When Joe Allbaugh walked into his first staff meeting at the headquarters of the Rick Perry presidential campaign on Oct. 24, the governor of Texas had already blown his once formidable lead in the polls.
But there was still hope that he could rise again, and campaign manager Rob Johnson introduced the physically imposing Allbaugh, former head of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, as a key part of the rescue effort.
“I’m just here to help,” several senior Perry advisers remember Allbaugh saying.
A few days later, at a subsequent gathering, it was a different story.
According to several staffers who were there, it was Allbaugh who had moved to the head of the table and who had called the meeting. He asked the staff to recognize and applaud Johnson for his efforts, several participants remember — an odd and condescending gesture to some of the old hands, since Johnson presumably wasn’t going anywhere.
Then, according to several people in attendance, Allbaugh told the staff why he had been brought on board the Perry campaign.
“We’ve got to make sure we put our best foot forward for Rick and Penny,” a senior adviser recalls Allbaugh telling the gathering.
Rick and Penny?
Presumably, he meant Anita Perry, the governor’s wife.
Confused and embarrassed looks abounded, and Allbaugh suddenly realized his error, officials recalled. He explained that he had some friends named Rick and Penny, and he promptly produced the correct name of the first lady.
But the impression he left with Perry’s Texas-based loyalists at that meeting would only grow. It was that the competent Joe Allbaugh of political legend — the one who had so effectively run George W. Bush’s 2000 campaign, a logistics man who had been part of the former president’s “Iron Triangle” — wasn't the one who'd shown up.
“It was one of those first moments when people thought that this could have been the worst strategic decision of the campaign,’’ the adviser said.
In the wake of the Perry’s gaffe-infused implosion, identifying which strategic move hurt the most is a difficult task, and one that may be impossible without more information and the benefit of historical reflection.
Was it the decision to schedule back surgery on July 1, putting Perry’s physical recovery on a collision course with a grueling schedule of fundraisers and campaign events? Was it the failure to prepare better for debates that soon turned disastrous? Was it simply a matter of getting in the race too late?
Perry’s own string of verbal goofs, probably some of the worst in modern American political history, were so crippling that it is questionable whether any paid professionals could have pulled him out of the ditch. At one point staffers were so desperate to keep Perry’s energy level high during debates that they discussed putting M&Ms in his coat pocket for use during commercial breaks.
Still, in the ashes of his campaign collapse, it is now clear that the tension between two distinct camps — Allbaugh and a group of Washington, D.C. consultants on the one hand, and longtime Austin-based staffers on the other — became so toxic that people who had been willing to lie down on the tracks for Perry were demoralized, worn out and looking for the exit ramp.
“I’d rather take a shower with Jerry Sandusky than go through another month of this,” one veteran Perry adviser said in late December, just before the Iowa caucuses. “This campaign isn’t capable of winning.”
Staffers took to calling Allbaugh “Jack,” and eventually “Uncle Jack,” because he so frequently called people by the wrong name, often even labeling the Perry operation the “Bush campaign.” It seemed that he was stuck in the previous decade, some of them said. Others, including a key staffer in Iowa, said Allbaugh had the right expertise but inherited a campaign so broken it was impossible to fix.
Reached by phone Sunday, Allbaugh declined to comment, saying he had no interest in petty carping that ultimately would do the governor no good. Perry’s longtime consultant Dave Carney, who was pushed aside by Allbaugh, also declined to be interviewed for this story.
But in an interview with The Texas Tribune on Sunday, longtime Perry spokesman Ray Sullivan acknowledged that internal challenges mounted right along with the external ones as the struggling campaign wore on.
“Any time campaigns start to head south, it exacerbates internal strife and conflict,” Sullivan said. “Unfortunately, this campaign was no different.”
Sullivan was in the unique position of having worked closely with Allbaugh, including during the 2000 campaign, and with Carney, who had guided Perry to victory in every race since his 1998 election as lieutenant governor. He praised them both. Despite all the internal complaints about Allbaugh, Sullivan called him a “strong and effective manager” who was brought in at an already difficult time.
