Anita Perry, closet liberal?

Not quite. The spouse of the stumbling front-runner embodies the decent conservatism he has left behind

Published October 2, 2011 7:04PM (EDT)

Anita Perry (Reuters)
Anita Perry (Reuters)

The monarch butterflies on their way down to Mexico drift like autumn leaves above the barren cotton fields of Haskell, Texas, like they do every fall. But the cotton gins behind the field where the Indians will play football on Friday nights are idle, the white tufts on the grass mere remnants of last year's crop.

Haskell County farmers planted last spring just like every year, but nothing green came up. No rain. Most people say it's to do with natural weather cycles. A few say it's the good Lord, indicating his displeasure with them for not sharing the Word. It's hard to find anyone who puts much stock in the idea that human behavior has anything to do with what's going on with the weather.

Haskell, population 2,681, located in cotton and ranch country north of Abilene, is a place where people can spot a fake a mile away. It's also the place where Anita Thigpen Perry grew up, third of four kids of the town doctor, interested enough in medicine that she went on rounds with him before she was 10. She went on to be voted the 1970 Haskell High Homecoming Queen and though she went away to nursing school, she came back to Haskell right after. It's the place where Anita and Ricky met and got married in 1982, in the Howards' barn, just outside of town, after a packed service at the Methodist Church, Anita wearing her mother's wedding dress from the 1950s.

Haskell is conservative, but in a way Rick Perry is not. Sure, some people there don't like gay marriage and abortion, and believe evolution is a "theory" that's "got some holes." But they are fewer and far less fervent on the subjects than one might think from the way their former inhabitant, the presidential candidate, has presented himself. The tone is different. They are politically polite in the old-fashioned sense of the word, quiet and respectful of each other. Crucially, they recognize that the problems they -- and the country -- face right now transcend cultural differences, and can't be solved by the talk and ideas that excite the Tea Party base.

Opposites attract

Haskell people first sent Rick Perry into politics, electing him as a Democrat in 1984 to the state Legislature, while Anita stayed behind and worked as an RN, first in her dad's clinic, in a house by the 50-bed hospital, and then as head of nurses at the Haskell Hospital itself. 

Neat as a pin, she favored subdued shades of slate blue in clothing and curtains and carpets. She was quiet, organized, not a showoff. She kept such a neat house that the housekeeper she hired to come once a week would walk into the one-story L-shaped brick ranch house on F Street just north of the square and say to herself, "What am I supposed to do?"

Anita didn't have much taste for politicking. And until recent weeks, when the presidential campaign has trotted her out, first in Florida and more recently in Iowa, Texas political observers joked about how unhappy she looked whenever she appeared at a campaign event with him.

According to a friend, Anita Perry had a "prayerful" change of heart about the presidential race last February, at a point when Rick Perry was actually considering getting out of politics to earn some money. And now, she is the one doing the reading and homework on the race, and urging him to step up his game and do his homework, too, rather than trying to fly by on confidence alone.

Folks in Haskell think that's just because she's the reticent ballast to Rick the glad-hander. Opposites attract.

They first met at a piano lesson, when she was 8 and he was 10. They went on a date later, in high school, but didn't get married until years later, after she went off and got her nursing degree and he had come back from Texas A&M. Before they got married, she was actually dating another guy, who went on to become a dentist. "She was courtin' two guys at once," recalled Dr. Wayne Cadenhead, who along with his father, Frank Cadenhead, shared a medical practice with Anita's dad. "And Ricky just won out, I guess."

The Methodist Church, where Anita was churched and where they got married, is a big red brick with fancy stained-glass windows from the late 1800s, one of the prettiest buildings in Haskell. The message on the lawn sign for this week is "Treat Everyone the Way You Wish to Be Treated."

Haskell's Methodist Church Pastor Dustin Wilhite says his parishioners aren't unduly concerned about gay marriage, abortion or taxes. "Haskell Methodists, we are probably not as political as churches in bigger cities," he said, as Sunday worshipers drifted out, shaking his hand and thanking him for his sermon on grace and baptism.

"Those social issues we are more concerned with," he went on, "are helping the poor and needy and helping those who have nothing have something in these hard financial times, helping them move forward. As far as social issues, poverty is the one issue we are going to be focused on in this church."

Poverty? That sounds so … ACORN. And yet that's the main concern in the home church of the Superman-haired Texas conservative who calls Social Security a Ponzi scheme, takes pride in executions and has courted Texan hybrid "Teavangelicals" by officiating at a Houston stadium with so-called Apostolics who believe the government should be theologically based.

While Rick was in the Legislature, Anita Perry held down a job in Haskell. In fact, she was the family breadwinner. When Perry switched parties in 1990, became a Republican and ran for statewide office (after chairing Al Gore's campaign in Texas in 1988), a lot of people in Haskell were angry for a while, but he beat Democrat Jim Hightower to become the state's agricultural commissioner. Anita and the kids finally moved to Austin with him, but she kept working. First she was a lobbyist specializing in healthcare, then worked for a political consultant.

She quit that job when Perry was first elected governor in 2001, but two years later she went back to work as a fundraiser for the Texas Association Against Sexual Assault, becoming the first Texas first lady in history to hold a job. Reporters have noted that the contributors to her cause were also big contributors to Perry's political coffers. Having her on board, she was a rainmaker for donations. According to Austin American Statesman, of 37 donors to TAASA during her tenure as fundraiser, only three didn't have ties to the governor or state business.

