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Indictment Cuts Both Ways for Perry Bid

Former Gov. Rick Perry will formally step into the presidential race still under indictment for two felonies. The case, which once made Perry a cause célèbre in some circles, has become more of a headache as he seeks money and votes in a crowded GOP field.

Texas Gov. Rick Perry speaks to supporters after he is booked into the Blackwell-Thurman Justice Center in Austin following his indictment on two felony counts related to defunding District Attorney Rosemary Lehmberg's Public Integrity Unit.

When Rick Perry's face showed up in a mug shot last year, a slight grin creeping across it, Althea Cole had one reaction.

"Three words: Like a boss," the activist said after a recent meet-and-greet with the former governor in Iowa. "The idea that Rick Perry would say, 'You don't get this funding for public integrity until you have some integrity yourself' — I just want to say, 'Hell yes, Rick!'" 

Cole's reaction — and those of many GOP voters seemingly unfazed by Perry's abuse-of-power indictment — belie a sobering reality: When Perry launches a second bid for the White House on Thursday, he will likely become the first credible major-party candidate to run for president while under indictment, adding to his underdog status in an already crowded GOP field.

Yet for all the implications of seeking the White House as a criminal defendant, Thursday's announcement brings another far less political reminder: The case, quite simply, is still ongoing, unaffected by months of legal bickering and bluster. For Craig McDonald, head of Texans for Public Justice, the group whose complaint sparked the indictment, the judicial slog has been anything but surprising.

"We always thought it wouldn't go away very quickly, and that still is the case," said McDonald, who expects the case to continue for at least another year. "He's not going to be able to remove this yoke from around his neck quickly."

Perry predicted in February that the charges would be "put behind us, hopefully by the end of March-April timetable." He also declared at the time the case is "never going to go to trial."

So far, his lawyers have been successful in heading off a trial — but perhaps not in the ways for which they hoped.

"For nine months the parties have exchanged hundreds of pages of briefs on these issues," special prosecutor Michael McCrum wrote in a court filing earlier this month. "We are no closer to a resolution."

All the while, Perry's team has insisted the indictment is not hobbling his ability to ask Americans for a second chance. And they have a point: In interviews with early-state activists, operatives and voters over the past several months, few — if any — have said the case by itself could make or break his shot at redemption. 

"Voters are focused on Gov. Perry's proven executive experience, his record of achievement and his optimistic vision for the future of our country," Perry spokesman Travis Considine said in a statement.

The indictment, handed up by a Travis County grand jury last summer, stems from Perry's threat to veto state funding for the public integrity unit unless Travis County District Attorney Rosemary Lehmberg resigned following a drunken driving arrest. The unit, which handles ethics complaints against statewide officials and state lawmakers, is housed in Lehmberg's office.

Backed by a high-powered legal team, Perry quickly sought to portray the two charges — abuse of power and coercion of a public servant — as a political witch hunt in the heart of Texas' most liberal county. Fellow Republicans, including some potential 2016 opponents, rallied to his side, as did less likely supporters such as David Axelrod, a former top adviser to President Obama, and Alan Dershowitz, the famed liberal law professor. 

Nowadays, however, the indictment has become more of a headache for Perry than cause célèbre.

Visiting Judge Bert Richardson, a Republican, has done Perry few favors. In November, Richardson refused to dismiss the indictment on procedural grounds. Two months later, he again declined to toss out the case, that time on constitutional grounds. And in February, Richardson denied Perry's request to see a pretrial list of witnesses who appeared before the grand jury.

At this point, Perry's best bet is a breakthrough at the 3rd Court of Appeals in Austin, where his lawyers are seeking to reverse Richardson's second refusal to throw out the case. A ruling is expected any day now, but even it could have an asterisk next to the outcome: One of the justices, Bob Pemberton, used to work for Perry and has so far resisted calls for recusal. 

Along the way, Perry has spent more than $1 million on legal fees, burning through a quarter of the balance in his state campaign account. The figure likely will be much higher when he takes the stage Thursday — the last time he had to disclose the account's finances was six months ago. 

The indictment also has been viewed as potential stumbling block with donors, who are already being intensely courted by several non-indicted candidates. Perry's financial supporters remain hopeful the end is near. 

"It sounds like a bit of a wild card," said Blake Christian, a California tax consultant who sits on a pro-Perry board of dozens of prominent Republican donors. "It seems much ado about nothing, but hopefully that will get behind him soon."

In some ways, the case is beginning to outlive its place in history. Lehmberg, who said after her arrest she would not seek re-election, is set to leave office next year, and at least one candidate has already lined up to replace her. Plus, state lawmakers just wrapped up a session in which they approved a bill that would put the Texas Rangers, not the public integrity unit, on the receiving end of corruption cases like Perry's.

Even among Perry's critics, the case seems to have become an afterthought. McDonald conceded it has been a bit frustrating, crediting Perry's team with doing a good job of portraying the indictment as a "frivolous, partisan attack" on him. 

"That rhetoric has been successful, and it has put that out of people's minds," said McDonald, whose group was circulating a two-page primer on the case to national reporters this week. 

To Iowans such as Cole, their view on the indictment shows no signs of wavering. 

"Will I hold it against him?" said Cole, pausing only briefly. "Absolutely not." 

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Courts Criminal justice Politics 2016 elections Rick Perry