Rick Perry
(Photo by Kevin E. Schmidt/Quad-City Times/Zumapress.com)

The Boy from Haskell

Rick Perry's small-town Texas politics.


If you want to clear a room in Haskell, this is how you do it. You walk in. You sit down. You say, “I’m a reporter, and I’d like to talk to you about Rick Perry.”

I tried this on a blistering morning in August, around 10 a.m., at the Double A Drive-In, the town’s only burger joint, a few blocks west of Haskell’s small downtown. The place was full of old farmers drinking coffee from Styrofoam cups and talking about the drought.

I sat down. I said, “I’m a reporter from The Texas Observer. Heard you all had a local boy who was about to be president.”

A jowly man in a trucker cap who seemed to be the group wit said, “Oh, I hadn’t heard about him. What’s his name?”

“Wait,” I said, “It’s on the tip of my tongue. Randy?”

They laughed. “Oh, we known him since he was a boy,” said a vulpine farmer in denim overalls and a work shirt. People in Haskell are saying that a lot these days. That and, “His daddy was Democratic county commissioner, you know that?” And, “Oh. Him.”

Soon the man in the trucker cap was gone, and minutes later the others were, too. Then it was just me and the restaurant owner, Donald Cunningham, and another man in the corner. “We get a lot of these reporters,” Cunningham said. “Got two boys in here from The Washington Post earlier today. Some fellows from New York are here, too. Had some people from Spain, too. Some Spanish paper.”

The New Yorkers were from The New York Times; the Spaniards were from El Mundo. Supposedly there were a couple of French journalists and a Japanese TV crew floating around too, though I never saw them. They are only the first wave of what is becoming Haskell’s first-ever media blitz. In the last two months, the international media has descended on this West Texas town of 3,500 that is arguably the hometown of Rick Perry. Arguably, because Haskell claims Rick Perry, but not vice versa. In speeches, Perry likes to say he’s from Paint Creek, Texas, which is an unending source of both amusement and resentment in Haskell. Paint Creek isn’t a city. It’s barely a neighborhood. It’s a small residential area on a bit of unincorporated county land around a high school about 15 miles from Haskell. Half a dozen Haskell folk told me, “Paint Creek isn’t anything.” For better or worse, to people from Haskell, Rick Perry is a native son. Walk into the Double A or the Dairy Queen and everyone older than 50 will know the Perrys.

The dispute over Perry’s hometown is a little ironic, for there is, on the surface, quite a contrast between Perry and the town he came from. Perry is polished, slick, a consummate politician who has transitioned smoothly from Democratic farm boy to darling of the Republican right.

Haskell, meanwhile, is a vision of Texas as it used to be. It is agrarian and conservative, but largely Democratic. Almost everyone is old. As the former mayor, Ken Lane, told me, “The one thing we export here is young people.” They go off to Abilene, an hour south, or Dallas, or Houston, or, like Rick Perry, Austin, looking for a life more exciting and more promising than working the family farm. There is not much else to do in Haskell. Nearly everyone is a farmer or works in some business serving farmers.

Perry has come a long way from being a farm boy in Haskell, riding his father’s tractor and showing prize bulls at the 4-H livestock show. He has become the longest-serving governor in Texas history, a Republican presidential frontrunner, a politician of national note.

Yet in some ways he hasn’t traveled so far. Haskell is in Perry’s blood. His family members served as county commissioners in Haskell for generations. It’s a place where politicians take care of their friends, and where misuse of public money on the right project can be forgiven. Perry brought this style of small-town Texas politics to Austin. He has a network of friends and loyalists who support his campaigns, who he appoints to state boards and commissions, who receive state grants and any number of favors from the governor. Critics have called this cronyism. It’s the political style Perry learned growing up in Haskell—and he hopes to take it to Washington, D.C.

The Perry family has lived in Haskell since almost before there was a Haskell. To describe their beginnings as humble is to substantially understate their poverty. John Wesley Perry, Rick’s great-great-great-grandfather, moved to Haskell from Alabama in the early 1880s, just after the Native American wars opened the county to mass white settlement. John Wesley’s death certificate names his occupation as “Common Laborer.” After John Wesley, the Perrys were tenant farmers, scratching a living growing wheat and cotton in the red-clay soil around Paint Creek. Ray Perry—Rick’s father—seems to be the first to have accumulated any wealth.

The Perrys, like everyone else in Haskell, were Democrats. Haskell is a place where being a Democrat is like being Christian—it’s just what everyone is, and it’s at best an imperfect indicator of one’s beliefs. “It doesn’t matter what you believe in Haskell 364 days out of the year,” Wallar Overton, Rick Perry’s former scoutmaster, told me, “but on Election Day, you better be a Democrat. That describes Ray Perry pretty well—I don’t know that he would have been a Democrat in another county.”

