Saturday, March 06, 2010

"A near majority of dedicated Republican primary voters cast ballots that would have ended Perry's leadership."

Conservative Texans want more than photo-ops

Davy Crockoshit


Jonathan Gurwitz
San Antonio Express-News
Copyright 2010

When the 2009 regular session of the Texas Legislature concluded, Gov. Rick Perry came to San Antonio to affix his signature to a major property rights measure. In front of the Alamo, Perry appeared to sign legislation putting a constitutional amendment on the November 2009 ballot that sharply restricted the circumstances under which state and local government could exercise eminent domain.

The ceremony presented a great photo-op: a conservative governor affirming an essential right, drawing a line in the sand on eminent domain in the shadow of the Cradle of Texas Liberty. The ceremony was also deceptive.

What Perry purported to sign was a joint resolution passed by a two-thirds majority in both houses of the Texas Legislature. Such measures circumvent the governor's office and automatically appear on the ballot in the next general election. Voters approved it in November with 81 percent support.

The decision of conservative Texas lawmakers to bypass the governor on eminent domain reform in 2009 was deliberate. Two years earlier, Perry had vetoed an even stronger affirmation of property rights drawn up in response to the U.S. Supreme Court's Kelo decision.

The ostensible explanation for Perry's 2007 veto was that a key provision would have vastly inflated costs for new road construction. Beneath this explanation lay additional bothersome issues that put him at odds with conservative Texans.

The 2007 eminent domain reform effort conflicted with Perry's plans — since abandoned — for the Trans Texas Corridor, a 4,000-mile multi-modal transportation network that would have necessitated the state's seizure of as much as 600,000 acres of private property. The project generated even greater controversy because of its heavy reliance on toll roads; because a former Perry staffer worked as a consultant for the Spanish company, Cintra, that won the rights to develop the corridor; and because Perry fought a ruling by Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott that compelled the Texas Department of Transportation to lift a veil of secrecy on the contract's details.

Like the signing in front of the Alamo, Perry's victory in Tuesday's GOP gubernatorial primary looked impressive. He clawed back from a 25-point deficit in the polls to avoid a primary runoff, squeaking out a bare majority of 51 percent. But another way to look at Tuesday's results is to recognize that a near majority of dedicated Republican primary voters cast ballots that would have ended Perry's leadership.

Why would they do so? Start with property rights, toll roads and the Trans Texas Corridor. Add in his executive order requiring that all sixth grade girls in Texas receive the Gardasil vaccine for a sexually transmitted virus that causes cervical cancer, an affront to parental rights that was rescinded by the Legislature. And, by the way, another former Perry staffer worked as a lobbyist for the vaccine's maker, Merck & Co.

Should Perry be concerned that a sizeable number of conservative voters might stay home in November? Preliminary polls suggest he has a comfortable lead over the Democratic nominee, former Houston Mayor Bill White. No Democrat has won a statewide election in the Lone Star State since 1994. It seems unlikely that record would be broken during a year in which a Republican prevailed in Massachusetts.

Then again, few people could have anticipated the tectonic shift in party politics over the last year. A similar shift could just as easily happen over the next eight months.

Perry is a good campaigner with even better political instincts. If his instincts are correct now, they'll tell him that it's not enough to look good in front of the cameras railing against the liberal excesses of Washington, bailouts and the stimulus. In considering their votes for governor, conservative Texans want more than photo-ops.

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