August 23, 2011

There’s a saying in Texas when someone has the swagger of success without the accomplishments to back it up: He’s all hat and no cattle. Put another way: he’s acting like Texas Gov. Rick Perry (R).

Perry has been elected governor three times and has proclaimed his state a model worth replicating at the national level. Yet Texas has the highest number of residents without health insurance in the nation, among the worst-ranked food stamp programs, one of the highest child poverty rates, the lowest percentage of residents with a high school diploma , and one of the highest teenage birth rates . These are stats that deserve swears, not swagger.

Texas’s political system is also as brazenly capable of corruption by money and special interests as that in Washington, and unabashedly so.

Long before the Supreme Court decision in Citizens United allowed unlimited contributions to begin flowing into national super PACs, Texas had some of the most lax campaign finance laws anywhere. At the state level, there are no limits on the amount of money individuals can contribute to candidates, allowing wealthy donors to directly bankroll campaigns. In such an environment, Rick Perry didn’t just survive, he flourished. He didn’t just embrace the system, he shattered records with it, raising more than anyone in Texas history. Indeed, for as long as Perry has been governor, the governor’s mansion has been ostensibly for sale.

Consider the numbers: Throughout his campaigns for governor, Perry raised $102 million, half of which came from just 204 sources. According to the Los Angeles Times, nearly half of those donors have received tax breaks, appointments or large business contracts. Half have received payments from two funds, sponsored by Perry, to funnel tax dollars to private business.

Take Harold Simmons, owner of Waste Control Specialists, for example, who contributed more than $1.1 million to Perry and whom the Los Angeles Times featured in its analysis of Perry’s fundraising. In 2006, Simmons told the Dallas Business Journal that his company was losing millions of dollars a year but would enjoy a strong turnaround if he could get approval for a radioactive waste facility in Texas. “We first had to change the law to where a private company can own a license, and we did that,” said Simmons. “Then we got another law passed that said they can only issue one license. Of course, we were the only ones that applied.” In addition to signing those laws, Perry appointed members to a commission that approved the radioactive site, despite loud objections from a team of Texas environmental scientists. In the end, Simmons’s contributions to Perry’s campaigns will net his business roughly $2 billion, according to Tom Smith, director of Public Citizen’s Texas office.

That kind of return on investment is what makes contributing to Perry so attractive to business owners. The Los Angeles Times notes, for example, that in return for $400,000 in contributions to the governor, B.J. McCombs, the primary backer of a Formula One racetrack development, will receive $25 million a year in state subsidies for the project. In exchange for $165,000 in contributions, Joe Sanderson, who runs a poultry company, received $500,000 to open a chicken hatchery and processing plant.

“A review of Mr. Perry’s years in office,” the New York Times explains, “reveals that one of his most potent fund-raising tools is the very government he heads.” This is Perry’s M.O. He appoints people with certain business interests to positions that have regulatory power over those interests. He changes the law on behalf of his biggest contributors, in the face of mountains of evidence underscoring the danger of doing so. Toxic waste spewing into the air and rivers? The price of doing business, he’ll say. Radioactive material seeping into groundwater? Such is life, he’ll say. BP oil seeping uncontrollably into the Gulf of Mexico? “An act of God,” he claimed. As Ben Adler, my colleague at the Nation, notes, a common saying in Texas is that “it’s cheaper to invest in politicians than in pollution controls.”

Now that Perry has set his sights on the White House, there’s no question that he will bring the same pay-for-play ethos that served him so well in Texas to Washington. Whether that means eviscerating environmental regulations on behalf of corporate polluters or giving lobbyists every seat around the table, Perry’s eagerness will make George W. Bush’s tenure seem like a case study in good governance.

Our national politics have already been corrupted by the overwhelming influence of campaign money. We already have too many members of Congress who too often operate not on behalf of those who elect them but on behalf of those who fund them. We cannot afford to have a president who has so proudly and brazenly embraced the notion of public service as nothing more than a conduit for the interest of business.

Ann Richards, the late former governor of Texas, once said that “the higher you go, the more it’s the same, except the stakes are higher: there are more zeros at the end.” Let us hope, then, that Rick Perry has already risen as far as he’ll go.