Perry's penchant for living on the edge

Editor's note: Texas Tribune reporters don't usually write pieces for TribTalk, but we've made an exception for this commentary by Jay Root, who covered Gov. Rick Perry on the 2012 presidential campaign trail and published an account of it. 

Several years ago I accompanied Gov. Rick Perry on a campaign swing to Southeast Texas, and a big thunderstorm rolled in before the final event of the day.

The wind blew so hard that when it came time to leave, the lights had gone out all over town, including the ones at the small airport we were departing from. The rain had left patches of water all along the runway.

Inside the governor’s airplane, the pilots were saying it was unsafe for takeoff, and soon the vision of an overnight stay in industrial Orange, Texas, began to creep into my mind.

How naive of me.

Rick Perry is not one to let a power outage and a little rain slow him down. He instructed a couple of state troopers to drive their cars to the end of the runway and shine their headlights toward the plane, providing a faint but apparently adequate substitute for the runway lights that had been knocked out.

The governor leaned over to me and flashed a mischievous smile.

“Root,” he said, “I’m going to get you home tonight.”

Needless to say, he did.

I’m reminded of that episode today because Perry has been thrust into the national spotlight again, and the focus is on his no-holds-barred behavior. A Travis County grand jury has decided he finally went over the line with it and indicted him on felony charges stemming from his fulfilled threat to veto funds destined for the office of a disgraced prosecutor.

Perry, as you’ve no doubt learned by now, has blasted the indictments as a politically motivated farce. And rather than sneak through the back door to have his fingerprints and mug shot taken as politicians usually do when these things happen, Perry held press conferences both before and afterward in front of the courthouse — with dozens of cheering supporters (and a handful of protesters) on hand to watch.

One awestruck reporter turned to me afterward and proclaimed, “This is my first booking rally.”

I can’t say I was surprised that it was Rick Perry who made it happen.

Call it what you will — swagger, moxie or perhaps even recklessness — but in the almost 14 years he has been governor of Texas, Perry has demonstrated a fondness for living on the edge.

It’s hard to know where to start cataloging all of it. When he was a Democratic member of the Texas House of Representatives, located on the second floor of the state Capitol, Perry used to sit on the wooden railing encircling the vast open space of the rotunda and chat with reporters, seemingly oblivious to the risk of falling into the void behind him.

Perry’s rugged good looks and flesh-pressing retail skills made him an attractive party-switching recruit for the rising GOP in 1989, and he didn’t blink at the chance to run for state agriculture commissioner a year later, even though Democrats held almost every statewide office at the time.

He won that 1990 race in a squeaker and has been in statewide politics ever since. Perry might have topped out at lieutenant governor, the powerful job he won in another razor-thin race in 1998. But he had the good timing to play second fiddle to Gov. George W. Bush. And when Bush got elected president, he left Perry the keys to the Governor’s Mansion.

Back then, Perry was written off as a lightweight — “Governor Goodhair,” they called him — until the end of his first legislative session as governor, when he jolted the political establishment by issuing a record 82 vetoes.

Soon, people around the Capitol were jokingly calling him “Governor Veto,” an early inkling that Perry would march to his own beat and to hell with the consequences.

With every passing year, Perry just seems to have grown bolder and bolder. He’s like a roguish Harrison Ford character — pick your movie — who bends and twists the rules of the game, always managing to escape the burning building right before it collapses.

In 2007, he sent shockwaves through the Capitol with a controversial executive order requiring young girls to be vaccinated for HPV. Many Democrats, convinced by his argument that it would prevent countless deaths from the type of cancer HPV causes, applauded Perry for it. But the move so alienated social conservatives that some observers predicted it would end Perry’s political career. It didn’t help matters that his close friend Mike Toomey was a lobbyist for HPV vaccine maker Merck — fueling the oft-heard narrative that donors and friends get special access with Perry.

When the Legislature overturned the order, Perry still didn’t back down, and in characteristic bravado he angrily invited legislators to “look these women in the eyes and tell them, ‘We could have prevented this disease for your daughters and granddaughters.’”

It wasn’t until 2011, after he took his ambitions to the national stage, that Perry quit trying to defend what conservatives found indefensible. He admitted he’d overreached and said he was sorry for it.

For a man who oozes “sufficient levels of testosterone to detonate a Geiger counter,” as writer Robert Draper once put it, Perry’s humility-filled reversal stood out mostly because contrition comes so unnaturally to him.

It’s a trait that drives critics nuts but often endears him to conservatives who love his macho confrontations with establishment Republicans and what they call “nanny state” liberals.

