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Right Turn
Posted at 08:45 AM ET, 11/06/2011

Perry perfected influence peddling

Texas Gov. Rick Perry has always cultivated a populist image. He began his campaign attacking Federal Reserve Board Chairman Ben Bernanke and calling Washington, D.C., a “seedy” place. These days he’s laying it on pretty thick. Last week he told the San Francisco Chronicle:

The American people are not confused about what is on their minds. And it’s not whether some political operative takes a video and puts it up on YouTube.
They care about who’s going to get this country back working, who is it that has a track record and a focus and the courage to walk into Washington, D.C., not tinker around the edges with a little tweezer but take a wrecking ball, a sledgehammer — whatever it takes to break up the good-old-boy corporate lobbyist mentality that is putting this country’s future in jeopardy.

The problem with that line is that there is no candidate in the Republican presidential primary race who more personifies the “good-old-boy corporate lobbyist mentality” than Rick Perry.

Take his private jet use, for example. The New York Times reported:

On a July morning in 2008, Gov. Rick Perry of Texas and several aides boarded a plane for Washington to lobby on ethanol use, an issue important to corn growers and livestock owners in his state. . . .
While executives from the livestock industry did not attend Mr. Perry’s private meeting at the E.P.A., the governor would not have made it there without them — literally. The Hawker 800XP plane that Mr. Perry and his team flew from Austin to Washington and back was provided by Lonnie Pilgrim, one of the world’s largest chicken producers and a leading critic of the ethanol mandate. . . .
The poultry magnate also flew the governor to Washington in June to take part in a news conference on the issue.
The two trips, each valued at $9,179, were among more than 200 flights worth a total of $1.3 million that Mr. Perry has accepted — free — from corporate executives and wealthy donors during 11 years as governor, according to an analysis of Texas Ethics Commission records by The New York Times.

His flack’s excuse (“it was part of an effort to save tax dollars”) would be more credible had Perry not charged the taxpayers hundreds of thousands of dollars for a mansion rental, run up his travel bill and then sealed the travel records.

But that’s all a drop in the bucket compared to his cozy relationship with donors who got plum appointments, grants and sweetheart deals after ponying up big money for Perry’s campaigns. Mike Toomey, his former chief of staff, then lobbyist (helping to push through the HPV mandatory vaccination program for his client Merck and now his superPAC chief) certainly fits the mold.

A GOP consultant taking no part in this year’s race told me Perry risks looking like a hypocrite. “Rick Perry’s governor’s office had a Texas-sized revolving door. His top staff all became lobbyists, and the lobbyists all became top staff. So I’m not sure cronyism is really an issue he should be bringing up.” He pointed me to a blatant example of Perry’s willingness to compromise conservative principles: The Trans Texas Corridor (TTC) project.

Although some reports have taken a look at this, it’s frankly surprising it hasn’t gotten more attention, given the scope of the boondoggle and the amount of money involved.

The TTC was Perry controversial road and rail plan that would have seized more than a half-million private acres and made a mint for a company from which a top aide was hired just months before. It also would have benefited a lot of wealthy Texans, the very sort that learned to play the insiders game in Austin. In 2002 the Houston Chronicle reported:

The Trans Texas Corridor, a proposed 4,000-mile network of high-speed railways, toll roads and pipelines, is slated to begin with four high-priority routes — three of them serving Houston.
As announced in January by Gov. Rick Perry, the multi-use corridor idea may have been long on vision, but it was short on specifics. On Thursday, the Texas Transportation Commission approved a more fleshed-out version, including the four priority routes.
The staggering cost, estimated at up to $183 billion over 50 years, would come largely from private contributors who hope to benefit from the project — a system used widely in Europe and in a few U.S. states.

Many Texans hated the idea, and six years later Perry’s administration was still trying to defend the Trans Texas Corridor in public meetings around the state. Conservatives were some of the loudest voices in opposition to the plan..

Along the way, Perry seemed indifferent to property owners. In 2008, for example, he vetoed an eminent domain reform that passed the state legislature overwhelmingly. That riled up conservatives who claimed that that new protections were needed to ensure fair compensation to landowners.

The TTC was eventually killed in 2009, although the plan remains on the books. So why would Perry, a property rights defender and a fiscal tightwad, champion such a colossal boondoggle? Perry’s critics pointed to that revolving door.

The Associated Press explained in 2006: “Republican Gov. Rick Perry’s former liaison to the Legislature is working once again for the Spanish company that won the rights to develop the state’s $7 billion Trans Texas Corridor toll road project. Lobbyist Dan Shelley worked for the firm as a consultant just before he went to the governor’s office, a connection first revealed in 2004.State officials denied any connection between that circumstance and the decision, three months later, to award Cintra-Zachry the huge highway contract. Now Shelley has left the governor’s office, and he and his daughter have large contracts to lobby for the road builder. ...” You get the picture.

Perry seems blissfully unaware that his pattern of patronage and cronyism undermines his claim to be a Tea Party champion. The Post’s Karen Tumulty quizzed Perry in the Oct. 11 debate as to whether his tech and development funds weren’t an awful lot like Solyndra. He answered, “Well, I don’t think the federal government should be involved in that type of investment, period. If states want to choose to do that, I think that’s fine for states to do that.” Yikes.

Perhaps, then, Perry would do well to cut out the holier-than-thou talk about the influence of big money in government. He’s never shown any inclination to get the influence peddlers out of state government, so there is little reason to think he’d do so at the federal level.

By  |  08:45 AM ET, 11/06/2011

Categories:  2012 campaign

 
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