Gov. Rick Perry’s campaign bus looked like a gigantic Fourth of July firecracker as it motored into Dripping Springs. Painted a brilliant white and plastered with red and blue campaign stickers, it rolled to a stop in front of Orgeron’s Restaurant, and the doors wheezed open. Everyone in the parking lot craned their necks, expecting the governor to appear, but the only passengers who disembarked were a few overweight politicos and a couple of members of Perry’s campaign team. “What they hell are they doing in there? Straightening his tie?” muttered an old geezer standing next to me. He confided he was a registered Democrat, but had been voting Republican for years. “You know how that is,” he added mysteriously.
Dripping Springs was the first stop in the governor’s first re-election campaign bus tour. After Perry’s speech there, the entourage was going to Johnson City, Fredericksburg, Boerne, and Bandera. Though the humidity was already high, I was looking forward to the day’s events. As a new reporter at The Texas Observer, I had drawn the short straw in what was shaping up to be a four-way governor’s race. My candidate? Perry. No big deal, I thought, figuring a guy who had held public office for nearly two decades would be easy to talk to. But the assignment had turned into a vexing ordeal.
The first week on the job, I had called the governor’s campaign spokesman, Robert Black, and inquired about the possibility of an interview. Not a chance, Black responded cheerfully, explaining the governor was booked for the next 77 days. Subsequent calls went unanswered. Ditto the e-mail messages. A month went by. One afternoon, I spotted the information about the bus tour on a Web site and went over to Perry’s campaign headquarters to book a seat. Black was just escorting someone to the door, and I inquired about getting on the bus. Sorry, he responded in the same cheery voice, explaining that the seats were reserved for “local media.”
Desperate to get a look at the flesh-and-blood candidate, who seemed pleasant enough on television despite his lackluster ratings, I decided to follow the bus in my car. Filling the gas tank the night before, I thought about scraping the “Get Out And Beat The Bushes” bumper sticker off the rear of my car, but figured what the heck.
In Dripping Springs, there appeared to be only one member of the local media on the scene—and he had driven his own vehicle. A television crew from Houston had also showed up. They didn’t seem to fit the “local media” category, but Black had made an exception for them.
While everybody was admiring the bus, Perry materialized behind us and climbed up on a flat-bed trailer stacked with hay bales. Though he was known in the press corps for never breaking a sweat, he ran a hand over his forehead anyway—possibly an attempt to show solidarity with the perspiring mob—and said, “As soon as we’re done here, I think I’m going to let it rain a little bit.”
Wearing dark, expensive-looking slacks, a white shirt, blue tie and cufflinks, Perry looked like a trial lawyer. But he took care of that image problem right away when a fan handed him a yellow T-shirt emblazoned with the message, “Keep Drippin Normal.” He pulled the T-shirt on over his dress shirt and tie. Now he had a double layer of clothing, but he still wasn’t beading up. “Those other folks can stay weird,” he said, referring to Austin liberals, “but we’re going to stay normal here in Drippin’.”
Perry apologized for his tardiness, explaining that he was running late because he had attended services for former Gov. Ann Richards, who had died several days earlier. “You know, Ann and I didn’t necessarily share the same philosophy, but one thing I promise you we did share was an abiding love for the great state of Texas. She’ll be missed greatly.”
On that somber note, Perry succeeded in quieting the crowd and demonstrating his compassion. Then he launched into an upbeat stump speech. “There’s some people out there who think leadership is just talking the talk. Telling folks what they’re against, instead of telling people what they’re for. Making some big pie-in-the-sky promises without having down-to-earth price tags. That may pass for leadership in Massachusetts, but that don’t pass the smell test in Texas.”
Perry sounded a lot like W: same cadences, same cowboy twang, same rednecky grammar. He’s also an exercise nut (runs, swims, and bikes) and has the same low fat-to-muscle ratio. He’s got the swagger too. Strutting back and forth on the stage, pivoting on his black cowboy boots, he chopped the air with his hands, pointed skyward, gesticulated, grimaced, smiled.
A shrink-government type and ardent conservative who believes in trickle-down economics, Perry touted the state’s business-friendly economy, noting that 630,000 jobs have been created in the last three years. “Nothing tickles me more than to call up Arnold and tell him, ‘Well, we got another one of your companies coming to Texas, thank ya.’” Perry pointed out that he had vetoed $2.5 billion in proposed spending in the state budget, six times more than all the governors combined since 1978. “That’s a purty interesting factoid,” he added.
I thought it was a purty factoid, too, and checked the budget numbers with Eva DeLuna Castro, a budget analyst at the Center for Public Policy Priorities, who said the governor was being a little disingenuous about the budget cuts, which he was required to make because of revenue shortfalls. “He’s taking credit for something he didn’t ask for,” she said. But Perry’s figures on the job market did check out and may have even been a little on the low side, according to Bob Crawley, a labor market analyst for the Texas Workforce Commission.
Sounding like a Democrat, Perry went on to boast about his accomplishments in public education, including across-the-board pay raises for teachers. True enough, but education advocates say teacher pay in Texas is still abysmally low, and $500 of the $2,000 pay hike was a restoration of a health insurance stipend that was eliminated in 2003. Perry also bragged about the property tax cut bill he signed into law, but neglected to say that any reduction in property taxes might well be offset by rising property values, a new business tax, a higher cigarette tax, and increases in state fees of all kinds, ranging from car titles and license plates to higher fines for drunken driving to increased tuition bills.
