The disturbing truths about Rick Perry's Texas

Local reports reveal how the governor turned a blind eye to civil rights violations and a crumbling infrastructure

Published November 4, 2011 12:00AM (EDT)


I’m at sea this week – literally, for once -- and learning helpful nautical stuff. For example, the old, three-mile limit for territorial waters was established in 1702 as the maximum distance a cannonball could reach when fired from the shore.

It’s even more useful to gain some distance from political events back on the mainland. Much of the week before this was spent chairing an international meeting of writers from a dozen or so countries. Combined, seeing ourselves as others see us, both experiences are revelatory.

One theme that prevails is a general mystification over many Americans’ propensity for the outright rejection of anything that’s not instantly comprehended. Just yesterday, talking with a couple from Calgary, the Canadians expressed their incredulity that relatives in the States were so vehemently opposed to President Obama’s healthcare and jobs programs “when they haven’t even bothered to read anything about them.”

For another, you realize yet again how bizarre our system of campaigns and elections seems when viewed by those from abroad -- even though these days the rest of the world isn’t exactly the picture of mental health either. Something like our media frenzy over the harassment charges swirling around Herman Cain -- mired as those accusations appear to be in years of hubris and egotism on his part and our consuming national neurosis when it comes to all things involving sex or race -- seems distinctly odd.

Whether or not the Rick Perry campaign is behind any of the leaks surrounding Herman Cain’s alleged improprieties, the distraction certainly made the Texas governor, as the website Talking Points Memo reported, the “luckiest presidential candidate in the universe this week.” Up to now, the governor has been experiencing the most dramatic crash from electoral hero to goat since Tennessee’s Fred Thompson ran his presidential campaign’s pickup truck off the road four years ago.

The Cain scrutiny helped draw attention from Perry’s plummeting poll numbers and his wacky address last Friday night at that dinner held by New Hampshire’s Cornerstone Action, a group of social conservatives with a notoriously anti-gay agenda. The speech came off more like Open Mike Night at Chuckles Comedy Club than High Noon on Inauguration Day 2013. (You can see the highlights here.)

In the words of Jon Stewart, "Best-case scenario, that dude's hammered. Worst-case scenario, that is Perry sober, and every time we've seen him previously, he's been hammered." I prefer to think that Perry decided, “What the hell, this campaign’s going nowhere, might as well let it all hang out.” Or maybe he suffers from a case of way too premature, election burn-out, like Robert Redford’s character in 1972 movie "The Candidate," suffering from one too many iterations of his stump speech, blathering: “Can't any longer play off black against old, young against poor. This country cannot house its houseless, feed its foodless,” and so on.

Of course, these are idle distractions from what we really should be paying attention to: candidates’ positions on the issues and their prior track records as business leaders or officeholders. And blahblahblah, I can hear you tuning out now. Luckily, though, when it comes to Rick Perry, at least, in the tradition of such greats of journalism as Ronnie Dugger and Molly Ivins, we continue to have fine investigative reporting coming out of the state of Texas. Reporters there care -- even when you don’t. They’ve been covering Perry and his stewardship as governor with an intensity as white hot as Tiger Beat’s recording of the day-to-day tribulations of Justin Bieber. Certainly, ounce for ounce, Perry has greater entertainment value.

The nonprofit, nonpartisan Texas Tribune, for example, features on its Web page an exhaustive “Perrypedia,” which offers the latest on all things Rick. The publication recently noted that “Perry’s presidential campaign hinges on one overarching message: that states perform best when left to their own devices and federal regulators should butt out. Yet during his decade-long tenure in the governor’s office, Perry and his staff repeatedly downplayed the severity of abuse and neglect allegations at Texas’ state-run institutions for the disabled -- until conditions became so dire that the U.S. attorney general was forced to intervene.”

Two years after that Justice Department investigation found violations of civil rights and avoidable deaths, “a Texas Tribune review of facility monitoring reports and employee disciplinary records shows mistreatment is still relatively commonplace. And though there’s been some evidence of improvement, the state’s federally designated disability watchdog group Disability Rights says that halfway into the five-year settlement agreement, not even a quarter of its requirements have been met.”

A couple of months ago, the Houston Chronicle ran a terrific, four-part series, “Perry’s Texas,” examining the deteriorating condition of the state’s infrastructure during the governor’s tenure. And the Oct. 22 edition of the Austin American-Statesman took a closer look at Perry’s time as state agriculture commissioner during the 1990s. The paper’s Laylan Copelin reported, “Over his eight years as Texas' farmer-in-chief, Perry oversaw a loan guarantee program with so many defaults that the state had to stop guaranteeing bank loans to start-ups in agribusiness and eventually bailed out the program with taxpayer money.

“The state auditor panned Perry's claims of creating jobs and criticized Perry and his fellow board members at the Texas Agricultural Finance Authority for not following their own lending guidelines ...

“Even as the first alarms were sounded, Perry defended the program, saying no taxpayer money was at risk, blaming others and claiming he had fixed it.

“It only got worse.”

Guaranteeing risky business loans with public money is a familiar tune – all together, let me hear you say Solyndra. But instead of solar energy schemes, during Perry’s watch, “Entrepreneurs lined up for money to spin cotton into yarn, process meats, develop cotton insulation, market canna bulbs to wholesale nurseries and sell pinto beans as a ready-to-eat frozen meal, to name a few.”

Forewarned is forearmed. These and other reports from Texas journalists present Rick Perry as the poster boy for conservative humorist and essayist P.J. O’Rourke's famous description of Republicans as “the party that says government doesn't work and then they get elected and prove it.”

Unsensational as it may be to all but the wonkiest, more attention to all candidates’ public records serves us far better than the latest private gossip and innuendo. Sorry, the salt air must be going to my head. Land ho.

By Michael Winship

Michael Winship is senior writing fellow at Demos and a senior writer of the new series, Moyers & Company, airing on public television.

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2012 Elections Rick Perry