Sunday, May 18, 2008

Rick Perry's 'Highway Henchwoman'

Diplomacy key for transportation chair

Perry appointee already scrutinized by lawmakers

May 18, 2008

Houston Chronicle/San Antonio Express-News Austin Bureau
Copyright 2008

AUSTIN — Deirdre Delisi once aspired to be a diplomat, and Gov. Rick Perry may have finally granted her wish.

As head of the Texas Transportation Commission, Perry's former chief of staff will test her diplomatic skills in an emotion-filled arena in which a state senator has already called her a "political hack."

In an early sign of her peacemaking potential, the 35-year-old Delisi scheduled one of her first meetings as chair with that senator, Transportation and Homeland Security Committee Chairman John Carona, R-Dallas.

"I was left with the impression that she genuinely wants a new and fresh start for the commission, and I can tell you the Legislature wants that, too," said Carona, who publicly tangled with the former chairman, the late Ric Williamson, as Williamson pushed Perry's vision of private investment in public tollways as a key to meeting mobility needs.

Department under review

The Texas Department of Transportation is under review by lawmakers who've sought to rein in new privately run toll roads and are distrustful of the agency's funding figures. There's also an outcry from many Texans incensed over toll proposals and the possible route of the Perry-pushed Trans-Texas Corridor.

"Drinking from the fire hydrant," is how Delisi described her first days on the job, with months to serve before the Senate next year decides on confirming her appointment.

Focused on meeting huge transportation needs, she describes private investment in toll roads as a tool, noting lawmakers are considering others. She's quick to emphasize the need to work with local officials.

Asked what role a gas-tax increase might play in the mobility picture, she gives an answer that may be diplomatic enough to please lawmakers who felt that Williamson pushed Perry's wishes too hard at the expense of their own.

"That's a decision that the Legislature is going to make," she said. "I don't get a vote."

'Whatever it takes'

Delisi was born in Montreal, grew up in Nashville, Tenn., became a U.S. citizen at 17 and wanted a diplomatic career after getting degrees at Duke and Stanford.

When a U.S. Foreign Service hiring freeze turned her interest to politics, she joined the GOP presidential campaign of Lamar Alexander and met the man who'd lure her to Texas, now-husband Ted Delisi.

Other jobs included a stint on George W. Bush's first presidential campaign, but since late 1997 she has mostly had political and policy roles with Perry, including managing his notoriously tough 2002 race for governor against Laredo Democrat Tony Sanchez.

Delisi resigned as Perry's chief of staff last summer when she had twins, born 10 weeks early and weighing less than 3 pounds each. They're healthy and nearly 1 now.

"I think it would be great for my children to grow up in that environment of understanding what the value of public service is," she said.

Ted, a political consultant, is juggling other complications in addition to being what he calls Mr. Mom when her schedule takes her away. To avoid the appearance of conflict, he ended a joint venture with Hillco Partners because the lobbying firm handles transportation issues, though he said he hadn't done such work himself.

"Any job that takes 95 percent of your time and pays $15,000 a year always makes for an interesting conversation inside the household," he deadpanned of the appointment. (The job pays her $15,914 per year.) "But it's an honor. She believes strongly in public service, and I think she feels strongly there is some new and needed enthusiasm and ... diplomacy."

The new chairwoman quickly plunged in with visits to transportation officials and lawmakers from Dallas to El Paso.

Delisi also will continue to advise Perry and do consulting with her husband through Delisi Communications. She doesn't know how many hours the commission job will take: "Whatever it takes," she said.

Long days aren't new to Delisi, a veteran of campaigns and legislative sessions, including last year's when, pregnant, she rebuffed her doctor's orders to stop work: "We still had a week of session, plus the whole veto-sign period," she said.

Will and David were born after the session adjourned.

"The governor called me and said, 'How's my girl?' " said Delisi's friend Jennifer Lustina, another 30-something political veteran. "I said, 'Governor, how do you think your girl's doing? She's doing how you know she's doing. She's just steady.' "

That's her hallmark, Lustina added: "Nothing rattles Deirdre. ... You can say she's tough. You can say maybe she's overly driven once she starts really pushing on something. But you can't say she's a hack. She's smart as hell."

'Highway henchwoman'

It's that other hallmark — her long history with Perry — that troubles critics.

"She has zero transportation experience. Maybe she drives to work, but that's about it," said Sal Costello, who founded to oppose the way tollways were planned under Perry.

"This is an agency that deals with billions of our tax dollars for transportation, and this person has no experience. That's frightening. What she does bring to the table is she's Gov. Perry's highway henchwoman."

Delisi calls her strongest asset her knowledge of the Legislature, though lawmakers' views on her run the gamut.

Some said they don't know her, and Carona (before their meeting) said she was known as difficult to work with. Others offered praise, including Rep. Jim Keffer, R-Eastland, House Ways and Means Committee chair, who said she's focused, capable and "no nonsense."

Politics may be an asset

As Delisi's home senator, Kirk Watson, D-Austin, a TxDOT critic, could have blocked her appointment. He said he didn't know her before, but she impressed him with her intelligence and support for more local decision-making and more TxDOT accountability.

"Some people have said she's too political. I frankly think that that ought to be one of her assets," Watson said. "She will be smart enough to know it ain't working right now."

Sen. Glenn Hegar, R-Katy, vice chair of the Texas Sunset Advisory Commission reviewing TxDOT, heard from Delisi after dubbing her "a political 'yes man.' " They met, and "wait and see" is his mantra.

"Some people have suggested ... Delisi is the one person that can get the governor to change his mind," he said. "I don't know the answer to that."


• Age : 35

• Education : Duke University, bachelor's degree in political science, 1994; Stanford University, master's degree in international policy studies, 1995.

• Family : Husband, Ted, political consultant; two children, twins Will and David, nearly 1.

• Chief of staff, Gov. Rick Perry, 2004-07

• Deputy chief of staff, Gov. Rick Perry, 2000-01,


• Campaign manager, Texans for Rick Perry,


• Bush for President,


• Special assistant, Lt. Gov. Rick Perry, 1998-99

• Texans for Rick Perry (lieutenant governor's race), 1997-98

• Legislative assistant, Sen. Bill Ratliff, 1996-97

• Texas Department of Commerce, 1996

• Lamar Alexander for President, 1995-96

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