Exerpt from Rick Perry: A Political Life by Brandon Rottinghaus

Excerpt from Rick Perry: A Political Life

Rick Perry, the charming rancher, pilot, and politician from West Texas who was governor from 2000 to 2015, is one of the most important but polarizing figures in the state’s history. Over the nearly forty years he spent in the political arena, his political instincts served as a radar primed to sense future political opportunities. Hugging the arc of Texas political change, he shifted from a rural, “blue dog” Democrat to one of the most conservative politicians the state had elected up to that time, overseeing the enactment of controversial redistricting, voting, and abortion measures. Yet his evolution was complicated and incomplete, as his stands on such topics as immigration, vaccine requirements, and the use of state funds to attract business ran into opposition from a growing and ever-more conservative wing of the Republican Party in Texas—and the nation.

Read an abbreviated excerpt from the introduction of the book below, and get your copy of Rick Perry: A Political Life; it officially publishes May 7!

Praise for Rick Perry

What makes Rick Perry: A Political Life so compelling is that Brandon Rottinghaus lets the actual history speak for itself. The author understands that if we aren’t aware of our complex history, we’ll never be the state that we dream of being.

Ben Barnes, former Speaker of the Texas House of Representatives and Lieutenant Governor of Texas

Rick Perry: A Political Life is well reported, thoughtful, and insightful, tracing the changing political dynamics in the state that coincided with the arc of Perry’s political career and clearly showing its singular importance to the state of Texas and the GOP. Rottinghaus offers an honest, objective view of Perry; this is not a book primarily for Republicans or Democrats, but instead a book for anyone who wants to understand Perry, his life, and his impact in an evenhanded manner. The comprehensive reporting included in the book ensures that no key moment is overlooked, and the book is highly readable for those who aren’t political insiders. Rick Perry is an important achievement; the book people will need to read to understand Perry and his political career.

Brian Sweany, Editor Emeritus, Texas Monthly

Abbreviated excerpt from Rick Perry


A Political Rebirth at the Dawn of the Modern Texas Republican Party

As he neared the end of his final term as governor of Texas in 2014, Rick Perry stood with a small circle of family and friends at the edge of Little Rocky Creek near Independence, Texas, to be baptized in a private outdoor ceremony at the historic spot where Sam Houston had been baptized 160 years earlier. His spiritual rebirth at that boggy creek was a nod to both his past and his future—political rebirth across moving waters would be a frequent occurrence in his life.

James Richard “Rick” Perry is the Zelig of Texas politics, his career a reflection of the ways in which politics evolved in Texas and nationally over the nearly forty years he spent in the political arena. Over the decades his political instincts served as a radar primed to identify future political opportunities, and in doing so plotted the arc of Texas political change: from a rural, conservative “Blue Dog” Democrat, a species as numerous as fleas on a farm dog in Texas between the 1950s and the 1980s, to one of the most conservative politicians the state had ever elected, overseeing the enactment of controversial congressional redistricting, voting, and abortion measures. Yet his evolution was complicated and incomplete, as his stands on such topics as immigration, vaccine requirements, and the use of state funds to attract business ran into opposition from a growing and evermore conservative wing of the Republican Party in Texas—and the nation.

The charming rancher, pilot, and politician from West Texas is one of the most important but polarizing figures in Texas history. “What I’ve found is people either really love Rick Perry or they just have no use for him at all,” a friend and former state senator said. Her view is that those who don’t like Perry don’t understand him, and in many ways that suggests a greater blind spot: “They may not understand Texas totally.”¹

Rick Perry profoundly shaped the powers wielded by the modern Texas governor, and along the way he oversaw the rebuilding of the Texas Republican Party, changed the face of state politics, and invigorated the role of Texas politics on the national stage.

Often derided as “Governor Good Hair,” just a good-looking good ol’ boy—a charge that was hard to disagree with as he hee-hawed across the stage on Dancing with the Stars following a short-lived second presidential campaign in 2016—his impact on state policy, politics, and the Republican Party ranks among the most consequential in Texas history, on par with influential leaders like Sam Houston, Jim Hogg, and Allan Shivers, who ushered the state and their parties through tumultuous times. Dismissed as the “accidental governor” when he rose from lieutenant governor to the governor’s office in 2000 after serving governor George W. Bush left for the White House, Perry was a master of the bold move, a trait that transformed a little-known former Democratic lawmaker from tiny Paint Creek into a political powerhouse.² His longevity in the governor’s office (fourteen years—as of this writing the longest tenure of any governor in Texas history) provided him with unprecedented accumulated political power to sway Texas government in an ideologically conservative direction, tracking the bend of political changes in the state.

Yet Perry’s political career is more than the story of one man: it both rode and led the social and political transformations of Texas over three decades, some of the most eventful in the state’s history. Its shift to a red state, concurrent with the slow withering of the Democratic Party statewide, was a function of economic gains produced through a growing service sector, the emergence of the state as a global energy hub, and the rapid suburbanization of its major cities. This book describes a state in transition through a critical period and charts the political changes that accompanied it.

“You heard his accent,” said Justin Egner, a twenty-five-year-old Amarillo voter and Army National Guard specialist who came out to see Perry during the third of his four successful gubernatorial campaigns. “It doesn’t get any more local than that. He’s a man of the state.”³

Voters, journalists, analysts, and other politicians all have tried to explain Perry’s persona and political allure—the “all-American boy,” as Joe Holley, a journalist and former staffer for Jim Hightower and speechwriter for Ann Richards, described him.⁴

He was charming, but not everyone considered him a serious student of government. “Serving in government was like a different form of being Most Handsome Man or Most Popular Boy,” said veteran journalist Dave McNeely. “He was more interested in the glitter of it than the substance.”⁵ Perry later called politics a “form of show business” and said that he wasn’t really interested in governing until he was in his midtwenties.⁶

Perry’s image was Texas-town-square solid—a political life built on pastoral Texas and its tenets: faith, military service, farming. Patricia Kilday Hart described him as he nominated George W. Bush as the Republican presidential candidate in 2000: “He was tall and lanky, with dark, wavy hair, and lively eyes framed by crinkly lines that testified to long days spent under the West Texas sun. A rakish smile crept across his face to balance the hard set of his jaw.”⁷

Despite the attention given his looks, few dispute one of Perry’s most formidable political skills: no matter whom he met along the way— elderly grandmother, high school student, or sophisticated businessman—he was comfortable with them all.⁸ Like his looks, that West Texas twang and easygoing persona obscured something tougher.

Perry brought a steely resolve to both politics and life that impressed those around him. “He never backed down from a fight,” said Ron Lewis, a former member of the Texas House and a longtime Perry friend. “[I was] amazed how he took things on.” Perry relished these fights, Lewis added, and has “a strong side of him that isn’t afraid.”⁹

Journalist Jay Root got a personal view of Perry’s take-charge approach during the 2010 gubernatorial campaign, as the campaign plane flew into Orange, Texas, amid an East Texas storm that left most of the passengers white-knuckled and tense. Perry (sitting with Root and press secretary Ray Sullivan) was unflappable and “talk[ed] the whole time” while the others were “as white as sheets.” The storm knocked out the lights at the small airport and left water standing on the runway, but Perry was determined to carry on, calling on the Texas Department of Public Safety to light up the runaway so they could head back to Austin. “Root, I’m going to get you home tonight,” the governor boasted.¹⁰

It was an acerbic journalist, the late Molly Ivins, who bestowed the nicknames that stuck: “The Coiffure” and “Governor Goodhair.” This “affectionate abuse,” as one former journalist put it, dramatically undercut Perry’s political cunning.¹¹ Throughout his career, Perry played the country politician, generating low expectations that he always exceeded. Recalling a speech Perry gave to a conference of the Texas Federation of Women when he served as the state’s agriculture commissioner, journalist R. G. Ratcliffe reflected on this popular perception of Perry. As he stepped away after the speech, a woman in the crowd gave voice to that perception: “Damn that Rick Perry’s good looking, but he’s dumber than a post.”¹² The nicknames and good-looking good ol’ boy image tempered the hard edges of his political gamesmanship. Perry leaned into it, at least a little, and continued his steady rise in Texas politics. The truth was he did have a bit of the country hick about him—no one was going to mistake him for a brain surgeon or a rocket scientist, and he didn’t come anywhere near a Phi Beta Kappa roster. But he had shrewd political instincts and a reputation for not playing games.¹³

Compared to his predecessor in the governor’s mansion, Texas transplant George W. Bush, Root recalled Perry as “so different, so Texan, so authentically Texan. There was so much Bush could rightly claim about being Texan, but there was so much about him that wasn’t Texan. The difference between being from Texas and of Texas.

