Perry is still largely unknown to voters — and the national media

An experienced D.C. Republican operative put it this way this morning: “There is a growing buzz about [Texas Gov. Rick] Perry in Washington, and it’s funny because we don’t know anything about him. We need to find out more.” That might sound odd when it comes to the nation’s longest-serving governor, but while the idea of Perry is widely bandied about (a conservative governor, pro-10th Amendment advocate who would run to frontrunner Mitt Romney’s right), the ins and outs of his record and his personal characteristics aren’t well known outside his home state. As Tim Pawlenty is finding out, a governor has a steep hill to climb when it comes to establishing national image and a credible presidential candidacy.

Moreover, by delaying an entry into the race Perry is giving reporters and opponents plenty of time to root through his record. A brief review of his local press coverage and his recent budget reveals a couple of issues that don’t fit the image of a conservative tightwad.

In his brief foray into the Republican primary, Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour got some unwelcome attention on the issue of his personal travel expenses. Perry has a similar issue. The Houston Chronicle reported:

Gov. Rick Perry’s office has asked lawmakers hammering out details of a school finance bill to include an unrelated provision that would keep secret the expenses of the Department of Public Safety team that provides security when he and his wife, Anita, travel.

The issue is pending before the Texas Supreme Court, which is considering an appeal of two lower court decisions favoring the public’s right to review the travel records under the Texas Public Information Act.

The Houston Chronicle, the San Antonio Express-News and the Austin American-Statesman filed suit in 2007 to obtain records after the DPS withheld them, claiming security concerns.

Last week, the state Supreme Court backed Perry. (“The Texas Supreme Court ruled Friday that details of Gov. Rick Perry’s travels can remain secret, at least for now, overturning two lower court rulings that travel vouchers filed by state troopers should be made public.”) But a legal victory won’t foreclose the political questions, should he run for president.

The San Antonio Express-News editorial board opined last month:

Even members of Perry’s own political party have expressed doubts about the wisdom of indulging his penchant for secrecy. . . .

[Perry] officials claim releasing the information about Perry’s patterns of travel and the number of officers on his security detail would be a security risk, but that excuse doesn’t hold water.

As newspaper lawyers have noted, records are being sought long after trips are taken.

The specifics of the security team’s expenses clearly are public record and would not give any advance notice about what Perry will do or where he will be next.

The state has released lump sum expenses — the security costs for 23 foreign trips over seven years were about $1 million — but declines to release vouchers that reveal details.

As newspaper lawyer Bill Christian told the Express-News, details such as expenditures in 2005 for a golf cart and scuba diving equipment “would be lost forever” if Perry gets his way. The newspapers filed suit in 2007 after the state stopped releasing such details.

Hiding this information long after the trips does nothing but give Perry political cover. Texans have a right to know how their tax dollars are being spent.

Indeed, the Texas media has gone to town on the number and expense of trips by Perry and his wife to Israel, Asia and the Bahamas over the past few years. Not very Tea Party-ish.

Then there is Perry’s most recent budget. If he’s going to throw his hat into the ring for the GOP nomination, he will no doubt contrast his record of budget management with President Obama’s. But there are real questions as to how effective Perry has been. The Associated Press reported in late June:

Gov. Rick Perry signed a budget that was balanced only through accounting maneuvers, rewriting school funding laws, ignoring a growing population and delaying payments on bills coming due in 2013.

It accomplishes, however, what the Republican majority wanted most: It did not raise taxes, took little from the Rainy Day Fund and shifted any future deficits onto the next Legislature.

Those are key talking points for Perry, as he speaks to the conservative faithful around the country and considers a run for president in 2012. Many Republican lawmakers have complained privately, and Democrats publicly, that Perry has heavily influenced the session to make sure nothing passed that would hurt a potential campaign.

For example: “The first accounting shift was to delay a $2.3 billion payment owed to public schools in 2012-2013 by one day, so that the bill isn’t technically due until 2014, thereby going into the next budget. The new budget also assumes there will be no growth in the number of school children in Texas, even though it is one of the fastest-growing states in the nation. Critics say the state will short school districts $2 billion that way.” The result is that there remains “the $8 billion structural deficit that recurs every two years. The deficit was created by a deal to lower property taxes while transforming the state’s business tax. It has never generated as much money as expected. The Standard & Poor’s rating agency says the problem hurts Texas’ credit rating and is the ‘primary source’ of the state’s budget woes, not slower revenue growth.” That sounds like what Republicans in Washington are fighting against. (“Even the Republican chair of the [Texas] Senate Finance Committee warned of trouble ahead if Medicaid and public educations were not fully funded.”)

Now Perry has much to crow about, and the growth and job-creation numbers for Texas may swamp concerns about his fiscal rectitude. But if a Perry candidacy becomes a reality, he’s going to have to go through the same process of vetting by the media and the voters that all the candidates must endure. As Fred Thompson found out in 2008 and Pawlenty is learning now, the trick is staying there. And the notion that anyone is a shoe-in for the nomination is downright preposterous.

Jennifer Rubin writes the Right Turn blog for The Post, offering reported opinion from a conservative perspective.

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