Sunday, January 14, 2007

"A small cabal of wealthy businessmen and business lobbyists dominated the Perry agenda to their own benefit and the detriment of the state."

Perry due credit for more than surviving, many [lobbyists] say

January 14, 2007

The Dallas Morning News
Copyright 2007

AUSTIN – Sometimes history remembers you for just staying alive: Apollo 13, the Unsinkable Molly Brown and maybe, just maybe, political survivor Rick Perry.

When pressed, Rick Perry listed his work in transportation, the civil justice system and school finance as accomplishments. 'Every issue could probably be a legacy issue. I look at what we need to be doing; what are the issues facing Texas,' he said.

As Mr. Perry stands poised Tuesday to take his third oath of office, on his way to becoming the state's longest-serving governor, it might be the thing for which he is most remembered. In fact, his longevity is no small feat.

"He's the Bobby Knight of Texas governors," said Chuck McDonald, an Austin lobbyist who served in the administration of Democratic Gov. Ann Richards. "He'll be the all-time winningest career leader here. Surviving that long – good, bad or indifferent – is not an insignificant accomplishment."

But beyond that, many who have served in the Capitol think the man from Paint Creek has received short shrift for his long career. Compare him, for instance, to predecessor George W. Bush, who was a widely popular state executive.

By any objective standard, he has tackled the issues left by Mr. Bush and accomplished much more:

Under Mr. Perry, it's much harder to sue for medical malpractice and lawsuit limits have axed the big-dollar jury awards; school property taxes are dropping and thousands of businesses that had escaped taxes before are paying the tab; and the choked state highways are finding relief with a network of new tollways.

But then, Mr. Bush went on to be president.

"I mean, your immediate predecessor ascended to the White House. That's a big shadow," Mr. McDonald said.

Experts and observers believe that Mr. Perry can still write his own legacy, but his stamp thus far has been that he is politically deft and believes that what's good for business is good for the state. And time could show that his idea that private business has a better answer to managing foster care or road construction, or building coal plants, or teaching schoolchildren, could be visionary – or disastrous.

But most agree his longevity is allowing him to push it forward.

"He will be known as a survivor," said Jerry Polinard, a political science professor at the University of Texas-Pan American. "And he will be known for presiding over a period of Republican dominance."

It takes credit away from Mr. Perry, Dr. Polinard said, that the GOP Legislature has pushed for these initiatives. Plus, it's not unusual for Texas governors to have a pro-business bent – Mr. Perry has simply taken it farther than most.

Following personalities

He said that as one of the constitutionally weakest executives in the nation, a Texas governor has needed a forceful personality or a sweeping vision to reach the top tier. Think Allan Shivers and John Connally.

And, as many experts point out, Mr. Perry and his accomplishments are following two of the strongest personalities the state has seen in some time: Ms. Richards and Mr. Bush.

"It will be hard for him to escape the 'average' label unless something happens in the next term," Dr. Polinard said.

The governor himself doesn't really like to join in all this speculation of what he might be thought of down the road.

"I don't wake up every morning and go, 'Oh boy, I wonder what they're going to write about me 10 years from now,' " Mr. Perry said. "This is about leadership and facing the issues that face you at the moment."

But Texas Association of Business director Bill Hammond said Mr. Perry is frequently denied the credit he is due by pundits and the media.

"His actions speak louder than charisma," Mr. Hammond said. "To date, he will be remembered for helping to create the best business climate on the planet."

That environment has created jobs, prosperity and a strong economy that will continue past this administration, Mr. Hammond said. He pointed out that the multibillion-dollar Trans-Texas Corridor could, in a few years, be a toll road that runs from south of San Antonio to north of Dallas, built largely with private dollars, and will be a boon to the economy for decades.

"He's head and shoulders above all those – [Bill] Clements, [Mark] White, Richards, Bush – in terms of his accomplishments. He's done the deal," Mr. Hammond said.

Reggie Bashur, a top lobbyist who worked in the administrations of Mr. Clements and Mr. Bush, said Mr. Perry has faced tough political races and entrenched issues but managed to succeed.

"He's always done best when the odds are toughest against him. Travis could have used Perry at the Alamo," Mr. Bashur said.

He agreed with Mr. Hammond that Mr. Perry has been underrated.

"He's not a favorite of a lot of the so-called observers and pundits around the state," probably because of his strong conservative philosophy, Mr. Bashur said. "But his success is reflected in the fact that people vote for him."

Just 39 percent of Texas voters, though, did so last year. That was enough to easily beat a divided field, but Mr. Perry was never able to convince most voters that he deserved credit for the state's economy or recent legislative achievements. Indeed, in a Dallas Morning News poll last year, more than half of respondents could cite no Perry accomplishment.

Glenn Smith, a former aide to Democratic Lt. Gov. Bill Hobby, said he believes that Mr. Perry will be remembered for really one thing: "His hair."

Special interests

Mr. Smith, now the director of the Texas Progress Council, a largely Democratic think tank, said that history will reflect that a small cabal of wealthy businessmen and business lobbyists dominated the Perry agenda to their own benefit and the detriment of the state.

"It's a different scene than special interests holding power in Austin – that's always been the case," Mr. Smith said. "This is a very reduced number of people who hold the power – and that has been the key to his successes, which ultimately, I think, will be seen as failures."

Mr. Smith said that while Mr. Perry trims public programs and aids private businesses, schools are left starving for funding, children can't get health care, state college tuitions are skyrocketing and pollution spews unabated.

"Texas is so far behind in so many areas that no one governor can ever get it done. But we're digging ourselves into a much deeper hole," he said.

And many of the private partnerships that Mr. Perry is promoting will be undone by scandal and failures and rejected by future voters and legislatures, Mr. Smith predicted.

He also said that while he might begrudge Mr. Perry's policies, he can only admire his ability to win at politics. He's disciplined and looks good on TV, Mr. Smith said.

"Everyone was mistaken if they thought they might win against him because he was going to make mistakes," he said.

Pushed to discuss his achievements, the governor said last week that he tackled a woefully neglected transportation network, a broken civil justice system and a school finance scheme thrown out by the courts.

"Every issue could probably be a legacy issue. I look at what we need to be doing; what are the issues facing Texas," he said.

Also, Mr. Perry said, history doesn't wait for someone to make it up. Too often, it happens suddenly, such as a Hurricane Katrina or Rita.

"Those are all things that are out there, and they will be what they will be," he said. "A legacy is something the historians can write about."


© 2007 The Dallas Morning News: