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How did Governor Rick Perry of Texas evolve from an unambitious Democrat to a powerful Republican with presidential aspirations? He got braces, for one thing. Two new profiles--one of Perry and one of the Texas he created--help explain how Perry got here and what he did to do it.
Where he came from
The New Republic
's Alec MacGillis
looks at how Perry grew into the successful politician he is. Perry, in MacGillis's view, is a permanent candidate, successful not because of his (constantly evolving) ideology but because of his instinct for where the herd is headed. In 2009, that was toward the Tea Party.
Early 1970s: Perry and childhood friend Riley Couch sold Bibles in southeastern Missouri one summer, "If you want a lesson in life," Couch told MacGillis, "you go door to door trying to sell something to somebody."
Late 1970s: Perry visited a farmers protest in Washington and met Fred McClure, an aide to Senator John Tower, who later got Perry his first political appointment, to the Texas Real Estate Research Advisory Committee. "His decision to get involved in politics originally was a combination of believing he could do something that could have an impact and maybe the boredom of staying at home," McClure explains.
1984: Perry wins his first race, becoming the state representative from his home district. After winning, he told the Abiline newspaper, "I had not one piece of legislation I planned to carry." When Gary Mauro, then the state land commissioner, asked Perry to sponsor a bill, Perry told him not to bother explaining it. "Don’t waste your time. I wouldn't understand it anyway."
Mid-1980s: But soon Perry became more ambitious. He "showed up in his second term with a full set of corrective braces, which had the end result of enhancing his good looks. 'Everybody who noticed his braces suspected that [it was a career move], but no one confirmed it,' says Steve Carriker, then a Democratic senator from West Texas."
1989: Perry switches from Democrat to Republican. "What the hell did I just do?" he's heard muttering to himself. But a Republican strategist says he knew what he was doing. "Governor Perry is a really, really good politician. He understood where the state of Texas was going."
1998: Perry runs for lieutenant governor against John Sharp, and tries to avoid debates. "At his urging, it was held in El Paso on a Friday night at the height of the high school football season. 'El Paso on a Friday night during a football game and the time zones are different... How many people do you think watched that?'"
Late 1990s: Then-Governor George W. Bush had a tradition of weekly breakfast meetings with important Democrats, like Perry's predecessor as lieutenant governor and the speaker of the state House. Once Perry took his seat, Bush continued the breakfast tradition, but Perry wasn't into it. "Sometimes, to fill the time, he would file his nails," MacGillis writes.
Late 2000s: Perry remakes his persona. "The most amazing thing about Perry is that now that he’s jumped out there, people say he’s brash and caustic, but he built his career as lieutenant governor and governor by being pretty quiet. He’s not brash. This is a little bit of a new persona here," Greg Hartman, a former Texas political strategist, told MacGillis. Tom Uher, a conservative Democrat who shared a rental house with Perry in Austin in the 1980s, agrees: "He can switch colors to whatever he needed to be."
2009: Perry speaks at a Tax Day protest and hints about possible Texan secession. His opponent in the Republican primary for governor is thrilled that Perry had sunk his reelection chances. But Perry knows how to get "right in front of the parade," Bill Miller, Perry's friend and a political consultant, told MacGillis. "He saw that this is where I need to be right now. And that’s just having good campaign judgment to do that." Hutchinson lost.
What he did to Texas
The Texas Monthly
's Mimi Swartz
writes in the New York Times Magazine
that Perry has done something unthinkable: given Texans low self-esteem. Texans are known for their sometimes-obnoxious state pride, but with Perry running for the Republican presidential nomination, that's mutated a bit. Swartz's evidence:
"Not just Democrats but also a growing number of Republicans are quick to mention that Perry pushed the Legislature to cut $4 billion out of public education. And they talk about how Texas now has the highest rate of the uninsured in the nation -- the largest percentage of uninsured children too -- and how we’re dead last in the percentage of adults with a high-school diploma."
Texas newspapers and magazines are on the offensive. Perry got zero major newspaper endorsements in 2010. The Houston Chronicle has been "relentless in tracking Perry's pay-to-play tendencies," Swartz writes. Other local media have become sharply critical.
The state's Republican establishment backed Kay Bailey Hutchinson against Perry. It's not just a class thing. "Texans who have spent zillions to brag about the state’s opera and ballet companies, and who have paid the likes of Santiago Calatrava for architectural gewgaws, also know that multinational corporations aren’t willing to locate in a place that has awful schools and toxic air and that wears its provincialism proudly."
Country-club Republicans think Perry is nice but stupid. They think "Perry is a great guy, but as far as having the intelligence to lead the country, there’s just no way," an "influential Houston Republican" told Swartz.
Secret Romney rallies: "As the same Houston power broker said of a recent Romney fund-raising event, 'I had someone else pay for me to go, because I didn't want people to know I was there.'"
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.