At Town Hall, Perry Becomes Confrontational

Questions on fracking and Don't Ask, Don't Tell spark arguments at a campaign event



DECORAH, Iowa--What had been a calm day for Rick Perry filled with church services and friendly audiences ended on a sour note as the governor found himself in two confrontations in his last town hall of the day over controversial natural gas extraction techniques and gays serving openly in the military.

In the first exchange, Perry found himself debating with a college student whether hydraulic fracturing, or "fracking"--a method for natural gas extraction--pollutes the area groundwater. After the event ended, Perry found himself explaining to a 14-year-old girl--who later told reporters she was openly bisexual--why he opposed gays serving openly in the military.

The first conflict began innocently enough. The Texas governor had just fielded a question about construction of the Keystone XL pipeline project that gave him an opening to advocate support for the pipeline and further exploration of domestic energy resources. The next question came from 22-year-old Carrie Kauffamn, a student from the nearby Luther College, who said that it had been proven that the technology used for fracking has polluted groundwater.

"No ma'am," Perry said. When Kauffman insisted on the point, Perry cut her off, replying, "We can have this conversation, but you cannot show me one place where there is a proven, not one, where there is a proven pollution of groundwater by hydraulic fracturing."

When the audience began to voice support for the young woman, calling out, "it's false," Perry challenged them to bring him the study in question. A follow up conversation with Kaufmann revealed she was talking about a recent Environmental Protection Agency study out of Wyoming that showed chemical contamination of the area's groundwater was the likely result of fracking.

Perry's tone began to betray his frustration. "I am truly offended that the American public would be hoodwinked by stories that do not scientifically hold up," he said, his voice rising. " If that was true it would be on the front page of every newspaper, it would be on ABC, NBC, CBS, Fox News, everybody would be running that story. We have been using hydraulic fracturing in my home state for years, and this is a fear tactic that the left is using and the environmental community is using that absolutely--excuse the pun, that does not hold water." The audience continued to protest, and he ended the exchange by challenging them to bring him evidence once again, and saying he would concede their point if they could do so.

In a follow up interview with several reporters, Kauffmann stuck to her guns. "He's wrong," she said. "If I had a smart phone, I would have looked it up right there."

The event only continued a turn for the negative as a girl approached Perry as he was shaking hands to ask him why he opposed gays serving openly in the military. Her question ended with a charged clause: "and why you want to deny them their freedom when they're fighting for your rights."

What Perry didn't know during the exchange was that the girl, 14-year-old Rebecka Green, is herself openly bisexual. "This is about my faith, and I happen to think that there are a whole host of sins, homosexuality being one of them," Perry said, adding that he himself was "a sinner" so he wouldn't "be the first one to throw a stone." Reflecting on another question he had received this week about how he would feel if his own child were gay, Perry said, "I'd feel the same way. I hate the sin but I love the sinner."

"I'm openly bisexual and I didn't want to be told that if I wanted to serve in the military that I couldn't, and I just think [the Don't Ask, Don't Tell] policy is completely ridiculous," Green told reporters after the exchange. "Nobody should be able to tell somebody who they can or cannot love. I just don't agree with it."

Her father, Todd Green, a professor at Luther College, said he and his daughter came to the event after Green saw an ad Perry is airing in Iowa that questions why gays can serve openly in the military but "our kids can't openly celebrate Christmas or pray in school."

"He seemed to get that backward. Christians are not being persecuted in the United States of America. They've been in a position of dominance and power and privilege throughout the history of the United States of America. LGBT persons have not," he told reporters.

The rest of Perry's speech to a crowd of about 125 was standard stump speech fare that focused heavily on his record of job creation in Texas and the need to bring an outsider to Washington. He also continued to punch up at his rivals, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, Romney for raising corporate taxes in Massachusetts and Gingrich for using the Social Security fund to help balance the budget.

"Mitt may not have had a Wall Street address but Bain Capital is basically Wall Street," Perry said, in reference to the private equity company Romney helped start.

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Rebecca Kaplan is a staff writer (White House) for National Journal.

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