“Perry was the real-deal Texan.”¹⁴

The real deal, a peopleand dog-loving Texan who didn’t hesitate to jump into the fray. From leading parades through his West Austin neighborhood to whistle-stop campaigning in Abilene to sharing vodka shots at the traditional sine die party marking the end of each legislative session, Perry’s skills as a politician were among the best the state has seen.

Laura Tolley, then capitol bureau chief of the San Antonio Express News, was with her pug, Dash, on the Austin Hike and Bike Trail when she ran into Perry during his campaign for lieutenant governor. As a huge, unleashed dog came bounding towards them, Perry, in running shorts and a T-shirt, jumped to scoop up the diminutive pug, raising it above his head as the massive interloper’s muddy paws climbed Perry’s chest. Gifted politician that he was, Perry never forgot the moment. “How’s that pug?” he would ask for years to come.

He was the genuine article to most people who met him. It wasn’t a show or a facade. “Who doesn’t like Rick Perry?” exclaimed Debra Medina, an opponent in the 2010 gubernatorial primary, decades later. Perry just engages people in conversation, in typical politician fashion: “He loves the interaction, that’s what makes him a good politician.”¹⁵ While Perry’s shoot-from-the-hip style resulted in plenty of misfires—he once leaned in to assure capitol journalist Jonathan Tilove at a governor’s mansion Christmas party that “Jesus has a plan for you,” apparently not realizing that Tilove, whom he had just met, was Jewish—the net effect of his irrepressible personality was not lost on the state’s voters.¹⁶

Neighbors recall the “ol’ Aggie,” while governor, leading Fourth of July parades in a West Austin neighborhood in his “tight jeans and Aggie boots.”¹⁷ When he’d go out and speak to people in Abilene, he was clearly “one of them.” Former staff fondly recall Perry talking about making a coffee-table book of all the marriages he helped facilitate among staff. “You can’t teach that. It’s instinctive,” according to a former consultant.¹⁸

His skills as a retail politician are on par with the state’s best, according to observers. After forty years in politics, Democrat-turnedRepublican consultant David Weeks deemed Perry “still the best retail political person I’ve seen.”¹⁹ Perry liked the “people part of politics.”²⁰ In every interaction, Perry sought a personal connection. His longtime political consultant Dave Carney said Perry has the ability to remember every person he meets, finding something in common—the military, sports, schools—to form a connection. “I’ve never known him to meet a person a second time and not remember details about that person.” He added, “When you meet him again, it’s like you’re old friends.”²¹

Perry was at his best in this performative role, an action hero for the voting public, inadvertently fueling a mistaken belief on the part of detractors and even some supporters that he was just, in his own words, “a great head of hair.”

He had a welcome sense of humor, both giving and taking barbs at a 2011 roast of longtime friend State Representative Senfronia Thompson. Senator Rodney Ellis joked that “Rick Perry was the only governor in Texas history who spent more money on hair products than Ann Richards.”²²

He infused the traditional rope line with small, intimate moments, ensuring his continued popularity with many Texans. At fundraisers he seldom sat to eat, instead shaking hands and working the room.

A big part of the job in a politically diverse Texas is to navigate competing interests and big egos. According to one journalist, “I’ve seen him wear some expensive cowboy boots. He waded through a lot of BS but didn’t get any on him.”²³ He wears his heart on his sleeve and comes from a part of the world where people can see through your lies. “You know when he’s lying. You know when he’s trying to fib. He doesn’t have it in him. That’s a West Texan. It isn’t in his DNA.”²⁴

Which isn’t to say Perry never made people angry. His fellow conservative Democrats may have understood his switch to the Republican Party in 1992, but his decision to campaign against House members with whom he had spent time in the trenches still smarted.

Mark Stiles and Alan Hightower, both conservative Democrats, pushed back when Perry campaigned for their Republican opponents in 1992. The men had been in a dozen legislative battles together, and they had hunted and camped around the state.

