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Get in the Ring

Perry's refusal to debate is all swagger, no sweat

By Richard Whittaker, Fri., Oct. 29, 2010

Get in the Ring

As the saying goes, politics in Texas is a full-contact sport. That would make being governor the equivalent of being a heavyweight champion. But there are two kinds of champions. There's the fighting champ who never backs down from a brawl and is always out defending his title against all comers. Then there's the kind who holds on to the belt by never getting in the ring. With less than two weeks to go before Election Day, Gov. Rick Perry's strategy for holding on to his office has become plain: Avoid the fight with Democratic challenger and former Houston Mayor Bill White, then hope for a judge's decision at the ballot box.

First was Perry's pointed refusal to meet with editorial boards during endorsement season. Then was his decision not to attend the KLRU gubernatorial candidate debate on Oct. 19. His camp's excuse for skipping the debate was to put the blame on White: Unless White released his tax records from the time he spent serving as deputy secretary of the Department of Energy during the Clinton administration and his time as chair of the Texas Democratic Party, Perry wasn't going to lace up his gloves. The problem for Perry is that this is like welterweight boxer Floyd Mayweather Jr. refusing earlier this year to face Manny Pacquiao unless he submitted to more urine tests than the boxing authorities required. The difference? Pacquiao called Mayweather's bluff, leading to Mayweather backing down. The White campaign, which was already in full compliance with all campaign finance laws, refused Perry's electoral blackmail. That explains why there were only three candidates at the debate, but it doesn't explain why Perry won't spar with either Libertarian Party of Texas gubernatorial candidate Kathie Glass or her Green Party counterpart, Deb Shafto.

Glass is the bantamweight in this equation. Last spotted on a statewide ballot in a run for attorney general in 1982, she faces some tough math, since no Libertarian gubernatorial candidate has broken 2%. However, Glass argues it's not that Perry is afraid of facing White in a debate, so much as he doesn't want to have to defend his conservative credentials: "The issues he says he's in favor of, or that are his strong suit, he's really very weak on, to the point of being AWOL on the border and our budget."

During the primaries, Perry talked tough about going up against the federal government, publicly musing about Texas' right to secede from the union. But Libertarians see him as running away from the real challenge. Glass has criticized Perry for continuing to accept federal money and for failing to use Texas military forces to secure the border, and she argued that this lip service to Libertarian ideals will blow back in Perry's face at the ballot box. "He seems to think that he owns our vote and that we're being disloyal by not supporting him," she said. "If he needs our votes to stay in, well maybe that's an indication that it's time for him to go."

Shafto faces an even bigger challenge in making an electoral impact. The last Green to run for governor was Rahul Mahajan in 2002, who pulled in 0.7% of the vote. This year her party's statewide slate is running under a cloud of suspicion that out-of-state GOP groups funded their ballot access petition drive (see "Greens Gain Ballot Access in Curious Fashion," July 9). But despite any animosity between the Greens and the Dems, Shafto was most pointed about Perry's debate no-show, which she called a snub to both his challengers and the electorate. "You're a public servant," she said. "Get out there and answer the questions." As for Perry's justification, she said: "Bill White's tax returns have nothing to do with it. It was just something for him to hang his hat on."

Perry Spending Habits

How ready for a fight is Perry? He arguably hasn't faced a tough election since his 1998 knockout of John Sharp to become lieutenant governor. Promoted to the Governor's Man­sion in 2000 when George W. Bush won the presidency, he won his first real election in 2002 when Dem challenger and Laredo oil man Tony Sanchez was less Cinderella Man, more old fashioned palooka. In 2006, Chris Bell failed to captivate the Capitol press corps, which instead was often distracted by the sideshow theatrics of Kinky Friedman and arguments about whether Perry's former Comptroller Carole Keeton Strayhorn could call herself "Grandma" on the ballot. However, that race showed the dangers of trying to skate through an election, with Perry's unimpressive share of the vote earning him the nickname "Governor 39%."

His absence this year has left the White campaign shadowboxing, but they've tried to land some body blows where Perry has claimed he is a champion. The incumbent has always touted that he has made Texas business-friendly, but White argues that he's a little too business-friendly and a little too free with the state's money. Most recently, White has raised claims of malfeasance at the $102.4 billion Teacher Retirement System, pointing to firms owned and managed by Perry donors that gained big contracts with big fees. White's team distributed a 2008 memo by Michael Green, director of TRS' investment division's private markets, in which he wrote: "Rationalizing violations of TRS directives, policies and procedures, devaluing of personal and professional ethics, and the violations of state laws have become increasingly familiar." A nine-month investigation by the Travis County Attorney's Office found no criminal activity, but White quickly fired back, setting aside the question of whether the actions were legal or illegal. "Either way," he said, "milking teachers' retirement funds for campaign contributions is wrong."

The White campaign has made similar jabs at two other funds under Perry's control: the Texas Enterprise Fund and the Emerging Technology Fund, which had already taken blows from legislators. In 2009, Perry moved $120 million from the enterprise fund into the tech fund, which then gave $50 million to his old alma mater, Texas A&M. The enterprise fund is paid for out of surpluses from the Unemployment Compen­sation Fund, which at that point only had $48 million in its coffers, or roughly 5% of what it needed to be solvent. Austin state Rep. Dawnna Dukes, who sits on the House Approp­riations Com­mit­tee, recalls that there was "great concern" about that transfer, as well as "concerns about the application and the oversight of those funds." While the Legislature did pass new rules requiring the Governor's Office to post annual breakdowns of the tech fund's operations, the House originally considered a measure to transfer the funds out from under the control of the Governor's Office. However, Dukes said, "members of Senate Finance blocked it."

Perry might quickly find that that victory was just round one. Rep. Mark Strama, chair of the House Technology, Eco­nom­ic Develop­ment & Workforce Committee, said his committee is waiting on a staff report on changing the tech fund's governance structure. With the current scandals piled on the old concerns and a pending $24 billion state budget deficit making financial transparency a must, Strama was convinced it will be much easier to get bipartisan and bicameral support this time. No matter who holds the keys to the Governor's Mansion next session, said Strama, "It's another case for getting both those funds outside of the political office and into a more insulated governance entity that can't be accused of being political."

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