Ray Perry ran for county commissioner of Haskell’s 3rd Precinct in the late 1960’s, when Rick was a teenager. Ray came from a long line of county commissioners—every Perry after John Wesley has served as a Precinct 3 commissioner. Still, friends suggest that Ray’s reasons for running were more prosaic than sentimental.

“I’d imagine he needed the money,” Clifton Morris told me. Morris and Ray Perry are friends, though Morris ran against him in 1990. Perry narrowly won. “At the time, a county commissioner was paid a good salary, and you could still farm on the side.”

Whatever his reasons for running, Ray Perry developed a reputation for a certain method of practicing politics during his 28-year tenure in office. In 1974, he and another commissioner, C.A. Thomas, were investigated by a grand jury for misappropriation of county funds. Ray Perry had used $888.56 in county money to repair a metal shop on his property; he had also bought cruise control for his pickup with county funds. One grand juror, who asked to remain anonymous, said that Thomas had used county work crews to do terracing work on private land. He allegedly pocketed the money he got from the landlords and never turned it over to the county.

Thomas resigned to avoid prosecution, according to news accounts at the time, but Perry stayed on as commissioner for another 23 years. No one quite knows how he kept his job. Some in town say that his fellow commissioners told him to resign and he simply refused, a story that says something about how people perceived the man’s character.

“I remember we got flak from everybody,” Dale Middlebrook, another of the grand jurors, told me. “Half the town was mad we hadn’t indicted him, and the other half was mad we had brought him in at all.”

Despite the allegations, Ray Perry wasn’t backing down. In the April 4, 1974, edition of the Haskell Free Press, Perry published a lengthy statement announcing his hope to counter the “erroneous tales and snowballing stories” with the facts. Regarding his purchase of the cruise control, he wrote, “with the new speed units and energy crisis imposed upon people, I felt that it was a necessary money saving device; both in the way of fine paying and gas saving.”

This combination of alleged rule-bending and self-justification would become a hallmark of Ray Perry’s time in office. He was also famous around Haskell for allegedly using county road crews to grade the private dirt roads connecting people’s homes to public county roads. This is illegal: County equipment isn’t supposed to be used on private land. This is a difficult story to verify—Ray Perry was never prosecuted—but many people in Haskell accept it as truth.

“Ray said, way he saw it, we were all paying taxes on county roads, so it wasn’t right that we not be able to get to them,” Wallar Overton, Rick Perry’s former scoutmaster, told me when we met at the Double A.

Overton says some people in the county were unhappy about public money going to private projects. “There would be people out on the road, taking pictures of the work projects. I asked Ray about it, and he said, ‘Well, might be you should start buying stock in Polaroid, because it’s just going to keep happening.”

Ray Perry served until the mid-1990s, when he finally lost a commissioner’s race. He remained powerful until the end, though. In the early ’90s, Betty Weise, the county auditor, refused to reimburse Ray for less than $100 in expenses incurred by Ray’s wife, Amelia, who had accompanied him on a business trip to Amarillo. Eleven months later, Perry forwarded a motion in commissioner’s court to abolish the auditor’s office. The motion was seconded and approved by the other three commissioners. Weise had worked for the county for 25 years. Suddenly she was unemployed. “I was forced to retire after that,” she told the Observer in 2006. (Weise declined to be interviewed for this article, saying, “I don’t have anything good to say about the Perrys, so I just won’t say anything.”) Ray Perry had an aggressive, unyielding, occasionally vengeful approach to politics. Anyone who’s followed Rick Perry’s career might recognize the style.

Rick Perry grew up in a world built around agriculture. He is one of very few, if not the only, major-party presidential contender since LBJ to have grown up poor on a farm. Back in those days, Ray was just beginning to accumulate what would eventually become a respectable network of owned and rented farmland. In high school, Rick was in Future Farmers of America and 4-H. At Texas A&M University, he majored in animal science.

When Perry returned home from the Air Force in 1977, he went to work helping Ray farm cotton. He stayed in Haskell for seven years, plotting his getaway.

“I remember coming back from the military,” Wallar Overton told me. “You get back from Europe, back to the farm, and there’s just this deafening silence. Haskell’s not much after Europe. Rick never struck me as the sort to want to spend 12 hours a day riding a tractor. I don’t think he ever really had any full intention of staying here.”

Ken Lane, the former mayor, has a different perspective. “I think he came back with the idea that he really was going to try and stay and make farming his career. But the more time he and Ray spent on it, the more disinterested he got.”

Escape came in a strange form. Soon after Rick returned to Haskell, a grassroots, populist organization called the American Agriculture Movement started mobilizing strikes and demonstrations against the 1977 federal Food and Agriculture Act, which many felt had set commodity prices so low that farmers couldn’t stay in business. It was an electric time, when Haskell seemed on fire with protest. “People went crazy,” Overton remembers. “People would call their neighbors saying, ‘You don’t agree to keep your crops off the market, we’ll burn them.’” The movement culminated in a rally in Washington. Dozens of Haskell County farmers made the weeks-long trip to attend on their tractors.

