On Tax Day 2009, Governor Rick Perry—a man best known for his immaculately windswept hair, tailored suits, deep tan and bare-knuckle politics—swaggered cowboy-style onto a makeshift Tea Party stage outside the Austin City Hall. He was clad in a hunting jacket, jeans and boots. And practically as soon as he opened his mouth and unleashed his twenty-first-century impersonation of George Wallace, a political star was reborn—and an unofficial presidential campaign was launched.
Perry was in sore need of a new image as he soaked up cheers on that blustery day from the 1,000 or so Anglos who'd turned out, bearing signs like Honk If I'm Paying Your Mortgage. He was already the longest-serving governor in state history, having taken the reins from George W. Bush in December 2000. But Perry's business-first, Christian right–second brand of politics was starting to wear thin. The state's population was booming, and the new folks weren't the same old rural and suburban conservatives Republicans had been winning with since the early 1990s. And there was a more immediate problem: Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison, long considered the state's most popular politician, was set to challenge Perry in the 2010 GOP primary for governor, and she was leading in some polls by more than twenty points. The governor needed some mojo. He found it at the Tea Party.
"I gotta say it gives me that thrill up my leg when I see all these people standing out here," the governor shouted in his best rural drawl, "with liberty in their hearts and independence on their minds. Plenty of patriots in this crowd today!"
Referring to the mainstream media (not to mention the Department of Homeland Security) calling elements of the Tea Party "extremists," Perry told the crowd, "I'm just not sure you're a bunch of right-wing extremists. But if you are, I'm with ya! 'Cause you are a true patriot today in this country." Perry was bellowing now. "I'm talkin' about states' rights! States' rights! States' rights!"
The patriots were all ablaze, one of them yelling over and over in a hoarse voice, "Secede Now!" Perry didn't answer back in kind, exactly, but he did rail about how the federal government had been rolling back states' rights practically since the Constitution was signed, and how Texans were not going to allow their liberties to be trampled by the federal government. Call it "flirting with secession," if you will. The national media certainly did. By the end of the day, Perry was riding the new Tea Party wave straight onto Fox and MSNBC, and back into the hearts of right-wing Texans who'd grown weary of his act.
One year later, after Perry had easily dispatched Hutchison and a strong grassroots Tea Party candidate, Debra Medina, his comeback was complete, his national profile higher than ever. On the first anniversary of the Tea Party's breakout, Perry landed on the cover of Newsweek, prominently displaying the steel plaque on his boot reading, Come and Take It.
"If he's good for Texas," Newsweek opined, "why not America? Could Perry be the second coming of Ronald Reagan, the plain-spoken man from the West who presided over a new 'Morning in America' by cutting taxes, reducing government (well, promising to), and standing tall against the nation's enemies?"
Perry had taken up the anti-Washington torch and run with it, crisscrossing the country and writing op-eds for the Wall Street Journal decrying healthcare reform and stimulus spending, and telling everybody about Texas's miraculous economy. Paul Burka, senior executive editor of Texas Monthly, repeated Perry's story well: "that by following conservative fiscal policies, Texas has been able to survive the recession in better shape than most, if not all, other states. Low taxes, low spending, constitutionally mandated balanced budgets, saving for a rainy day, and business-friendly regulatory policies have made Texas the top state in job creation year after year. Perry can say to residents of the other states: Do what Texas did and you can enjoy economic growth too. It is a strong message in a recession."
As he honed that message, Perry began to contrast his rhetorical enemy—Obama's Washington—more and more sharply with his great solution to all that ails the country: be more like Texas. As Sarah Palin told folks in the Houston suburbs at a Perry rally in February, "You have a clear choice. What's it going to be: the way they operate in DC or the way y'all get things done in Texas?"
Perry figured he could stick with the national message—Washington bad, Texas good—get some work done on his obligatory campaign book (Fed Up, to be released in November) and cruise to victory in the general election. After all, Texas Democrats haven't won a statewide election since 1994, and they haven't elected a governor since Ann Richards in 1990. And despite the state's booming population and rapidly changing demographics—Texas has been officially "majority minority" since 2005—too few newcomers, and far too few Latinos, have gotten in the habit of voting. But the rural parts of the state are withering; the cities are booming; the suburbs are diversifying. The days when an "R" beside your name was a winning ticket in Texas politics are likely numbered. Neither Perry nor the pundits expected that number to come up this year.
They also didn't figure on a sharp economic downturn in the state, with rising unemployment and poverty. The governor seemed taken aback in late summer when the nonpartisan Legislative Budget Board estimated a California-sized $18–$21 billion budget deficit for Texas over the next biennium, making his balanced-budget boasting ring hollow. In one recent survey, just 37 percent of Texans said Perry deserved re-election. By mid-September, his re-election was no longer a given. His Democratic challenger, three-term Houston Mayor Bill White, had pulled even in a couple of polls and trailed by no more than seven points in others, while Perry did not top 50 percent in any of them.
