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On the Perry Trail in Haskell County

Don’t let yer babies grow up to be cowboys.
by Published on

Rick Perry, photo courtesy of Abilene Reporter-News

It’s 6 o’clock, a Tuesday evening in the North Texas town of Haskell, and the Dollar General is doing a landslide business. A block away the town square and the county courthouse, a gothic, three-story affair that has dominated the town’s civic life since the 1890s, sit in a twilight gloom. The stores are shuttered, the sidewalks empty, the shopkeepers gone home to their satellite TVs and computer screens. Some merchants have left for good—boarded up their doors, covered their plate-glass windows with last year’s Christmas wrapping—and headed for the bright lights of Dallas, San Antonio, or Houston. Though drought is rapidly squeezing out the county’s remaining farmers and each day brings the prospect of another business shutting down, one thing hasn’t changed since the post-Civil War days: The Democrats, or more precisely, the Yellow Dog Democrats, are still in control of Haskell County, and they aim to keep it that way.

With the November election only days away and Rick Perry, a native son and turncoat Republican poised to become the longest-serving governor in Texas history, the Yellow Dogs are foaming at the mouth and ready to spill their guts to anyone who will listen. The outpourings are inevitably followed with, “Don’t quote me!” or “You aren’t going to use my name, are you?”—comments that reveal both the reach of the governor and the complexity of life in a small town where relationships go back generations and people still have to face each other after Election Day in the town’s only grocery store.

Gov. Perry likes to portray himself as a fifth-generation Texan, a rancher and farmer who knows what it’s like to scratch a living from this rich, red soil. But the ledger books in the Haskell County Courthouse reveal a more complex story. His father, J.R. “Ray” Perry, for example, was elected as a Democrat to the Haskell County Commission in 1969 and quickly became one of the alpha dogs in county politics. In the early nineties, the county auditor, Betty Weise, declined to reimburse Ray Perry for less than $100 worth of expenses incurred by his wife, Amelia, who had accompanied him on a business trip to Amarillo. Eleven months later, Perry made a motion that effectively would abolish the auditor’s office. The motion was seconded and approved by the rest of the commissioners. Weise, who had put in 25 years with the county, found herself without a job. “I was forced to retire after that.”

The elder Perry also had financial problems, court records show. In 1985, Ray Perry purchased a John Deere tractor for about $87,338, putting up $17,514 as a down payment. When he failed to make his next payment, the tractor was repossessed and sold to another party for $45,000. Perry was sued for roughly $9,700. Eventually the parties reached a compromise, and the case was dismissed.

In 1987, Dorothy and Evelyn Gillespie leased 640 acres of land to Ray and Rick Perry. But the deal went sour, with the two women alleging the father and son breached the terms of their lease and committed fraud by subletting the land without getting prior approval. The Perrys denied the charges, claiming the pasturing of cattle on leased premises was not considered subleasing. They also said they had fertilized the acreage, sprayed for weeds, purchased grass seed and made necessary repairs. The case eventually went to a jury that found the Perrys failed to comply with the terms of the lease, but didn’t commit fraud. The Gillespies were awarded $1,850 in attorney’s fees.

Letajo Howard, whose family has owned land in both Haskell County and neighboring Jones County for many years, tells a similar story. Her family had leased a cotton field to Ray, who had turned it over to Rick to farm, without getting permission from her family. During an impromptu inspection, Howard found one of the fields overgrown with weeds. Rick was sent packing. “I had no trust in him or his father,” Howard said in a recent interview. “I always felt they were opportunists.” (Perry did not respond to telephone calls and e-mail requests about this story. Efforts to contact his father, Ray, were unsuccessful. “We’re not interested in talking to a reporter,” said Ray Perry’s wife Amelia when contacted by telephone and in person at her home in Haskell County.)

When Rick Perry decided to run for office in 1984 as a state representative on the Democratic ticket, the people of Haskell County embraced him. Everyone knew “Pretty Ricky” or “Tricky Ricky,” as he is more commonly known these days. They also knew his parents, his grandparents, and even his great grandparents. He was the mischievous little tyke who played with toy tractors in the ditch, a proud member of the Boy Scouts and Future Farmers of America, the teenage heartthrob at Paint Creek School.

