Texas Gov. Rick Perry’s political redemption tour hit a massive speed bump late Friday when he was indicted on two felony counts of abusing the powers of his office. The indictment also triggered a Texas-size partisan brawl over whether the charges were legitimate or politically motivated.
Perry (R) is the longest-serving governor in the history of the Lone Star State. The state’s constitution limits the powers of the governor, but longevity has its advantages. Over the past 14 years, Perry has been able to put his stamp on state government through the appointments process in ways that his predecessors, who served far shorter tenures, were never able to do.
Whether he exercised his powers responsibly or recklessly is at the heart of the case now roiling Texas politics and clouding Perry’s future as a possible 2016 presidential candidate. The question ahead is whether this is a clear-cut example of a public official using his powers in a bullying and illegal way or the criminalization of legitimate political activity.
The current charges stem from a bitter power struggle between the governor and the Travis County district attorney, who is based in Austin and oversees a state-funded public integrity unit that investigates public corruption by officials statewide.
The district attorney, Rosemary Lehmberg, a Democrat, was arrested for drunken driving in April 2013. A video of her during the arrest is available on YouTube and paints a sorry portrait of a public official at a moment of extreme duress. She eventually pleaded guilty, serving 45 days in jail and undergoing treatment.
At the time of Lehmberg’s arrest, Perry declared her unfit for public office and called for her to resign. He threatened to veto the more than $7 million in state funding for the public integrity unit if she refused. When she rejected his appeals, he exercised his veto power as governor and eliminated the funding. Even after the veto, he sought to remove her and offered inducements to get her to resign.
(A fuller accounting of the sequence of events is available in Saturday’s Dallas Morning News story about the indictment.)
But there is more to this case than just Perry vs. Lehmberg. That particular clash is set against the backdrop of a long-standing conflict between the district attorney’s office in heavily Democratic Travis County and GOP officeholders in heavily Republican Texas.
It was this same office (although a different DA) that prosecuted former House majority leader Tom DeLay (R) for money laundering, leading to his conviction in 2010 and a three-year sentence. But in September 2013, a three-judge panel of the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals threw out the conviction. Two months ago, prosecutors asked the court to reinstate it.
Ronnie Earle, the same prosecutor who went after DeLay, had indicted former senator Kay Bailey Hutchison (R) in the early 1990s for misconduct when she served as Texas state treasurer. A jury quickly acquitted her after prosecutors decided not to present their case.
So Perry’s indictment comes with much history attached. As a result, it is a sticky legal case and a political drama of a high order.
The governor addressed the charges on Saturday afternoon in Austin, calling the indictment “nothing more than an abuse of power” by prosecutors. “I wholeheartedly and unequivocally stand behind my veto,” he said, adding that in this country, “we don’t settle political differences with indictments.”
Meanwhile, Perry’s allies leaped to his defense.
Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.), whose Senate candidacy Perry opposed in 2012 and who is a potential rival of the governor’s in the 2016 sweepstakes, offered his support Saturday. Citing what he called the “sad history” of the Travis County prosecutor’s office, Cruz said in a tweet, “Governor Perry is a friend, he’s a man of integrity — I am proud to stand with Rick Perry. #StandWithRickPerry.”
Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal (R), a longtime ally and friend of Perry’s, weighed in with a similarly strong statement. He sent out multiple tweets, including one that said, “Governor Perry exercised his constitutional authority and this circus is simply a political witch hunt.”
That view was widespread among Republicans. But questions about the indictment went beyond Republicans. David Axelrod, the chief strategist for President Obama’s two election victories and a former senior adviser in the White House, tweeted, “Unless he was demonstrably trying to scrap the ethics unit for other than his stated reason, Perry indictment seems pretty sketchy.”
Texas Democrats, some of whom have called for Perry to resign, see a different set of circumstances, which do not rest solely on whether he had the constitutional authority to veto the funding for the public integrity unit.
Instead they point to the question of whether he crossed a legal line in trying repeatedly through intermediaries to induce Lehmberg to resign. There is also a question about whether he had ulterior motives in defunding a public integrity unit that was investigating a cancer research fund that the Dallas Morning News called one of the governor’s “signature projects.” They also note that some of those responsible for bringing the indictment have Republican connections.
The governor said a year ago that he would not seek another term. The legal fight will now consume his final months in office and probably well beyond. It also will significantly complicate his desire to mount another presidential campaign after the disastrous one he ran in 2012.
Perry has spent much of the past year trying to rehabilitate himself politically following that 2012 campaign, which was memorably encapsulated with his “oops” moment in a Republican debate when he could not remember all of the federal agencies he wanted to eliminate. Dark-framed hipster glasses have given him a new look, and he has exchanged his cowboy boots for more comfortable shoes that do not aggravate his bad back.
He has promoted the Texas model of low taxes and minimal regulation and has aggressively challenged governors in Democratic states to debate whether his governing philosophy or theirs would be better for the nation. He has spent time in the early primary and caucus states, especially Iowa, in an effort to lay a foundation for another possible campaign.
The redemption tour has had some success. Republicans who remember Perry’s first presidential campaign have looked at him with a fresh eye and been impressed. His news clips have improved. But he still ranks lower in presidential trial heats for the GOP nomination than many of the other prospective candidates.
Republicans and Democrats alike have questioned whether he can overcome the first impression he made in 2012. Perry is not among the doubters. When I asked him a year ago about all this, he said, “America’s always been a country of second choices.” I said, “Do you mean ‘choices’ or ‘chances’?” “Both,” he replied. “Second choices and second chances.”
In that interview, he said his record of leading a state that was “inarguably the most dynamic economic job creation state in the nation” would give him ample ammunition to make his case. Now he has added to his record that he became the first Texas governor in almost 100 years to be indicted.
The prosecutors will have to prove their case in court. Even if successful, they would have to prevail in likely appeals. Meanwhile, the indictment could strengthen the governor with the base of his party, at least in the short term. The indictment is for now a stain on his record, but the legal and political endings are still to be written. Perry’s 2016 aspirations and his political legacy are in the balance.