Rick Perry’s response to Texas wildfires offers glimpse of leadership

With wildfires raging across his state, Texas Gov. Rick Perry (R) assumed a familiar role this week: crisis commander in chief.

His abrupt decision this week to cut short his presidential campaign schedule in South Carolina to oversee his state’s response to the fires offers a glimpse of a central aspect of his leadership style — and a look at what kind of president he would be.

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Rick Perry's rapidly growing popularity with the GOP will make him the focus of Wednesday's presidential debate.

Rick Perry's rapidly growing popularity with the GOP will make him the focus of Wednesday's presidential debate.

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A roaring wildfire raced unchecked through rain-starved farm and ranchland in Central Texas, destroying nearly 500 homes during an advance fanned in part by winds from the remnants of Tropical Storm Lee. (Sept. 5)

A roaring wildfire raced unchecked through rain-starved farm and ranchland in Central Texas, destroying nearly 500 homes during an advance fanned in part by winds from the remnants of Tropical Storm Lee. (Sept. 5)

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Since Perry took office in 2001, four hurricanes have made direct landfall in Texas. Another, Rita, came by way of Louisiana and caused more than $11 billion in damage. And then there was Katrina, which plowed into New Orleans in August 2005 and pushed hundreds of thousands of evacuees into the arms of Texas.

His brief suspension of his campaign was a made-for-TV moment in which Perry conveyed empathy by clutching the hands of a wildfire evacuee, clambered onto a helicopter for an aerial tour of the damage and pored over maps with his emergency management team. It was also a breezy survey that left most of the details to his response team, allowing Perry to quickly resume his campaign schedule in California, where he will participate in his first presidential debate on Wednesday.

“To those who have been displaced by this fire, to those who have already lost homes — we’re going to do everything we can,” he said Monday at a news conference in Bastrop County, a community perilously close to Austin that has lost nearly 500 homes and 30,000 acres to the blazes in recent days. “Whether it’s putting them up, taking care of them, lovin’ on them — there’s a lot that Texans will do to take care of Texans over the next 72 hours. We will pick up the pieces. We always do.”

Perry’s supporters say that the governor and his administration have built a well-oiled emergency response apparatus — and that Perry’s public style, too, counts for meaningful leadership.

“One of his secrets is he picks really good people and lets them do their job,” said Robert A. Eckels, a Houston lawyer and former county judge who used to lead the county’s emergency response and helped coordinate the sheltering of 250,000 Katrina evacuees from neighboring Louisiana. “People look to the leadership style of a president. He’s going to set the tone and bring in good people and expect them to do their jobs well, and when they don’t, someone else will fill the hole. That’s the kind of leadership style we’ve seen in Texas and you’d see in America under Rick Perry.”

Perry’s critics don’t see it that way. They say the governor’s emergency management amounts to little more than the accumulation of photo ops, and that his “I’m in charge” rhetoric belies how minimal the state’s role really is in confronting natural disasters that are more closely managed by local officials.

Perry generates skepticism with his promises to bring all possible resources to bear when a crisis hits Texas. Obtaining those resources — such as federal disaster assistance — often requires cooperation with congressional leaders and federal agencies that Perry is not known for nurturing. Even when he does pursue federal assistance, doing so stands at odds with his decidedly anti-Washington and pro-tea party campaign message.

“He’s out of state campaigning for president and complaining about Washington,” said Bill White, a former Houston mayor who worked closely with Perry during the state’s response to Hurricane Katrina (and who unsuccessfully challenged Perry for governor last year). “Other governors, and certainly I as mayor, were meeting with federal officials when there was a disaster, and with private business leaders who could render the assistance.”

Perry spokeswoman Lucy Nashed said the governor has done everything possible to secure the maximum available disaster aid to deal with the fires. He asked for a presidential disaster declaration in April; the request was initially denied and then partly approved. The state is now working with the Federal Emergency Management Agency to extend the declaration to cover the entire wildfire season. The blazes have killed four people, consumed more than 3.6 million acres and destroyed more than 1,000 homes.

There is perhaps no greater illustration of Perry’s leadership in crisis than his oversight of Texas’s response to Katrina. He took pains to declare the state open to those who would need shelter from the storm, and he toured the Astrodome in Houston to check in with displaced families. And long before the storm struck, cities and counties and state emergency officials had begun preparing to receive evacuees from the Gulf Coast. In the end, the state took in hundreds of thousands of evacuees, found permanent housing for thousands of them, helped with job placement and enrolled children in schools.

Nonetheless, a series of internal e-mails obtained by the Houston Chronicle showed that Perry’s office was image-managing as much as it was storm-managing. In one exchange, Eric Bearse, the governor’s communications director, wrote: “At what point do we go from being compassionate to being taken advantage of (meaning, are they sending us folks they don’t want?). Please erase when done reading.”

Such glimpses of the internal working show that Texas was over its capacity for harboring evacuees rather than any nefarious effort on Perry’s part not to help, Eckels said. (In one e-mail exchange, a Perry official discussed an offer by then-Utah governor Jon M. Huntsman Jr., who is also running for president, to take evacuees out of Texas. “I wish there were more governors like yours,” Perry Chief of Staff Deirdre Delisi wrote to her counterpart in Utah.)

One thing is certain: Perry has more experience leading a state in crisis than any other contender for the Republican presidential nomination.

Huntsman, while governor of Utah, oversaw the state’s response to flooding and a mine disaster in 2007 as well as wildfires throughout his tenure. And after a ceiling panel fell and killed a woman in Boston’s Big Dig tunnel in 2006, then-Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney declared emergency powers and forced out the project chief.

As members of Congress, neither Michele Bachmann (Minn.) nor Ron Paul (Tex.) nor former House speaker Newt Gingrich (Ga.) has held the kind of executive job that would put them in charge of a public emergency.

And it probably doesn’t hurt Perry that he skipped a forum in Columbia, S.C., on Monday with five other presidential contenders — including Romney, who in recent polls is the Texas governor’s top rival for the nomination. Instead, Perry was in Texas, looking at maps, meeting with homeowners and surveying damage.

“He likes it when he can get the windbreaker or work shirt on and not the suit,” said Douglas Brinkley, a historian at Rice University in Houston and the author of an award-winning account of Hurricane Katrina. “He seems to thrive in that kind of environment.”

Staff writer Philip Rucker contributed to this report.

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