First Lady Who Avoids the Spotlight Faces a Bigger One

First Lady Anita Perry (l) and Rick Perry during the inaugural parade on January 21, 2003.
First Lady Anita Perry (l) and Rick Perry during the inaugural parade on January 21, 2003.

Anita Perry first entered national consciousness as the spur to her husband’s possible presidential run. But a different theme emerges when friends and associates talk about the wife of Texas’ 47th governor: She is not the type to draw attention to herself.

Instead, they say, she is a woman who immediately sets at ease the survivors of sexual assault she works with, who knows how to tell a humorous anecdote about her husband, and who never turns up at her dress designer’s studio without a book that is perfect for his 4-year-old.

Perry grew up as the daughter of a country doctor in a place where, as she has fondly recalled, freezers were piled high with casseroles for neighbors in need. She possesses a small-town reserve along with her matter-of-fact kindness. Behind that reserve is also a woman who encouraged her husband to get out of his “comfort zone” — and run for president.

“She is a quiet, strong, feminine force,” said Mica Mosbacher, a prominent Republican donor who became acquainted with Perry six years ago through her work for the Texas Association Against Sexual Assault. Perry declined to be interviewed for this article.

When Perry learned that Mosbacher had been sexually assaulted during college, the first lady approached her to see if she would help the association raise money in the Houston area. Mosbacher said she was struck with the warmth Perry displayed when she broached the difficult topic.

 

“You could tell she was more interested in me, and my comfort with the situation, rather than asking something of me,” Mosbacher said, adding, “It’s one of her strengths, the ability to motivate other women to take on leadership roles.”

When Rick Perry, who was first elected as a state representative in 1984, took his first statewide race in 1991 for agriculture commissioner, Perry moved to Austin with their two young children, Griffin and Sydney. She left her post as director of nurses at Haskell Memorial Hospital, where she oversaw a newly established rape crisis program.

Less than a decade later, she became first lady of Texas. She shared many similarities with Laura Bush, the woman she followed into the office, said Pamela Willeford, who served as ambassador to Switzerland and Lichtenstein during the second Bush administration and has worked with both women.

They both carried into the role long-held interests, she said — reading and literacy for Bush and health care for Perry — and became known for their graciousness.

“They both had their own style,” she said. “But with grace and determination and toughness, they highlighted things that are important to Texas and to them.”

Since the 1991 move, Perry’s professional life has been defined by her husband’s political career. But before he became governor, her work as a consultant for the economist Ray Perryman brought in a substantial chunk of the family’s income. In 2001, The Houston Chronicle reported that, according to the governor’s tax returns, her work at the Perryman Group — whose clients at the time included Philip Morris, American Airlines, Dell and the Texas Farm Bureau — brought in $66,000 of the family’s $138,115 annual earnings in 2000. Perry quit the job, which she had held since 1997, when Perry became governor.

When she began fund-raising and development work as a contract employee for the Texas Association Against Sexual Assault in 2003, Perry became the first Texas governor’s wife in remembered history to have a paid job outside her role as first lady. She told The San Antonio Express-News then that the job helped to defray her children’s college expenses and to occupy “the more hours in the day” she had as a recent empty-nester.

The job at the assault association was a extension of her nursing skills, and a natural fit for a first lady who had by then focused on women and children’s health care issues. Though she drew on those experiences, she was careful to stay away from the organization’s public policy arm because of her husband’s office, said Chris Lippincott, who shared an office with her there for three years as public relations director.

 

“She was somebody who is as warm and caring as she was thorough and professional,” he said. “In that field, both are important; both matter to people.”

Lippincott, a longtime Democrat, said his and Perry’s mutual love of college sports grew into a friendship that transcended party boundaries. “I never voted for Rick Perry, and I don’t think I ever will,” he said. “But I count his wife as a friend.”

As in her work with the association, Perry carefully avoids any public indication of divergence with her husband on political issues. Consider her response during the 2010 gubernatorial race, when The Houston Chronicle asked her if there were any areas where she and her husband had different opinions. “Any two people are bound to disagree on at least a few small issues,” she said, “and we are no different.”

That comment characterizes much of Perry’s tenure as first lady — down to earth, but cut with a cautious political sense she has had reason to refine throughout her husband’s time as the state’s chief executive.

When Rick Perry signed an ill-fated executive order in 2007 requiring all sixth grade girls to receive a vaccine to prevent the human papillomavirus, a sexually transmitted disease linked to cervical cancer, observers pointed to her influence. After outrage from all quarters — social conservatives argued it encouraged teen sex, while ethics watchdogs questioned a former Perry staffer’s work as a lobbyist for vaccine maker Merck — lawmakers voted to block it.

 In 2004, she felt forced to publicly respond to rumors of her husband’s infidelity, and gossip that her marriage was in trouble. “It’s very sad that some people believe that spreading false, vicious and hurtful rumors is acceptable behavior,” she said in a statement at the time. The rumors, which were never substantiated, have been revisited in national news media coverage of Perry’s prospective presidential bid. As national gaze continues its focus on her husband, Perry will take on yet another role: that of ambassador for her home state — and her husband. In that regard, she has an example in Lady Bird Johnson, who entered the White House during a particular low point in sentiment about Texas after a popular president was assassinated in Dallas.

“She didn't apologize for being a Texan,” but reached out her opponents, said Johnson biographer Jan Jarboe Russell. In the coming political spotlight, she said, Perry has the opportunity to, like Johnson, “defend us and put the best face forward for Texas and serve as a foil to some of the more negative aspects" of Perry's "and our caricature."

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