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For Rick Perry, it’s not the crime, it’s the politics

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So this is what happens when the fox cuts the food supply of the dog guarding the henhouse.

A Travis County grand jury on Friday indicted Gov. Rick Perry on two felony counts, alleging he abused his power by threatening to veto funding for the state's Public Integrity Unit unless Travis County District Attorney Rosemary Lehmberg, who had pleaded guilty to drunk driving, stepped down.

It appears to those on the governor’s side of the argument that he has the right to cut the funding of agencies run by people who will not quit on his demand.

It appears to those on the prosecutor’s side that his funding veto and the threat that preceded it were an attempt to intimidate and coerce the office that has the job of policing corruption and ethics cases in state government.

The threat is the thing. Had the governor simply cut the funding without saying anything — especially in public, but even in private — this would just be a strange veto. That is not unprecedented.

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But Perry did speak out. He decided that Lehmberg’s serving time for a drunk driving arrest, or running a gauntlet of public opprobrium that includes an eternal presence of arrest night video on the Internet, was not enough.

That’s where this goes next: Why did he want more? The complaint against the governor came from partisans. That ought to raise the burden of proof, but the fact that his detractors would like to topple him doesn’t automatically make them wrong; it just makes their motives suspicious. They contend the governor’s appointees at the Cancer Prevention Research Institution of Texas were under investigation and that Perry’s veto might have hobbled that operation.

Mary Anne Wiley, the general counsel in the governor’s office, defended her boss after the indictment was made public: “The veto in question was made in accordance with the veto authority afforded to every governor under the Texas Constitution. We will continue to aggressively defend the governor's lawful and constitutional action, and believe we will ultimately prevail.”

She might be right — that’s what trials are for. But while the criminal case plays out, the political case is already well underway. It started when the governor weighed in on the Lehmberg case. Questions about the propriety of that surfaced immediately — well before the veto — but Perry pressed ahead, knowing he was on a political stage as well as an official one. He demanded Lehmberg’s resignation and conditioned continued funding of her office on that demand.

She said it was improper and rebuffed him. He did what he promised and vetoed the state funding intended to support investigations of ethics and corruption and tax and other state cases.

Texans for Public Justice — that’s the liberal-leaning group that started this —complained to prosecutors, officially posing the question about whether a crime had been committed.

A special prosecutor was appointed, keeping Lehmberg out of the official proceeding, to take the case to a grand jury, a panel given the job of deciding whether the charges were plain political bunk or worth presenting to a criminal jury or judge. And that panel decided it ought to go forward.

That’s the standard recipe for things like this, except that this one is marbled with politics. You can’t take them out. They are at the center of the criminal case, on one hand, and run alongside it, outside of the judicial system, on the other. The indictment could do for Perry’s 2016 run what his debilitating back surgery did for his 2012 effort.

The governor is near the end of his term. Getting any of this into a full trial while he’s still in office would be extraordinarily fast. Expect instead a battle over the indictments themselves and about all of the things that will and will not be allowed into the trial, if there is one. Remember how Tom DeLay’s case dragged out, for one example.

This job is ending, but the governor is at the beginning of his next run for office, and the indictment is national news, like Chris Christie’s bridge. The governor’s supporters blame Democratic politics — Travis County is liberal, and the prosecutors are hard on Republicans, they say — but this is catnip for other Republicans. Perry isn’t competing with Democrats, but with other Republicans for the chance to compete with the Democrats.

Maybe his lawyers can get the indictment snuffed before there is a trial. Maybe there will be a trial, and a jury will find nothing criminal has taken place.

Meanwhile, the governor and others are already haunting Iowa, the home of the first presidential primaries almost two years from now. This indictment could be to the Perry presidential campaign what a sewer leak is to the opening of a new restaurant: The food might not be the diners’ strongest memory of the meal.

Ross Ramsey is executive editor and co-founder of The Texas Tribune. Before joining the Tribune, Ross was editor and co-owner of Texas Weekly for 15 years.

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