Perry’s response: I have to prove myself to the Republicans.²⁵

That stung, but the effect was fleeting. According to a former Democratic state senator, “You can’t stay mad for very long at Rick Perry.”²⁶ It is, however, possible to doubt the depth of Perry’s convictions, and many did, pegging Perry, in the words of legendary journalist Paul Burka, as “more about politics and ideology than governing.”²⁷ And as the state GOP grew increasingly conservative, members of his own adopted party began to doubt Perry’s “ideological compass,” contending that many of his positions were more a matter of expedience than fealty.²⁸ “He wasn’t that interested in governing, as such,” recalled former state Republican Party chair Tom Pauken. “It was more ‘let things run as they’re running’ and if there’s a jam or a problem, send your expert aides over to try to fix it.”²⁹

Contrasting Perry to previous governors, the late political writer (and coauthor of Bush’s Brain) Wayne Slater said Perry never gave the impression of deeply caring about specific issues. He supported and opposed specific issues, but they weren’t “deeply in him.”³⁰

“I don’t know what Rick Perry really believes. He came here as a conservative Democrat. He then becomes, without changing his politics much, a mainstream Republican, sort of in the Bush line, but that’s only through happenstance and the coincidence of them running together,” said Ken Herman, a former Austin American-Statesman columnist. “Then he sees the world change and he goes with it. Is he following a trend or is he helping create that trend? It’s certainly a little of each.”

“When you’re governor, you have a pretty good pulpit, and he became increasingly aggressive about things.”³¹ To some degree, Texas politics caught up to his personal beliefs, and he could be more expressive in leading the party.

Perry also had something else going for him: luck.

Longtime friend Ric Williamson once called Perry the “luckiest politician” he’d ever seen.³² And his timing was legendary.

“Perry has been a risk taker,” said Kent Hance, a former US congressman from West Texas and another Democrat-turned-Republican who later became chancellor of the Texas Tech University system. “And if you look at Perry’s timing in every race, he’s been the golden guy.”³³

Rick Perry’s tenure in office coalesced three primary themes: firsts and lasts, harnessing the institutional powers of the governor’s office, and navigating Texas’s ever-changing political landscapes.

Perry became the first Republican lieutenant governor since Reconstruction, at a time when the Republican Party was hungry for strong leadership. Before Perry, the joke around the Capitol went, Republicans could hold caucus meetings in a phone booth.³⁴ He was the first Aggie (Texas A&M class of 1972) to become governor, although not all of his many friends from those days went on to become political supporters. He may well be the state’s last rural governor, a reflection of the growing concentration of both population and political power in Texas’s urban and suburban areas.

Perry’s career symbolizes the sea change in Texas politics charted between 1990 and 2016. He became a statewide official just as the Texas Democratic Party’s power was crumbling and the party’s bench was emptying. In 1990 he defeated liberal stalwart Jim Hightower in the race for agriculture commissioner. He was elected lieutenant governor in 1998, just as the Democrats relinquished their last hold on statewide office after Attorney General Dan Morales announced he would not run for reelection. His tenure as governor coincided with the symbolic death of the Democratic Party in Texas: party stalwarts Bob Bullock, Ann Richards, Lloyd Bentsen, Preston Smith, John Hill, and Billy Clayton all passed away while Perry was governor.

In his seminal book on Texas gubernatorial leadership, The Chief Executive in Texas (1964), Fred Gantt Jr. wrote that key characteristics are shared by most strong governors: “Good luck; great energy and drive; above-average intelligence; likeable personality; vanity; love of the limelight; a sense of knowing what the public wants, fears, or approves of, and a willingness to identify with felt needs; and a talent for collecting more credit than is their due.”³⁵ This description of an archetypal Texas governor, written five decades before Perry moved into the governor’s mansion, fits Perry to a T.

