Updated 2:22 p.m.
Wallace Jefferson, the first black chief justice of the Texas Supreme Court, said the hunting ranch name controversy is "much ado about nothing" and argued the implication that Rick Perry is insensitive to matters of race is flatly wrong. Jefferson, who was appointed to the post by Perry, and whose great-great-great-grandfather was a slave owned by a Waco district judge, said the reality is quite the opposite: Perry "appreciates the role diversity plays in our state and nation."
Jefferson said he can recall his first conversation with Perry, in 2001, like it was yesterday. They talked about how Jefferson's father and Perry had both been Air Force officers. Jefferson said Perry shared his view that in all circumstances, merit mattered, not race.
"To imply that the governor condoned either the use of that word or that sentiment, I find false," Jefferson said.
At a critical juncture in his race for the GOP presidential nomination, Gov. Rick Perry has been forced to do something no candidate wants: confront incendiary allegations involving race and prejudice.
While he should be bragging about fundraising totals and reconnecting with primary voters after his less-than-stellar debate performances, the Texas governor is instead defending himself from accusations that his family’s West Texas hunting camp was long known by the racially offensive name “Niggerhead.” The Washington Post reported Sunday that the name was visible on a rock at the camp in the 1980s and 1990s and possibly far more recently.
Perry has forcefully denied that his family ever used the term and has said that this parents painted over the rock in the early 1980s, shortly after they first leased the land.
Even some of Perry's fiercest Texas critics say they do not believe he is racist. They point to his record of appointments as evidence: He appointed the state’s first African-American state supreme court justice, Wallace Jefferson, and later made him chief justice. (Jefferson’s great grandfather was a slave, “sold like a horse,” Perry once said with disgust.) Perry’s former general counsel and former chief of staff, Brian Newby, is black; so is Albert Hawkins, the former Health and Human Services commissioner who Perry handpicked to lead the massive agency in 2002.
“He doesn’t have a racist bone in his body,” said former Democratic state Rep. Ron Wilson, who is black and served with Perry in his early years in the Legislature. “He didn’t then, and he doesn’t now.”
Added Dallas Democratic Sen. Royce West, who is also black: “I don’t agree with him on policy issues, but you can point to many things he has done that were sensitive to ethnic minorities.”
Indeed, in his 11-year gubernatorial tenure, Perry has appointed more minorities to statewide posts — including university regents and secretaries of state — than any governor in Texas history. The biggest beating he’s taken on the campaign trail so far? His unwavering support for granting in-state tuition to the children of illegal immigrants in Texas.
“Texans need to see that no matter where you come from, the color of your skin or the sound of your last name, that if you are willing to work hard and play by the rules you can become anything you want in this state,” Perry said in a 2010 interview with The Dallas Examiner.
But Sunday’s Washington Post article suggesting the Perry family didn’t go far enough to rid the moniker “Niggerhead” from the West Texas hunting land has cast a pall on his presidential bid — and provided ammunition for his opponents, including African-American businessman Herman Cain, who recently won the Florida GOP straw poll. On Sunday, in response to the Post story, Cain called Perry “insensitive” to African-Americans.
And the furor also has revived unwanted reminders of some long-since forgotten race-related controversies in Perry’s history.
In his first statewide race, Perry defeated Jim Hightower for agriculture commissioner in part by highlighting Hightower’s endorsement of civil rights activist Jesse Jackson for president, filming a television ad that aired across East Texas — and that many believed was meant to alarm white voters.
While Perry was agriculture commissioner, his deputy was accused of using a racial slur while talking to two men seeking a loan. Perry called the allegation “vile and offensive”; the assistant commissioner resigned.
Later in his term, when Perry was attacking Bill Clinton for accepting campaign contributions from trial lawyers, Perry was quoted as saying, “Every Jose in town wants to come along and sue you for something.” (He later apologized.)
And he has at times gotten crosswise with minorities for what has appeared to be his defense of the Confederate flag. Most famously, at his 2007 gubernatorial inaugural ball, Perry dismissed the outcry after rock star Ted Nugent showed up to perform in a shirt emblazoned with the Confederate flag. Later, a Perry spokesman said the governor would never wear the flag himself, but that Nugent was perfectly entitled to do so.
In Texas, a southern state where geography and race history often collide in uncomfortable ways, Perry will likely be forgiven — even by critics who say his conservative policies disproportionately harm minorities.
“He appointed a black man chief justice of the state Supreme Court, for crying out loud, one of the many high-profile positions he’s given to minorities during his time as governor,” Jason Stanford, a Democratic opposition researcher and author of an upcoming book on Perry, wrote in a weekend blog post. “… If he were an n-bomb dropping cracker, we’d all know.”
But it should be no surprise to Perry if the unwanted attention lingers nationally. During a 2006 gubernatorial debate, Perry chastised independent candidate Kinky Friedman for using racial epithets in his musical acts and for describing Hurricane Katrina evacuees as “crackheads” and “thugs.”
“Mr. Friedman, words matter,” Perry said. “If you’re going to be the governor of the greatest state in this nation, you bet you use those types of terms and it’s going to deflect from being able to do the good things that need to occur.”