Taking a swipe at President Bush, the governor talked up his efforts to beef up security on the border. “I ordered the National Guard to help secure the Texas border a full six months before the president. With millions of dollars, we’re putting more boots on the ground, more helicopters in the sky, more resources in the hands of the border law enforcement officials so that we can stop illegal activities.”
Perry concluded his stump speech with a call for his supporters to join him in the campaign: “We need every one of you working for the Republican team, making the phone calls, hanging up the signs, knocking on the doors, telling your friends and neighbors to get out and vote, picking them up and taking them to the polls for early voting if that’s required. Are you ready to do that?”
He went on like this until he got the crowd sufficiently lathered up, then leapt down from the stage and plunged into the boiling sea of supporters, hugging, squeezing, slapping a couple of people on the back so hard it sounded like gunshot. Several members of his security detail—sunglassed, humorless and expressionless—trailed him like white sharks. After 15 minutes or so, they hustled him into the air-conditioned plushness of the bus. On the way back to my car, it began to rain. At least the rain was one campaign promise I didn’t have to check out.
Motoring west toward Johnson City, we passed goat farms, horse ranches, wineries and shuttered peach stands. When we pulled up in front of the courthouse, Perry was one of the first to disembark and was now wearing pressed Wranglers and a short-sleeved, khaki shirt. The crowd was much smaller here, consisting mostly of law enforcement types, and Perry kept his speech short. Since there seemed to be no media at this stop, I felt emboldened to ask Black if I could join the group. He shook his head, cheerful as ever, and said, “I think we’ll just leave it like it is.”
Everybody piled back into their vehicles. We passed more goats, sheep, and horses, as well as a lot of wild animals, such as porcupines and rabbits, that had been flattened by the monster trucks and SUVs that clogged the bucolic Hill Country roadways. On one stretch of the highway, two farmworkers straddling a lawn mower paused respectfully while the red-white-and-blue bus passed. The wind knocked both their hats off.
At Hondo’s restaurant in Fredericksburg, about 100 people turned out. Though they seemed to be mostly white, pudgy people over the age of 60, they were the governor’s base, and he delivered his speech with gusto, repeating his remarks about Ann Richards (“We didn’t always agree philosophically”), his dig at Massachusetts (“That don’t pass the smell test in Texas”), and his line about Gov. Schwarzenegger (“Nothing tickles me more than to call up Arnold…”).
Then it was back to squeezing shoulders, slapping backs, shaking hands. “I’m glowing,” Maria Oliver said later. “He’s just the most handsome man I’ve seen in a long time. My gosh, it’s no wonder he gets the woman vote.”
By the time the shindig was over, I was starved and pulled into a store on Main Street to grab some food. But I had to abort the mission when I spotted the bus in my rearview mirror. Traffic was bumper to bumper on Main Street, and for the first time that day, I got dropped from the motorcade. But Boerne wasn’t far away. I pushed in a CD and cruised through the country, enjoying the smoky blue hills.
When I got to Boerne, everything was not all sweetness and light. In the park across the street from Ye Kendall Inn, where Perry was giving his fourth stump speech of the day, a small group of demonstrators was protesting the governor’s plan to build a network of gigantic toll roads. “We’d like to send a message to Gov. Rick Perry that we don’t want any toll roads in Texas. We don’t want the Trans-Texas Corridor either. We’re very against foreign ownership, and we don’t like the fact that these highway contracts are being done in secrecy,” said Byron Juen. A fellow protester named Carol also had unkind words for the governor: “I’m a U.S. citizen and a taxpayer. He’s just a crook.”
A man hauling his household goods in a flatbed trailer gave them a thumbs-up. But one of the Republicans exiting the rally taunted them mercilessly. “Toll them all! Toll them all! It’s great driving through Texas!” he shouted out his window.
When he finished his speech, Perry indulged in a leisurely chat with a couple of people on the front porch of the inn. The protesters across the street continued to chant at him and wave their signs up and down, but they could have been grackles for all he cared.
Maybe all the hugging, handshaking, and talking were getting to Perry, because somewhere between Boerne and Bandera, he got down on all fours on the floor of the bus and imitated a camel, according to the San Antonio Express-News. (Hoping to witness a little unscripted action like this myself was one reason I had badgered Black.)
Bandera, the so-called cowboy capital of Texas, turned out to be the most festive whistle-stop of all. Members of the Bandera High School band and the Bandera Posse were on hand to greet the governor. Perry stroked the noses of the horses, gave a subdued “yee haw,” then ducked into the China Bowl Restaurant. For the fifth time that day, he launched into his stump speech, delivering his lines like they had just popped into his head. Perhaps it was the proximity of the horses, but for some reason he had begun sounding like an extra from “Brokeback Mountain.” “Pie” became “paaah.” “For” was “fer.” And “sky” stretched into “skaah.”
In the middle of his speech, the restaurant’s phone began to ring. No one seemed to know what to do, and the damned thing wouldn’t quit. The owner started for the kitchen, then hesitated, thinking perhaps it was rude to walk out on the governor. After five or six rings, Perry detoured from his script. “Somebody pick up the phone!” he said. “It might be an order!” When the laughter died down, he added, “That’s economic development.” With that, he owned the house. Come November it looks like voters could give him a new lease on the governor’s mansion as well.