Perry built complicated record on matters of race

October 3, 2011

As governor of Texas, Rick Perry appointed the first African American to the state Supreme Court and later made him chief justice. One of Perry’s appointments to the Board of Regents of his alma mater, Texas A&M University, became its first black chairman. One chief of staff and two of his general counsels have been African American.

Perry, who is seeking the Republican nomination for president, also enjoys warm associations with many black leaders, who say he regularly reaches out to them and has personally backed some of their causes.

“When you look at the way that he governs, you see that he is very inclusive,” said Brian Newby, an African American who served first as Perry’s general counsel and then as his chief of staff before returning to private law practice in Fort Worth. “You see that in his appointments; you see that in his friendships; you see that in the way that he deals with minority legislators.”

But many of those minority legislators say Perry has a long history — dating to his first race for statewide office more than 20 years ago — of engaging in what they see as racially tinged tactics and rhetoric to gain political advantage.

Black lawmakers have been particularly troubled by Perry’s recent embrace of the tea party movement, elements of which they regard as racially antagonistic, and by his championing of states’ rights and his call for Texas to consider seceding if federal policies didn’t change.

“When we came into the nation in 1845, we were a republic, we were a stand-alone nation,” Perry said in 2009. “And one of the deals was, we can leave anytime we want. So we’re kind of thinking about that again.”

Garnet F. Coleman (D), an African American state lawmaker from Houston, said, “Mr. Perry made his own bed the minute he started talking about states’ rights and secession. That wipes out anything that he may have done before. There’s no doubt that the talk of secession and states’ rights harks back to the 1950s and the Civil War.”

The governor’s record on matters of race is attracting new scrutiny after The Washington Post’s account of a secluded West Texas hunting property that Perry and his father leased that has long been known by a name containing a racial epithet.

The name, “Niggerhead,” was painted in block letters across a large rock by the property’s entrance. Perry has described the word on the rock as “an offensive name that has no place in the modern world.” But it remains unclear when or whether he dealt with it while using the hunting camp.

Some black leaders in Texas said the story is an embarrassment and a political liability for Perry, but none suggested that either the story or their history with him lead them to believe he is a racist.

On Monday, an influential African American state senator from Houston, Rodney Ellis (D), said Perry will have to go out of his way to prove that he sought to remove the property’s name as soon as he learned of it.

Ellis said the story will have other political consequences, as well. For instance, the governor recently filled a vacancy on a state motor vehicles board that is considering a request to create a vanity license plate featuring the Confederate flag. On Monday, Ellis and other black lawmakers said the story about the hunting property will bring even more scrutiny to the new appointee if and when the request is voted on — and, by association, to Perry.

“This story is exposing all of the warts, all of those awful things about Texas history we’d like to forget,” Ellis said.

The story’s effect on Perry’s national prospects is less clear, but it comes at a time when he is already under fire, and facing declining poll numbers, for a series of poor debate performances and controversial statements about Social Security overhaul and sending U.S. troops to Mexico to combat drug violence. New scrutiny of Perry’s attitude about race will probably keep alive questions about his electability against President Obama, the nation’s first African American chief executive.

1990 ad spurred criticism

In Texas, there has been limited political consequence for racially charged rhetoric, in part because black voters make up just 13 percent of the electorate. At the same time, there has been some political reward for politicians who have appealed to the racial fears of white voters. Perceptions linger among African Americans that, although they like Perry, he has long engaged in that practice.

They recall, for instance, Perry’s first foray into statewide politics 21 years ago, when he defeated an incumbent agriculture commissioner in part by running a television ad that showed his opponent standing alongside Jesse Jackson.

Many black leaders thought the ad was an intentional appeal to racist white voters, and they held a news conference to protest it. The ad displayed headlines alleging that Perry’s opponent, Democrat Jim Hightower, mismanaged his agency. It also featured a seemingly discordant video of Hightower appearing with Jackson, then a leading figure in the Democratic Party whom Hightower had endorsed for president two years earlier.

“That was a very bad period here, as the Republicans were trying to drive Democratic swing voters to the Republican Party,” said James Henson, director of the Texas Politics Project at the University of Texas at Austin. “There was a lot of race-baiting in Texas in that period — race-baiting that would be a lot harder to get away with now.”

At the 1990 news conference, Ellis and others accused Perry (and his then campaign strategist, Karl Rove) of using the ad to turn white voters against High­tower.

“There’s a certain segment here that’s still going to respond to that,” said Hightower, who now writes a column and hosts a radio program in Austin. “It’s the same folks who don’t like Barack Obama. Besides legitimate reasons not to like him, there are some people who just don’t want a black president and do not consider that legitimate. So that was an easy play for Rove and Perry.”

Perry’s spokesman, Ray Sullivan, said, “The 1990 TV ad truthfully highlighted Mr. High­tower’s role in the ’88 presidential campaign and truthfully demonstrated his very liberal politics to Texas general election voters.”

‘It was time for inclusion’

Ellis and other leaders gave Perry credit for cultivating good working relationships with African American politicians, citing as an example his attendance at an annual fundraiser for minority scholarships.

Many also defended a governor who has a strong record appointing minorities to state boards and positions. Over 10 years in office, 9 percent of Perry’s 5,741 appointments have been African Americans, and 15 percent have been Hispanics, according to his campaign. That puts Perry slightly ahead of his predecessor, George W. Bush (with 9 percent African Americans and 13 percent Hispanics) and slightly behind the governor before that, Democrat Ann Richards (13 percent African Americans and 18 percent Hispanics).

Those numbers don’t tell the story, however, of how many black leaders Perry appointed to high-level and historically significant jobs, several defenders said.

“He has done things and appointed people to boards not only because he felt that they could bring something special to the table, but his belief was that it was time for inclusion in the state of Texas,” said Bill Jones, an African American who is a Perry appointee to the Texas Parks and Wildlife Commission, a past general counsel to the governor and the past chairman of the Texas A&M Board of Regents. “He has often said that he is the governor of all Texas and not just a particular race or a particular party, so all need to be represented.”

Perry has also received credit for signing a hate-crimes bill in the aftermath of the dragging death of James Byrd Jr., which stood in contrast to Bush, who did not support the measure. But Perry’s role on that issue is more complicated than some portrayals suggest. According to published reports, Perry had misgivings about the bill all the way up to the day he signed it in 2001, when he reiterated his concern that creating “new classes of citizens,” including homosexuals, could be divisive.

Perry had worked behind the scenes to delay and even block passage of the bill, Ellis recalled. But once it reached his desk, “he could sense that momentum was in favor of it,” Ellis said, and he signed it.

Polling manager Peyton Craighill contributed to this report.

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