Texplainer: Can University Regents Be Politically Active?

UT Board of Regents Chairman Gene Powell asks the Board to support Chancellor Dr. Franciso Cigarroa at their Austin meeting on May 12, 2011.
UT Board of Regents Chairman Gene Powell asks the Board to support Chancellor Dr. Franciso Cigarroa at their Austin meeting on May 12, 2011.

Hey, Texplainer: Gene Powell, the chairman of the University of Texas System Board of Regents, is out raising money for Perry's presidential campaign. Is that okay?

Earlier this week, Aaron Blake and Chris Cillizza of The Washington Post's blog The Fix published excerpts of an email they had obtained regarding Texas Gov. Rick Perry. The enthusiastic author was encouraging Perry supporters to begin writing checks for his soon-to-be-announced presidential campaign.

The email was written by Gene Powell, the CEO of San Antonio-based development company Bitterblue, Inc. — and the Perry-appointed chairman of the University of Texas Board of Regents. The regents have been a focal point in an ongoing controversy about Perry's approach to higher education.

Powell's involvement in Perry's campaign quickly became a hot topic of debate within the UT community. Recent graduate and Democratic staffer Michael Hurta tweeted that it was "disgusting." Current student and president of the UT College Republicans Lauren Pierce tweeted back, "What's wrong with that? Would it be okay if he was fund raising for Owebama?? [sic]" And so on.

Here are the answers to Pierce's questions in reverse order: "Yes" and "nothing."

As University of Texas System spokesman Anthony de Bruyn said in an email, "Members of the Board are private citizens and may participate in any political campaign(s) they may wish to support."

In fact, regents, who are often well-heeled business people and industry leaders, are prime targets for political fundraisers, and those who aren't politically involved are almost the exception rather than the rule.

In 2010, a Tribune analysis found that, including all university systems, regents appointed by Perry have given more than $5.8 million to his campaigns over the past decade.

Insiders, such as Dallas billionaire and former UT regent Robert Rowling, scoff at the notion that there's a pay-to-play scheme involved. "You know what I think it is?" Rowling told the Tribune last year, "The people who give money to politicians get to know them well. If there's one thing [politicians] do, they learn who their donors are, and they milk them. But they develop a relationship. ... He appoints people he knows he can trust."

Bottom line: Regents are often people with the resources and influence to make a significant impact on a political campaign — and in their private lives, they are free to do just that.

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