During the 1980s I spent several Easter vacations sailing with the late columnist Molly Ivins and some of her leading liberal friends. After the day’s sail out of Corpus Christi or Port Aransas, our party would reassemble on land for drinks and dinner. I wish I had a double Scotch (and probably did have a double Scotch) for every time Ivins remarked: “Whenever two or three reporters and commentators are gathered together, they tell the most revealing, engaging, sometimes appalling stories of happenings behind the scenes, but rarely share a word of it with their readers.”
Now that I am a writer on my own, having left the Houston Chronicle after 34 years, and with Texans facing another four years of government of, by and for Gov. Rick Perry and his cronies, I see no reason to hold back.
After three terms as a state representative and two as agriculture commissioner, in 1998 Perry successfully ran for lieutenant governor. During the campaign he appeared before the Houston Chronicle’s editorial board. Asked what was his first priority, Perry said that the highest and most sacred duty of every public official is ensuring that children get a good education.
Right answer, but, quelle surprise, Perry’s actions have run counter to his words. He has kept state support for public education – state government’s largest and most important function – anemic. As governor he appointed as chairman of the State Board of Education a man who not only rejected evolution and modern biology, but also wanted to deny Texas children a basic knowledge of physics and cosmology. Perry appointed an education commissioner who fudged the numbers to hide poor student achievement and rampant failure.
Soon after George W. Bush was elected president of the United States in November 2000, he resigned the Texas governorship, and Perry became governor. A few days after his inauguration, Perry invited the Houston Chronicle editorial board to dine with him in a private room at Post Oak Grill in Houston. Perry sat at the head of the table. He was flanked by his bodyguard of state police officers wearing ridiculous, oversized white cowboy hats in the style made famous by Tom Mix. I was seated to the governor’s left, appropriate enough considering my position on the political spectrum.
Toward the end of the meal, Perry affected a humble demeanor and beseeched my colleagues and me to just give him the benefit of the doubt, a chance to show he could do the right thing by the citizens of Texas. Perry promised, as a point of personal honor, that we would not be disappointed. He seemed so sincere, he had me going there. For a moment, I actually thought a new desire to add some distinction to his leadership and legacy had caused him to turn over a new leaf.
Yeah, sure. On his opposition to adequate state support for the public schools and the teaching of legitimate science to Texas children, Perry proceeded to heap large cuts in state support for undergraduate education and university research, the very engines of the growth Perry rightly regards as essential for Texas prosperity.
The problem is not simply that Perry lacks integrity, which he does. The worst of it is that Perry is so dedicated to perpetuating himself in office and so mindless of the public interest that he doesn’t even know what integrity looks like. From my decades-long observation post on the Houston Chronicle’s editorial board, I saw many examples of how Perry auctioned his power to the highest bidder, including the one that follows:
As the Texas Legislature was wrapping up in May 1999, Port of Houston commissioners voted to spend $75,000 in taxpayer money to hire two lobbyists in Austin for only a few days’ work. Lobbyist Mike Toomey, Rick Perry’s on-and-off aide, adviser and longtime crony, would get $50,000.
Port officials said there was no particular threat to the port’s interests in the Legislature. If that were true, the late-session lobbying fees would be not only a complete waste of money, but a pointless transfer of public money to private hands. What port officials feared was that some obscure legislation diluting local control of port finances and operations would sneak through as the session ended. They hired Toomey because they thought he could get Lt. Gov. Perry to keep such a bill off the Senate floor until the clock ran out.
I wrote an editorial for the Chronicle condemning the expensive hires and what they represented, pointing out that Toomey was already paid by the city of Houston and Harris County to watch out for Houston-area interests. Shouldn’t Harris County residents be able to look to their local governments’ lobbying teams, working with the Harris County delegation in Austin, to safeguard their all-important seaport, the editorial asked.
Stung by the criticism, Ned Holmes, chairman of the Port Commission at the time, asked to meet with the Chronicle editorial board to defend the late payments to influential lobbyists.
“Is it your position,” I asked Holmes, “that bills rise and fall in the Legislature based upon who pays Mike Toomey $50,000 and who doesn’t?”
Holmes said it was.
“Well,” I replied, “that is an abomination in the sight of the Lord, and you should be decrying it as loudly as we are.”
With that, Holmes burst into tears. Perhaps he realized he had too easily lost the moral high ground and would not soon get it back. Perhaps he just couldn’t stand being lectured by a poor newspaper man who could barely afford his own yacht.
Holmes’ position rested on the premise that not even a prominent Republican civic leader and campaign contributor such as himself could approach Rick Perry directly with any hope of gaining his cooperation. First, according to Holmes’ theory, Texans had to pay Perry’s crony and campaign finance bundler $50,000 if they wanted Perry to act in the public interest. If Perry’s tea party supporters succeed in returning him to the governor’s mansion, how many of them will be able to come up with $50,000 when they want the governor’s support for some pet policy?
(Ever wondered why Perry was so keen to give away countless acres of prime farm- and ranchland and billions of dollars in highway tolls to a Spanish-owned company in San Antonio? Two words: Mike Toomey, who had been on the company’s payroll.)
A few days after the meeting with Holmes, I got a call from a lawyer at a Houston firm that did significant business with the port. The lawyer wished to take me to lunch and, at Holmes’ request, explain “how things really work in Austin.” The unstated assumption was that unless the lawyer succeeded in straightening me out, the firm’s business with the port would be placed in jeopardy.
The lawyer said I didn’t fully appreciate the role of personal relations in state government. But even the most naïve voter knows that in Austin, “you scratch my back, and I’ll scratch yours” is practically the third law of thermodynamics. The way things really work is precisely the problem. Up against insider relationships and mutual greed and ambition – all oiled with millions in campaign cash — the public interest stands little chance.
At this point, full disclosure requires that I mention my 20-year-old, often admiring acquaintance with Perry’s Democratic opponent on the November ballot, former Houston Mayor Bill White. White and his wife, Andrea, and my now ex-wife were all in law school together at the University of Texas. I first met White at a dinner party attended by some of his former classmates and their spouses. For some reason I was talking before dinner about my favorite cousin, a natural scientist who had spent her career studying societal insects – ants, bees, termites – in southern Africa. At some point White interjected, saying in so many words that he practically lived for the study of societal insects and had written of the lessons they hold for human activity and society.
Here then, is a candidate for governor whose knowledge and intellect know no bounds, who has a proven record of commitment to good government and whose personal pride and dignity don’t allow him to say one thing and do the opposite, or to place the levers of government exclusively at the beck and call of moneyed interests. Yet unless thousands of shortsighted, unthinking Texans change their mind before the November election, Texas will be stuck again with Perry et al.
I’m getting ready to go to France to look for a place to live, but I shall return in time to cast my vote in November. The question before the people of Texas is whether we will be led for more years by someone who needs somebody’s hired gun to tell him what to do, or whether we will elect a candidate capable of figuring it out for himself – no charge.
DISCLAIMER: The opinions expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of The Texas Observer. The author is solely responsible for its content.