In Texas, the government is big, and the ethical dilemmas are even bigger. For decades, the Lone Star State has been home to scandals—i.e., conspiracy, stock fraud, bribery, and other forms of corruption—caused by unscrupulous politicians, including high-ranking ones, whose actions mislead voters and undermine good governance. Recently, one of Texas’s most notable politicians, former Governor Rick Perry, continued this infamous Texas legacy. In 2014, the Los Angeles Times published the article, “Texas Gov. Rick Perry is indicted, accused of abusing his power,” which examined one of many controversial events that took place during Perry’s time as governor (“Texas Gov. Rick Perry Is Indicted”). Perry, who served in office for fourteen years, made headlines for his questionable ethical decisions and corruption, all while consolidating power and exerting a strong influence that continues to resonate in and through state government (“Rick Perry Biography”). Like his infamous 20th century predecessor, Jim Ferguson, as head of the executive branch of state government Perry exercised abuse of power, engaged in cronyism, and maneuvered to extend his political reach beyond his time in office (Nadler and Shulman).
Rick Perry has never been shy about making bold moves to keep a foothold in public office. After two failed runs for the presidency, Perry currently serves as the fourteenth United States Secretary of Energy appointed by President Donald Trump (“Rick Perry”). In 1989, after switching allegiance from the Democratic Party to membership in the Grand Old Party (GOP), Perry became one of Texas’s most controversial Republican figures (“Rick Perry Biography”). His leadership and political promises were overshadowed by the numerous scandals that took place during his time in elected office—i.e., as a member of the Texas House of Representatives (1985-1991); as Commissioner of Agriculture of Texas (1991-1999); as Lieutenant Governor of Texas (1999-2000); and as Governor of Texas (2000-2015) (Texas State Archives). Whenever ethics were in question, Perry did not shy away from conflict and regularly made unorthodox decisions to maintain his image and power for future political endeavors (Barabak).
During his years in state office, Perry was known as a political powerhouse who was not afraid to bend the rules or to govern in sometimes controversial ways. For example, as Governor in 2013 and while saddled with low approval ratings, he engaged in a bitter power struggle with public universities, especially with then University of Texas President, Bill Powers. The challenges arose after Perry met with advocates from the conservative think tank, Texas Public Policy Foundation (TPPF). The organization pushed for public research universities in the Lone Star State to be run in a more “business-like” way, following “seven breakthrough solutions” offered by Perry’s friend, donor, and TPPF board member, Jeff Sanderfer (Ramsey). Some of the most controversial suggested reforms included: “rating professors, based on student assessments; separating teaching and research; and including revenue as one measure of whether a program or class should continue” (Ramsey). In response to the proposed changes, there was immediate resistance from university leaders, but under Perry’s control and in the wake of the 2008 Great Recession, change was inevitable. The Governor’s alma mater, Texas A&M University, did not last long in the resistance, ultimately resulting in University Chancellor Mike McKinney’s replacement by John Sharp (none other than the Governor’s former classmate and fellow yell leader), as per Rick Perry’s request (“John”). As aggressive changes were taking place on A&M’s campus, tensions continued to escalate on Texas’s flagship research campus, The University of Texas at Austin (UT).
These acts of dominance over Texas’s higher education system were a clear overstep by Perry. As a C student himself, he did not have much credibility to make decisions for postsecondary educators. Nevertheless, the Governor used his political authority and power to make changes that appeased voters. Bill Powers, former UT-Austin President, resisted Perry’s “business-like” higher ed reforms, which turned into a contentious public battle between university officials and the Governor (Jensen). Despite objections from Powers and the UT Austin community, Perry succeeded. He appointed Board of Regents and UT System Chancellor Francisco Cigarroa, who eventually called for Power’s resignation (Jensen).
Even as the public became aware of Perry’s domineering leadership style, he continued to make headlines for certain unprincipled decisions, and these controversies culminated in 2014 when Perry was indicted for abuse of power for his attempt to force Rosemary Lehmberg, the Travis County District Attorney (DA) to resign. When she refused, Perry then attempted to unilaterally veto funding for the DA’s Office. More specifically and very controversially, the Governor threatened to defund the statewide public integrity unit (Malewitz, Ramsey).
According to the Perry, he sought Lehmberg’s resignation solely because she was professionally disgraced, after being arrested and pleading guilty to driving while intoxicated. The DA’s Office, on the other hand, understood the Republican Governor to be making a threat that was designed to drive out the DA who was a Democrat. Moreover, given the drastic efforts Perry made, there was speculation that his actions were fueled by his own political agenda, because at the time, the nearly defunded public integrity unit was in the process of investigating “his own party’s mismanagement of state government agencies, including alleged corruption in CPRIT [the Cancer Prevention and Research Institute of Texas] (Nueman)”.
On August 14, 2015, a grand jury in Austin, Texas, indicted Rick Perry “on two charges related to his effort last year to force District Attorney Rosemary Lehmberg to resign” (Plohetski). That indictment was eventually overturned, however, by the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals. Two judges’ dissension and another judge’s abstention notwithstanding, the Court dismissed the case after finding Perry’s veto lawful on behalf of his 1st Amendment rights (Malewitz, Ramsey). Immediately thereafter, Perry spoke of how the indictment was “nothing less than a baseless political attack, and an assault on constitutional powers,” that negatively affected his run for U.S. President at the time (Tatum).
