Rick Perry, Builder of a One-Man Republican Dynasty, Exits Texas Stage as Governor Making a Case for His Past, and His Future

Gov. Rick Perry in his farewell speech to legislators Thursday. Credit Eric Gay/Associated Press
Gov. Rick Perry in his farewell speech to legislators Thursday. Credit Eric Gay/Associated Press

Gov. Rick Perry leaves office here next week not so much as a man but as the face of an era — a 14-year reign in which he became the state’s longest-serving chief executive and was widely regarded as the most powerful governor in the history of modern Texas.

He turned a happenstance, unelected rise to office — going from lieutenant governor to governor in December 2000 after George W. Bush resigned to become president — into a one-man Republican dynasty, winning three four-year terms, making every appointment on every board and commission in the state and redefining the power of the governor’s office.

In a farewell speech to the Texas Legislature on Thursday, Mr. Perry made a spirited case for his tenure, boasting that Texas has become more prosperous and financially sound — with better schools, safer streets, cleaner air and fewer frivolous lawsuits — since he became governor.

“There’s a reason more people move to Texas than any other state, because this is the best place in the world to find a job and raise a family and to pursue your dreams,” Mr. Perry, 64, told lawmakers at the Capitol.

As Mr. Perry prepares to leave office and contemplates another run for the White House, his record as governor will be closely scrutinized not just for what it says about him and his legacy but also for what it says about the priorities he set and who has benefited from the state’s prosperity.

And while he and his supporters say the Texas economy thrived under his leadership — more than 30 percent of all the private-sector jobs added in the nation since January 2001 have been in Texas — critics and several economists say Mr. Perry is taking too much credit for the state’s robust economy, and that the state has failed to adequately plan for the future.

“Governor Perry has accomplished some notable things that have promoted economic growth, but he has not created a sustainable platform for long-term prosperity,” said Ray Perryman, an expert on the Texas economy who has been called the unofficial state economist. “I have a real concern that, as the agenda became more partisan over time, the long-term needs of the state in terms of public and higher education, transportation infrastructure, an adequate safety net and water have not been addressed.”

Mr. Perry has been trying to cast his record in the most positive light as he lays the groundwork for a possible second presidential run after his failed bid in 2012. Four days after his successor, Greg Abbott, is sworn in Tuesday, Mr. Perry will be in Iowa, which holds the first presidential nominating caucuses, to speak at a high-profile gathering of conservatives called the Iowa Freedom Summit. On Thursday, Mr. Perry made no mention of whether he had decided to run for president.

Last month, he met with influential Republican donors, policy experts and operatives whom he had invited to Austin, and he has spent months traveling the world and the country in an effort to repair his image after his mistake-prone 2012 bid for president. The Des Moines Register reported in November that Mr. Perry had been to Iowa eight times and had appeared at 33 events since the 2012 elections, more than any other potential 2016 Republican candidate.

As governor, Mr. Perry was everywhere and into everything. Through his longevity, his thousands of appointees and the force of his personality and ambition, he dominated the state to such a degree that two lawmakers in his own party have proposed bills limiting future governors or other top officials to two consecutive four-year terms. Another sign of his clout and savvy has been the ease with which he has handled perhaps his biggest controversy: the criminal charges he faces accusing him of abuse of power.

A grand jury here in Travis County indicted Mr. Perry last year after he pressed the district attorney, a Democrat, to step down by threatening to cut off state financing to the anticorruption unit in her office. Mr. Perry became the first Texas governor in nearly 100 years to face criminal charges. He and his lawyers deny any wrongdoing, and the case has become more of an annoyance than a crisis for him.

“He took the governor’s office to a higher level,” said Mike Sullivan, 57, a Houston Republican who is the Harris County tax assessor and collector. “I’m a native Texan, a native Houstonian, and I grew up with the belief that the lieutenant governor’s office was the strongest office. I think Governor Perry changed that.”

At the heart of the argument for Mr. Perry’s success as governor is his record on jobs. His office said Texas had added 1.8 million private-sector jobs since January 2001. Employment data from the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics showed the numbers to be accurate. But the data also undercut his claim somewhat. Texas added a similar number of private-sector jobs — 1.4 million — during the tenure of Mr. Perry’s predecessor, Mr. Bush, who served nearly six years compared with Mr. Perry’s 14.

On Thursday, Mr. Perry defended the state’s job growth, telling lawmakers that since December 2007, 1.4 million jobs had been created in Texas, while in that same period, the rest of the nation lost 400,000 jobs. “I have been guided by a simple philosophy: that job creation, not higher taxation, is the best form of revenue generation,” he said.

Mr. Perry’s figures were greeted with applause by legislators. Others were more skeptical.

“It’s propaganda,” said Daniel S. Hamermesh, an economics professor at Royal Holloway, University of London, and a professor emeritus at the University of Texas at Austin, referring to Mr. Perry’s use of the state’s jobs numbers. “He’s running for president again and he wants to make it sound like he did something. The effect of any administrator, governor, even a president, on employment growth, given all the checks and balances in our system, is very, very small.”

Professor Hamermesh and others said Mr. Perry benefited from a situation beyond his control — an oil and gas boom that has increased the state’s tax revenues and created jobs across the state. But as the price of oil has plummeted in recent months, some lawmakers and analysts worry that the state’s economy is headed for a slowdown at best, or a regional recession at worst.

“He has the misfortune right now of exiting amid an oil price crash that is likely going to reveal some of the skull beneath the skin,” said Mark Muro, an expert on state and regional economic development with the Metropolitan Policy Program at the Brookings Institution in Washington. “It’s been a good time to be governor of Texas until about last year.”

By any measure, Texas has boomed while Mr. Perry was in office. The state had replaced all the jobs it lost in the 2008 and 2009 recession by November 2011. The nation as a whole did not regain its lost jobs until May 2014. Last year, Toyota announced it would establish its new North American headquarters in the Dallas suburb of Plano and relocate nearly 4,000 employees there from facilities in Southern California, Kentucky and New York.

It was a key victory for Mr. Perry, who has ventured into states led by Democratic governors to woo businesses to Texas. The state offered Toyota $40 million in incentives from Mr. Perry’s economic development fund, and a Toyota spokesman said the company had a long history of working with Mr. Perry. The spokesman said the governor was instrumental in helping Toyota open its San Antonio manufacturing plant in 2006.

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SOURCE: N.Y. Times – Manny Fernandez