The formal powers of the Texas governor are weak, at least on paper. Governors have the veto, the line-item veto, the power to issue executive orders (rules to government agencies), and the ability to appoint members to dozens of state boards and commissions. They lack the power to appoint other executive officials or to submit their own budget plans, tools that governors in other states have used to amass power. Appointed officials can’t be fired by the governor and, once appointed, might be pesky independents in office. Limited by a Texas constitution that doesn’t trust executive power (it was ratified following a bitter arrangement with Reconstruction-era governors), modern governors have struggled to metaphorically toss their weight around. But a new breed of Texas governors emerged as the twentieth century summoned the governor to fill a new role.³⁶ The public now looks to governors for leadership. Crises mandate quick gubernatorial action. Governors’ agendas are only won with an active hand in legislative affairs. Still, no special session can be called, no convict pardoned, no appointment to state boards or other offices made, no special elections called, and no militia mobilized without the Texas governor’s say-so.³⁷ Longevity also aids Texas governors—after the state moved to unlimited four-year terms, governors began serving longer. From 1845 to 2000, the average tenure of a governor was three years and nine months—Perry shattered this record. “Most didn’t have time to get their suitcase unpacked real good,” Perry joked.³⁸ Perry, who had served longer than any governor in Texas history at the time he left office, appointed nearly every official in state government, the judiciary included.

Perry’s later authoritative use of power got off to an inauspicious start. Elected lieutenant governor in 1998, he led with a steady but light hand, emphasizing bipartisanship and a “let the Senate work its will” model, while playing second fiddle to Gov. George W. Bush. He had “played the good scout,” in his words, while running as a ticket with Bush in 1998. (The ticket approach fell out of favor in later years as statewide executives focused on their own ambitions.) Perry was comfortable in the role, gaining leverage he wouldn’t otherwise have from these political alliances—until he could amass power on his own. Not everyone was a fan of the go-along approach: when US House majority leader Tom DeLay got Texas legislators to agree to a rare redrawing of congressional district lines between censuses, the actor Alec Baldwin suggested delivering dog biscuits to Perry for “acting like DeLay’s lapdog.”³⁹

Perry’s conciliatory approach shifted as he moved into the governor’s office following George W. Bush’s election as president in 2000. He transitioned into the muscular, aggressive governor he would become by spending state funds to lure business to Texas, driving hard bargains with the legislature (especially Democrats), frequently calling special sessions, accelerating appointments to executive and judicial offices, and enacting an aggressive and historic use of the veto power. This approach would make him the state’s most powerful governor ever, helped in part by the Republican-controlled legislature, which gave him the power to act in many cases. There, as in so many other instances, Perry’s personality made a difference.

“The comfort level with Perry because of his personality” let him get away with expanding these powers.⁴⁰ So too did the rapid expansion of his (new) party’s political power.

Texas had been solidly, almost solely, Democratic from the 1930s to the 1980s. “We have only two or three laws, such as against murdering witnesses and being caught stealing horses, and voting the Republican ticket,” iconic writer O. Henry once said of Texas.⁴¹

But by the 1960s the Republican Party was trying to break the Democratic Party’s stranglehold on the South, Texas included. George H. W. Bush served as chairman of the Harris County Republican Party in 1964, and two decades later, the resurgence took root for good, with a new generation of Republicans embracing the modern party ideals of supply-side economics and tax cuts and deregulation, bolstered by an alliance with Christian conservatives who made up one-fifth of the expanding Texas electorate.

Rural Texas Democrats, after the party realignment in the 1960s, were attracted to the new Republican message as delivered by Ronald Reagan, and they began shifting their votes. And they weren’t alone. Other Texas Democrats—either temporarily, as with the “Boll Weevils,” who supported Reagan’s economic policies, or permanently, as they switched parties completely—also backed the new brand of conservative fiscal Republican orthodoxy with small government and big tax cuts, leaving a dwindling number of Democrats to demand a return to a broader social safety net promised by the New Deal but never fully delivered. Reagan’s barnstorm through Texas in the 1976 Republican primary encouraged Republicans and “indicated a conservative direction for the party in the state,” according to former party chair Tom Pauken. In the 1980 presidential election, Reagan nabbed 55 percent of the Texas vote, besting moderate Democrat Jimmy Carter, who had won the Lone Star State by 3 percent just four years earlier. “Reagan was the key to the philosophical change.”⁴²

