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Perry Helps Key Advisers Take a Big Next Step

“Career coach” is not listed on Gov. Rick Perry’s résumé — but it might as well be. In the 12 years he has held Texas’ highest elected office, he has helped align the professional stars for many of his key advisers.

Surrounding Gov. Rick Perry are (clockwise, from bottom left) Jeffrey Boyd, Mike Toomey, David Medina, Deirdre Delisi, Mike McKinney, Phil Wilson, Jay Kimbrough and John Steen.

“Career coach” is not listed on Gov. Rick Perry’s resume — but it might as well be.

In the 12 years he has held Texas’ highest elected office, he has helped align the professional stars for many of his key advisers — or else simply charted their courses for them.

Few fare as well as his chiefs of staff. When Perry named Jeffrey S. Boyd, his top adviser and former general counsel, to the Texas Supreme Court late last month, it was the latest in a string of high-profile appointments. Boyd’s predecessors have landed anywhere from influential state government posts to university system chancellors’ offices.

And the plum assignments are not just reserved for Perry’s staffers. Take John T. Steen Jr., who served as the Central Texas fundraising chairman for Perry’s last campaign for governor. Steen, a San Antonio lawyer and businessman, was recently named secretary of state.

“Gov. Perry surrounds himself with the best and brightest people in their fields,” said Allison Castle, a spokeswoman for Perry, “so it should come as no surprise that in some cases he would tap them to use their experience and talents to serve the state in another capacity.”

The job placement practice, while common, has critics who suggest that Perry uses his political acolytes to hold court over everything from state agencies to institutions of higher education. As Texas’ longest-serving governor, Perry has had the opportunity to appoint every member of each state board and commission — people who accounted for more than one-fifth of his campaign contributions between 2001 and 2010, according to a study by the liberal money-in-politics group Texans for Public Justice.

State government “is his toy — he can play with it as he wishes,” said Craig McDonald, the group’s executive director. “He’s building a power bureaucracy. They’re loyal to get the position, and they’re loyal to him after they take the seat.”

Perry’s supporters say that not only is this career guidance common, but that it makes perfect sense. These are the people the governor knows and trusts and is aligned with philosophically. If he wants what is best for Texas, they ask, why would he not put them in strategic posts?

“Rick Perry understands how Texas government works better and more intimately than anybody else does,” said Deirdre Delisi, a longtime adviser to Perry and an Austin-based political consultant. “Part of that is having competent, well-trusted people throughout government leading these state agencies.”

Delisi should know — she is one of several of Perry’s former chiefs of staff to benefit from his career counseling. After she served as his top adviser from 2004 to 2007, Perry put her at the helm of the Texas Transportation Commission, the governing board that oversees the Texas Department of Transportation — and its 12,000 employees and nearly $20 billion biennial budget. It was a job Delisi was not sure was right for her — “I told him I thought it was a bad idea,” she said — but Perry pushed.

“He said, ‘No, this is where I want you,’” Delisi recalled. “I have a lot of personal loyalty to him because these great experiences I’ve had in my professional life have been due largely to the fact that he put his faith in me and trusted me.”

Delisi is not the only former adviser who benefited from the governor’s chess moves. Perry appointed Phil Wilson, his deputy chief of staff and former communications director, as secretary of state in 2007. A few years later, after Wilson had worked in the private sector as an energy executive, he was named executive director of the state transportation department — a selection made by the five Perry-appointed members of the transportation commission (including Delisi, its chairwoman). His salary — $292,500 — was the maximum amount allowed and the highest in the agency’s history, and was $100,000 per year more than that of his predecessor.

Jay Kimbrough, Perry’s top aide from 2008 to 2009, has hopped from Perry appointment to Perry appointment, overseeing the state’s troubled juvenile justice department, working as the state’s homeland security director and serving as a high-paid consultant to the state transportation department. He ended up at Perry’s alma mater, Texas A&M University, as a university system deputy chancellor. 

But when his position was eliminated in 2011, Kimbrough, a Vietnam War veteran,  took out his pocketknife and showed it to senior staff. Authorities called to the scene later described Kimbrough’s unusual behavior as “nonthreatening,” but his career in higher education appeared to be over. Despite the résumé blemish, Perry remained loyal; Kimbrough has been on the state’s payroll, bouncing between high-profile agency jobs at Perry’s direction ever since.

When Perry named Boyd to the Texas Supreme Court, there was a precedent: In 2004, Perry named David Medina, then his general counsel, to the state’s highest court.

Another chief of staff, Mike McKinney, who served Perry in that role between 2001 and 2002, was named chancellor of the Texas A&M System in 2006. He was selected not by Perry, an ardent Aggie, but by the A&M System Board of Regents, which is made up entirely of Perry appointees.

McKinney’s successor in the governor’s office, Mike Toomey, a longtime Perry confidante, worked as a lobbyist after two years as chief of staff. With Perry in office, Toomey has been wildly successful. A Texas Tribune/New York Times analysis late last year found that Toomey’s clients have won at least $2 billion in state government contracts since 2008.

Bill Miller, an Austin-based lobbyist, said many former Perry advisers are incredibly capable and would have been successful at landing big jobs with or without listing the governor as a reference. But he said it would be “foolish to think of them as anything other than his allies” once they are in their new posts.

“They’re going to be looking after what they believe are his best interests,” Miller said. 

Wilson, the former Perry adviser now leading the transportation department, said it is not about what is in the governor’s best interests — it is about their shared vision for the state.

“If you’ve been in a senior policy role, you’ve been a chief of staff, you’ve worked for a governor who has articulated a vision for the state that is pro-growth, pro-jobs,” Wilson said. “Wherever you may be, whether it’s the private or public sector, you’re going to want to execute on that vision.” 

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