With over fourteen years of governorship, Perry had extensive connections and deep political ties that he kept loyal to, even if they did not benefit the greater public good. His participation in the “good ol’ boy network” garnered scrutiny in the public eye. Most notably and as an example, in 2007 Governor Perry issued an executive order requiring all girls entering the sixth-grade to receive the Human Papillomavirus (HPV) vaccine. Only a few hours later, Perry rolled back his decision and claimed, “he was misinformed” and “made a mistake” (Root). In Perry’s eyes, his mistake may have not been that he made an unethical decision on behalf thousands of Texan’s public health, but that he did not keep his ties to the drug distributor, Merck, more undercover from the public, for his own personal gain. To make things even murkier, Mike Toomey, Perry’s former Chief of Staff, was one of three lobbyists for the company at the time, revealing an obvious act of cronyism that was an embarrassment to the Perry Administration. Still more accusations were made against Perry’s ethics and personal interests after watchdog groups exposed the fact that Merck donated money to Perry’s re-election campaign (Root).
During his extended governorship, Perry’s involvement in cronyism scandals and political favors became a normal practice in the Texas Capitol. In 2013, CPRIT was back in the news, as a criminal investigation was opened after finding out that an eleven billion-dollar grant was given to a Dallas based bio-therapeutic company without proper “scientific or business review” (Drew). Perry later signed a bill to restructure the agency in order to regain confidence and trust during his national run for the presidency.
As more stories were published concerning corruption in the capitol, the public began to grow weary of his administration’s dominance in Texas politics. In 2014, 62% of Texans felt that Perry’s resignation was “long overdue,” and 51% of Americans disapproved of his presidential run as a GOP candidate (Jensen). Even as public opinion dwindled, Perry was not finished with his position just yet. Before he left, he made sure to build a strong foundation for continuing conservative dominance in Texas politics for years to come (“Gov. Rick Perry, Leaving Office”).
During the fourteen years that Perry controlled the Texas executive branch, he established an influence and legacy that is continuing well after his time in office. With over 8,000 appointments made, Perry established deep roots for his own ideology and for conservatism in Texas’s state capitol (McDonald). This record number of appointments will shape policy and establish his power in several different areas throughout the state—i.e., over the University of Texas System Board of Regents, the Texas Parks and Wildlife Commission, and in many other positions throughout the state. (McDonald). Even now, as the U.S. Secretary of the Department of Energy, Perry’s influence continues to make an impact on Texas and American politics far beyond his time as governor. By championing energy independence, Perry continues to keep his political agenda a priority, which in turn still points to Texas. Since oil is one of the state’s largest industries, Perry’s political influence still makes an impact back home (Braun).
Rick Perry, the strong Texas political figure that he was, garnered equal parts attention and criticism for his bold behavior and shady politics. Just as Perry did not shy from controversial views, neither did his critics, most notably the late political columnist, Molly Ivins. Born and raised in the Lone Star State, she famously penned the nickname, “Governor Goodhair” to describe to him and wittily highlighted the difference between “Texas Tough and Texas Stupid” (Ivins). Her criticism was welcomed by many Texans and helped create comic relief during Perry’s extended governorship.
Illustrated by William “Bubba” Flint and published by the Dallas Morning News, the political cartoon atop this blog post depicts Rick Perry looking roughed up. He has a black eye, the result of the “Perry Indictment.” On his head is a large-brimmed cowboy hat labeled “Texas Politics.” Deceptively simple, Flint’s cartoon visually represents the rough and tumble of state politics: By “donning the hat”—i.e., engaging in Texas Politics—Rick Perry has taken a beating, and his public image has been battered and bruised by all the scandals and indictments.
Throughout Texas’s political history, Rick Perry is only one of many governors who have endured scandals and implemented questionable policies in their time of governorship. In many ways, Jim “Pa” Ferguson, Texas governor from 1914-1917, was involved in scandals that closely mirrored Perry’s. For instance, Ferguson was the first governor to be indicted and impeached while in office, and like Perry, Ferguson was indicted for overstepping his power and starting political turmoil with University leadership (Steen).
Like today, the Lone Star State’s gubernatorial scandals were captured in political cartoons of the era. For example, in a political cartoon published by the Dallas Morning News in 1932, Ferguson was depicted playing a “shell game”, a gambling game that is meant to confuse and disarm the players (Dallas Morning News). The illustration refers to the numerous scandals and shifting of political responsibility by Ferguson and the resultant mistrust that the Texas public had for him. Due to several acts of cronyism and mishandlings of power on his part, the media coined a new phrase, “Fergusonism,” to describe the corruption and scandalous behavior that characterized his extended time in office (Brown). The Dallas Morning News published an accompanying editorial, titled, “Sterling Support”, to publicly revoke their past support of Ferguson, in direct response to the mishandling and scandals that Fergusonism brought (“Sterling Support”).
In their respective times at the Texas State Capitol, former governors Rick Perry and Jim Ferguson boldly took office and used their power for personal advantage and for the benefit of those in their inner circles. Many of their policies recklessly abandoned ethics and followed in the long line of corrupt politicians who have set a rather low bar as the standard in Texas politics. As it often does, history is repeating itself, and in the 21st century, Texas appears on track to continue its legacy of deep partisanship and dirty politics for years to come.
Link to LA Times article ‘Texas Gov. Rick Perry is indicted, accused of abusing his power’
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Uploaded on June 15, 2010. Published by the Texas State Historical Association.
Handbook of Texas Online, Ralph W. Steen, “Ferguson, James Edward,” accessed March 27, 2018, http://www.tshaonline.org/handbook/online/articles/ffe05.
Uploaded on June 12, 2010. Modified on February 24, 2016. Published by the Texas State Historical Association.
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