When Reagan ran up the score against Walter Mondale in 1984, winning Texas by 28 percent (the second highest lead among the old Confederate states), it was clear that Texas was in transition. Perry remembers that Reagan finally made it safe to be a Republican in Texas.⁴³ Voters felt out of sync with the national Democratic Party, and Texas Democrats were unable to separate themselves from their national party. Even so, Perry’s move from three-term Democratic member of the House to standard-bearer of the Republican Party was, to say the least, “a bold move,” as Mike Toomey, one of the few Republicans in the House in the late 1980s and a future Perry chief of staff, put it.⁴⁴ Soon, however, Perry was riding the wave he had helped create, as Texas voters remained conservative and the Democratic Party and its candidates drifted to the left.⁴⁵ Suddenly, candidates for school board, city council, and other local and state offices were running as Republicans in the 1990s.

“It’s not that the state has changed, it’s that the label has changed,” Ken Herman said. Voting Republican gradually became an option, and Perry helped make that happen.⁴⁶

Rebirth, it turns out, wasn’t just about the religious grounding symbolized by that baptism on the banks of Little Rocky Creek. For Perry, rebirth was about politics, too. He began his career as a conservative Reagan Democrat and ended as a conservative Republican.

“He wasn’t a die-hard conservative, cultural conservative,” consultant Matthew Dowd said. “He became more of that over time as it was politically expedient.”⁴⁷

He was part of a group of fiscal “pit bulls” in the Texas House, members of the House Appropriations Committee who pushed for more austere budgets in an early foreshadowing of the Tea Party. Yet he also voted for the $5.7 billion tax increase pushed by Republican Gov. Bill Clements and liberally used state funds as governor—some argued they were “slush funds” designed to pick winners and losers—to lure business to Texas. He supported federal healthcare reform in 1993 but then spent much of his time as governor railing against federal intrusion into Texas’s healthcare system through the Affordable Care Act signed into law in 2010. He argued for repeal of the Seventeenth Amendment to the US Constitution, allowing the direct election of US senators, and teased about Texas seceding from the United States.

Political operative Jon McClellan watched Perry play a central role in changing the Republican Party: “He pushed it to the right, more conservative, but he also had a little maverick in him where on certain issues now people look negatively at, he would not toe the party line.”⁴⁸

The decade of the 1990s presented its own dichotomy. The stock market exploded with a tech boom, crime rates plummeted, and much of America benefitted from the years of peace and prosperity, while the decade also gave birth to a tribalism and a “partisan fervor and level of sordidness previously unseen in modern politics,” according to Steve Kornacki, author of The Red and the Blue: The 1990s and the Birth of Political Tribalism (2018).⁴⁹ Politicians like Newt Gingrich and Pat Buchanan ushered in new cultural politics and established a market for an edgy brand of nationalist politics. In Washington, DC, George H. W. Bush’s broken promise to not raise taxes drew the ire of conservatives. Some on the far right echoed Buchanan’s call to end all immigration. All of that was felt in Texas; by 1996, Republican primary voters outnumbered Democratic primary voters. Rural Texans saw the changing landscape as a threat not just to their political power but to their very way of life.⁵⁰ As Democrats fought among themselves, a new breed of Republican saw an opportunity, Perry first among them.

In his 1990 race for the obscure office of agriculture commissioner, his first race as a Republican, Perry ran to the right—and ran negative. Perry called it the most pivotal election in Texas history.⁵¹ Painting Democratic incumbent Jim Hightower as a “whole hog” liberal and as corrupt, following the conviction of three Hightower aides on bribery charges, Perry’s first statewide campaign would mirror future campaigns for governor: conservative and nasty. The position of agriculture commissioner is not political in any way, but under Perry a new foe emerged: the federal government. These themes continued over Perry’s entire political career.

The Texas Republican Party didn’t have many stars in its political galaxy in the early 1990s, but a more conservative electorate and the emergence of George W. Bush, son of a famous political dynasty whose father was president from 1998 to 1992, gave Republicans the push they needed. Rick Perry was again along for the ride: at the right place at the right time but with the political instincts to strap in and reap the benefits. While his tenure as the state’s lieutenant governor did little to distinguish him from the rest of the Republican pack, his charm, coupled with a hard-hitting campaign style, made him seem destined for a key role in the state’s strengthening Republican Party. As lieutenant governor, as during his time as agriculture commissioner, he generally governed in a bipartisan, consensus-building way, highlighting the differences between his bare-knuckled campaigns and his style in governing. At that point he had to—Democrats still held power (if dwindling) in many corners of state government. But by 1998, all the statewide elected Democrats were gone.

