Critics largely gave Gov. Rick Perry a pass for hunting on a deer lease that once carried an ugly racist name. Even the White House accepted Perry’s explanation that his family found the N-word abhorrent and had painted over it at the first opportunity.
But two decades after he won his first statewide victory, a TV ad that helped put Perry over the top in his 1990 race for agriculture commissioner is still making racially tinged waves.
The Perry presidential campaign declined to release the controversial ad this week, and a search on YouTube and other internet video sites turns up nothing. But The Texas Tribune found a copy — for review purposes only — at the Political Commercial Archive at the University of Oklahoma.
The 30-second attack ad prominently features Perry’s Democratic opponent, Jim Hightower, the incumbent, in a triumphant posture with the Rev. Jesse Jackson. Their hands are clasped together above their heads, and the two men are smiling.
Below the images, the words flash on the screen: “Does Hightower share your values?” Then, under the photo of the two men: “Jesse Jackson’s chairman.” (In fact, Hightower had endorsed Jackson for president in 1988 but was not his Texas campaign chairman.)
Aides to Perry said then and insist now that the ad was designed only to tie Hightower to a well-known liberal, but at the time it prompted a furor among black lawmakers. They compared it to the 1988 Willie Horton ad, which used pictures of a menacing-looking criminal, a black man who had been furloughed from prison when Michael Dukakis, the Democratic presidential nominee, was governor of Massachusetts.
“The whole point was: There I am with a black man,” Hightower recalled in an interview this week. “It was an overt play to the racist vote.”
Hightower is speaking out now about the ad, after years of silence, because he finally got a detailed description of it two decades after it aired. Neither Hightower nor any of his former senior campaign staff could find a copy of it either, and he said he felt like he needed to refresh his memory.
Hightower, who had been heavily favored to win re-election, remembered that the ad gave Perry, then a state representative, crucial momentum in the closing days of the 1990 campaign. Perry narrowly won the race, 49 percent to 47 percent.
After the ad began running, supporters told Hightower that “a white hand and black hand together” was hurting him.
“I think today people would reject it,” Hightower said. “I don’t know that you would run an ad like that today.”
After the spot aired, black leaders called on Perry to take it down. Rep. Larry Evans, D-Houston and the chairman of the Legislative Black Caucus in the Texas House, wrote Perry a letter complaining that it bordered on “race baiting.”
At the time, Evans was serving with Perry in the House, and he called his colleague “an honorable and racially sensitive man.”
“We have known each other for a long time, and I am certain that such a campaign tactic is beneath you and that you would not allow such tactics to continue,” Evans said. “Given the foregoing, and in the spirit of genuine racial harmony, please refrain from campaign tactics which appeal to the worse (sic) in us all.”
Perry, exhibiting his no-apologies campaign ethos, turned the fire right back on his critics. According to a 1990 account in the Houston Post, Perry said the “charge that I’m a racist just because of using a picture of he and Jackson is a despicable, low-life smear.” He refused to pull the ads and said Hightower owed Texans an apology for “injecting racism into this election.”
Mark Miner, now a spokesman for Perry, said the ad was simply a “contrast on issues between candidates” and had no racial motivation. He said the campaign would not release it because it does not have anything to do with Perry’s presidential campaign. “It’s an old ad that’s not in rotation any more,” Miner said. “We’re focused on the current race.”
OU’s Political Communication Center, which allowed the Tribune to review the ad, said it did not hold the copyright and could not allow it to be copied or broadcast.
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