“Both of them are larger-than-life personalities with different styles,” Sullivan said. “I think I would just leave it at that.”
Other campaign advisers, speaking on condition that their names not be used, tell of a monumental power struggle between the two men — a struggle that Allbaugh eventually won.
Allbaugh, who stands 6’4’’ and has a 20-inch neck bulging beneath a scrupulously coiffed flat top, looks more like a football coach than a campaign manager. A former deputy secretary of transportation in Oklahoma, Allbaugh had worked as George W. Bush’s gubernatorial chief of staff in the late 1990s and he had been known as the “enforcer” in the hallowed “Iron Triangle” during the 2000 campaign.
The other members of that three-person team, Bush strategist Karl Rove and Karen Hughes, were on the outs with Perry. Hughes had endorsed Kay Bailey Hutchison in Perry’s 2010 re-election race, and the years of bad blood between Rove and Perry had spilled out into the open during the governor’s first televised debate in September.
But Allbaugh had endorsed Perry’s re-election in 2010, which resonated with a team that prized loyalty perhaps more than any other attribute. The idea that he might play a role in Perry’s presidential campaign first came up in July, before Perry even announced he was in, officials recalled.
Allbaugh joined the campaign in late October at the same time that several Washington, D.C., consultants got on board. But he didn’t enter the same way. The Washington consultants, including Nelson Warfield and Tony Fabrizio, had been contacted by Carney, who knew them from Bob Dole’s unsuccessful 1996 campaign, high-ranking advisers say.
Warfield turned down a request to be interviewed.
"When a campaign is unsuccessful, the best comment is none at all,’’ he said.
Fabrizio did not respond to emails seeking comment from the Tribune.
The decision to bring in Allbaugh was made by the governor and first lady, top advisers said. At first, it seemed as though Allbaugh would focus on logistics, from ensuring that Perry got enough rest and wasn’t over-scheduled, to making sure bills got paid on time.
But senior officials say it soon became clear that Allbaugh was taking charge of the campaign.
Allbaugh began to conduct regular staff meetings in a conference room in Perry’s Austin campaign office on Congress Avenue. Staffers began to refer to the room as “Sunshine Room 2,” a reference to the similarly named room where Allbaugh “pumped sunshine” with pep rally like talks during Bush’s 2000 campaign, which had been headquartered across the street and a few blocks south.
Allbaugh chose a desk that sat between scheduling and the advance team, and he sometimes would corner bewildered staffers, demanding oaths of loyalty with his massive frame and booming voice, several officials said.
“If someone was over whispering to me he would say, 'What are you whispering about?' Sometimes it wasn’t even about work,” one top adviser said. “It was just a constant inserting himself. I couldn’t even get through a conversation without him asking a question or wanting to know what’s going on. … He tried to rule by intimidation.”
Between late October and Thanksgiving, senior advisers say the campaign sometimes seemed rudderless, with Carney and Johnson often traveling to televised debates and other campaign events and without a firm indication of who was in charge.
Things finally came to a head right after Thanksgiving, when it had been decided that Arizona Sheriff Joe Arpaio would endorse Perry at Joey’s Diner in Amherst, N.H., a state where the governor’s poll numbers were in the tank. Officials said it made sense because Perry had already scheduled an address to the New Hampshire Legislature on the same campaign swing.
But Allbaugh had not been kept in the loop about the Arpaio scheduling decision and he was livid, according to senior advisers. Allbaugh wanted more attention focused on first-test Iowa, officials recall, and Carney, a New Hampshire native, felt his home state could not be ignored entirely even if Perry was faring poorly there.
At that point, Allbaugh took charge of the campaign and demoted Johnson, sending him into what some officials call “exile” in Iowa and New Hampshire, where he was relegated to the role of a surrogate speaking on behalf of the governor at house parties and town hall events.