 The Austin women's community appreciates that sort of fundraising punch and is thrilled to have her around. "We recruited her in 2001," Sheryl Cates, a lawyer and founder of the National Domestic Violence Hotline, told Salon. "She went to shelters in rural areas. She's the real deal. She was a catalyst for change."

It's highly unusual to find conservative women working in organizations like TAASA, or speaking out on things like domestic violence, because they tend to reject organizations that highlight female victimization, let alone organizations usually staffed by patchouli-scented, Take Back the Night college girls politically to the left of Barack Obama.

Funding her cause

The possibility that Anita Perry might be Rick's left hand is an accusation she's taken pains to address, as recently as earlier this summer, at a Hill Country conservative meeting, where she reportedly replied to a question about whether she would be pro-abortion like Laura Bush with: "You don't have to worry about that with me."

Yet she has quacked like the duck. In October 2004, she participated in a "Silent Witness" ceremony in which 153 red female statues commemorating the 153 women killed in domestic violence the prior year were displayed in the state Capitol. "Those living with abuse often conceal their pain as well as signs of abuse," she said then. "That's why many times it takes someone to see past the layers and excuses: a friend, another family member, a co-worker, a teacher or clergy."

In 2006, Perry's opponent in the gubernatorial election charged that he had hurt domestic violence causes by asking for a $2.4 million cut in the state domestic violence prevention programs. A campaign spokesman was quick to ridicule that charge, pointing out that he "goes home every night to a wife … who has made raising awareness and helping women who have been victims of domestic violence one of her causes for her entire life."

The pillow talk seemed to have an effect. In 2007, Perry signed into law a "pole tax" on "sex oriented businesses" -- aka strip joints -- that also serve alcohol, with proceeds earmarked toward helping battered and abused women and children. The pole tax, which strip clubs are still fighting against, has raised $85 million, according to the Austin American Statesman, some of which has gone to TAASA.

Angela Hale, a publicist for women's anti-violence nonprofits in Austin, says Anita Perry's activities shouldn't be confused with feminist ideals. "These issues aren't political in Texas. We have Republican leadership throughout the state, and these issues are taken seriously. It's about changing lives and helping people. That's not political."

Democratic consultant Chris Lippincott used to work at TAASA in a cubicle beside the Texas first lady, where they talked a lot of football. "She's definitely no Lynn Cheney. She didn't concern herself with politics. But she's a boomer, a modern woman, who worked." Lippincott had been predicting Perry wouldn't run for office, mainly because he thought Anita would oppose it. She proved him wrong.

In the race for first spouse, Anita Perry joins a crowded and distinguished field including: Dr. Marcus Bachmann, who has a Ph.D. in clinical psychology, and who has been married to Michele since 1978; Newt Gingrich's lovely third wife, the former Calista Bisek, his former aide, born in 1966; Gloria Etchison Cain, who married Herman in 1968, a year after he graduated from Morehouse; Jon Hunstman's wife, Mary Kay Cooper, who met her husband in high school but didn't start dating him until they were both working at a pie shop in 1981; and Ron Paul’s wife, Carol Wells, who met Ron when she invited him to her 16th birthday party in 1952 and married him in 1957. Gary Johnson is separated from Denise Johnson, whom he met in college and married in 1977.

Anita, born in 1952, came of age with the Age of Aquarius, a fact commemorated in her senior yearbook, which had a zodiac theme. But that's as far into Haskell High as the '60s extended. Girls in her class took home economics, learning how to bathe infants and bake muffins, and were not allowed to wear pants to school.

Haskell's town doctor, Wayne Cadenhead, graduated with Anita and is carrying on the medical practice started by Anita's father, Dr. Joe, and his own dad, Dr. Frank Cadenhead. Dr. Wayne, as the nurses call him to differentiate him from Dr. Frank, bears a passing resemblance to Dick Cheney, accentuated by his passion for hunting (dozens of heads of horned beasts and gators he's killed adorn his living room wall) and his rather extreme political views. His take on Anita is that "she's a good nurse, I'd let her work on me if I was sick," and "she's not uppity" and "she wouldn't be into it except for Rick."

Cadenhead -- who concedes he "couldn't survive" as a doctor without Medicare and Medicaid paying at least 60 percent of his patients' bills -- thinks the Anita he knew 20 years ago at the clinic would have been equally happy raising five kids out on a ranch as being married to a governor running for president. "I don't know what her political ambitions are now," he said. "But if your husband is in a position to run for president of the United States, you fall in behind him. And if you don't, you're not much of a wife. I think she's going to do what it takes."

One of Anita Perry's admirers in Haskell put it this way: "When it's all about getting elected, you will say and do things. But people here in Haskell keep their politics to themselves. It's not in your face, we are neighbors and friends. Because of the hyperbole of the last few decades that's a line we don't cross together, because we have to work together."

As Rick Perry starts to flame out, slogging around in the wasteland between rock-ribbed façade and his own moderation involving immigrants and female healthcare, his handlers, striving for authenticity and maybe worried about his numbers with women, are sending out Anita Perry, who's proving herself more into the game than anyone in Austin predicted. It's both sad and startling to try to imagine what sort of presidential candidate Rick Perry would have been had Haskell's sort of conservatism still had a place in the Republican Party, and had the candidate remained as true to his roots as his wife has. 

By Nina Burleigh

Nina Burleigh ( is author of “The Fatal Gift of Beauty: The Trials of Amanda Knox.”

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