Lady in Waiting

Prospective First Lady Anita Perry Prepares for Life in the Spotlight

On October 10, less than a month before the presidential election, Anita Perry had a kind of dress rehearsal for her prospective role as the first lady of Texas. She and her husband, Lieutenant Gov. Rick Perry, served as honorary co-hosts of the Texas Conference for Women, the first of its kind in the state.

The event was no small enterprise. It drew some 2,500 guests and showcased not one but half a dozen high-powered keynote speakers, including George W. Bush adviser Condoleezza Rice and PBS president and CEO Pat Mitchell. Austin-based Public Strategies Inc., one of the top public relations firms in the country, was largely responsible for organizing the conference. And despite some internal grumbling at Public Strategies about taking on a project that would put the Perrys in the spotlight so close to Election Day, the affair went off without a hitch.

Whether or not the Perrys' presence at the conference was intended to jump-start their anticipated trip to the Governor's Mansion, Anita Perry, 48, was clearly in the spotlight. In her most visible appearance since her husband first took public office, Perry greeted guests and delivered the opening remarks, which focused on how, increasingly, women are serving as "the breadwinner, the decision maker, the caretaker." It's likely that Perry included herself in this mix.

While it's no secret that Laura Bush doesn't particularly relish the trappings of politics and public office, Anita Perry seems comfortable in her husband's spotlight. Just as Rick Perry's star began rising after he switched to the Republican Party to run for agriculture commissioner in 1990, Anita Perry's career reached new heights when she decided to market her nursing background in the lucrative consulting field in the early 1990s.

Local lobbyist Bill Miller wasted no time snapping her up. With her health care experience and people skills -- not to mention her husband's new position as ag commissioner -- Anita Perry was an attractive addition to Miller's PR firm, then called MEM Hubble Communications Inc. "She's a pro," says Miller, who has since merged his business with lobbyist Buddy Jones to form HillCo Partners. "She's thorough, she has a wry sense of humor, and she gets the weirdness of the business. She's a delight."

Perry worked for MEM Hubble in the early Nineties, but left when her husband ran for lieutenant governor, Miller says, "so there wouldn't be any appearance of conflict." But to the Dems and to some of Miller's competitors in the business, that "conflict" had existed long before Rick Perry ran for lieutenant governor. "The scuttlebutt," explains one Democratic insider, "was that Miller had HMO clients and, hey, wasn't it interesting that Anita Perry worked for him." The assumption, of course, was that Perry was either lobbying for Miller's clients on the sly, or that the mere association of the lieutenant governor's wife with Miller's firm carried sufficient force to influence votes in the Legislature.

Miller vehemently denies both charges. "That's bullshit," he says. "I can tell you unequivocally that she did no lobbying for me. That would have been bad for me and bad for my business. It would have looked like I was trading on her." Miller insists that Perry's work was limited to health care consulting for such clients as Riverside General Hospital, an African-American hospital in Houston that took a PR beating in the early Nineties for allegedly mismanaging more than $1 million in state and federal funding. Another client, the pharmaceutical company Merck, enlisted Perry's expertise in launching a public education campaign for osteoporosis screenings, according to Miller. And finally, Miller says, Perry studied the health aspects of air pollution for another Miller Client, Tejas Testing, a company that had secured the state contract to perform tailpipe emissions testing throughout Texas. The program -- and Tejas -- died in 1995 at the hands of Houston Sen. John Whitmire, who mounted a relentless campaign to kill the mandatory-testing program.

Interestingly, the flap that grew out of Perry's work with Bill Miller seemed to die down pretty quickly. The controversy received only scant press attention, even during the bitter 1998 race between Rick Perry and Democrat John Sharp for the lieutenant governor's seat. It's just as well, says one Democratic strategist: "It's hard to go after someone's wife."

Anita Perry isn't the first spouse in recent years to take some hits for her choice of careers. A few years ago, Diane Allbaugh, the wife of Joe Allbaugh, Gov. Bush's executive assistant, had to quit her utility lobbying job because it created an "appearance of conflict" with the governor's office.

For the past three years, Anita Perry has served -- under far less scrutiny -- as director of client services for the Perryman Group, a consulting firm run by prominent economist Ray Perryman. According to Rick Perry's spokeswoman Kathy Walt, Perry will leave that job at the end of the year to spend more time with the Perrys' two teenage children, Griffin and Sydney -- and presumably, though Walt wouldn't say it, to carry out her duties as the first lady.

For a little while longer, at least, Anita Perry will enjoy the luxury of relative anonymity; thus far, she's declining interviews. But while Perry is essentially still an unknown, there are a select number of politicos who have long regarded her as innately bright and politically savvy. "She's the brains of the outfit," is how one top Democratic strategist described the Rick and Anita partnership. "That's not to say she's a rocket scientist or anything like that ... she's just a little more of an operator than Laura Bush, and if you don't want to call her a lobbyist, she has at least been involved with clients at the state level." On a personal level, he continued, "Anita Perry is more of a political partner to her husband. She's someone Rick Perry might turn to for counsel, whereas George Bush might be less likely to seek the advice of Laura Bush. But, Anita Perry is no Hillary Clinton -- and she would probably take that as a compliment."

Who is Anita?

Born in Haskell, a small West Texas town 10 miles away from her husband's family home in Paint Creek, Anita Thigpen grew up in comfortable surroundings as the daughter of a respected physician. Thanks to a proclamation read by Sen. Eddie Lucio on the occasion of her 47th birthday last year, we know that she was born May 5, and that she graduated from West Texas State University and the University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonio, where she obtained a master's degree in nursing. She married her longtime beau, Rick Perry, in 1982 and the two settled in Haskell, where Rick Perry laid out his political aspirations and Anita pursued her nursing career, eventually working her way up to director of nurses at Haskell Memorial Hospital. She also ran a successful campaign of her own for the board of the Haskell Independent School District, where she served for four years.

In Austin, the Perrys are pretty much like other parents of school-aged children involved in sports -- they go to the games and cheer their kids on, says Ceci Miglicco, a friend of Anita Perry's. The two met through their sons, who played basketball together for the West Austin Youth Association. "Anita is very warm and inviting," says Miglicco. "She's very smart -- very smart -- and she has a good sense of humor."

Miglicco recalled the day she witnessed her friend's entrée into the public arena when Perry spoke at the Texas Women's conference. "I was coming in the doors and I heard her voice," she recalls. "And I just stopped where I was and listened. She's a wonderful speaker with a wonderful voice." Miglicco, however, can't imagine her friend ever running for public office. "She likes to stay current on what's going on in politics, but Rick's the politician in the family," she says. True -- but as Anita Perry herself has pointed out, women are increasingly the decision-makers in the family. end story

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