One of the first people Rick Perry approached was Charlie Stenholm, a conservative Democrat who owned a farm in the area and had been elected to the U.S. House of Representatives in 1978. “I was delighted he was going into politics. I knew his mother and father. We gave him every name, every contact we had. My people even worked for him. We believed he would be good for the area, and for a while he was,” Stenholm said in a recent interview.

Perry won that election and served three terms in the state Legislature. By 1989, he wanted to run for agriculture commissioner, but Jim Hightower, the Democratic incumbent, was running for re-election. (Hightower is a former editor of The Texas Observer and currently a contributing columnist.) About that time, Perry met a man who looked and talked a lot like him—George W. Bush—who urged him to switch parties and join the Republicans. Changing parties was treason in a Yellow Dog Democratic county, and Perry returned home and talked it over with confidants. “When we visited, he already had his mind made up,” recalled Haskell Mayor Ken Lane. “The Democrats were trying to hold him back, and the Republicans were sitting there holding a carrot out because they knew he was a prime catch. The Republicans wanted to grab him and shove him to the top. It wasn’t a particular weighty decision for him. I haven’t begrudged him much for it, but the county has. I don’t think they’ll ever get over it. They don’t think Republicans should be allowed to walk the streets.”

Many residents in Haskell County felt like they had been betrayed. After all, it was their votes that had put Perry into office. “I don’t like a turncoat,” said Dale Middlebrook, a farmer who lives down the road from Ray and Amelia Perry and has known four generations of Perrys. “Rick saw the handwriting on the wall. He saw there wasn’t any money in the Democratic coffers to get him where he wanted to go.”

Perry nevertheless managed to carry the county in the race for agriculture commissioner, with 1,536 people casting ballots for Perry and 859 voting for Hightower. Perry won the rest of the state as well and wound up serving two terms as agriculture commissioner. In 1997, he edged out other Republican contenders to become the party’s nominee for lieutenant governor, an office being vacated by then-Lt. Gov. Bob Bullock. Running against him on the Democratic ticket was fellow Aggie, John Sharp. Perry carried the state, thanks largely to a hefty loan from the pro-voucher, right-wing San Antonio businessman James Leininger. But it was Sharp who carried Haskell County, garnering 1,168 votes to Perry’s 994.

In 2002, Perry returned to Paint Creek School, where he attended grades one through 12, to kick off his bid for governor. (He moved into the Governor’s Mansion in 2000 when Bush became president.) Named after a creek that turns the same red-brick color as the surrounding fields, Paint Creek School still houses grades one through 12 and looks much as it did when Perry attended. Paint Creek was a perfect backdrop for Perry’s Lincolnesque saga. Photos of little Ricky were trotted out. His parents, Ray and Amelia, were on hand to answer reporters’ questions. His father, who had been on the Haskell County Commission for 28 years—the very lair of the Yellow Dog Democrats—told a Dallas Morning News reporter that he hadn’t voted for a Democratic president since Harry Truman.

Much has happened since then, and the sense of disillusion toward Perry is almost palpable these days. The wide-open fields should be bristling with the re-election signs of Haskell County’s most famous native son, but the only place where they seemed to be concentrated is along the rural road leading to the home of Ray and Amelia Perry. “A lot of people feel like they have been used,” said Haskell County Judge David Davis.

Residents don’t like Gov. Perry’s financial policies, his stance on public education, or his close relationship with lobbyists. They were especially disappointed when Perry failed to help families displaced after Lake Stamford, located a few miles from the Perry home, flooded. The flooding occurred about the same time as Hurricane Katrina, and Perry’s much televised role in that disaster wasn’t lost on county residents. “It hurt a bunch,” said Don Ballard, the superintendent of Paint Creek Independent School District.

