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A Weak Governor System, With a Strong Governor

Rick Perry has been governor for so long and has consolidated so much power that it's easy to forget a basic tenet of Texas government: It's designed to keep its governors weak.

Gov. Rick Perry answers press questions at the National Right to Life convention.

It’s a little odd to think about a Texas government without Rick Perry. He’s been a part of it since 1985, serving three House terms as an elected Democrat (the last as a Democrat who switched to the Republican Party after his election), eight years as agriculture commissioner, less than two years as lieutenant governor and more than 12 years — so far, anyhow — as governor.

He hasn’t said he’s leaving, though the speculation is heavy about an announcement in San Antonio set for Monday. But he could leave voluntarily or by popular demand in 2015, or in 2019. Eventually.

Before Perry, half the stories about the doings in the state Capitol were either about the inherent weakness of the governor’s office or the ancient lore about how the lieutenant governor holds the state’s most powerful office.

The governor has no cabinet. He or she can appoint the people who populate the various boards and commissions, but only a third of them come up for appointment every two years, and the governor doesn’t have direct control over them once they’ve been posted. They can’t be fired — they can be made pretty uncomfortable, but that takes a lot of work — and they often behave as if they have their own brains and their own goals and ways of doing things.

That means that most of the people who head the executive branch of Texas government have never had full control over it. Other elected officials head some of the major agencies, and a powerful legislative branch can, with strong personalities in charge, control the agencies to some extent by controlling their budgets.

The strong lieutenant governor legend gelled during Bill Hobby’s tenure from 1973 to 1991. He was a parliamentarian before he was lieutenant governor, the son of a governor and a United States cabinet secretary. His successor was Bob Bullock, who held the office for eight years but who built a power base in Texas government during 16 years as comptroller of public accounts.

Perry followed Bullock’s model, mentoring young lawyers and policy wonks and political animals and then posting them in agencies throughout the state government. After six years of Perry being in the governor’s office, virtually every appointee had him to thank for their post. And over his first decade in office, the governor seeded the executive branch with his former aides and their like-minded peers. They’re all over the place, with titles like executive director, general counsel, communications director and so on.

He owns it. Bullock did something similar by heading a big agency that eventually sprinkled former employees all over state government. Bullock people were everywhere. He had a long reach and an impressive intelligence network.

And Perry picked up the lesson, turning what was designed as a weak office into a strong one.

He has made it look better than it is.

His successor has to start all over. Perry’s transformation of the office might be permanent. The agencies might naturally turn their ears to a governor for guidance after all these years out of habit.

It will take six years to replace all the appointees who owe their jobs to Perry, a third of the jobs turning over every two years. The people at the tops of all of those agency organization charts will linger until retirement — Perry’s legacy —and while they may be helpful to a new governor, they will not be indebted like they are to the old boss.

The rest of the elected statewide officeholders — pushed back from power a notch at a time during Perry’s time in office — could reassert themselves.

Lieutenant governors, attorneys general, comptrollers and speakers of the House have, in recent Texas history, overmatched their governors. And if someone new comes into the office, the House and Senate will instinctively test them: There are no freebies in politics.

It was common to see how this governor or that one would wiggle out of a trap set by others. Bullock once said he didn’t want the top job — it’s hard to know whether he meant it — because all a governor does is cut ribbons.

Perry, because of his tenure and the methodical placement of former staffers throughout the government, changed all that, turning a weak office into a powerful one. It’s hard to remember how it used to be.

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