Early race showed Rick Perry undeterred by prospect of challenging good friend
By Michael Leahy,
At Texas A&M, Rick Perry, the charismatic yell leader, and John Sharp, the student body president, became buddies. They lived across the hall from each other and conspired in everything from university political races to illicit dorm pranks.
After college, the pair remained close. In 1984, a little more than a decade after graduating, Sharp helped persuade Perry to run for public office as a fellow Democrat.
Perry won that race, and on election night in 1990 both were big victors: Sharp captured the state comptroller’s office, and Perry, having switched to the Republican Party, became Texas agricultural commissioner. The old dorm mates were back together, tossing aside their party affiliations and doing each other favors from their offices on opposite sides of the street.
The next big race for the men — the one that would define the trajectory of both political careers — would cost them their friendship. In 1998, nearly three decades after they first met, Perry and Sharp ran against each other for lieutenant governor.
Their contest showed the same dogged resolve in Perry that was on display in his fierce attack against Mitt Romney during last week’s Republican presidential debate — a full-throated, no-holds-barred personal lashing of his chief opponent on a night when Romney momentarily looked on the defensive for the first time in the campaign. The lieutenant governor’s race also revealed that Perry wouldn’t be deterred by the prospect of losing a good friend as he sought to realize his political ambitions.
The battle, like his later Texas gubernatorial contests, provided a telling look at Perry’s campaign style. As a front-runner, he exhibited a reluctance to engage in televised debates, which recently has invited questions about whether his dearth of experience has hindered him on the national stage.
A friendship evolves
At A&M, Perry and Sharp were an unlikely pair: Sharp had earned a reputation as a bright, focused student leader, and Perry as a fun-loving, if academically unmotivated, campus butterfly.
But Sharp saw the reality of their respective positions early. “Rick was very popular,” he remembers. “People . . . were attracted to him. He was funny. He told good stories. He just had that . . . quality. The yell leaders were the most popular guys on campus.”
Sharp viewed Perry’s rah-rah charm as deceptive. It masked, he thought, his friend’s discipline and intense drive, a relentless focus in going after whatever he wanted and exerting his will over those standing in his path.
About midway through their freshman year, fed up with an insufferable upperclassman who had made their lives hard, the two friends assembled a pack that plotted revenge. “Are you in?” Perry asked others, in a recruitment drive. He was persuasive. After the upperclassman finally left campus for a long holiday break, Perry and his buddies locked about 15defecating chickens in his room. “That place was never the same — and that guy never messed with us again,” Sharp remembers with a laugh.
A little more than a decade later, Sharp was among an early group of boosters to recommend Perry, by then a former Air Force pilot, as someone who might be interested in running for an open seat in the state House.
Perry won as a Democrat cast in much the same mold as his friend — fiscally conservative, socially simpatico with the Bible Belt leanings of the area. At 34, Perry had a new career and stature and Sharp had gained an ally.
By 1989, Perry, like many conservative Southern Democrats, had concluded that he had no real future in the party. David Weeks, another close friend and a political media consultant, urged Perry to become a Republican and run for statewide office. Weeks turned for help to Texas kingmaker Karl Rove, who arranged for notable Texas Republicans to call Perry with offers of support and fundraising assistance. Soon, with Rove guiding his campaign, Perry was the 1990 Republican candidate for Texas agricultural commissioner, on his way to winning in an upset over Democratic incumbent Jim Hightower, on the same night that Sharp was capturing the comptroller’s office.
Jim Arnold, who in time would become Perry’s 1998 campaign manager, recalls Perry and Sharp doing small favors for each other, nurturing their friendship. Each man occasionally turned to the other to serve as a substitute speaker at community events. The buddies were on the phone often. “One of us would say, ‘I can’t do this speech at some place — you want to do it?’” Sharp recounts.
Sharp says he could not yet see the political confrontation with Perry brewing. But others close to the two recall a subtle shift slowly happening that belied their proximity and smiles. “It was kind of in the air,” Arnold remembers.
Once, Perry made an unexpected appearance at the end of a Sharp event to add his thoughts about state fiscal matters — it was as though, thought Sharp allies, Perry wanted to ensure he would not be eclipsed by his buddy. Sharp says that, although others occasionally remind him of that day, the moment remains foggy at best for him — an indication, he adds, of how little importance he attached to it at the time, as well as how unthinkable the idea was of a looming battle with Perry.
“I guess it wasn’t going to cross my mind until it happened,” he says. “I don’t know why — probably bad intel on my part. Rick was always playing his cards close to his vest. It all took me by surprise.”
For GOP opponents, Sharp loomed as a potential nightmare, a Democrat with political priorities more closely resembling a Republican’s. The centerpiece of Sharp’s efforts became his “performance reviews” of different Texas agencies and programs. Virtually overnight, as two longtime Perry allies recall, their leader became perturbed about the attention Sharp was receiving for the cost-cutting reviews.
“Did you see what that turd said today?” Perry remarked, after Sharp released another statement trumpeting ways to boost government efficiency. “Do you see those revenue projections from the turd? Complete crap.”
According to the pair of former advisers, “The Turd” became the rival’s new moniker, with Perry increasingly resentful about the attention the Texas media lavished on Sharp. “It’s not a term I’ve heard,” said Perry presidential campaign spokesman Mark Miner, who added that the chief importance of the Perry-Sharp duel was simply that Perry “won that race.”
Through most of the 1990s, Rove was helping Perry manage his political climb. But Rove came to any campaign at a price, thought key members of Perry’s team. With his stature growing, the consultant had become increasingly insistent on being an orchestrator, expecting candidates to defer to his wishes.
