Rick Perry’s Polluter Cronies

Rick Perry’s Polluter Cronies

Texas Governor Rick Perry has raised massive campaign contributions from a network of wealthy executives with business before his state and anti-environmental interests. 


One of Texas Governor Rick Perry’s oft-touted strengths in the Republican primary is his demonstrated prowess at fundraising. Less widely known is how he has raised that money and what he has done in return for it. According to Texas good government and environmental watchdogs, Perry has raised much of his campaign funds from business executives who have financial interests in state government decisions. Often Perry’s supporters come from the energy sector and Perry’s help for them has come at the expense of the environment.

Over his three campaigns for governor Perry raised a remarkable $102 million. Perry’s predecessor, George W. Bush, who was no slouch at fundraising himself, brought in $41 million over two campaigns.

Half of Perry’s haul, $51 million, has come from just 204 sources. Some are political action committees, but most are wealthy individuals. “He relies on a relatively small network of very big hitters, wealthy businessmen and their spouses who want something out of Texas government,” says Craig McDonald, director of Texans for Public Justice, a nonprofit research group that tracks the influence of money in Texas politics. As the Dallas Morning News reported during Perry’s re-election bid last year, “Perry tapped scores of big-dollar donors—including some who have business before the state or have benefited from taxpayer subsidies,” to vastly outraise his Democratic opponent, Bill White.

As McDonald explains, “Texas is a pay-to-play state.” That means Perry has generously rewarded his contributors with appointments and political favors. Perry has appointed 921 people, who have donated to his campaigns, for a total of $17.1 million, to various jobs and boards. These are not always disinterested public servants. McDonald says, “There are lots of people who have business interests who got appointed to positions with regulatory power over them.”

Perry has also shown an eagerness to do the bidding of his major supporters. Most notably, his second-biggest all-time donor, Harold Simmons, owns a nuclear waste dump. Perry led the charge in 2010, while Simmons gave hundreds of thousands of dollars to Perry’s re-election campaign, to allow Simmons to import nuclear waste from thirty-eight states. On June 27 of this year, ten days after Perry signed the legislation, Simmons gave $100,000 to Americans for Rick Perry. Tom Smith, director of Public Citizen’s Texas office, estimates that the rule change will bring upward of $2 billion for Simmons. “If you put money in Perry’s purse, he’ll create policies you need,” says Smith.

Perry has been similarly accommodating of various other energy interests in the state. Texas has violated the Clean Air Act by allowing industrial plants such as oil refineries to reduce emissions overall rather than at each emissions point. When the Environmental Protection Agency informed Texas that they would have to take over Clean Air Act implementation in the state, Perry complained. “Perry’s on the cutting edge of this whole ‘job-killing EPA’ strategy that Republicans have used,” says Smith. There’s a saying Texas, according to Smith that “it’s cheaper to invest in politicians than in pollution controls.” Perry has been similarly critical of the EPA’s efforts to regulate greenhouse gases nationally.

Perry has been carrying water for environmentally destructive industries since his days in the Texas legislature. Back then, in the late 1980s, he led efforts to prevent species such as the golden cheek warbler from being listed as endangered, because their habitats in West Texas were threatened by suburban sprawl. Developers feared that they would be unable to pave over sensitive lands. Perry’s all-time biggest donor is home builder Bob Perry (no relation).

Most infamously, when liberal Agriculture Commissioner Jim Hightower sought to require farmers to meet some basic safety requirements for use of pesticides, Perry led the opposition. Hightower merely sought to require public posting of when pesticides would be used and what dangerous chemicals they contain, so that farm workers and neighbors could take precautions. Farm workers would also have been not allowed into fields for a time after spraying. The chemical industry was not pleased. Perry, as chair of the relevant subcommittee in the legislature, tried to revoke the Agriculture Commissioner’s rule-making authority and to make the position appointed rather than elected. When that failed, Perry switched parties to run against Hightower, winning his first statewide election in 1990.

“Perry had been recruited by Karl Rove to switch parties and run against me on behalf of the chemical lobbies,” recalls Hightower. “He is a complete whore to polluter interests in our state. He’s avid practitioner of crony politics.”

But just in case you were worried that Perry has enriched polluters while having to live on a public servant’s salary, rest assured that Perry has become a multimillionaire while in public office. In 2001 Perry bought a house from a friend who had bought it from Doug Jaffe, a member of a family with prominent ties in Texas business and political circles, for $300,000, less than two-thirds of its market value. Six years later he sold it to another associate of Jaffe’s for $1.3 million, pocketing an impressive profit.

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Katrina vanden Heuvel
Editorial Director and Publisher, The Nation

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