In the final installment of his series analyzing Texas politics, HPR staff writer David Freed reflects upon the legacy of Texas Governor Rick Perry
When Rick Perry, the longest-serving governor in Texas history, announced he would be stepping down in 2014, it was cause for celebration in Austin. Growing up in Texas’ own liberal oasis, the irony of a city known for distancing itself from the rest of Texas—a state dedicated to its own national independence—was never lost on me. Even as the news was met solemnly outside city boundaries, jubilation broke out around the capital and across my Facebook and Twitter feeds. However, Perry will leave behind a legacy that is more complicated than it appears, and he deserves recognition for being perhaps the last feudal king of America’s only remaining nation-state. Indeed, his dominance of Texas politics challenges the American model of democracy, which is predicated on checks and balances and a meaningful separation of powers.
It is difficult to explain Texas to those who haven’t lived here. The state’s national identity is wrapped up in its independence; there are many here proud of the fact that Texas history is weighed equally with U.S. history on state standardized tests. To this day, our prior independence remains a point of state pride (and a viable advertising slogan). Long before the Alamo became a decrepit tourist attraction, it was a symbol of Texas independence. The hollow structure represented the efforts of our forbearers to make Texas a country. Not a colony, not a territory. A country.
Texas is unique: it was never part of the South, but it wasn’t part of the Mexican Cession or Louisiana Purchase either. We may have our southern vices, and we are quite proud of our three Fs—firearms, faith, and football. Texans love our status as simultaneously the friendliest state for businesses and college football recruiters. Left to our own devices, we would still have the 14th largest economy in the world—Houston would be the 25th on its own—larger than South Korea, Saudi Arabia, and Norway.
Since Perry succeeded George W. Bush as governor in 2000, there have been no viable threats to his reign. He is the first Texan in history to be elected to three consecutive four-year terms as governor and, barring a minor miracle, would have easily been elected again in 2014. While Wendy Davis has her weaknesses as a candidate in Texas, her speech at the capitol prompted the strongest outpouring of Texas liberal energy and vitriol in my lifetime. Yet, the day after her speech, Perry still led her in state polls by 14 points—one point higher than his average gubernatorial margin of victory.
With all due respect to others seeking to claim the title, Perry has been the ultimate Republican during his time in office. With a few notable exceptions, the Texas A&M alum pursued a conservative agenda that endeared him to a sizable swath of voters whose support he rode to electoral victory after electoral victory. Perry is a politician of the GOP school that expects the government to promote free business and wholesome morals, staying out of the private sector and immersing itself in the personal one. This attitude fueled his rise to the top of Texas politics and enabled him to gain unparalleled political power. His public popularity, combined with his across-the-board support from the Senate, gave him lord-like power over the state.
If (and, honestly, when) Perry runs for President in 2016, he will hang his hat on the business he has brought to the state. In the past decade, Texas has created a third of net new jobs nationwide. In the same period of time, Texas has been the top state for foreign exports and, according to the Commerce Department, has generated $265 billion in gross revenue. Buoyed by housing a quarter of the nation’s oil reserves, Perry’s subsidies ensured that 95 percent of U.S. oil and gas comes through pipelines originating in the Lone Star state. He added an immediately successful private marketing arm to the state government in order to more effectively sell it to businesses. According to Site Selection Magazine, Texas had 761 notable “big business” projects last year. The runner-up, Ohio, had 491.
However, Perry also brought a private sector-style cost-cutting approach to the state government. He replaced 2900 state employees with private call centers and minimized the commitment the state made to health care. By 2013, the state had the highest percentage of uninsured people in the United States. This was mostly due to cuts Perry had authorized—first dropping hundreds of thousands of poor and working class Texans from Medicaid and then cutting the family planning budget by two-thirds, forcing 60 clinics statewide to close.
It is Perry’s staunch social conservatism that may pose the greatest threat to his 2016 candidacy. The governor’s social positions are part of his direct appeal to extreme conservatives but offer little room for compromise. According to the Planned Parenthood Action Fund, he “has done more to hurt women than any governor in history.” The numbers back up Perry’s extreme pro-life position. While in office, the governor forced more than 55 health centers to close their doors, depriving more than 13,000 women of medical care. In 2005, he signed the pro-life informed consent Women’s Right to Know Act and started funding abortion alternatives in Texas. He stated that he opposes Roe v. Wade and would support a human life amendment to the Constitution. Later that year, he funded a mandatory ultrasound law.
Likewise, Perry has carved out clear stances on gay marriage (“marriage is between one man and one woman”), capital punishment (“I’ve never struggled with that at all”), and even global warming (“A scheme to make money”). His strongly conservative positions differ little from those of his predecessor. However, the similarities between Bush and Perry do not begin and end with their policies. Serving in arguably the nation’s most homogenous political climate, both were susceptible to the ideological pressures (or lack thereof) of Texas that made them such politically successful governors and determined the fortunes of their presidential runs.
An essential component of democratic governance, the process of deliberation and careful construction of legislation, is essentially lost in Texas’ de facto single-party political realm. Lieutenant governor David Dewhurst called it “the most conservative state in America,” and no Democrat has held a statewide office in nearly 20 years. The ideologically homogenous countryside (each of the major four cities tends to vote Democratic) makes for a likewise single-minded state Senate. This gives Perry, as it gave Bush, nearly unchecked power to dictate state politics and treat the state, as Matt Glazer puts it, like “his personal fiefdom.”
With complete electoral security—the only election he has ever lost was the 2012 Republican primary—Perry’s reign at the top of Texas politics for more than a decade has been a demonstration of either the merits or the perils of democracy. On one hand, the will of the majority was obeyed in almost every instance. With the exception of a few progressive policies (e.g., subsidies to wind power and embryonic stem cell research), Perry has done everything that the majority of Texans want. On the other hand, Perry has done everything that the majority of Texans want. This runs directly against the idea of a vigilant electoral minority that prevents a dominant majority from running politics without reconciliation to the opinions of the few. Perry’s near-fifteen year shaping of Texas politics without contest has made him a king in a way that he could never be elsewhere.
The reign is coming to an end. Perry will step down in 2014 and take a second turn in the national spotlight. How he fares will be quite intriguing. He and Bush, incubated in the same ultraconservative beaker, were released into very different national political atmospheres. Thirteen years after Bush took office, national opinion has swung leftward on gay marriage and capital punishment—so much so that concerns about Perry’s social positions overshadowed a solid business resume in 2012. Four years later, he can take advantage of added national campaign infrastructure (much like Mitt Romney did after losing to John McCain in 2008) and hope that his substantial charisma makes voters forget about the many debate blunders of 2012. Meanwhile, Texas will remain much as Perry left it. The Friday Night Lights will still shine; Sundays will still be reserved for church and football. The state will anoint a new leader and carry with it the memory of its past leader, a true conservative who, for a decade, challenged the modern conception of democracy and lived as its king.