White is the other thing Perry didn't figure on. He is the strongest candidate the Texas Democrats have run for governor since Richards—a successful attorney, oil and gas entrepreneur, deputy secretary of energy under Bill Clinton and a mayor popular enough to win re-election with 86 and 91 percent of the vote in the state's largest city. Compared with Perry, White is decidedly low-wattage: a bald, slow-talking, policy-crunching problem solver. But he at least partly solved a problem that has bewitched Perry's opponents in the past: how to exploit Perry's vulnerabilities—how to use his very political slickness, and ambition, and economic setbacks, against him.
In an anti-incumbent year, a Texas Democrat is the one slamming a "career politician" who oversees "an old-style political machine." He's the one dispatching feverish Facebook entries and press releases decrying the entrenched corruption of his opponent. And he's the one with nothing to lose.
Plano's Rotary Club is mean terrain for a Democrat. This north Texas city, with a quarter-million population, is one of the largest and richest suburbs stretching north of Dallas. It's staunch Republican turf—Bush Country, as it's sometimes still called. But it's exactly where Bill White wants to be. The former Houston mayor has campaigned relentlessly in heavily Republican parts of the state, puddle-hopping from small town to small city to small town. In July and August alone, White trekked through seventy-three counties, talking to Rotaries and Chambers and Democratic clubs and retired educators' groups. He's determined to wring every vote he can out of Bush Country. He's convinced showing up is half the battle.
"I was taught personal responsibility by my parents," White would say later in the day, in the much smaller town of Brownwood. "I was taught to look people in the eye and listen to them and answer their questions."
Already today, he's addressed a 7:45 Chamber of Commerce breakfast in McKinney (also heavily Republican). He's taped an interview for a widely broadcast Dallas show, Inside Texas Politics. He's dictated a Facebook post by phone: "Perry says the economy is great, but for the last eighteen months, for the first time, about 1 million Texans are unemployed, period. Three neighboring states have lower unemployment rates, and 200,000 Texans have lost their private-sector jobs in blank months, period.... Mess with that, all right?" (It goes out pretty much as dictated.) White is also raising money in every spare minute—it's the last day of the last reporting period before the election. Through June, White had been matching Perry in donations. His strong showing in the polls has been bringing in national money, with the Democratic Governors Association about to unleash an attack ad going after Perry as a corrupt career politician. There's a race in Texas. Just maybe not in Plano.
As the Rotarians work their way through a chicken-and-roast buffet, White circulates through the tan ballroom, introducing himself and asking, "Tell me about yourself." Unlike Perry, White does not dominate a room. His speeches do not turn into sermons. He is cool and rational where Perry is hot and sentimental. He refuses to deliver sound bites, while Perry revels in one-liners. "The back-seat drivers and consultants say you have to be scripted," White would tell me later. "But I just talk. I think people want somebody to talk straight to them."
Before White talks to the Rotarians, a local financial adviser in a sharp pinstripe suit gives me the lowdown on Plano politics. "I'm trying to listen with an open mind," Shawn Foster says with a grin, "but we're all pretty Republican here." He's curious how White will contrast with Perry, whom he saw at a Chamber of Commerce event about a year ago. "That guy is a pol," Foster says. "I mean, he was on fire. I've never seen a politician that slick." He pauses, wondering if that sounded as complimentary as he meant it to be. He decides it's fine. "I don't delve deep enough into politics to be real opinionated about it," Foster says. "From what I see, Perry's doing a pretty decent job."
Facing that kind of audience, White makes his way to the podium, in front of which rests a small jackelope head—the Rotary president's idea of a joke. White doesn't mention the jackelope, but he does try everything he can to get a reaction out of an audience that appears more interested in the roast and pie. As always, he tells them, "Texas is a great state." He says, with sincerity, that he's "here on a job interview, and I never forget that." He says, stressing his humility, that he doesn't "have all the answers." He talks about his most famous moment as Houston mayor, when he absorbed—with open arms—more than 200,000 Hurricane Katrina evacuees into his city.
White tries everything. But the only big round of applause he gets is when he finishes. Then, when a few Rotarians rise to ask him questions, White kicks into another gear. He may not love to speak, but he likes to spar. Asked why he won't release tax forms from the mid-1990s, as Perry has demanded as a condition for debating, White leans over the podium and stares right into his inquisitor's eyes. "My opponent thinks debates are a favor to his opponent," White says. "And I have accepted all invitations to debate. Period. OK?"