Lane was making his own trips to Washington in those days, lobbying members of the Senate Agriculture Committee. At first, Lane brought Ray Perry with him. After a couple of visits, Ray sent Rick in his place. Rick spent weeks with Lane in Washington in 1978, attending committee meetings and getting his first taste of political bargaining.

“He liked the work of it,” Lane said. “The give and take, and the intrigue involved, what you got to do to convince someone to do something. You can’t do it without getting involved. It brings out the animal in you.”

“The animal in you?” I asked.

He laughed. “You ever race anything? Horses, dogs, cars? When a guy’s getting real close to beating you, that’s when you let out the animal in you. It’s about the challenge. And I think the challenge of it was intriguing to him.”

In 1982, Rick showed up at a Haskell County Democratic Party meeting. Sharon Mullino, Haskell’s Democratic Party chair, was surprised to see him. “He wanted to go to Fort Worth to be a delegate at the state Democratic Party convention,” she said. “We knew him. We knew his family. So we just sent him.”

Two years later, Rick told Mullino he wanted to run for a seat in the Texas House of Representatives. Local Democrats put him in touch with U.S. Rep. Charlie Stenholm, a conservative Democrat who had just been elected to Congress from nearby Ericsdahl.

Stenholm’s congressional district encircled Texas House District 64, which Rick wanted to run for. Stenholm knew Ray and Amelia Perry well. When Rick told Stenholm he wanted to run, the two met outside the Ericsdahl co-op cotton gin. They sat in the back of Stenholm’s pickup and talked for two hours about Rick’s policy ideas and campaign strategies.

Stenholm remembers being impressed by Rick’s ambition. “He had the personal touch,” he told me recently by phone. “He liked politicking. He loved shaking hands. He loved thinking in terms of maximizing the votes for his cause. And he was good at it.”

Stenholm’s campaign threw its support behind Perry. His staffers gave Perry their donor contacts and voter information. They helped him raise money. Stenholm wasn’t the only one—the local Democratic Party gave Rick its support as well.

“We all got behind him,” Sharon Mullino told me. “The whole county did. We all gave him money. We all worked to get him elected.”

Haskell was so Democratic that once the local Democratic establishment got behind Rick, he was a shoo-in. He won almost unanimously, with 2,149 votes to the runner-up’s 192.

That afternoon in the pickup truck was the last time Charlie Stenholm and Rick Perry ever spoke seriously. “We talked socially after that,” Stenholm said, “but I never had close personal relations with him after he was elected. He began dancing to a different drummer early. The direction he took, both as commissioner of agriculture and later on … .”

He paused so long I thought the line had gone dead. “Well,” he finally said. “Anyway, we parted ways after that.”

In 1989, Perry, then in his third term as a state rep, wanted to run for state agriculture commissioner. But the Democratic spot on the ticket was already taken by incumbent Jim Hightower. (Hightower is a former editor of The Texas Observer.)  Around that time, Perry met another ambitious Texas politician—U.S. Sen. Phil Gramm—who encouraged him to switch sides.

The Perrys had always been Democrats, and Rick went home to talk it over with friends.

In the end, Ken Lane says, the right decision for Perry’s became obvious. “He was ambitious, and he felt like the Democrats were holding him back. He wasn’t getting the committee assignments he wanted—they were making him wait his turn. And all the while, the Republicans were waiting to grab him.”

There were more practical reasons, too, Lane said. In those days, a state representative made just $300 a month. Perry was living on his wife Anita’s salary as a registered nurse, and with a growing family that wasn’t enough.

“He was about starving to death,” Lane said. “He needed a job that paid something, which the agriculture commissioner did. When he changed to the Republican Party, he could raise money easier. Democrats don’t give a lot of money. Never have, never will. But Republicans turn loose money to keep people in office. And that’s what happened—someone convinced him that that would happen, and he had the ambition to run for office. He just didn’t have money to run for it. He could run for it as a Republican, and somebody would supply the money.”

Local supporters were shocked when Rick switched parties. They felt betrayed. Sharon Mullino, the Democratic county chair, didn’t even know Perry had changed parties until a reporter from Abilene called to ask how she felt about Perry’s switch.

“I said something about how, well, he could do what he wanted,” Mullino said. “But we were disappointed. We felt like he had used us. Like we had all pitched in to get him to Austin, and he left us as soon as he got a better offer.”

