A first step out of Bush's Texas-size shadow

In a state known for flamboyant politicians, the new governor adopts a quiet style

Rick Perry knew he was in for a rough road following after George W. Bush, but he strode forth in his usual unflinching style. He's been down this road before.

Indeed, the newest governor of the Lone Star State has built his political career following Texas legends. In a land known for its boot-wearing, and occasionally fistfighting, politicians, Mr. Perry has taken over for some of the most colorful - including Jim Hightower as agricultural commissioner and Bob Bullock as lieutenant governor.

Now, however, he faces his toughest task yet: trying to establish his own identity in the wake of an extremely popular governor - in a state that tires of its chief executives early. Mr. Bush was the first Texas governor to win a second term in nearly two decades.

So far, analysts give Perry mixed marks. He has focused on a relatively narrow band of issues in his short time in office, establishing himself as a compromiser - and, on many issues, more of a moderate than his predecessor was. Yet his main distinction from recent Texas governors may be tonal: He works quietly and cautiously.

"He didn't try to develop a huge agenda, and he got pretty much what he asked for," George Christian, an Austin-based political analyst, says of Perry's first dealings with the Legislature.

Perry himself is pleased with his accomplishments so far. In the recently ended legislative session, lawmakers approved many of his top priorities, including education, transportation, and border initiatives.

"The national press was talking doom and gloom for the Texas legislative session under new leadership," said Perry in an interview at an airport here. "Well, conventional wisdom was wrong."

Now he's begun sorting through some 1,200 new bills to either sign or veto - a job he must complete by June 17.

Certainly Perry started out under difficult circumstances. After the drawn-out presidential election, the Republican governor had only a few weeks to fill posts and establish an agenda before the start of the session (the Texas Legislature meets every two years for 140 days). In addition, Bush took many longtime Austin staffers with him to Washington.

Nor were opponents willing to go easy on him. Early on, critics called him the "accidental governor" because he wasn't elected, and "Bush lite" for following the former governor's agenda so closely. Some even called him "missing in action" because he wasn't around much during the first half of the session.

The governor did falter several times and had run-ins with legislators, but in the end got much of what he wanted. Perry says his biggest disappointment was the failure to reach a resolution on campaign-finance reform.

In comparison with Bush's hard-line stance on many issues, particularly law and order, Perry seems more willing to bend - and moved the state more toward the political center.

For instance, he is expected to sign a bill to improve legal representation for indigent defendants - something Bush vetoed two years ago. He also signed a hate-crimes bill that became bogged down two years ago and eventually died after Bush didn't push it.

"Perry is not running for president. And when somebody has national ambition, it dictates a lot of what they're trying to do," says Mr. Christian, a former press secretary to Lyndon Johnson.

Perry grew up on a farm in Paint Creek, Texas, between Lubbock and Fort Worth. He received a degree in animal science from Texas A&M and returned to help his father with the farm after flying cargo planes in the Air Force for four years.

He was elected to the House of Representatives as a Democrat in 1984, but changed parties in 1989 before running against Agricultural Commissioner Jim Hightower. When Lt. Gov. Bob Bullock decided not to seek a third term, Perry ran for that post - considered the most powerful position in Texas politics.

"The culmination of those life experiences has prepared me for my current role as governor," he says.

In person, Perry is both engaging and sincere. He talks freely about the challenges of having two teenage sons, his love of flying, and his distaste for Texas summers, quoting Gen. William Sherman: "If I owned both hell and Texas, I'd rent out Texas and live in hell."

Still, he doesn't have the wide appeal of Bush, one of the most popular governors in Texas history. Bush routinely garnered a 70 percent approval rating and was a prodigious fundraiser.

"You cannot compare Rick Perry to Bush because Bush was such an anomaly," says David Guenthner, managing editor of The Lone Star Report, a political newsletter based in Austin. "You've got to look at Rick Perry in relation to other Texas governors."

With the legislative session over, Perry will now be focusing more of his attention on running for governor in 2002. It will be a tough election.

First, there's the historical proclivity of Texans not to return governors to office. The Democrats are also eager to recapture the seat.

To his advantage, however, no other Republican has yet stepped forward to challenge him. Perry is also known to be an effective campaigner.

"For all his little bobbles in the legislative process, he is very focused and disciplined as a campaigner," says Mr. Guenthner. "He is not going to beat himself."

Adds George Strong, a political analyst and lobbyist in Houston: "Lots of people have underestimated Rick Perry throughout his political career and lived to regret it. They look at him and see a nice face and nice hair. But he connects with people."

No doubt, too, he will receive help from Washington. Bush and Perry still keep in touch, speaking by phone about once a month.

Perry says he tries not to bother the president unless it's of critical importance to the state. He does, though, say Bush is interested in keeping up with things back home.

"He's the president of the United States, and the most powerful individual in the world. But more importantly, he's a Texan and a friend," says Perry. "And it's good to have friends in high places."

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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