Texas Gov. Rick Perry made no mention of the federal government’s overreach or the violence he says is spilling across the state’s border during a brief and tense public appearance today before hundreds of Latino elected officials. And he certainly didn't mention whether he's running for president.
Instead, Perry, who spoke for fewer than 13 minutes during the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials annual conference, touted job growth and his appointment of Hispanic statewide officials to a crowd that received him with, at best, a lukewarm response.
Perry’s appearance before the group in San Antonio came less than 24 hours before a House committee will meet to decide if one of the most divisive issues of the session, the “sanctuary cities” legislation, advances to the House floor for a debate. The timing did not appear to be lost on the crowd of more than 500. And if it was a litmus test for Perry, who is considering a run for the White House next year, it signaled the climb to woo Hispanics is currently an uphill one at best. NALEO released updated data today that shows the country now has an estimated 12.2 million projected Latino voters, an increase of about 26 percent from 2008’s figures. Texas is home to about 2 million of them.
Still, Perry stuck to his message and played it safe, concentrating on the state’s job growth in the midst of a national recession. The words “border” and “immigration” were never muttered.
“You are in the job-creation capitol of the world,” Perry said to non-Texans, garnering a few scattered claps. “Since 2001 to 2011 more than 730,000 private sector jobs were created in the state of Texas.” The next best state he said, managed to create just over 90,000 jobs during that same time span.
Perry then played to the crowd as best he could, and mentioned the Latinos he’s appointed to office, including Secretary of State Esperanza “Hope” Andrade, Texas Supreme Court Justice Eva Guzman and Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission Director José Cuevas.
“That is the right job for that man,” Perry said in reference to Cuevas’ name. The comment drew some light chuckles.
After the speech, NALEO president Sylvia Garcia said she didn’t expect much of “substance” from Perry, but complimented him for appearing nonetheless.
“To me the fact that he did come is really respectful,” she said. “I think it was more of a courtesy visit if you will, than a real substantive discussion about the challenges and the issues confronting Latinos today. He didn’t dig deep.”
Some of Perry’s fiercest opponents — state Democrats — said they didn’t seem surprised that Perry appeared uncomfortable.
“After he received an extremely tepid response I think that threw him off his game. I certainly think it wasn’t one of this best performances,” said state Rep. Rafael Anchia, D-Dallas. “What message can you deliver on the heels of declaring sanctuary cities an emergency item and later adding it to the call of a special session?”
State Rep. Aaron Peña, R-Edinburg, who introduced the governor and touted him as tax cutting and an “experienced leader who has unleashed the power of the state’s entrepreneurs," said Perry did well to boast the state’s economic gains.
“I think the message that could be placed here is that we are doing well as a state economically speaking. I think he put his best foot forward,” Peña said. Asked why there was no mention about immigration or SB9, the state’s sanctuary cities bill pending before the Legislature, Peña said, “There are some very delicate discussions going on and it probably wouldn’t have contributed to these negotiations.”
During his remarks, Castro stole a line from Charles Dickens and said it was “the best of times and the worst of times” for Latinos in the state. The best, he said, lay in the group’s growth in the areas of education and private-sector success.
"We see more than ever in the America of 2011 the fullness of the potential of the United States spreading out in front of the Latino community," he said.
The worst, he said, are in the measures taken up in Austin.
“When we gathered last year we knew of legislation in Arizona, SB 1070, that was aimed at trying to throw out those folks that have tried to make a good and honest living,” he said. “We’ve seen this state, Texas, call for Arizona-type legislation. We’ve seen, in this legislative session, easily the most anti-Latino agenda in more than a generation.”
Martinez Fischer, who appeared with Perry at a bill signing after the luncheon, said Perry should have known what to expect.
“I think the governor is at his best when he is comfortable with his environment and obviously reaching out to the Hispanic community is something he’s never done before,” he said. “When you want to pass sanctuary cities at a time when we are not even supposed to be in session, I think you have a hard time saying ‘Please give me your support.’”