Carney was told to stay in New Hampshire, and since the tour with Arpaio was the governor’s last trip there, it was like being sent to Siberia.
“We already knew we weren’t going to be competing in New Hampshire by then,” said one top adviser. “Why not send Dave to work on the Alaska campaign? It would have been the equivalent.”
But one top Iowa campaign official was happy to get more resources and attention, and he said Allbaugh is the one who made it happen, in part by providing roughly $20,000 a week to conduct voter identification and outreach efforts that the official said had previously been ignored.
“The best thing that happened to the Perry campaign was hiring Joe Allbaugh. The worst thing that happened to the Perry campaign was hiring him too late,” the official, who asked that his name be withheld, wrote in the email to the Tribune. “There was no campaign strategy or guidance in Iowa from the national campaign prior to Allbaugh.”
The official said Carney and Johnson were “in way over their heads” and failed to provide timely talking points and messaging, mainly to counter the damaging perception that Perry was weak on immigration after his botched debate answer that critics of giving in-state tuition to illegal immigrants were heartless.
On Sunday, Johnson declined to respond to those attacks.
Once Johnson and Carney were out of the Austin office, Allbaugh moved to consolidate his power, overseeing the morning conference calls and gaining control of the checkbook — made all the easier by his longtime friendship with campaign treasurer Sal Purpura, who had worked with Allbaugh during Bush’s 2000 race, officials said.
In early December, at a meeting of the online team at the Stephen F. Austin Hotel, Allbaugh made it clear that he had taken over. One participant at the meeting said the online team had been trying for weeks to gain approval for targeted online media outreach, harnessing technology to draw engaged supporters in — a strategy developed when Carney and Johnson were still running the show.
Allbaugh wanted more banner and display ads, which the online team considered a less effective and outdated approach, the adviser said.
Allbaugh "put his hands on the table pretty forcefully,” the senior online strategist said. “He said, ‘You guys have to forget everything you’ve done up to this point.'”
“'I’m in charge,'’’ the official quoted Allbaugh as saying. “'What you’re going to do is what I decide is best for this campaign.'”
If things seemed toxic at that point, they turned poisonous a few days later, when the campaign ran the controversial “Strong” ad. In the ad, Perry railed against policies allowing gays to openly serve in the military at a time when “our kids can’t openly celebrate Christmas or pray in school.”
Much of the staff was opposed to the ad, saying it would backfire and could tarnish Perry long after the campaign ended. The disagreements over the ad, and the civil war that was raging inside the campaign, soon began spilling out into the open, first in a Huffington Post piece about the controversial TV spot, and then in a Politico story about all the infighting.
The Dec. 31 Politico story, quoting Perry campaign officials describing the Texas-based crew as a bunch of provincial rubes who were woefully unprepared to take Perry into the national spotlight, provoked palpable anger from staffers who had stuck by the Texas governor for years.
“The Politico story, three days before the Iowa caucuses, had a corrosive effect on the campaign and on the morale in the campaign,” said Sullivan, the Perry spokesman. “It was clear to many of us, myself included, that those attacking the campaign ... were our own Washington-based consultants, and it was a sad and destructive act of disloyalty and in some cases dishonesty.”
On the night of Jan. 3, it seemed the painful infighting would finally cease after Perry came in fifth place and announced he was going home to Texas to reassess. Of course, Perry didn't reassess for long. It would take another couple of weeks and the specter of an embarrassing drubbing in South Carolina for him to announce his withdrawal. Perry staffers received notice that their last paychecks would land on Jan. 26.
But on that early January evening at the Sheraton West Des Moines, a cheer went up in the bar and hearty toasts were made to Johnson, the Texas-based campaign manager who had led Perry's re-election campaign during happier times in 2010. Carney was still in New Hampshire, and Allbaugh and the D.C. consultants were nowhere in sight.
Drinks flowed until last call, and nobody seemed to worry about the $1,700 tab. When it came, there was no hesitation to sign it, either. The name on the bill was clear and legible: “Joe Allbaugh.”