Don't try to hang an "oops" on Ken Armbrister.
The former lawmaker, now the chief legislative aide to Gov. Rick Perry, said right into a microphone this week what a lot of people suspected — that Perry had told him he was going to run for another term in 2014. That sounded like he was talking out of school, but it helped the boss with those who thought they would be dealing with a lame duck during the 2013 legislative session. Measure the damage by the punishment: If Perry spanked him for popping off, he didn’t leave any marks.
Armbrister’s blurt came up again last week at the end of a news conference announcing the state’s plans to join a lawsuit over high school cheerleaders bearing religious banners at football games in Kountze. That’s government work, but also a political windfall: Perry and Attorney General Greg Abbott were there to announce their support for religious freedom and the First Amendment, and their opposition to lawsuits initiated by “out-of-state atheists.”
Take note here: At mid-year, Abbott had $14.5 million in his campaign accounts, and his is the other top name — right next to Perry’s —in conversations about who might run for governor in 2014. (Perry had nearly $3.4 million on hand at mid-year.) The two are political allies. Abbott has been the lawyer suing the federal government on behalf of a state headed by a Washington-bashing governor. Their donor base is nearly identical. Abbott has talked to supporters about running for governor in 2014. Perry, even before Armbrister’s comments, had hinted he might be interested in another term.
And there they were, next to each other, two fish in a barrel. Reporters asked Perry for a response to Armbrister’s remarks.
“I have said time after time that, come June, I would give you all a road map to what my intentions are, relative to my run for re-election,” Perry said. “Kenny just misunderstood, the best I can tell.”
And Abbott’s plans?
“You know, I think, come June,” the attorney general said, to rising laughter, “we’ll evaluate where we are.”
Perry closed it out, for the moment: “Stick around for June. It should be an interesting month.”
Maybe that’s the state’s next Republican primary for governor. It wouldn’t be the first time two powerhouses have faced off — in 2010, U.S. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison challenged Perry in an expensive and divisive fight that led to the governor’s current term.
Maybe this is the beginning of a handoff that will see Perry stepping aside — hey, maybe for another presidential run — and Abbott becoming the new standard-bearer for the state’s Republican Party. Some of those calculations won’t be clear until after the presidential election. Some will depend on how Perry does in the coming legislative session.
The session is where Armbrister did the governor the most good. Because of his long tenure — almost 12 years in office — Perry is an extraordinarily strong governor in a state where weak governors are the norm. It’s not a cabinet government, and it takes more than one four-year term to gain control over the executive branch. The professional class has more power in Texas government than gubernatorial appointees, and it takes time to install people there. Perry’s done all that.
But a lame duck is a lame duck. Perry’s defining “oops” is only a year old. The freshman class of legislators — people who don’t owe much to current officeholders — is very large, with at least 40 members in the House and a half dozen in the Senate.
Perry doesn’t want his expiration date, if there is one, to show. And if he does want to run again for governor, or president, he needs a successful legislative session. Or at least one that’s not embarrassingly bad.
Lastly, this puts potential rivals and successors in the royal court — say, an ambitious princelike Abbott — on notice. There’s no reason to swat at an incumbent who might be grooming you as a successor, and now there’s no public way to know what he’ll do until after the session, sometime in June.
If Armbrister’s comment was a blunder, it was a useful one. Don’t be surprised if he gets a raise.