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Carefully, Abbott Puts a Little Distance Between Himself and Perry

Attorney General Greg Abbott is disputing claims that he had a deal not to run against Gov. Rick Perry and has begun, in carefully chosen language, to put a little distance between himself and the man he means to replace.

Greg Abbott on July 14, 2013, announcing his run for governor.

McALLEN — Attorney General Greg Abbott, stepping out of the long shadow cast by the famous politician he wants to replace, is disputing claims that he had a deal not to run against Gov. Rick Perry and says he hasn’t hesitated to oppose him when it was right for Texas.

The notion that the two powerful Republicans had some agreement to stay in their respective corners came up again and again in the long run-up to Perry’s recent announcement that he would not seek re-election. And it had originated right out of Perry’s mouth: During a January interview with WFAA-TV, the governor asserted that Abbott privately told him “clearly that if I ran again he’s not going to be running against me.” 

On Monday in McAllen, in an interview with The Texas Tribune, Abbott flatly denied there was any agreement between the two men about who would be running in the 2014 governor’s race.

“He said I wouldn’t run against him. He may have known all along he wasn’t going to run,” Abbott said. “We didn’t have any handshake deal or anything like that.”

While Abbott is widely described as Perry’s heir apparent, Abbott said he had no special insight or advance word about what Perry was going to say when the governor convened friends, family and a horde of media to San Antonio to discuss his “exciting future plans” on July 8. Though many speculated Perry would hint he's running for president again, he simply announced he was not running for re-election.

“I was watching live like all other Texans,” Abbott said. He dodged questions about when, precisely, he decided to get in the race. But he left the impression that it wasn’t tied to what Perry did.

“I have been thinking about this for a while now,’’ he said. Abbott made it official Sunday in San Antonio, six days after Perry announced his decision to retire from statewide politics at the end of his term. It was obvious that a great deal of advance planning had gone into the five-day, 1o-city announcement tour.

In the interview, Abbott noted his long association with the longest-serving governor in Texas history, saying, “He and I were close friends and allies, and we fought side by side.”

But Abbott also pointed out that he has opposed Perry on the issue of transparency, citing two occasions when he forced the governor to hand over documents that his office or appointees had wanted to keep private.

“I’m the one that required Gov. Perry to disclose the Trans-Texas Corridor documents,” he said. “I’m the one that required Gov. Perry to disclose his budget documents.” Abbott was referring to his ruling that Perry had to hand over 2003 budget working papers he wanted to keep secret and another order compelling the Texas Department of Transportation to produce records related to the controversial transporation project.

Attempts to get a comment from Perry’s office were not successful Monday evening.

Abbott hasn’t mentioned the governor by name in the speeches he’s given so far on his announcement tour, which began Sunday in San Antonio and ends Thursday in Austin. But Perry comes up a lot in media interviews, and Abbott has begun, in carefully chosen language, to put a little distance between himself and the colorful incumbent.

One potentially meaningful difference between the two men is their view of taxpayer-financed subsidies for private businesses. Perry has been a huge supporter of them. He has used his deal-closing Texas Enterprise Fund and the Emerging Technology Fund to shower hundreds of millions of dollars on companies that promise to create jobs or that can foster advanced technological research and product development. The state, with Perry’s blessing, has also provided millions more to lure events like Formula One racing, bowl games and annual conferences.

Abbott would not commit to phasing out or ending any of those programs, but he has expressed a skeptical view of them in his speeches and remarks to reporters.

In the interview, he said he wanted to create the conditions in which businesses could compete “openly and freely.” And he says at his campaign stops that he wants to “get the government out of the business of picking winners and losers.”

Abbott suggested that rather than focus on tax subsidies to lure businesses to Texas, he would concentrate on the tax code itself — including the loathed margins tax that was the centerpiece of Perry’s tax restructuring effort to help fix the ever-wobbly school finance system.

“We want to evaluate a lot of things,” he said. “I think the margins tax is a real challenge the way that it’s currently implemented. I think it needs to be looked at. We’re going to be looking at taxes topside and bottom. The one thing I can guarantee you right here, right now is we will not be increasing taxes.”

While Abbott blazes his own path on policy issues and style, the Perry legacy and his political infrastructure lives on in the newly minted front-runner’s campaign operations. Abbott’s top political strategist is Dave Carney, who led Perry to every statewide victory since 1998 before falling out with the governor during his disastrous 2012 presidential campaign. His campaign manager is Wayne Hamilton, who served as the Perry presidential campaign’s political director. Kim Snyder, Perry’s former scheduler, now serves as deputy campaign manager. And Sarah Floerke, a former deputy legislative director for the governor, is Abbott’s campaign director in charge of political affairs.

“Because of who I am, it’s completely different from anyone who’s ever run for governor in his state,” he said. 

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Politics Greg Abbott