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Analysis: Skill or Luck, It Has Worked for Perry

Thirty years is a lot to attribute to mere luck. Like Rick Perry or not, his considerable political skills have sustained him throughout his career in state politics.

Gov. Rick Perry laughs at a question during the final keynote of  2014 TribFest.

Rick Perry is very good at politics.

It does not matter if he made you crazy, if you disagreed with him, if you thought he was the best person ever to serve, whatever.

He has been in state office since he was elected to the Texas House, as a Democrat, in 1984. But here he is, three decades later, the longest-serving governor in state history, a hero to cranky conservatives who want to overthrow the state’s political establishment.

He frustrated the Democrats who elected him by changing parties in 1989 and taking on one of the state’s most popular politicians of the time, Jim Hightower, the agriculture commissioner and a liberal populist. Underestimated and ignored, Perry won.

He ran against the Democrat John Sharp for lieutenant governor in 1998, a contest between old friends turned enemies (and since reconciled) that many thought would send the Democrat on a path to the Governor’s Mansion. It was close, but Perry won again.

If it’s so easy to remain in the governor’s office for 14 years, how come nobody has ever done it before? It’s easy to call Perry lucky — many do — but look at the milestones.

He beat Tony Sanchez Jr. in the 2002 race for governor, which was notable because nobody before or since has spent as much on a Texas governor’s race as Sanchez.

Four years later, Perry managed to persuade U.S. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison not to challenge him in the Republican primary. He won a four-way general election with 39 percent of the vote. That number is ridiculously low, fodder for pundits and opponents, but it was enough to keep him in the job for another four years.

Hutchison came back four years later to challenge Perry, thinking at first that he would not seek another term. But he did, remaking himself as the candidate of the populist Tea Party and portraying her as a prime example of the hated Washington establishment.

The governor banged his head, figuratively speaking, in his 2012 run for president. His political abilities were insufficient, but he’s talking about another run in 2016. However that comes out, his Texas run is ending.

Perry is this good at the mechanics of politics and government: Last week, the Texas A&M University System came within a few hours of naming a landmark building on its flagship campus for the governor. The domed building, which looks like the capitol of a small but proud state, has been known for all of its 100-year history as the Academic Building. Aggie tradition eventually won out, but look how close he came.

It is unusual to name a building after someone who is still in office or, for that matter, alive. It is unheard-of to name a building after someone who is currently under criminal indictment. And one of the nine Perry-appointed regents who would have voted on the name change also happens to be the lead attorney on the governor’s criminal defense team. That, ladies and gentlemen, is chutzpah. And chutzpah has been an important component of the governor’s political success.

He proposed a massive statewide network of roads, rails, pipelines and wires called the Trans-Texas Corridor — a project that would have been visible from Mars — before pulling it down amid protests from property rights groups and others. He survived it. He issued a controversial executive order requiring vaccinations of sixth-grade girls against a sexually transmitted virus that can cause cervical cancer. He pulled that down and survived.

He has lived through 30 years of gaffes and mistakes of the sort that regularly interrupt political careers. He once sent out educational videotapes to schools that featured a few seconds of pornography; the video shop reused old tapes that were not properly erased. He told a state trooper at a traffic stop to let him and an aide “move on down the road” — a scene captured on the officer’s video camera for all of Texas to see. He survived.

The national audience got a taste of this with that “oops” moment, but might have a look at the other side if he runs again. It’s the “lucky” Rick Perry, the one who is surpassingly good at politics.

Like him or not, don't underestimate him.

Disclosure: The Texas A&M University System is a corporate sponsor of The Texas Tribune. A complete list of Tribune donors and sponsors can be viewed here. 


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