In his 1990 bid for agriculture commissioner, Rick Perry recalls, “I had a very, very small staff. I flew everywhere myself. I didn’t have anybody that went with me.” If that campaign was a 9.5 on the political Richter Scale of difficulty — “I don’t think there’s ever been a 10,” he says — then his gubernatorial re-election effort against challengers U.S. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison and the previously little-known Debra Medina clocks in at “about a 7.”
“I treat every campaign seriously,” Perry says. “Nobody’s gonna outwork me. Nobody can put in more hours and go more places and do more things than I do.”
With every public poll giving Perry a healthy lead on the Friday before the March 2 primary, he showed no signs of letting up — an extra push could put him over the runoff-proof 50-percent mark. He started the morning with a run in Austin, jetted to appearances in Wichita Falls, Midland, Lubbock and Amarillo, and made it home in time for dinner.
Technically, it wasn’t all campaign business. In Wichita Falls, Perry was representing the state — announcing the expansion of Canada-based mattress manufacturer Natura World Inc.'s operations there and up to 400 new jobs, funded in part by a $1.5 million investment by the Texas Enterprise Fund that he asked the Legislature to create in 2003. TEF-funded job announcements have been piling up quickly. The day before, Facebook received $1.4 million to bring 200 jobs to Austin, and Perry made an appearance in the small town of Cuero to announce a $300,000 investment in gear manufacturer SIPCO that should be good for 100 jobs.
Perry’s message to the largely business-minded audience seated in the room at Midwestern State University in Wichita Falls was nearly identical to his pitch to the fired-up, over-capacity crowd at a later stop at Lubbock’s Daybreak Coffee Shop: It’s all about jobs — and if Texas is a business, he is its CEO. “If the company’s running right and making a profit,” he says, “I don’t think they want to can the CEO.”
His business model consists of “four simple principles”: Keep taxes low on businesses, maintain a fair regulatory climate, have a legal system that doesn’t allow for oversuing and create an accountable public education system. “Then get out of the way,” he says. It’s a mantra that he's been repeating for months. “Message consistency is very important,” he notes.
With a decade in office already assured — he'll hit the 10-year mark in December — Perry is the longest-serving governor in Texas history. He has been in elected office for a quarter of a century. He acknowledges there is “a strong anti-incumbency, anti-government” sentiment sweeping the political scene. But, he says, “We are a different incumbent.”
"We don't need Washington in Texas, thank you very much"
Standing in front of the fountain in the middle of Midland’s expansive Claydesta Atrium, Perry raised his right hand and said, “Now, I’m just an animal science major from beloved Texas A&M.”
“Me too!” shouted Clayton “Claytie” Williams Jr., the energy mogul who lost his bid for governor to Ann Richards in 1990, and who peppered Perry’s stump speech with an “amen!” here and a “yes!” there, like it was a gospel sermon.
“He’s been criticized for being around a long time,” Williams said after Perry finished. “The reason he’s been around a long time is because he’s done a good job.” As for Perry’s chief opponent, Williams said of Hutchison, “Where we fault her, us Republicans — I’m a dyed-in-the-wool conservative — she’s a senior committee chairman. She’s leaving when we need her the most. I think that’s a legitimate criticism.”
Lubbock resident Jan Summers put her decision to support Perry over Hutchison a little differently: “We don’t need Washington in Texas, thank you very much.”
In Wichita Falls, while extolling the virtues of the Texas Legislature's legal obligation to balance the state budget, Perry had pointed at a man wearing a "Tea Party Patriots" T-shirt. “My Tea Party man in the back will like this,” he said. “It might sure be a good thing if the federal government would do the same.” Everywhere on the stump, Perry repeatedly gave the Tea Party participants their due, reminiscing about the national rallies of April 15, 2009, and promising that he will be a governor “who stands up and says no” to the feds.
Perry said his insistence that Washington adopt his style doesn’t mean he’s campaigning to become the CEO of an even bigger business down the road. “I have great interest in who the president is going to be in 2012,” he says. “It won’t be me. I have no interest in going to Washington, D.C.” Rather, he said, he’d like to lead a group of governors who will create a real focus on the 10th Amendment and “an environment where competition can reign.”
Medina touches on similar themes, but her message has failed to reach all of Perry’s supporters. On her way out the door with an armful of Perry yard signs, Lubbock resident Melanie Vincent said, “I like a lot of things Debra Medina said. But people can say a lot of things. It doesn’t mean anything.” As for Perry, she already knows and has accepted the ways he might let her down. “There have been times I’ve been upset and disappointed with him over some things,” she said, “but as a whole I’ve appreciated what he’s done, and I appreciate that he’s not gonna just let the federal government rule the people of Texas.“
In Amarillo, Kate Egner explained that she knows very little about Medina and that what she does know she learned from Glenn Beck. “She’s the other one who’s running, isn’t she?” Egner says. “And she’s the one that’s way over there. She’s in space land.”
Egner drove an hour and a half from Shamrock to cram into a conference room at a Luby’s-turned-Coldwell Banker Realtors and see Perry up close at the encouragement of her son, 25-year-old Spc. Justin Egner of the Texas Army National Guard. Perry won the family over in 2004, when he saw Egner’s division off on its first tour in Iraq. Perry clinched Egner’s vote when they met again overseas at Al Asad Airbase. Wanda Parker, Egner's grandmother, also made it to the event in Amarillo — she decided to back the incumbent after his performance in the second GOP gubernatorial primary debate.
Perry’s four simple points may sit well with some, but Justin’s got three of his own. “As a governor, you’ve got three real tasks,” he says. “Keep the budget balanced, don’t make the office look stupid — don’t embarrass yourself with an intern or something like that — and then just keep everybody happy, you know? What more could you ask for? If it’s not broke, there’s nothing to fix.” And it certainly helps if that person keeping everybody happy is a surefire Texan. “You’ve heard his accent,” Egner says. “It doesn’t get anymore local than that. John Everyman, really.”
At all three campaign events, Perry lingered after his remarks, shaking hands, cracking jokes and signing campaign materials until the crowds thinned. Justin and his family had to get in line, but they eventually got their souvenir: a group picture with “John Everyman" — the longest-serving CEO of Texas.