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Analysis: A short history of Perry’s surprisingly long political career

Rick Perry has become the unsinkable Molly Brown of Texas politics — seemingly at the end of his career time after time, and now on his way to the biggest government job of his career.

State Rep. Rick Perry is shown on April 13, 1989, on the Texas House floor with state Rep. Pete Laney (right) and Rep. Ron Lewis the floor of the house during the 71st Legislative Session.

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Who would have bought Rick Perry stock back in 1985? He was a brand new member of the Texas House, a rural Democrat with no notable post-collegiate success on his résumé, an Aggie, a former Air Force pilot, a good ol' boy in a Legislature full of good ol' boys.

He outdid everybody in the room.

The 1985 Legislature had two future Harris County judges in Republicans Robert Eckels and Ed Emmett. Two future members of Congress — Republican Sam Johnson of Plano and Democratic Chet Edwards of Waco — roamed the halls. Lena Guerrero, D-Austin, was appointed to the Texas Railroad Commission, but her political future came apart in a résumé scam — she lied about earning a college degree — when she lost an election for a full term in that seat. Dan Morales, D-San Antonio, became a two-term Texas attorney general only to end up in a federal penitentiary for lying on his federal tax returns after a long investigation of his conduct in tobacco litigation while he was AG.

It’s quite a list, but there was only one future national figure among the 181 members of the 69th Texas Legislature.

Perry, of course, was at the beginning of a storied career marked by a remarkable ability to land on his feet after hitting big obstacles.

He changed parties in 1989 and was slated to challenge Agriculture Commissioner Jim Hightower, who was one of the state’s most popular political figures at the time. Perry worked his underfunded butt off, canvassing the state in his single-engine plane and likely expecting — along with everybody else in politics — to lose his first statewide race. Phil Gramm, the Republican U.S. senator and former Texas A&M professor who helped talk Perry into switching parties, was at the top of the ticket. Clayton Williams blew his governor’s race against Democrat Ann Richards, but Republicans knocked a couple of bricks out of the Democratic wall with Kay Bailey Hutchison’s win in the race for state treasurer and Perry’s surprise success against Hightower.

Neither the Democrats nor the Republicans knew, in 1998, that Texas had become a one-party state and that the GOP was in control. November general elections were not the sure things they have since become. Republicans held the state Senate, but the Democrats still had a narrow edge in the House. The Republicans had swept statewide races in 1996, but Democrats like Lt. Gov. Bob Bullock, Morales, Comptroller John Sharp and Land Commissioner Garry Mauro remained in office.

Bullock wasn’t seeking re-election, and Perry and Sharp had their eyes on his job. Sharp, who was popular with business groups, had toyed with the idea of challenging first-term Gov. George W. Bush in 1998. Once again, Perry was the underdog. And he won a close race to become the first Republican lieutenant governor of Texas since 1873.

Perry appeared, once again, to be done with politics — or for politics to be done with him.

That began a series of wins attributed by Perry’s friends as evidence of his political skill, and by his foes as evidence of his inexplicable good luck.

Perry got an automatic promotion to governor two years later when Bush became president. His challenger in 2002 was Tony Sanchez Jr., a rich South Texas oil and banking tycoon willing to spend record amounts of his own money on a campaign for the state’s highest office. Perry beat him by almost 18 percentage points.

Four years later, Perry drew challengers from every corner. He managed to persuade Hutchison, who considered a run, that she should wait four years. But Republican Comptroller Carole Keeton Strayhorn, Democratic former U.S. Rep. Chris Bell and singer/comic Kinky Friedman all got into the race, fragmenting the vote in a way that put Perry back in office even though 61 percent of the state’s voters chose someone else.

It was a win, but it was not the kind of victory that gives a leader a resounding mandate. It also assured Perry a 10-year reign, historically unprecedented among Texas governors.

That seemed like a pretty good career capper. But Perry wanted to run again in 2010. This time, Hutchison — like Hightower two decades earlier, a popular figure in state politics — refused to wait. Perry’s foes, growing more numerous after all those years, licked their chops.

Hutchison ran a weak race. Debra Medina, a former Ron Paul activist from Wharton, ran in the GOP primary and got nearly one vote in five. Perry wiggled past them both, getting 51 percent and going on to beat former Houston Mayor Bill White, the Democrats’ best candidate in years, by 13 percentage points.

He remained both consistently underestimated and undefeated. Supporters started to talk about Perry, like Bush before him, as a presidential candidate — and that’s where his political fortunes took a downward turn.

The first presidential campaign was almost an afterthought. Perry wasn’t planning to run, denied that he would run, got tired of people asking him about it and then — when it appeared that Republican primary voters had considered the field and wanted another candidate — jumped into the race. He was unprepared, and his bid came to pieces. The substantive turning point came when Perry said his opponents “didn’t have a heart” for saying undocumented immigrants should be denied in-state tuition at Texas colleges. The coda was the “oops” moment, when Perry couldn’t remember the name of the Department of Energy when listing agencies he would abolish as president.

That was that, and appeared to be the end of the line.

Perry didn’t think so, but Republican voters had turned their heads to other prospects. The Texan’s second bid for president last year never really gained traction. He was out of the race before a vote was cast, one of the early casualties of a contest won by Donald Trump, the anti-candidate set to become the next president in January.

Perry appeared, once again, to be done with politics — or for politics to be done with him.

The headlines of the week just passed tell the tale. The former governor of Texas is now Trump’s pick to run the department he couldn’t remember the name of in that 2011 debate. Maybe this will be Perry’s last job in government.

But haven’t we heard that before?

 More columns from Ross Ramsey:

  • Rising property values in Texas should have lowered school property tax rates. But they didn't, and you can thank the folks who write the state budget for that. 
  • Had the state kept its share of school funding constant for the past 10 years, voters might not be griping about rising property taxes. The state is spending more than it used to, but it's spending less per student.
  • It's hard to get property tax relief out of a state government that does not levy a property tax. But it's tempting turf for politicians in Texas, and they're going to try again when they meet in January.

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Politics Republican Party Of Texas Rick Perry