The attack ad could write itself: On Gov. Rick Perry’s watch, Texas weathered a sexual abuse scandal at the Texas Youth Commission, fight clubs at state institutions for the disabled and deaths of kids monitored by Child Protective Services.
But three of the biggest messes of Perry’s 10-year tenure — two of which spurred U.S. Justice Department investigations — have been noticeably absent on the campaign trail. While U.S. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, Perry’s chief Republican primary opponent, has hit the airwaves on toll roads, immigration and education, she has largely steered clear of these high-profile social services debacles.
Perry spokesman Mark Miner says the agency crises haven’t been campaign issues because the governor did such an effective job managing them. “With CPS, the state schools, the TYC, those are issues the governor has provided leadership on,” Miner says. “When there were problems, he took immediate action.”
Critics say that’s untrue: Concerns about abuse, neglect and poor living conditions had been raised for years before the scandals erupted. Political consultants say Hutchison’s decision not to target those issues has more to do with what she thinks resonates with typical primary voters — and what doesn’t. “The fight clubs, the problems at the TYC — those are horrific things,” says Hutchison campaign manager Terry Sullivan. “But what we’re really trying to focus on are the issues that affect everyday Texans: eminent domain, land grabs, cronyism.”
The blame game
Years of poor staffing and overwhelming caseloads at Texas Child Protective Services finally came to a head in 2004, when children the state was supposed to be monitoring were killed by abusive parents.
Three years later, reports surfaced that administrators at a West Texas juvenile justice lock-up were sexually abusing boys in their care, and a sweeping inquiry turned up widespread sexual and physical abuse throughout the state's youth prisons.
And in 2009, investigators learned that employees at a Corpus Christi state institution were forcing disabled residents into a fighting ring, revelations that uncovered more abusive conditions at other facilities.
In each of these cases, watchdogs had been making noise for years — well before Perry was in office. They sent letters to the governor's staff, to lawmakers and to agency commissioners, and showed up to testify at public hearings. When the headline-making scandals broke, Perry took action: making urgent legislative priorities of the crises, allocating emergency dollars or dispatching his top troubleshooter to the agency.
So is it fair to pin the scandals on the chief executive? Some say yes: The buck always stops with the governor. Others say no: Nothing he could have done would have prevented these tragedies. Still others say he shares the blame with agency heads, state lawmakers and the rest of Texas' elected officials. Texas Tribune pollster and University of Texas government professor Daron Shaw says the reality is that these issues only work, politically speaking, when the incumbent can be definitively blamed for them. Shaw says voters tend to hold mayors, city council members, even state representatives accountable — but that at higher levels of government, the blame gets spread around. “Texas is so disaggregated that most people don’t hold Perry responsible for something like CPS,” he says.
Some political consultants say quietly that the truth is that primary voters simply aren’t interested in another agency sob story. They don't relate; only a tiny fraction of voters have kids in TYC lock-ups or relatives in state institutions. Other political operatives say that in order to hit Perry on these agency issues, Hutchison would have to have her own solutions. Solutions cost money, and increased spending doesn’t sit well with tight-belted Republican primary voters.
But Democratic consultant Harold Cook says that across the board, voters care about anything involving children — and anything involving government dysfunction. “In any poll, in any demographic, everybody’s going to care deeply about children,” he says. “I know [these issues] would work with general election voters and would undoubtedly work with some subset of primary voters.”
The one big social issue Hutchison has homed in on is Perry’s support for mandatory HPV vaccines for adolescent girls, but that issue is far more politically charged than the TYC or the state schools. Hutchison was silent on the Cameron Todd Willingham death penalty case, which looked to some like a high-profile fumble for Perry but would have jeopardized Hutchison’s already fragile relationship with Texas voters, who overwhelming favor the death penalty.
The social services failings might have worked for Hutchison's camp if they’d been woven into a compelling narrative, Shaw says, one that painted Perry as incompetent. Instead, he says, Hutchison has settled on the “Perry as corrupt” approach, though he says the campaign is struggling with that message, too. “They’ve found their voice some, with this idea of Perry putting insiders in office, making special deals,” Shaw says. “But it’s a bit of a reach. And there’s a sense of, ‘He’s been governor for nine years, and this is the best stuff you can come up with?’”