Texas Gov. Rick Perry indicted: Real trouble or partisan snit?

Texas Gov. Rick Perry is positioning himself for another run for the White House in 2016. But he’s just been indicted for abuse of power by a Democratic district attorney.

Mike Segar/REUTERS
Texas Governor Rick Perry was indicted Friday by a grand jury on two counts of abuse of power and coercion over a funding veto he made last year seen as intended to force a local prosecutor to resign.

As Texas Gov. Rick Perry finishes up his third full term in office – making him the longest-serving governor in the state’s history – he seems once more to have his eye on the presidency.

He’s been visiting the key state of Iowa, picked a fight with President Obama over immigration by announcing the deployment of 1,000 Texas National Guard troops along the border to head off illegal migrants, and butted heads with other potential GOP candidates – specifically Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky, who he accuses of espousing “isolationist policies.”

But any aspirations for higher office hit a pothole Friday when Perry was indicted by a Travis County grand jury for allegedly abusing his power and coercing a public servant.

In the absence of the late, great Texas political pundit Molly Ivins, who surely would have given the story the dramatic and humorous irony it deserves, we’ll try to explain what happened.

Perry allegedly broke the law when he promised publicly to cut $7.5 million over two years for the public integrity unit run by the office of Travis County District Attorney Rosemary Lehmberg. Ms. Lehmberg, a Democrat, had been convicted of drunken driving, but refused Perry's calls to resign.

So did Perry ax money for the public integrity unit – a kind of state government watchdog meant to enforce state ethics laws – simply because, as he said, “the person charged with ultimate responsibility of that unit has lost the public’s confidence?” Or was it because DA Lehmberg was getting a little too aggressive in her investigations – including Perry's administration?

“Perry’s gotten really comfortable with power over the last 14 years,” writes Christopher Hooks of the Texas Observer. “He controls many of the levers of state government. He’s built up large slush funds inside the governor’s office, disbursing them at his discretion to attract businesses and other projects to the state. He’s been accused of cronyism and patronage numerous times, including perhaps corrupting an agency designed to fight cancer.”

Politics ain’t beanbag, as Mr. Dooley said, so it’s not surprising that a Democratic district attorney would go after a Republican governor, or that a Republican governor would try to oust a Democratic district attorney so he could appoint somebody a little more to his liking.

As the Associated Press points out, the indictment of Perry is the first of its kind since 1917, when James "Pa" Ferguson was indicted on charges stemming from his veto of state funding to the University of Texas in an effort to unseat faculty and staff members he objected to. Ferguson was eventually impeached, then resigned before being convicted.

Nothing may come of it, and Perry’s attorneys vow to fight the charges.

But in any case, as Harry Enten and Walt Hickey point out at the FiveThirtyEight blog, Perry would have a steep uphill path to win the GOP nomination for 2016.

“According to recent polls by NBC/Marist, Perry was at 7 percent in Iowa and 5 percent in New Hampshire,” they write. “Perhaps more importantly, Perry’s repeated gaffes in 2012 would have made it difficult for the GOP establishment to support him again in 2016…. Perry’s past missteps and misstatements may have rendered him unacceptable to Republican power brokers.”

of stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.

Unlimited digital access $11/month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.