Perry and ex-aide have deep, mutually beneficial ties

September 16, 2011

Any insider at the Texas Capitol could have identified which aide-turned-lobbyist Rep. Michele Bachmann was talking about when she attacked Texas Gov. Rick Perry over a 2007 executive order mandating that teenage girls receive a vaccination against the sexually transmitted human papillomavirus.

“There was a big drug company that made millions of dollars because of this mandate,” Bachmann (Minn.) said during Monday night’s GOP presidential debate in Tampa. “. . . The governor’s former chief of staff was the chief lobbyist for this drug company. The drug company gave thousands of dollars in political donations to the governor, and this is just flat-out wrong.”

Perry retorted that he was offended by any suggestion that he could be swayed by a $5,000 campaign contribution — an inaccurate figure, it turned out, that was only a fifth of the actual amount he had received from the company.

Even so, Bachmann understated the role that lobbyist Mike Toomey has played in Perry’s fortunes.

In the Republican frontrunner’s charmed political career, few relationships have been more mutually beneficial than one that began back in the mid-1980s, when both he and Toomey were members of the Texas House and roomed together during legislative sessions.

Since then, Toomey has made himself useful to Perry in a number of capacities — and has become one of Austin’s most sought-after and highly compensated lobbyists as a result.

In the first seven months of this year, Toomey earned somewhere between $1.34 million and $2.38 million doing work for 27 clients, according to data compiled by the watchdog group Texans for Public Justice from reports to the state ethics commission. (Texas disclosure laws require lobbyists to report their earnings in broad ranges.)

The business community in Texas is so powerful that Democrats sometimes refer to the lobbyist section in the capitol’s House gallery as “the owner’s box.”

As for Toomey, “I guess you would call him a fixer, and a go-between for the governor with the business lobby,” said Call Jillson, a political science professor at Southern Methodist University in Dallas. “You find Toomey all over — sometimes on the inside; sometimes on the outside.”

Jillson added: “He’s out there doing everything he can think of on Perry’s behalf, and if he doesn’t have the money to do it, he knows where to get it.”

In 1993, while Perry was serving as Texas agriculture commissioner, Toomey served as his attorney in a lucrative land deal. While Perry was out of town on vacation, Toomey closed the sale of a 9.3-acre lot to computer mogul Michael Dell for $465,000, which was more than triple what Perry had paid for it only two years before.

During his two years as Perry’s chief of staff, from 2002 to 2004,Toomey was dubbed “The Enforcer” by Texas Monthly for his tough way of getting things done for Perry. “I think I am used as the bad cop regularly because I don’t mind doing it,” he told the magazine.

Last year, as Perry was running for reelection against a potentially strong Democratic opponent, a 22-year-old University of Texas student testified in court that Toomey had paid him $12,000 to get signatures in a petition drive to get the Green Party on the ballot. The move, if it had succeeded, could have siphoned off Democratic votes; a lawsuit by Democrats remains pending in federal court.

And days before Perry officially announced his presidential candidacy, Toomey announced the formation of a “Super PAC” on the governor’s behalf — one that has set a goal of raising and spending $55 million during the primary season.

A number of these largely unregulated organizations have sprung up during this campaign season. The groups are legally banned from coordinating their operations with those of presidential campaigns, but campaign finance reform advocates are skeptical that this is how things will operate in practice.

Toomey’s involvement in Perry’s Super PAC “is about as stark as you can get,” said Fred Wertheimer, the president of Democracy 21. Not only is the lobbyist close to the governor himself, but he also owns an island in New Hampshire with Perry’s chief strategist Dave Carney.

According to a real estate listing for the 2.7-acre island — which, as it happens, is not far from former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney’s house on Lake Winnipesaukee — it rents for $18,000 a week during peak season. The property boasts dock space for up to 14 boats, two beaches, a main house that sleeps 12, a guest house that can fit eight, and a boat house that bunks another dozen people.

Toomey did not respond to a request for an interview.

Perry’s aides dismiss the suggestion that Toomey has had any undue influence on Perry. “The governor makes his own decisions,” spokesman Mark Miner said. “You’ll find many people who have worked for him in the past who continue to support him.”

As for the vaccine order, which the Texas legislature reversed, Miner insisted that Toomey played “no role. What drove the governor’s decision was saving lives.”

But skeptics say the move was almost inexplicable, except for Toomey’s influence, given that Perry has not been particularly aggressive on women’s health issues in the past.

Back in the days when Perry first got to know his fellow legislator, Toomey was a relatively rare breed in Texas: a Republican. Perry himself was a Democrat at the time, though within a few years, he and many other Texas politicians were switching parties.

In his first campaign for the House in 1982, Toomey had passed out little bottles of hand lotion to women’s groups bearing a label that said, “Don’t get chapped over higher taxes. Vote Mike Toomey.”

He quickly gained a reputation as a skilled and tough legislator, earning the nickname “Mike the knife” for his budget-cutting zeal. Later, he would serve as Republican Gov. Bill Clements’s chief of staff, where he was sometimes referred to as “Governor Toomey.”

Almost as notable were Toomey’s workaholic ways. He wore a beeper on his tuxedo at his wedding in the mid-1990s.

Perry has at times bucked the prevailing political wind in favor of the interests of Toomey’s clients. In 2001, for instance, the governor infuriated Texas’ powerful doctors lobby by vetoing its top legislative priority, a bill that would have required insurance companies to pay them more quickly.

The move stunned many in Austin, and so alienated the Texas Medical Association that it threw its support to Perry’s Democratic opponent in the next election. But Perry and Toomey insisted his decision had nothing to do with the fact that the lobbyist was representing health insurer Cigna.

If that’s the case, then there’s another force at work on Toomey’s behalf, said Andrew Wheat of Texans for Public Justice. “His clients just seem to have extremely good luck.”

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Karen Tumulty is a national political correspondent for The Washington Post, where she received the 2013 Toner Prize for Excellence in Political Reporting.
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