Let’s face it: In a profession that breeds caution, Perry stands out like a bull at a dog show.

What can you say about a guy who shot a coyote while jogging — jogging! — and later got injected with his own stem cells during experimental back surgery? The procedure wasn’t FDA approved, but Perry isn’t inclined to ask Uncle Sam for permission to do anything.

In 2009, with popular U.S. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison preparing to run against him in the Republican primary, Perry tacked hard to the right and even flirted with secessionist rhetoric. Some on Team Hutchison thought the uproar over Perry’s remarks would be his undoing. But the farm boy from Paint Creek, Texas, proved to be a better judge of the surly electorate than she was.

After he trounced “Kay Bailout” in the 2010 GOP primary a year later, Perry’s embrace of Texas nationalism and Tea Party rhetoric stood out as a key turning point in his re-election.

In the fall contest that year, Perry refused to debate his Democratic opponent and didn’t even bother to seek newspaper endorsements — his way of waving a giant middle finger at long-established political rituals.

The governor’s boldness isn’t limited to the campaign arena. Though he has portrayed himself as a fiscal hawk, Perry hasn’t been afraid to test the limits of what he can spend tax dollars on. When repairs were being made on the Governor’s Mansion a few years ago, Perry moved into a $10,000-a-month rental in posh West Austin, and a little digging revealed that he had billed taxpayers for curtains from Neiman Marcus, a $700 clothes rack, an “emergency” ice machine repair and even a two-year subscription to Food & Wine magazine.

Democrats complained about it, but Perry cruised to an easy re-election, portraying his critics as a bunch of liberal whiners. Then his office let the subscription to Food & Wine expire.

The governor pushed the envelope again in 2011 when, toward the end of his disastrous run for president, he revealed on federal financial disclosure forms that he had “retired” without ever leaving office, taking advantage of an obscure loophole that allows him to double dip — to collect a $92,000-a-year pension and draw his $150,000 annual salary at the same time.

By then his presidential hopes had faded, and back home his allies in the 2013 Texas Legislature cut off all attempts to do away with the unusually lucrative and controversial perk.

That’s the world the longest-serving governor in Texas history inhabits. Through the appointment process, veto power, executive orders, the bully pulpit and his own forceful personality, Perry has become the ward boss of Texas government, and you mess with him at your peril.

Critics questioned Perry’s unilateral declaration of a fiscal emergency to come up with the funds to pay for activation of the Texas National Guard, which he suddenly dispatched southward to beef up security along the Mexican border. The move was said to be unprecedented, at least in Perry’s tenure.

But who is going to do anything about it — the bedraggled Texas Democrats? Cue the laugh track.

More tenuous, perhaps, was Perry’s power to spend $80,000 in state money on his criminal defense lawyers. Aides said he had a right to use tax dollars to hire a lawyer because the criminal complaint against him involved his constitutionally protected powers to veto state funds.

It appears to be another precedent-setting move. I could find no example of any other state elected official in modern history using taxpayer dollars to hire outside criminal defense lawyers, and an old opinion by former Attorney General John Cornyn, now a U.S. senator, suggests that’s a no-no.

But no one with power — not the attorney general, who oversees legal matters, or the comptroller, who writes the checks — raised any public red flags about the expenditures. It was Perry’s own staff, after a little political blowback, who announced that the bills would be paid out of his Texas campaign account from now on.

There’s no word yet on whether the $80,000 spent so far will be reimbursed.

That brings us to Perry’s current travails, which could produce the most dramatic death-defying act we’ve seen yet from the wily Texas governor. Already he’s turning his indictment into a fundraising opportunity — in part by selling T-shirts through his new federal campaign committee. On one side is his now-famous mug shot, and on the other is the jailhouse picture of his humiliated nemesis, Travis County District Attorney Rosemary Lehmberg.

But Lehmberg is just a punch line for Perry — not his prosecutor. He’s facing an accomplished special prosecutor and a Republican judge, and the stakes are higher than they’ve ever been. This isn’t just about Perry’s reputation or his expected entry into the 2016 presidential race. His very freedom is on the line.

Will he wriggle himself out of the straitjacket once again, moments before he’s dropped into the boiling vat of oil? Or is this one too tricky even for Rick Perry?

As I ponder that question, I’m confronted with a familiar feeling. I’ve watched Perry win election after election. I’ve seen him lose in one of the most spectacular nosedives in American political history — then rise from the ashes of that disaster. I’ve been to his booking rally.

I will not believe Rick Perry is dead until I see the body. 

Jay Root

Texas Tribune reporter