But the incident that hometown residents found most galling was Perry’s role in the redrawing of the state’s congressional districts. The scheme was concocted by former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay to increase the Republican majority in Congress. Gov. Perry was a willing participant, calling three special sessions to get the job done.

Stenholm, who helped get Perry elected, was one of DeLay’s prime targets. When the lines were redrawn, Stenholm’s district was split among three districts, and most of his territory was thrown into the Lubbock-based 19th District. As a consequence, Stenholm, a conservative Democrat and ranking member of the House Agriculture Committee who understood the issues of area farmers and ranchers, lost his seat. “The governor of Texas sold out to Tom DeLay and the national Republican Party to the detriment of West Texas,” Stenholm said. “He’s not the same Rick Perry that he was when he was going to Paint Creek School.”

Though Stenholm spends much of his time in Washington as a consultant and lobbyist on agriculture issues, he’s aware of how people feel back home. “I hope people remember the bitterness at the polls. If a politician is ignoring the law, ignoring the wishes of the people, then people ought to vote that way. There comes a time of accountability every two, four, or six years.”

Meanwhile, life goes on in Haskell County. It’s begun to rain, but the rain has arrived too late for the drought-ravaged crops. Middlebrook is plowing under his cotton plants. Like others in the area, Middlebrook is a dryland farmer, which means he depends on rain—not irrigation—for his crops. When the crops failed in the past, farmers and ranchers used to turn to people like Stenholm for help. “Now we have nobody,” Middlebrook said.

Five Points to the Right (sidebar)

If religious conservatives who turned out in record numbers last year to support a ban on gay marriage return to the polls on Election Day, they could provide Gov. Rick Perry with the votes he needs to put him back in the Governor’s Mansion.

“These were people who never voted in their lives, or who had not voted in years. Who are they? Where did they come from? What are their characteristics? If these people turn out, it could make up as much as 5 percent of the total vote. And if Rick Perry gets 5 more percentage points, it will be very difficult to beat him,” said Leland Beatty, an Austin statistical marketer.

Perry has done everything he can to assure religious conservatives he shares their values. Last year, at a Christian school, he signed bills prohibiting gay marriage and limiting abortion and spoke at six “pastor’s policy briefings” sponsored by the Texas Restoration Project, an organization designed to help pastors get out the vote and spread the message of the religious right. (More about this on the website of the Texas Freedom Network)

He’s currently featured in a video on the Web site of the Austin-based Great Hills Baptist Church, inviting people to a Southern Baptists of Texas convention later this month. He also made an appearance on a show called “The Awakening,” which was posted on the Austin American-Statesman‘s Web site.

“You have to take notice this is a man who is not ashamed of his faith,” Pastor Randy Phillips told his congregation.

Looking relaxed, Perry responded, “Well, I just never did figure out what those folks who were running away from it were going to do when they get up to the pearly gates and the Good Lord says, ‘Why weren’t you standing up for me? Why weren’t you standing up for my word? Why weren’t you standing up for my people?’ And I figured it was just easier to stand up to the folks here than to stand up to Him.”

Among the most effective tools for reaching conservative voters are the voters’ guides that are being disseminated by the Free Market Foundation, a Plano, Texas, organization that serves as the statewide public policy council associated with Focus on the Family, the behemoth organization based in Colorado Springs, Colorado, and headed by James Dobson, the most influential Christian in the United States today.

The Free Market Foundation’s president, Kelly Shackelford, who also worked for the conservative Rutherford Institute, said in a recent interview that the voters’ guide is distributed through churches and other nonprofits, and also posted on its Web site. “We probably reach between six and seven million Texans with the guides,” he said.

In the governor’s race, only Perry and Libertarian James Werner responded to the foundation’s questions, which queried candidates on their stand on a law that would greatly restrict abortions; the use of embryonic stem cells; a federal marriage amendment; and the teaching of “intelligent design.” There were also questions about the minimum wage, a state spending cap, classroom spending, a waiting period for gun purchases, and how judges are elected.

“We know the guides have a huge impact,” Shackelford said. “People circle the names and carry them into the voting booth with them.” —EW