Heir to the Throne

by Jenny Staff


Perry with Democratic House Speaker Pete Laney

Perry (L) with Democratic House Speaker Pete Laney: Friendly bipartisanship or temporary expediency?

photograph by Jana Birchum

How does one practiceto be governor of Texas? Rick Perry readied himself to be lieutenant governor with an afternoon of practice gavel-whacking in the Senate Chamber while bewildered reporters waited outside. The gavel, you see, is the symbol of the lieutenant governor's leadership of the Texas Senate, hence Perry's desire to appear facile in its use. In a way that's appropriate, since according to many observers, Perry's main goal this session has been to provide ceremonial leadership down at the Senate and to keep things nice and quiet so his boss doesn't have anything unpleasant to answer for in his presidential campaign.

But if George Bush becomes president, Perry would move up to the Governor's Mansion. As Sen. Drew Nixon sees it, Perry would be a nice follow-up act to Bush, since the governorship "is more of a ceremonial role" than the lieutenant governor's. In his annual state of the state address, "Bush painted a broad brush of where he wanted to go, [but] I don't think we've gone anywhere he wanted to go. [Perry] is a lot like Governor Bush in that way," said the Carthage Republican. "He has a direction, but he's not vengeful or overhanded in trying to accomplish it."

Despite any desire to lay low, Perry took some early hits -- including an early bashing in an Austin American-Statesman editorial for his comments touting economic development as the most important issue for the upcoming legislative session. Critics took his comments as evidence that Perry was overconfident and politically tone deaf, since the state's business climate is off-the-charts and social services still rank among the worst funded in the country. Ray Sullivan, Perry's (and Bush's former) press secretary felt that "someone at the Statesman was still sore about the election results" (the daily had endorsed John Sharp), but says his boss' relationship with the paper has improved since then, a claim supported by a subsequent editorial designed to make nice with Perry.

Maybe it was partly Bob Bullock backlash. Bullock's legend is such that Molly Ivins attributed George W.'s first-term success to the fact that he "did what Bob Bullock told him to do for four years." An exaggeration perhaps, but a good point -- in his crucial first term, Bush had the benefit of Bullock's vast institutional and political memory. It's uncertain, on the other hand, whom Perry would choose as his second in command -- he doesn't have to choose one at all, according to the Texas Constitution -- but his choice wouldn't likely have the political gravity that Bullock added to the Bush administration.

If Perry looks like a political novice compared to Bullock, at least he's easy to get along with. As one aide to a prominent Democratic senator noted, "He's a lot more laid-back than we'd been used to; a lot more senator-friendly. We've ratcheted down the energy level tremendously."

Ironically, though, Perry's laid-back style may have cost him one of his highest legislative priorities -- tort reform -- and caused one of the bigger stews in what had been a relatively peaceful Senate session until the hate crimes bill. Two major tort reform initiatives -- one allowing plaintiffs to divide awards among several liable sources, and another limiting the size of class-action lawsuits -- were scuttled after one of Perry's main acolytes, Sen. Troy Fraser, R-Horseshoe Bay, let them cool their heels for weeks in his own Technology and Business Development subcommittee of the Economic Development Committee -- a committee that Perry had created specially for Fraser. When the bills were finally voted out of committee, they failed by one vote each to get the two-thirds necessary to be heard on the Senate floor. Texas senators are chronically averse to having to take votes on controversial issues that are doomed to failure, especially when those votes might come back to haunt them in their re-election campaigns. Senate Republicans reportedly caucused for two hours in search of a scapegoat for forcing the unpopular vote; Sens. David Sibley and Teel Bivins decided to take the heat.

Rumor had it that senators were similarly irritated on March 29 when Perry forced a vote on an ill-fated school voucher proposal. It's perhaps the issue with which Perry's campaign was most closely associated, and the one he was expected to push for the hardest. Perry's campaign was famously funded by a $1 million loan guaranteed by Jim Leininger, the San Antonio conservative millionaire who champions school vouchers and tort reform. Though the issue has remained hot throughout the session, conspicuously absent from the proceedings has been the kind of Perry arm-twisting that his campaign contributor list might indicate. And the voucher plan has been scaled so far back that, as one Capitol observer put it, "I think three kids in Amarillo are getting gift certificates to McDonald's," and even that may not pass.

Perry watchers have varying explanations for the fate of school vouchers this session -- and for Perry's failure to fight harder or more publicly on their behalf: The first theory holds that he's not really a true believer in the conservative causes advocated by those who helped elect him. One source close to Sharp said vouchers "are not something [Perry] is personally interested in." The source went on to surmise that "You can tell a lot about somebody from their former occupation. [Former lieutenant governor] Ben Barnes was a vacuum cleaner salesman when in college; he continues to be. Perry was an A&M yell leader -- he's mostly doing cheers he's been taught."