Asked about his plans for border security, White gets off his best zinger of the day: "I'm tired of people using our border as a photo-op.... There's a Chamber of Commerce president here. Imagine how you'd have felt when the governor of your state goes on national TV and says there's bombs going off in El Paso. There's bombs going off in Juárez, but not El Paso. We need a governor who knows that Juárez is in Mexico and El Paso is in Texas." That got a big laugh from the Plano Rotary. Finally.
* * *
White, as Perry has found, is tougher than he looks. When he first ran for Houston mayor, in 2003, White was an unknown in a field of local heavyweights. He won the way he's trying to win the governor's race: by outworking his opponents, by steadily convincing people that he's the best and smartest fellow for the job, and by tapping into his deep business and political connections to raise serious money. But still, above all, he insists on coming across as a regular guy—not one of those career politicians. On his six-seater plane from Plano to Brownwood, I ask White if it's a conscious strategy to emphasize his stylistic differences with Perry.
"Yes," he says quickly, then sits back and ponders. "Well, it's not so much a conscious strategy as who I am. I mean, Perry likes to talk, and I like to solve problems."
White won over progressives with his battles to make the state and feds regulate chronically dirty air from the smokestacks around Houston. He built thousands of affordable homes for the newcomers from New Orleans. The city's crime rate went down during his six years as mayor, property taxes went up only in White's final year and dropout rates began to drop. Improving education is one of White's favorite themes—always couched in terms of economic benefit, and perhaps not surprising coming from the son of two schoolteachers. But while White governed in Houston mostly as a progressive, he is also a proud oil and gas man, a member of the prominent big-business group Greater Houston Partnership. As mayor he showed some spine, cracking down on business leaders who weren't helping Houston move forward. At the same time, he also earned a reputation for working cozily with business leaders.
White has taken Perry to task for the many warts that have grown up in his decade as governor. Using state records, the Democrats discovered that Perry had spent an average of seven hours a week on state business in the first half of 2010; White took to calling him "part-time Perry." He has hammered Perry for rewarding his donors with coveted state appointments. (A new study by Texans for Public Justice found that Perry's appointees had accounted for more than one-fifth of his campaign funds in his three runs for governor.) White decries the state's alarming budget deficit at every opportunity. But he's also convinced that Perry's act is simply no longer connecting, and that Texans are ready for something radically different: a good-government guy with David Cross hair.
"He thinks he's gonna buy it with thirty-second TV commercials," White tells me on the plane back to Houston. "The first one I saw—predictable as punch—had an image of me and President Obama in the same commercial. He figures that if most people want a new governor and he's worn out his welcome, maybe he can get 'em mad at somebody else and stay in there.
"You can do it with theater for so long," White continues, "but after a while, you're accountable for results. And in nine and a half years, nobody has seen Perry accept responsibility and roll up his shirtsleeves and fix things."
White's Mr. Fix-It pitch is somewhat rare in Texas: elect me and government will run better. In a state where those who turn out to vote still tend to be small-government types, that's a tough sell. Why would we want a good government when we don't even want a government? But White is the antipolitical candidate in an antipolitical year. Even if he merely makes it close on November 2, it will be a moral victory for Texas Democrats—a sign that, even in what looks to be a rotten year for the national party, they actually can compete. And it will be another prick in Perry's presidential balloon.
* * *
Perry has long pooh-poohed his presidential ambitions. Interviewed in late September on Inside Texas Politics, Perry indicated that he was already moving on to his next project—after the campaign book, that is. He said he's organizing a coalition of small-government governors to "push back" against the federal government. Meanwhile, he continues to travel widely, taking his message of the Texas economic miracle to the rest of the country and sharply contrasting himself with Obama at every opportunity. In August, when the president made a rare visit to Texas, Perry attempted to hand him a hotly worded letter about the need for more border security in Texas as he deplaned in Austin; Obama had him give it to an aide. In a recent ad, a still of the brief and awkward encounter is captioned, "Perry Confronts Obama over border issues."
There's no guarantee that Perry, whose campaign has begun to unleash a barrage of "shock and awe" attack ads against White, won't come on strong in the end. He could still win a strong-enough victory to propel him into 2012 with a glimmer of hope. Texans have never loved Rick Perry, but they've also never failed to elect him in four statewide campaigns. The governor, meanwhile, is dismissing budget doomsayers as manipulators of "crystal balls and Ouija boards" and sticking to the "Morning in America" script.
"Voters will look at the economy and realize Texas is better off than practically any state in the country," Perry said at an Arab-American Cultural and Community Center forum in Houston in September. "People still know there is something special about Texas." He has to hope so.