Gov. Rick Perry has come a long way since 2012, when he went from presidential front-runner to punch line in the blink of an eye and his campaign staff disintegrated into warring factions that eventually met in separate buildings.
He has a fresh, bespectacled look now. The back pain and sleep problems are gone. His political star seems to be rising again. And he has a new guru — the consultant Jeff Miller, a fundraiser and former adviser to Arnold Schwarzenegger, the former governor of California.
Whether putting together a string of preparatory workshops with foreign policy experts, positioning Perry on national television shows or helping promote aggressive new stances on international issues, Miller has been the driving force behind the Texan’s political rehabilitation, people inside the Perry network say.
“He is the one that has the governor’s ear,” said Mark Miner, Perry’s former spokesman. “Jeff has brought a focus and a leadership that was missing.”
Miller, who was a top fundraiser and director of Perry’s California operations during the 2012 presidential race, is not paid by the state or by Perry’s state political account. The former California lobbyist is a government affairs consultant and the chief executive of Americans for Economic Freedom, a nonprofit set up to promote conservative leaders and pro-business policies. That essentially makes him a volunteer, but a very influential one, because Miller’s advisory role extends to virtually every facet of the governor’s activities.
He helped Perry prepare for his retirement from state politics last summer. He was at the Capitol last month when Perry announced he was sending 1,000 National Guard troops to the border, and he helped Perry organize a news conference last week in Dallas to emphasize the governor’s unwavering support for Israel.
Ryan Gravatt, a technology expert who has been doing political work for Perry for years, called Miller a “perfect extension” of the governor. “Jeff can switch between conversations and meetings to discern exactly what the governor needs to know,” Gravatt said.
Still, acting as Perry’s chief strategist — or “chief implementer,” as Miner put it — takes Miller into new territory. Gregarious and likable, he is best known for his prodigious fundraising skills and overflowing address book. One Republican who worked with him in California said that if he lost his job and “could call only one person to help me with my career, it would be Jeff Miller.”
The gravelly voiced consultant commands a ubiquitous presence outside his office near the Capitol, often pacing Austin’s Congress Avenue with a cellphone pressed to his ear and a Marlboro Light dangling from his mouth. Last week, Miller said he did not want to be quoted in an article about him. But Rob Johnson, Perry’s former presidential campaign manager, said Miller was busy preparing Perry for another possible run for president, even though a decision was months away.
“Jeff works with a whole team of people to make sure we’re getting the governor prepared so that, come 2015, he’s in a position to make a thoughtful decision,” Johnson said. He added that if Perry decided not to run for the president, it would not be because he was unprepared.
Miller grew up in Tehachapi, Calif., about 40 miles east of Bakersfield. His father made high-capacity firearms but had to close his business after President Bill Clinton signed the since-expired 10-year assault weapons ban in 1994 — an experience that strengthened Miller’s already considerable conservative tendencies.
In 1993, after basic training for the Navy Reserve, Miller took a $5-an-hour internship with the California Republican Party. It was there that he met Kevin McCarthy, then a young field representative for Bill Thomas, a congressman from Bakersfield. McCarthy, who eventually replaced Thomas, is now the House majority leader.
Pictures of McCarthy, Schwarzenegger, former Gov. Pete Wilson and other friends from California line the walls of Miller’s Austin office. But California is in his rearview mirror now. Over dinner in 2012, Miller promised Perry and his wife, Anita, that if California Republicans were licked yet again in 2012, he would pull up his stakes and move to Texas. When Democrats won a supermajority in the California Legislature, and key ballot initiatives went their way, Miller made good on the vow and headed to Austin.
But California was not quite through with him. Miller was the chief fundraiser in 2012 for a controversial initiative that he and his business partner, Tony Russo, set up to raise money to oppose Democrats and organized labor on a couple of high-profile state ballot initiatives dealing with taxes and union political spending. Much of the money was raised from anonymous donors. After a series of complicated, out-of-state transfers among “dark money” nonprofit groups, which are allowed to shield disclosure of their donors, about $15 million made its way back into California to help finance the Republican-backed campaign on the two ballot initiatives.
A last-minute donation of $11 million from one of the out-of-state groups triggered an inquiry by the California Fair Political Practices Commission, which called it “the largest contribution ever disclosed as campaign money laundering in California history.”
In a record settlement, the ethics agency hit two Arizona nonprofits with a $1 million fine, and two California groups had to pay $15 million in penalties, representing the amount regulators said was improperly funneled into the ballot initiative campaign. Miller and Russo were both granted immunity and cooperated with prosecutors. Neither was accused of wrongdoing. In his testimony, the characteristically brash Miller, by then living in Austin, said he felt “screwed” by an out-of-state consultant and called the controversy a “fiasco.”
These days Miller runs the Austin branch of Russo Miller & Associates, which specializes in public affairs consulting, government procurement and pro-business “incentives which can be secured at the state and local levels of government.”
Perry’s embrace of job-luring tax incentives, which some critics call corporate welfare, has become his political calling card. Late last month, his deal-closing Texas Enterprise Fund approved $6 million in job-creation incentives for the California-based Charles Schwab Corporation. As it turned out, the company’s founder and chairman, Charles Schwab, was one of the secret donors to the doomed fundraising initiative in California, according to published reports.
Johnson said it was “ridiculous” to make any connection between the 2012 California donation and the recent Texas grant. He also said he saw no conflict of interest between Miller’s consulting work and his role as a top adviser to Perry.
“To my knowledge, he doesn’t represent any clients who have gotten Texas Enterprise Fund money,” Johnson said.
Perry associates say it is far too early to talk about the makeup of an eventual presidential campaign. In this retesting-the-waters phase, Johnson, who shares an office with Miller, continues to provide advice to the governor, as do two of his longtime speechwriters, Eric Bearse and Ted Royer.
If Perry does run for president, Miller is expected to play a major role. Miner, the former spokesman, put it in musical terms. Miller, he said, would be “the conductor of the orchestra.”