When Perry became governor three years later, he veered towards a more conservative line, overseeing the enactment of controversial voting and abortion measures, a reflection of the same instincts that led to his switching parties, a recognition of where the crowd was headed. “I think we all in politics had to adjust to where the (Democratic) Party was going and where the state was going,” said a conservative Democrat who served in the state House with Perry. “I think Perry made those adjustments, reading where the state was moving and the public perception was moving.”⁵²

Although early political putty, Perry later hardened into a partisan rock. He morphed into a divisive figure within his own party, drawing primary challengers in his 2006 and 2010 races for governor and accusations of bringing “Washington-style politics” to Texas. Yet he was also the last governor powerful enough to hold the diverse factions of the Republican Party together. He campaigned hard, pushing conservative and polarizing issues in campaigns, but he managed to govern in a way that kept his friendships intact.

The election of a Democrat as president—Barack Obama in 2008— ironically helped his cause, uniting the Republican base and lessening the focus on contentious issues pushed by Perry, including the TransTexas Corridor and a vaccine mandate for HPV.⁵³ Perry pushed back on expanding Medicaid through Obamacare (a nickname for the Affordable Care Act of 2010) and challenged federal government’s policies on, well, everything from gun control to environmental regulations. Rural Democrats, meanwhile, lost in big numbers in this era, even seats the party had held for decades. Tapping all that pent-up anger in the Republican electorate, Perry casually floated the idea that Texas might secede from the Union, a patently illegal notion but one that resonated with a small but vocal segment of the Republican electorate that was increasingly dictating who ran and what issues they ran on.

There was a flip side, too: his stands on immigration and vaccines ran into opposition from an ever-growing conservative wing of the Republican Party when he ran for the Republican presidential nomination in 2012 and 2016, even as he faced pressure at home from Republicans on issues like a “fetal pain” bill that banned abortions after twenty weeks, drug tests for people applying for unemployment benefits, and concealed handguns in classrooms. The dominant Republican Party Perry had helped engineer was now wracked with infighting. Perry’s stillborn 2016 presidential campaign met a similar fate; a civil war led to the emergence of more radical, grievance-filled politics in the party—and President Donald Trump.

Perry was underestimated his entire political career—all “hawk and no spit,” as famous Texas journalist Molly Ivins used to say. The perception was that Perry was a lightweight, but opponents consistently underestimated him and the appeal of his brand of politics. “Rick has always been under-credited for his accomplishments,” Republican political consultant Bill Miller said. “People have written him off because he’s a good-looking guy who can meet and greet well. Where’s the meat? But the truth is he has a super work ethic, and he is smart enough to not diffuse things. He focuses on things, and he sees them through. He doesn’t get credit for that because he’s too good-looking.”⁵⁴ This was the undoing of many political opponents, emphasizes former chief of staff Ray Sullivan.

Ken Luce, who managed Perry’s 1990 campaign for agriculture commissioner, said, ”When Rick’s been the best, it’s when there is no expectation of Rick Perry.”⁵⁵ People underestimated him, but when they looked closely they came away with a sense that he was “really good at what he does.”⁵⁶ It was a knack to be underestimated, observed former roommate and legislative deskmate Cliff Johnson. He was good at getting people to “the place where they wanted to help him. That is the key to relationships, and it’s everything in government. You’ve got to have your pals.”⁵⁷

But Perry set his hook in deeper water and became a prize angler, among the most effective the state has ever seen. For all those political elites who thought he was a country bumpkin and “rough around the edges” and couldn’t win, by the end he had proved the naysayers wrong.⁵⁸ According to one journalist, “His political opponents typically make the fatal mistake of underestimating him.”⁵⁹ Said one House member who has known Perry since his early political days: “Don’t let that country-boy look fool you.”⁶⁰

Brandon Rottinghaus is a professor in the Department of Political Science at the University of Houston. His most recent books are Inside Texas PoliticsCurrent Debates in the Lone Star State, and Inside American Government. He is also the cohost of Party Politics, a TV8 show, a radio program on KUHF, and a podcast on Houston Public Media.

