Rick Perry Goes Boss Tweed on Us

by Published on

Say this for our longest-serving governor: The man knows how to return a favor.

It’s become clear, a decade into Rick Perry’s tenure, that he takes good care of his friends, supporters and—perhaps most of all—campaign contributors. He appoints them to state boards and commissions, even helps create state agencies for them, and if there’s a chance to steer state money their way, Perry’s office will do so. It’s old-fashioned political patronage at its best.

We’ve seen fresh evidence recently of just how much money is changing hands. On Sunday, The Dallas Morning News published an excellent expose on the Emerging Technology Fund—a stash of money controlled largely by the governor’s office. The Legislature created it five years ago as an economic-development fund for Texas’ hi-tech industry. While the fund has undoubtedly created jobs in this state, it’s also been a boon to Perry’s campaign contributors.

The News reports that:

“Behind the scenes, some of the governor’s biggest political supporters have been making investments of their own – in Perry and in companies getting money from the tech fund.

“An investigation by The Dallas Morning News found that more than $16 million from the Emerging Technology Fund has been awarded to companies with investors or officers who are large campaign donors to Perry.”

That $16 million benefited eight businesspeople who had donated heavily to Perry’s campaign. It’s a detailed story, but a must-read for anyone who wants to know how things really work in this state.

It seems the Emerging Technology Fund may be as politically tainted as another Perry economic-incentive program: the Texas Enterprise Fund.

In March, the Observer reported that Enterprise Fund outlays worth hundreds of millions went to companies and executives that supported Perry and the Republican Governor’s Association.

Last week, the nonprofit watchdog group Texans for Public Justice released a report showing that Perry has received an astounding $17 million in campaign contributions from people he’s appointed to state boards and commissions. (We’ve seen hints of this before—last year, a Perry fund-raiser reportedly admitted that anyone who wants a state appointment needs to give Perry campaign money, according to this Corpus Christi Caller-Times story.)

Then there was the Morning Newsother blockbuster investigative piece on Perry this summer—an expose on the governor’s shady land deal in Horseshoe Bay. The story “found evidence that Perry’s investment was enhanced by a series of professional courtesies and personal favors from friends, campaign donors and the head of a Texas family with a rich history of political power-brokering. Together they may have enriched Perry by almost $500,000, according to an independent real estate appraisal commissioned by The News.”

Any of these stories might have sunk other politicians. The fact that Perry has survived it all and remains a favorite to win reelection is truly impressive.

His ability to endure these mini-scandals may be partly because he hasn’t blatantly violated the law (though doing official favors and handing out public funds to campaign contributors is clearly unethical and potentially illegal).

Burka doesn’t seem to think this is that big a deal. And, of course, political patronage happens everywhere (Bill White took campaign money from his Houston city appointees).

But the breadth of Perry’s operation is quite something.

The man’s been governor—under one-party rule—going on 14 years. He’s now filled every appointed position, and his patronage has seemingly slithered into every corner of state government—from road building, to health and human services, to environmental regulation, to schools, and, of course, economic-development grants.

If Perry does win another term, we’ll likely see more of the same.

Dave Mann has been with the Observer since 2003. Before that, he worked as a reporter in Fort Worth and Washington, D.C. He was born and raised in Philadelphia. He thinks border collies are the world’s greatest dogs, and believes in the nourishing powers of pickup basketball.