Haskell is known as a Yellow Dog Democrat town, where any Democrat—even the metaphorical canine—is preferable to a Republican. But a lot of Haskell County residents crossed party lines to vote for Rick. The Haskell Free Press ran a picture of Rick’s grandfather, Hoyt, casting a ballot for his grandson. According to the article, it was the first time Hoyt had ever voted Republican. (Lane: “You don’t know how he really voted. I had a grandson like that, I’d tell the paper I voted for him, too.”) Rick took the county 1,536 to Hightower’s 859.

After that, things moved fast for Rick Perry. He served two terms as agriculture commissioner, then ran for lieutenant governor in 1998. (That race, against his former A&M roommate John Sharp, was one of the few in which he didn’t win Haskell County; Perry also narrowly lost his home county in the 2006 governor’s race.) In 2001, when George W. Bush won the presidency, Perry became governor.

Perry was elected to his first full term as governor in 2002. The very next year, he helped preside over the destruction of Charlie Stenholm’s political career. In 2003, then-U.S. House Majority Leader Tom DeLay put forth a plan to increase the Republican majority in Congress by redrawing Texas’ congressional districts mid-decade. Stenholm was high on the list of DeLay’s targets. “I was a conservative Democrat, which meant my district was competitive,” Stenholm said. “DeLay didn’t like that.”

Stenholm was one of the few farmers in office at the time, a man with wide bipartisan support in Haskell County. “He was aware of our problems,” Wally Overton says. “He understood what life was like for farmers, and he tried to help us. We could call him in Washington, and he would listen. And we didn’t mind calling him, either.

“It’s a sore point in our area, what happened. It’s one reason why there aren’t too many Republicans around here. Before redistricting, I’d vote for a Democrat or a Republican, whoever sounded right. Now, just Democrats. What the Republicans did to Stenholm wasn’t right.”

DeLay’s new congressional map split Stenholm’s district among three others, giving most of his territory to Lubbock’s 19th District. Gov. Perry pushed the state Legislature through three separate special sessions to get the new map passed. When it was all over, Stenholm found himself running in a district that was suddenly majority Republican. In the 2004 election, Stenholm, a ranking member of the House Agriculture Committee who had served for 26 years in Congress, lost his seat to a freshman Republican from Lubbock.

As governor, Perry has brought a certain kind of small-town Texas politics to the Capitol—a kind of politics in which you reward friends and punish enemies. And he has been wildly successful.

The tales of Perry’s patronage are too numerous to list. It’s well known in Austin that anyone who wants an appointment to a state board or commission must first donate to the governor’s campaign. Perry’s hundreds of appointees over the years have given him more than $17 million, according to a study by the nonprofit watchdog group Texans for Public Justice. He once pushed to create an entire regulatory agency—the Texas Residential Construction Commission—to benefit his top campaign donor, Houston homebuilder Bob Perry (they’re not related), and appointed Bob Perry’s general counsel to sit on the agency’s board. He has been accused of using state economic development funds to dole out public money to the companies of friends and campaign contributors. Even one of his most famous and controversial policy initiatives—his 2007 attempt to require that girls in Texas receive the vaccine for the human papillomavirus (HPV)—would have benefited a Perry ally; Perry’s former chief of staff was a lead lobbyist for Merck, the drug company that manufactures the vaccine, and which stood to make millions from Perry’s efforts.

Even the stories his friends tell reveal Perry’s cronyism. Before I left Haskell, I had coffee with Wally Overton at the Double A. I asked what he thought of Rick running for president.

He thought for a while.

“I don’t think I’d vote for him,” he said. “I think he knows that. We don’t much talk politics—I don’t like his stance on the gays. But I’m proud of him. And he’s done good things for us. There’s one story I like to tell, and so far no reporter has printed it. They don’t like it, because it’s not dirty.”

The story was about Camp Tonkawa, the Boy Scout camp that Rick Perry attended as a boy. Camp Tonkawa was half on land leased from Abilene State Park. A couple of years ago, the camp’s pool fell into disrepair, but because it was on park land, the Scouts couldn’t get grants to fix it.

“So we went down to talk to Rick,” Overton says. “We mentioned the pool before we left, and he said he’d see what he could do. Two days later, I got a call from the state park people.”

The Parks & Wildlife Department had worked out a deal with Camp Tonkawa by which the agency would deed the land to the camp for as long as it remained a scout camp. The process wasn’t entirely smooth. “It got hung up, oh, about three times,” Overton says. “But every time it stalled, Rick intervened, and it cranked up again.”

In 2010, Perry spoke at a ceremony as 91 acres of park land was deeded over to Camp Tonkawa.

Overton is right: This isn’t dirty, exactly. It seems a nice gesture. Perry was doing something good for the scouts. He also got public land handed over—for free—to a private entity with which he is personally affiliated.

I asked Wally if this is the sort of thing that Ray Perry might have done for his constituents.

He nodded. “Yeah, I’d say it was. Rick and Ray had that in common. They both understood there was sometimes a difference between the law and what was right.”