WACO — He was Tea Party before Tea Party was cool, the darling of the ultra-conservative right wing movement. That’s how the news analysts described Gov. Rick Perry as he leapt into the national spotlight announcing his bid for presidency.
But at a recent Tea Party gathering in Waco, about 100 miles from the Texas Capitol, Perry’s “darling” status seemed tenuous. More than 100 Tea Party supporters met at the Hilton for a day of preparation for the 2012 elections. They paid a nominal fee to train in the practical arts of politicking, like block walking, navigating campaign finance laws and precinct organizing, as well as to take seminars on history and political theory.
Among the Tea Partiers, there was broad agreement about the scope and scale of problems facing America. There was much less agreement about the choices in the field of Republican presidential candidates, and Perry in particular.
There was a noticeable difference of opinion among, on one hand, Tea Party activists and casual enthusiasts and, on the other hand, those with leadership roles in the state Republican Party.
The activists and enthusiasts were much more likely to express doubts about a Perry candidacy. Many were dissatisfied with his time as governor and doubted the authenticity of his conservative credentials.
Katrina Pierson, a full-time activist and member of the Dallas Tea Party steering committee, taught a class during the conference about the environmental movement. She criticized Perry both for his record as governor and for not using the national spotlight to talk about issues important to the Tea Party, including the dangers it feels are posed by environmental regulation.
It wasn’t only Perry who troubled Pierson, though. She said she wouldn’t vote for anyone who had spent decades in state government.
“A lot of the issues that we have in Texas, they’ve been presiding over for quite some time,” she said.
Conference attendees who were more closely aligned with the GOP hesitated to openly criticize Perry. They minimized party infighting and focused on preparation for the national campaign.
Asked about Perry’s attempt in 2007 to require that Texas schoolgirls receive a vaccine against the human papillomavirus — an issue that drove a wedge between the governor and some conservative groups — many were unequivocal in their support of the Governor.
Toby Marie Walker, an organizer with the Waco Tea Party, said the vaccine controversy was “an old story,” and that rehashing previous fights in the media was a politically motivated move by Perry’s opponents.
“Kay Bailey Hutchison and the Bushies are dragging this stuff up again,” she said.
Brazos County GOP Chairman Paul Rieger said rifts between Perry and Texas conservatives were a thing of the past. “It’s time to focus on the positives,” he said. “We have to create jobs.”
Though many Tea Partiers at the event declined to air their grievances with the governor, some still said he wasn’t the best option.
Jana McMillan, a former city councilwoman from College Station, said she wanted to see a Mitt Romney-Marco Rubio ticket.
McMillan worried about Perry’s electability, saying the rest of the country would associate him with George W. Bush.
But, the most important thing, she said, is that the next president is not Barack Obama. “Anybody who’s running who’s a Republican is at least a step above that.”