Chapter : A Political Rebirth at the Dawn of the Modern Texas Republican Party

  1. Interview with Leticia Van de Putte, November 12, 2021.
  2. Peggy Fikac, “Perry the Master of the Bold Move,” San Antonio Express-News(hereafter cited as SAEN), January 9, 2015.
  3. Jay Root, “Savvy Conservatism, Country Charm Led Perry to Win,” AP, March 4, 2010.
  4. Interview with Joe Holley, July 26, 2021.
  5. Interview with Dave McNeely, August 27, 2021.
  6. Interview with Rick Perry, July 31, 2023.
  7. Patricia Kilday Hart, “It’s Rick Perry’s Party Now,” Texas Monthly, October 2000.
  8. Interview with Tina Benkiser, November 1, 2021.
  9. Interview with Ron Lewis, August 5, 2021.
  10. Interview with Jay Root, August 17, 2021.
  11. Interview with Jonathan Tilove, July 26, 2021.
  12. Interview with R. G. Ratcliffe, July 26, 2021.
  13. Interview with David Carney, August 8, 2021.
  14. Root interview.
  15. Interview with Debra Medina, August 19, 2021.
  16. Tilove interview.
  17. Holley interview.
  18. Interview with David Weeks, August 17, 2021.
  19. Weeks interview.
  20. Perry interview, July 31, 2023.
  21. Carney interview.
  22. Gov. Rick Perry at a 2011 Roast for Rep. Senfronia Thompson, YouTube, https:// www.youtube.com/watch?v=LpPCxAMFV9k.
  23. Interview with John Austin, October 25, 2018.
  24. Van de Putte interview.
  25. Ratcliffe interview, July 26, 2021
  26. Van de Putte interview.
  27. Robert Draper, “It’s Just a Texas-Governor Thing,” New York Times (hereafter cited as NYT), December 2, 2009.
  28. Dave Mann, “Whatever Rick Perry’s Record Is, It’s Not Conservative,” New Republic, August 18, 2011.
  29. Interview with Tom Pauken, August 2, 2023.
  30. Interview with Wayne Slater, August 20, 2021.
  31. Interview with Ken Herman, August 10, 2021.
  32. Interview with Jim Arnold, August 5, 2021.
  33. Jay Root, “Rick Perry: The Democrat Years,” Texas Tribune, July 14, 2011, https:// www.texastribune.org/2011/07/14/rick-perry-democrat-years.
  34. McNeely interview.
  35. Fred Gantt Jr., The Chief Executive in Texas: A Study in Gubernatorial Leadership (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1964), 43.
  36. Gantt, Chief Executive in Texas, 6.
  37. Brian McCall, The Power of the Texas Governor: Connally to Bush (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2009), 5.
  38. Perry interview, July 31, 2023.
  39. AP, “Baldwin Thinks Texas Is for the Dogs,” October 9, 2003.
  40. Van de Putte interview.
  41. David O’Donald Cullen, “From ‘Turn Texas Loose’ to the Tea Party: Origins of the Texas Right,” in The Texas Right: The Radical Roots of Lone Star Conservatism, eds. David O’Donald Cullen and Kyle G. Wilkinson (College Station: Texas A&M University Press, 2014).
  42. Pauken interview.
  43. Perry interview, July 31, 2023.
  44. Interview with Mike Toomey, January 12, 2022.
  45. Interview with Matthew Dowd, August 9, 2021.
  46. Herman interview.
  47. Dowd interview.
  48. Interview with Jon McClellan, August 31, 2021.
  49. Steve Kornacki, The Red and the Blue: The 1990s and the Birth of Political Tribalism (New York: Ecco, 2018), 5.
  50. Holley interview.
  51. Perry interview, July 31, 2023.
  52. Lewis interview.
  53. Root interview.
  54. Interview with Bill Miller, September 10, 2021.
  55. Fikac, “Perry the Master of the Bold Move.”
  56. Tilove interview.
  57. Interview with Cliff Johnson, July 28, 2022.
  58. Carney interview.
  59. Hart, “Perry’s Party Now.”
  60. Lewis interview.