Rick Perry Runs for Redemption

After stumbling off the stage during his last presidential run and being indicted on criminal charges, Texas’ longest-serving and possibly most influential governor wants to redeem his political career.
by | April 15, 2015

This story was updated July 24, 2015 at 2:32 p.m.

By the time he left office earlier this year, Rick Perry had become the longest-serving governor in Texas history and one of its most influential.

"He definitely transformed the office," said Mark P. Jones, a political scientist at Rice University in Houston. "After 14 years of Rick Perry, no one views the office of governor as anything but the pinnacle of power in Texas."

For all his political success at home, Perry -- who officially launched his presidential campaign Thursday, June 4 -- remains best known nationally for his unsuccessful run for president nearly four years ago that culminated during a debate when he couldn't recall which three federal agencies he intended to eliminate. He simply said "oops."

He might be motivated to make a second bid by the desire to erase that memory. "He wants to show primary voters that the Rick Perry they saw in 2011 and 2012 was not the real Rick Perry," Jones said. "He may not even need to achieve any notable success in Iowa to redeem himself, just so the last political memory voters have nationwide is not 'oops' but rather a credible politician."

His presidential stumble didn't hurt him much in Texas. In the state, Perry changed the office, which is constitutionally weak compared to governors in other states. He made it clear that the governor didn't have to be weaker than the state's lieutenant governor, who oversees the state Senate.

Much of Texas state government is run by boards and commissions. Through sheer longevity, Perry, who first became governor after George W. Bush was elected president in 2000, was able to appoint every member of every board and commission -- sometimes more than once -- making major changes to health, insurance, taxes and higher education.

"He worked hard to appoint ... people who supported his worldview and his philosophy," said Dave Carney, a longtime consultant to Perry who isn't working for any 2016 candidate. "He was really able to transform how state government operated."

In addition to his appointment power, Perry played an active role in shaping the legislative agenda. He helped the Republican Party secure its majority in the Texas House by campaigning against incumbent Democrats -- something governors had not done before. If some legislators owed him politically, Perry pushed them to do what he wanted through his veto power and the ability to call special sessions. He was never a micromanager when it came to the legislative process, but he made it clear what he wanted.

Perry pushed through a set of tort reform measures, notably new limits on medical malpractice awards. He also signed off on abortion restrictions that have led a majority of clinics in the state to close. Texas is well-known for its pursuit of the death penalty, but Perry agreed to prison and probation reforms aimed at reducing recidivism, including more resources for rehabilitation and more secure beds for treatment of addiction.

Perry was a tireless champion of the idea that the state's low-tax, limited regulation approach, the so-called Texas model, was the key both to the state's record on job creation -- which was unmatched during the recession and much of the subsequent recovery -- and its enormous population growth.

Some said the state's abundant natural resources may have had more to do with it. But Perry touted his belief in the virtues of limited government not only at home but around the country, frequently appearing in other states (generally those led by Democrats) to encourage companies to move to Texas.

His pitch was usually backed by tax incentives and dollars he convinced the legislature to give him through the Texas Enterprise Fund. That fund has received considerable scrutiny in recent months from critics who question how much it really aided the state's economy. A scathing audit last fall questioned how grants were awarded; hundreds of millions of dollars apparently went to businesses and universities that had never formally applied.

"Perry was extraordinarily successful in locking down the Texas model and then selling that model nationally," said Cal Jillson, a political scientist at Southern Methodist University in Dallas.

Perry didn't get everything he wanted. He abandoned an effort to partially privatize infrastructure funding through a road network known as the Trans-Texas Corridor.

And, although conservatives were generally happy with Perry's approach, progressives found plenty to criticize. The state ranks at the bottom in terms of air quality and has the highest percentage of uninsured residents of any state (20 percent, compared to the national average of 13 percent), notes Phillip Martin, deputy director of Progress Texas, which promotes liberal policies.

Perry remains under indictment on charges he has denied and denounced as politically motivated. He's not a subtle politician. He has garnered controversy over the years with remarks hinting that he cast a favorable eye on secession and that then-Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke might get roughed up if he visited Texas. Last year, he conceded he had "stepped right in it" when he compared homosexuality to alcoholism.

The fact that Perry generally went over well in Texas may have contributed to his problems when he last stepped onto the national stage, suggests Jillson, the SMU professor.

"The way you campaign in Texas is to promise to pursue small government and low taxes," Jillson said. "He was so pitch-perfect campaigning in Texas, he internalized that so thoroughly, that when he stepped outside of Texas and tried to talk, it simply didn't work."

Perry's bid was initially undone not by his debate slip but by his position on immigration. Perry was proud of the Texas version of the Dream Act, allowing undocumented college students to pay in-state tuition rates.

Texas was the first state to adopt such a measure, back in 2001. "If you say that we should not educate children who come into our state for no other reason than that they've been brought there through no fault of their own, I don't think you have a heart," Perry said at a 2011 debate. That didn't play well at the time.

Portions of every governor's legacy get removed over time. The central idea that Perry stood for -- limited government and regulation -- predates his time in office, but will remain more firmly entrenched thanks to the fact that so many of his appointees remain in place. "If we're talking about historical legacy, Rick Perry is going to be around for a long time," said Matthew Eshbaugh-Soha, a University of North Texas political scientist.