By WILL WEISSERT
When Rick Perry became governor of Texas, Bill Clinton was still in the White House, LeBron James hadn’t yet gotten his driver’s license and it wasn’t uncommon to see electronic equipment stamped “Y2K compliant.”
In the nearly 13 years since, the devout Christian and fierce conservative–now the longest-serving governor in Texas history and dean of all current U.S. governors–has made an indelible mark on the state.
Sheer longevity has seen Perry fill every major appointed office with his allies, dictate the direction of the Texas Republican Party and wield more power from a traditionally weak governorship than anyone else since Reconstruction. But undoubtedly his biggest influence has come in the policy arena, where he helped ban gay marriage, imposed some of the nation’s strictest limits on abortion, and constantly railed against “federal overreach” on gun control and other issues.
Perry has battled Environmental Protection Agency rules at every turn, refused to let his state expand Medicaid coverage as directed by the White House-backed health care reform law, and even barred Texas from competing for the grants under the Obama administration’s signature education initiative.
“He’s cast a long shadow for a long time,” said Bill Miller, a veteran Austin lobbyist who has worked for both Perry and some of his past political opponents.
Now that the governor has chosen to forgo seeking a fourth full term, one of America’s reddest states should stay that way–at least through a 2014 election cycle that will be Perry-less.
Miller said that while Texas’ political world without Perry “will definitely be different,” it won’t be radically so–just feature a different group of leaders.
“The tried and true, that seems to work with the electorate here,” he said of top Republicans who will rush to fill Perry’s void. “Whatever office they are running for, they are going to sound a lot like their predecessor on the stump.”
But Texas Democratic Party Chairman Gilberto Hinojosa said the candidate who succeeds Perry will quickly try to distance from his policies.
“He’s alienated so many core groups from Hispanics to African-Americans to women, but he’s also upset the business community by focusing so much on social issues that it’s distracted from getting our fiscal house in order,” Hinojosa said.
He added that Perry created major, long-term deficits in state spending on key transportation and water infrastructure projects, as well as public schools, to score short-term victories with his conservative base.
“Social issues won’t help clean up the mess he’s made in all other areas,” Hinojosa said.
Still, Matthew Eshbaugh-Soha, a political science professor at the University of North Texas, said Perry has become such a champion of national Republican causes because, unlike other firebrands in Congress or on the radio or television airwaves, he can take conservative stands singlehandedly, simply by setting state policy.
“He echoes the concerns of conservative Republicans, but he’s also been in a position to actually carry them out and do something about them like opposing the expansion of Medicaid,” Eshbaugh-Soha said. “It’s the second-largest state, and he’s using it to make ideological choices.”
On one notable issue, however, Perry has departed from the far-right: immigration. The governor has instead adopted a far softer stance, denouncing as unnecessary and ineffective a fence stretching the length of the U.S.-Mexico border, while defending the current policy of offering in-state tuition at Texas public universities to the children of illegal immigrants.
Perry will soon be giving up the power to dictate Texas policy, but his efforts won’t soon be forgotten.
“Regardless of what he does, now,” Eshbaugh-Soha said, “I think his legacy is secure.”
That’s because, at least economically, they’ve been very successful. Under Perry’s watch, Texas created nearly half of all of America’s new jobs in the two years following the official end of the national recession in June 2009, and official said this June that 226,000 jobs were generated statewide just in the past year alone.
Perry says it’s because he’s helped promote a pro-business climate by relaxing regulations and limiting civil lawsuits. His critics note, though, those policies have severe downsides such as the deadly April explosion of a lightly-regulated fertilizer plant in the town of West. Meanwhile, the governor has also enraged small-government activists by administering a pair of recruitment funds offering cash incentives to entice job-creating firms to move to Texas.
Even if the state’s core politics won’t change, however, Perry’s departure will break a logjam among top Texas Republican leadership.
Attorney General Greg Abbott, a Republican popular with both the party mainstream and the tea party grassroots, has been in his post since 2002 and has used it to solidify his conservative grassroots base, suing the Obama administration on Texas’ behalf dozens of times and ferociously defending gun and religious rights in court.
Abbott hasn’t said he’s officially running for governor but has a formidable $18 million-plus in his war chest and plans to launch a statewide tour in a matter of days.
At least two top Republicans plan to compete for Abbott’s job, while the current land commissioner and agricultural commissioner also want to win higher posts. All of that encompasses just the Republicans, but a Democrat hasn’t won a statewide office in Texas since 1994.
And, while her one-woman filibuster to help stop the Texas Legislature’s approval of strict new abortion rights last month has made Democratic state Sen. Wendy Davis a political sensation and left many urging her to make a gubernatorial run, Abbott still outpolls her.
Perry, meanwhile, hasn’t ruled out another run for the White House after his 2011 bid flamed out spectacularly in his “oops moment” during a Republican candidate debate, when he forgot the third of three federal departments he promised to shutter if elected.
Plans to quit his day job will give Perry the chance to rehabilitate his national image, and he can still call himself a proven job-creator–even if he no longer oversees the state creating all those jobs.
“He doesn’t have to worry about what he’s doing now. All he has to do is promote the package of what he’s done already,” said Ford O’Connell, a GOP strategist and former aide to John McCain’s 2008 presidential bid.
O’Connell said that despite faltering as a presidential candidate, Perry remains a national force in Republican circles because of his unfailing conservatism.
“Where is he going on all these issues, save immigration?,” O’Connell asked. “He’s going to the right of all the other candidates. And he’ll be able to get to their right, even in a presidential field that’s potentially very crowded.”