Gov. Rick Perry, facing a two-count indictment related to how he has used his political powers, now must run two obstacle courses at the same time: a legal one, defending himself in court on the law; and a political one, trying to make sure he is seen as the man in the white hat being chased by political enemies instead of a man in a black hat being run down by a posse.
The legal debate is well underway, with lawyers on Perry’s behalf doing what you would expect from his lawyers: They say the whole thing is a load of manure. “This is nothing more than banana republic politics,” Tony Buzbee, a trial lawyer and Perry appointee to the Texas A&M Board of Regents, said to a roomful of reporters on Monday.
Buzbee will lead a group of stellar criminal lawyers working on the case. A stellar group of criminal lawyers is a regular feature of these kinds of very public defenses. Among other attributes, high-profile political figures often have prodigious fundraising skills — some, like Perry, might also be able to use state funds for their defense — and, because of that, the means to hire top legal talent.
They have gone right to work.
“Some cases go beyond the pale,” said Ben Ginsberg, a well-established campaign and politics lawyer who’s also on the Perry team. “This one goes furthest beyond the pale of any that I have seen in my time.”
Their argument, simply, is that the governor properly used his power of a line-item budget veto and was within his right to do so because he thought the state would otherwise be putting money into an office whose management had lost his confidence.
Perry’s team has not revealed its strategy, but it will challenge the charges and try to get the indictments thrown out, probably look for a change of venue and, if the case makes it that far, argue before a jury in court.
All of the legal proceedings could take time, adding to the difficulty of running the public obstacle course where politicians conduct their business. The first presidential primaries and caucuses are less than 18 months away. The governor, who has acknowledged his interest in another run for president, would rather be spending his time on that than on a pesky legal case.
In the meantime, he is turning his defense into his offense, dominating the 72-hour spin cycle that followed the indictment and turning a hard-to-describe legal case into an easy-to-understand tale of a good-government governor trying to remove a dysfunctional district attorney from power.
“You know that old saying that if you’re explaining in politics, you’re losing? It’s a lot easier for Perry to explain than the other side,” said a Texas political operative who has been at the side of Republican elected officials in several scrapes like this one.
Prosecutors have not publicly laid out their case. The indictment against Perry is brief, accusing the governor of using his veto power to try to force the district attorney to resign. The indictment calls that a misuse of public property and an illegal attempt to coerce another public official.
Perry’s story, in the public forum, is easier to tell. Travis County District Attorney Rosemary Lehmberg — whose office houses the state’s public integrity unit — was arrested for drunken driving last year. From the time she stepped out that day until she was jailed for the night, she put on a clinic on how not to behave if you are a public official under arrest. It was filmed, made its way to YouTube and went viral. She pleaded guilty, went to rehab, did jail time and said she would not seek another term as DA.
But Perry says Lehmberg showed she was unfit for office and said he properly declined to put state money into the county agency she heads.
His version is the one that caught on, dominating headlines, analysis, weekend newscasts and talk shows into the week.
As long as that’s the public description of what is going on in Texas, Perry’s supporters might not be bothered and might accept his explanation that this is partisan warfare that has improperly moved from the electoral battlefield to the courtroom.
The legal fight is just starting. Lehmberg, who did not take the case to the grand jury — a special prosecutor did that — is more likely to show up, if at all, as a witness than as a lawyer.
The political case started with the shock of Friday’s indictments, but quickly turned Perry’s way, with a stream of lawyers and pundits dismissing the charges and the motivations behind them and siding with Perry as the wronged party.
That won’t help in court, but it might play in Iowa and New Hampshire.
Disclosure: Tony Buzbee was a major donor to The Texas Tribune in 2012. A complete list of Texas Tribune donors and sponsors can be viewed here.