He leaned on Perry to strengthen frayed political relationships. Sometimes Perry resisted. According to two sources familiar with their discussions, Perry and Rove frequently argued. More than once, the consultant pressed until Perry snapped: “Stop lecturing me.”
By 1997, Rove had committed himself virtually full time to then-Gov. George W. Bush’s reelection campaign, and Perry had decided to enter the lieutenant governor’s race. Recommendations from Rove and Weeks led to Perry’s hiring of a New Hampshire consultant named David Carney. Perry assembled the rest of a team that is still with him today as he seeks the GOP presidential nomination: pollster Mike Baselice, advertising head Weeks, communications specialist Ray Sullivan to handle media, and a young researcher named Deirdre Delisi, who would later become a Perry chief of staff.
The race that followed with Sharp would be best remembered for the lack of genuine policy differences between the two conservative candidates. Opinion polls showed Sharp close — shockingly so, strategists for both parties thought, given that, at the top of the Texas ticket, Bush was on his way to winning in a landslide.
But if Perry had a struggle on his hands, a weary Sharp thought that his friend’s will and energy were bottomless. “He was relentless,” Sharp recalls. “He doesn’t get discouraged. You need to be up at 4 a.m. against him. He probably doesn’t pet his own dog in those times.”
Tensions between the two friends and their camps were growing. Eager for direct combat, a confident Sharp team wanted several televised debates. Sharp’s deep interest in budget and finance issues would give the policy wonk a distinct advantage, they thought. It was a feeling shared by a key Perry adviser. Perry and his team wanted to minimize televised forums.
“I don’t know if that was a goal then, but I’m not disputing it,” consultant Carney said recently.
The Perry team agreed to one televised debate, to be held late in the campaign in El Paso, on a Saturday night. Autumn Saturdays in Texas are built around college football games. “You could have put more people in my truck than were watching that debate,” Sharp dolefully recounts.
In the exchange, Perry responded at one point that, for all Sharp’s down-home talk about reforming Texas’s public education system, his children attended private schools. Sharp was not above personal digs, either. Having heard much about Perry’s link to Bush and remembering all the lines he had heard on the trail about his old buddy’s telegenic looks, Sharp let his frustration spill over. He later told an audiencethat Perry had reduced his essential message to one line: “I’m for George, and I’m pretty.”
Sharp drew blood first in the race by running a television ad asserting that, as a state representative, Perry had voted for a measure that had increased the “good time” that Texas prison inmates could earn, effectively speeding paroles and reducing penitentiary expenditures. A parolee released under the new plan had committed murder. The “prisoner ad” had an immediate effect on poll numbers: Perry’s lead began shrinking. Perry stayed calm, an aide said, adding: “He didn’t fume. His attitude was, ‘The guy came after us. And now I got one comin’ right back at him.’ ”
Soon, Perry fired back with a rebuttal ad that pointed out that Sharp had cast a vote mandating a similar benefit for prisoners. “I didn’t feel like I had any choice but to pull my ad then — or look like a hypocrite,” Sharp remembers.
Help from the Bush team
The race remained close. Bush’s team, determined to make sure the lieutenant governorship remained in Republican hands before Bush’s presidential race, aided Perry in enlisting the help of Bush’s father. Although former president George H.W. Bush had no personal relationship with Perry, he made a TV ad for the candidate that began airing late in the contest. But the Bush ad would not be nearly enough, some of Perry’s advisers feared. The candidate’s lead was still dwindling — now less than five percentage points. The Perry advisers prepared an ad claiming that Sharp favored higher taxes, as evidenced, they said, by his written support in his touted performance review for reform of the corporate franchise tax.
Rove telephoned, ordering them to hold the ad. At a meeting that included Carney, Baselice and Arnold, Rove informed the Perry team that Gov. Bush had expressed support for the kind of corporate tax reform Sharp favored. Moreover, if the tax ad ran, the effect of the Bush 41 ad might be dampened, Rove contended.
Some of Perry’s advisers were furious: Who was Rove to tell them how to conduct their campaign?
Rove presented a hard choice: Either eliminate the tax ad or else the Bush camp would not permit the Bush 41 ad to run again.
Carney, who says the Bush 41 ad had run its course anyway, insists that he did not interpret anything Rove said as an ultimatum. But other advisers in the Perry camp remember differently, in addition to a Bush intimate with direct knowledge of Rove’s warning. The tax ad was pulled. Aides passed on the news to a disappointed Perry. An adviser to the candidate said the break with Rove became irreparable in that moment.
Later, according to two advisers close to Perry, a still-seething Carney punched a hole in the office wall of a colleague, a story that Carney denies. “There are some things that are urban myth, I think,” he said, and, referring to the Bush team, added: “They were helpful to us.”
On Election Day, Perry prevailed by less than 2 percent of the vote. Afterward, the winner privately reflected with Arnold and others on his team about the lasting meaning of the contest. The man who as a college student wouldn’t tolerate an imperious upperclassman messing with his life vowed to reassert control over his future, regardless of who stood in his way. Never again, he told his aides, did he want an outsider interfering with his campaigns.
In the meantime, the freeze between Perry and Sharp lasted eight years. Then they saw each other by chance at a Texas gun store. Caught by surprise, they talked briefly about policy and politics. A friendship was revived. Recently, Perry played a major role in Sharp’s selection as the chancellor of Texas A&M.
“A lot of what happened back in the [1998 campaign] is now a blur,” Sharp says. “What I remember best is the tension. It was a whole year of tension.”