Perry with Democratic House Speaker Pete Laney
photograph by Jana Birchum

The second explanation is that he is a true believer in the voucher issue -- among others -- but that he's laying low until assumption of the governorship allows him to reveal his true colors. His work on the doomed voucher program is just "a down payment," according to one Perry watcher.

Yet a third explanation is that Perry is simply learning the ropes and building relationships with legislators before making a serious run at an issue that has proved controversial among voters and politicos alike. Of course, passing a voucher bill -- or any other bill -- could be tougher for Perry if he ascends to Texas' top spot. Moving from the lieutenant governorship to the governorship proper would actually be a demotion, as students of the Texas Constitution are well aware. It's a weaker office, since the lieutenant governor wields more control over which bills pass through the Legislature, though the governor's appointment power over the members of the boards and commissions that help run the state bureaucracy makes up for it some.

Sen. Nixon deems Perry's position a smart one. An opponent of Perry's on vouchers (tort reform too), Nixon said Perry was simply ceding to political realities. "If the votes aren't there, what are you going to do? He talked to all of us several times. We were just fundamentally not there. He respected that." Nixon said Perry hasn't exacted any political price from Republicans who opposed vouchers, though it's within his power to do so. "If he had wanted to be an ass about it, he could have," said Nixon.

There's evidence that Perry is not above playing politics, however, as illustrated by the case of Dallas Sen. David Cain's property tax cut for small businesses. The bill would exempt from taxation the personal business property of small business owners (computers, file cabinets, and the like), up to $10,000. The bill has been on the intent calendar a couple of times, but has not been recognized by the lieutenant governor.

According to Perry's camp, the lieutenant governor is simply staying the course he and Bush set out in their campaigns. "It's pretty simple," says press secretary Sullivan. "Rick Perry ran a positive, focused campaign on three main issues: safe streets, the best schools in America, and economic opportunity." Sullivan says Perry has delivered on the safe streets promise through legislation, including an anti-gang package, changes to drug and sex offender laws, and on the "best schools" promise through an increase in the state share of education funding, a master reading teachers' program, and a $4,000 per year pay raise for public school teachers (an initiative strongly associated, ironically, with Bush's gubernatorial opponent, Garry Mauro). As for the economic opportunity plank of his platform, Perry's spokesman touts a mixture of tax cuts and tax incentives, including a $1.1 billion property tax cut and "Five or six million dollars in tax cuts for small businesses, consumers, oil pumpers, and research and development." Sullivan also cited the success of tort reform legislation, including a "Good Samaritan liability" measure, which protects doctors and nurses who volunteer their services for non-profit agencies, though critics say this reform is small potatoes compared to the other reforms he failed to pass.

Asked which particular legislation or issues best typify Perry, his governing style, and his philosophy, Sullivan refused to highlight a particular accomplishment. "There are too many bills to single out. Most of what Perry and Bush campaigned on has passed the Senate."

Perry's office trumpets his bipartisanship, and indeed, his committee chairmanship assignments reflect that Perry understands the need for a bipartisan Senate. Nonetheless, Senate patriarch and Austinite Gonzalo Barrientos lost his chairmanship. AndJohn Whitmire, a staunch Sharp supporter and loyal Democrat from Houston, was stripped of his chair of the Criminal Justice Committee. But according to one Democratic senator's aide, Perry's record is better than his predecessor's. When Bullock took office in 1991, Republicans controlled less than a third of the Senate, and none received chairmanships. The demotion of key Democrats was a necessary accommodation to Republicans whose support during election season Perry needs to repay, as well as conservative Democrats whose support he needs to cultivate. As for Barrientos, word is that he expected no chairmanship in Perry's Senate. No Republican in his right mind would leave the committee Barrientos chaired, Redistricting, in the hands of the enemy; furthermore, the Senate isn't currently redistricting anything. Whitmire reportedly lost his criminal justice chairmanship because Perry, according to one Senate insider, "needed a place to put Ken Armbrister," who as one of the most conservative Democrats in the Senate, "needed to be kept close to the ranch ... Whitmire had no place in Perry's agenda."

Perry and Austin

How would Gov. Rick Perry work with the city of Austin? Very politely, says Sullivan. But don't look for him to be jumping on the local-control-for-Austin bandwagon any time soon. Though former Democrat Perry has a "friendly and civil" relationship with Mayor Kirk Watson and other community leaders, Sullivan admits that there's an "ideological gulf" between his boss and what he calls the "vocal minority in Austin that take issue with people like Rick Perry and George Bush, and most if not all the statewide elected officials now."

And there's yet another scenario making the rounds at the Capitol -- the suggestion that Perry, like Bush, will have ambitions that call him prematurely away from the governor's office. It goes like this: Perry makes a deal with U.S. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, whereby she quits in 2002 to run for governor of Texas (she's thought to be a shoo-in), and he appoints himself to fill her Senate seat. A neat and tidy exchange of power. Then maybe in the next Senate election, we could get a Rick Perry vs. Kirk Watson showdown. For Austinites, that would be one worth buying a ticket for.