Correction: Earlier versions of this story incorrectly referred to Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-Tex.) as a former senator. Hutchison has announced that she will not seek reelection next year, but she plans to complete her current term. This version has been corrected.
Religious conservatives in Texas were stunned in 2007 when Republican Rick Perry became the first governor in the country to order young girls to get a vaccine against a sexually transmitted virus that can cause cervical cancer.
The vaccine would encourage promiscuity, according to many conservatives, who had long supported Perry’s views against abortion and same-sex marriage.
It soon emerged that Perry was close to one of the lobbyists who was pushing for the order and who worked for the vaccine’s New Jersey-based manufacturer. That lobbyist, Mike Toomey, had served as Perry’s chief of staff and has since helped found a super PAC aimed at boosting Perry’s bid for the presidency.
Perry, who long defended the vaccine mandate, reversed his position on the issue as he launched his GOP presidential bid, calling the order “a mistake” and saying he agrees with the Texas legislature’s decision to overturn it.
“The fact of the matter is that I didn’t do my research well enough to understand that we needed to have a substantial conversation with our citizenry,” Perry told reporters on the campaign trail in August.
The issue surfaced again at a GOP presidential primary debate Monday night, when Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.) and former Pennsylvania senator Rick Santorum raised the vaccine question.
Perry reiterated his belief that he made a mistake by issuing the executive order, which allowed parents to opt out. “If I had it to do over again, I would have done it differently.”
The episode illustrates the difficulties Perry faces in navigating competing Republican interest groups, and it resurrects allegations of cronyism that have dogged the Texas executive throughout his political career.
“At the time that he did this, it just had everybody scratching their heads,” said Andrew Wheat, research director at Texans for Public Justice, an Austin-based watchdog group that has frequently locked horns with Perry. “He wasn’t known as a crusader for women’s health. There’s no explanation that seems to make sense other than that Toomey’s got his ear and he got Perry to do this favor for him.”
Perry campaign spokesman Mark Miner dismissed the criticism. “Governor Perry has always stood on the side of protecting life, and that is what this issue was about,” he said Tuesday. “These allegations are false and have no merit.”
The vaccine in question, Merck’s Gardasil, protects against the human papillomavirus, or HPV, the most common sexually transmitted infection. HPV causes genital warts and can lead to cervical cancer, a disease that strikes about 10,000 American women a year and kills about 3,700.
The federal government approved Gardasil in June 2006, and medical authorities began recommending that all girls get the shots at ages 11 and 12, before they are likely to be sexually active. Boys have since been added to the recommendations as well.
Merck launched a multimillion-dollar lobbying and marketing effort to encourage that the vaccine — priced at about $360 for an entire treatment — be made mandatory for schoolgirls. But anti-vaccination groups and many religious conservatives pushed back, citing health and morality concerns, while Merck came under fire for its aggressive tactics.
In the end, only Virginia and the District of Columbia made the vaccine mandatory, according to Alexandra Stewart, an assistant professor of health policy at George Washington University. “Social conservatives really objected to it, and it has gotten caught up in all these other issues,” said Stewart, who supports use of the vaccine.
In Texas, one of Merck’s lobbyists in 2007 was Toomey, who is also co-founder of the Make Us Great Again super PAC, formed this month to collect and spend unlimited money in support of Perry’s campaign. Merck and Toomey did not respond to requests for comment Tuesday.
Merck gave Perry a $6,000 contribution when the issue was being discussed in the governor’s mansion, and it supported a women’s legislators group that pushed for the vaccine as well, according to Texas news reports.
Texas state contribution records show that Merck’s political-action committee has given Perry $29,500 since 2000. Most of that came prior to his 2007 executive order.
Democrats and some Republicans have frequently criticized Perry’s role in the controversy. Former U.S. senator Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-Tex.) singled out the issue as an example of “cronyism in Austin” during her unsuccessful primary challenge in the 2010 governor’s race.
“Why did the governor mandate vaccines for our young daughters?” Hutchison said in one speech. “It was because there were lobbyists that were first, not the people of Texas.”
Until this past week, Perry has staunchly defended the vaccine decision, casting it as a “pro-life” attempt to protect women’s health and disparaging objections from social conservatives. At a defiant news conference in May 2007, Perry chastised legislators for overturning the order; he was flanked by several women who had contracted the virus, including one who had been raped.
“I challenge legislators to look these women in the eyes and tell them, ‘We could have prevented this disease for your daughters and granddaughters, but we just didn’t have the gumption to address all the misguided and misleading political rhetoric,’ ” Perry said at the time.