining a growing number of Democrats fed up with the direction their party was taking. Gramm, once a Texas A&M economics teacher, had resigned from the House in January 1983 as Democrat and was returned to the seat as a Republican in a special election a month later. In 1984 he was elected to the first of three six-year terms in the U.S. Senate.
Party ‘Left Them’
“Conservative Democrats found themselves without a party” in the mid-1980s, said Ratliff, the former lieutenant governor. “They didn’t leave the Democratic Party; they said the party left them.”
Helped by Texas political consultant Karl Rove, Perry won his first statewide race in 1990, to become agriculture commissioner. He was re-elected in 1994, the year Bush became governor. In 1998, Perry was elected lieutenant governor; he took over the top spot in December 2000 after Bush resigned to prepare for his inauguration as president.
Perry has been elected governor in his own right three times, winning his third full term in November with about 55 percent of the vote over Democrat Bill White, a former Houston mayor. The governor earlier beat back a primary challenge, defeating U.S. Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison by almost 21 percentage points, Texas Secretary of State records show.
He’s the only Texas governor since World War II to cut general-fund spending from the previous biennium and has remained opposed to introducing an income tax.
As its population grew during the past decade, Texas led the U.S. in job growth with a gain of about 880,000, according to data compiled by Bloomberg. The performance stemmed from low taxes, predictable regulation and a diverse workforce, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce said in a June 20 report. Texas ranked 49th among U.S. states in terms of per-capita taxes, at $1,434 a year in 2005, according to a 2009 U.S. Census Bureau report.
Perry has managed the state much the way it has been run since the days of Reconstruction following the Civil War, said James Galbraith, an economics professor at the state-supported University of Texas in Austin. The state has always kept taxes low and limited the size of its government, he said.
“Crediting low taxes and limited regulation for Texas’s good years is like saying that California’s economy can be attributed to the Pacific Ocean,” said Galbraith. “Yeah, the Pacific Ocean is there, but low taxes and limited regulation have always been there in Texas, too.”
By the time Perry finished his first decade as governor in December, the state faced its worst-ever budget crisis with a projected two-year deficit estimated to be at least $15 billion. Texas took on more of the cost of funding public schools to provide property tax relief to residents in 2006, yet receipts from business taxes it imposed have fallen short, leading to the outcry from business leaders.
“The public wants smaller government, but not at the expense of services they support,” said Richard Murray, who teaches politics at the University of Houston. “Education is one of those services they support.”
Perry has shown resilience even when buffeted by critics from within his own party.
The governor’s support for the Trans Texas Corridor project, a $183.5 billion plan to build toll roads alongside railroad tracks and pipelines, didn’t defeat him, though his party opposed it. He won re-election even after seeking to have sixth-grade girls immunized against cervical cancer with Merck & Co.’s Gardasil. Republicans fought that proposal, too.
“I think Perry has a certain amount of Teflon,” said Ratliff, the Republican who followed him as lieutenant governor. “When he stumbles he just rolls with it, avoids the question and recovers. That’s a real talent when you’re in politics.”
Perry sidestepped controversy last year after he replaced members of the Texas Forensic Science Commission as they were looking into the handling of evidence in a 1991 arson case. The fire led to a death sentence for Cameron Todd Willingham, whose fate became the subject of a September 2009 New Yorker magazine article that asked whether an innocent man had been executed.
Raised as a Methodist, Perry now attends Austin’s nondenominational Lake Hills Church, where services feature loud rock-inspired music. The congregation’s website includes quotations from scripture, including one that describes the Bible as “truth without any mixture of error.”
He makes his Christian faith part of his public persona. On June 6, he declaring Aug. 6 “a day of prayer and fasting for our nation’s challenges” and invited fellow governors to Houston for the all-day event. In April, he called for prayers for rain after drought led to wildfires that have scorched more than 3.2 million acres and destroyed at least 400 homes in the state this year.
Earlier this month, in a speech colored with religious references, Perry told an Americans United for Life meeting in Los Angeles that he was proud of signing a law that requires pregnant women to undergo a sonogram examination before they can have an abortion. The group started in 1971 to promote alternatives to abortion.
‘Breaks My Heart’
“We believe that unborn children deserve the respect of recognition before their lives are tragically cut short,” Perry said in his prepared remarks. He said “it breaks my heart” that there are 80,000 abortions in Texas each year.
Perry is a fitness enthusiast who for about 20 years has joined a running club three mornings a week for workouts led by Paul R. Carrozza, owner of Austin’s four-store RunTex Inc. shoe and apparel chain. At one point four or five years ago, Perry ran a 5-kilometer (3-mile) course in 21 minutes, said Carrozza, who also worked out with Bush.
“Athletics is a reflection of someone’s personality and Rick stays on a program, he does the real hard work and he’s not a poser,” said Carrozza, who has urged Perry to run for president. “He’s been groomed for this for a lifetime. He’s the right guy at the right time.”