Gov. Rick Perry's go-to problem solver, Jay Kimbrough, could have chosen a more inconvenient time to take out his pocket knife in response to his firing from the Texas A&M University System, whose flagship university is Perry's alma mater. But maybe not much more.
"There's a lot of scrutiny on Perry right now, obviously, so any story related to him — whether it's his blind trust showing up blind and dumb or whether it's Kimbrough getting separated from the university — is seen through the lens of, 'What does this mean about Rick Perry?" says Cal Jillson, a political science professor at Southern Methodist University.
The day before Perry takes the stage for his third nationally televised debate as a front-runner in the fight for the GOP presidential nomination, Kimbrough — the governor’s former chief of staff, director of homeland security, and chief criminal justice adviser — made headlines with his termination and subsequent display of his pocketknife. Kimbrough has over the last decade been the top troubleshooter for almost every crisis facing the Perry administration. Until Wednesday, he served as deputy chancellor at the A&M System. He was abruptly ousted after the System's newly hired Chancellor, John Sharp, decided Kimbrough's position at the university was no longer necessary.
Security was reportedly called to escort Kimbrough out after he showed his pocket knife to senior staff members. Kimbrough, in an interview with the Tribune on Wednesday, said he was blindsided by the firing but wasn't attempting to threaten the bearers of bad news.
"I was just joking," he said. "I was just saying I was not going to be intimidated."
Before being named interim chancellor and then deputy chancellor of the A&M System in June, Kimbrough was a high-paid consultant to the Texas Department of Transportation, helping with an overhaul of that agency. Previously, Perry had dispatched him to clean up the abuse-ridden Texas Youth Commission and the troubled Texas Commission on Alcohol and Drug Abuse.
Kimbrough, 64, hasn’t always tackled these tasks gently. The Marine Corps veteran, a self-proclaimed “dead man walking” who survived near fatal injuries in a North Vietnamese rice paddy in 1967, is known for military efficiency: Heads roll without a second thought. Critics say he’d show up for work, in biker boots and a Darth Vader tie, at the state agency he’d been dispatched to, make snap decisions, refuse to give second chances and clean house completely to address internal culture problems.
Some say his war wounds — which he is known to mention daily, even hourly — have left him without fear, and with occasionally questionable judgment, a man who seeks out crises to ward off his own demons.
“He’s a happy warrior,” Perry said in 2007, describing the man he rides Harley Davidson motorcycles with at least one day a year. “A man who comes back time after time to serve.”
Mike McKinney, a lobbyist and former A&M chancellor who calls Kimbrough a longtime friend, says carrying weapons around is just Kimbrough's way — and that he often flips out one of the pocket knives he always has on hand. But never in a threatening way.
"He always has a gun or two, and he always has a bunch of pocket knives," McKinney says, adding that anyone who knew Kimbrough wouldn't be alarmed if he brought one out. "Besides that, he wouldn’t need a knife if he decided he was going to do something."
Nevertheless, McKinney says he had warned Kimbrough in the past that flashing his weapons around might not be the wisest course of action. "I told him, 'You'd better be careful where you do that.' And I said that more than a few times."
Jillson says it made sense for Sharp to terminate Kimbrough to display independence from the governor's office and gain the trust of faculty and staff at the university who are worried about a controversial set of "seven breakthrough solutions" for higher education fashioned by conservative Austin businessman Jeff Sandefer and promoted by Perry.
"Sharp needed to create some political space," Jillson says.
Kimbrough's response, he says, could prove troublesome for Perry as Romney and other candidates try to reinforce a message to other Republicans that the governor's Texas ways will alienate independent voters. "Asking about appointees waving around guns and knives — that’s not a good thing, because in blue parts of the country, they don’t view this stuff romantically," Jillson says. "They view it much more practically."
But James Henson, who directs the Texas Politics Project at the University of Texas and is co-director of the University of Texas/Texas Tribune poll, says the Kimbrough incident isn't likely to make waves outside of Texas.
"I suspect this is one of those blips, but I'd be surprised if the Perry campaign did anything about it … other than keep their distance and hope it goes away," Henson says.
In a statement e-mailed to the Tribune today, Perry spokeswoman Allison Castle said that while the governor appreciated both Sharp and Kimbrough, the matter was one for A&M to deal with.
"The governor has the utmost respect for and confidence in both Jay and John Sharp. Neither the governor nor our office was aware of this until after the fact and he has not spoken to either of them," Castle said. "This is a personnel matter with the A&M system."