San Antonio Express-News (Texas)

January 28, 2001, Sunday , METRO

An Accidental Governor? ; Fate and timing have aided Perry

BYLINE: W. Gardner Selby


LENGTH: 2215 words


AUSTIN - Some call it luck and some call it unparalleled drive. Whatever the reason for Rick Perry's political rise, all can now call him governor of Texas.  

"I really like the guy," said Sam Kinch Jr., a veteran journalist who has known Perry since 1985. "But I didn't think he'd ever be a political star. He's kind of an accidental governor."  

Texas voters elected Perry lieutenant governor in 1998, and he was sworn in as governor last month after George W. Bush resigned upon winning the presidency. The West Texas native likely will seek election as governor in his own right in 2002.  

 Perry's rise to power has been attributed by some to plain good luck.  

"He was almost, and would have been forever, a nonentity except for accidents of fate and timing," said Kinch, co-author of "Too Much Money Is Not Enough - Big Money and Political Power in Texas."  

Maybe so.  

But others who know James Richard "Rick" Perry say he never stumbled into fortune and has simply and tenaciously gotten what he sought - from life and from politics.  

"He always wanted to be the 'It,' you know what I mean?" said Wanda Morrison, who has known Perry since he attended grade school in Paint Creek. "He always liked to be what I call the 'It' and the head of it. He wanted to be the best at everything he did."  

 Perry's public life encompasses three terms as a Democratic member of the Texas House and his 1990 upset, as a Republican, of Democratic Agriculture Commissioner Jim Hightower before winning the state's No. 2 job in 1998.  

Friends expect Perry to make a lasting mark on the state, even though compared to predecessors Bush and Ann Richards he remains all but unknown to many of his constituents.  

They say to know Perry best, it helps to start where he started, a world away from Austin.  

Ricky Perry was born March 4, 1950, the only son of farmer J.R. "Ray" Perry and wife Amelia Perry and younger brother to Milla. Perry grew up in tiny Paint Creek, 14 miles west of Haskell, 55 miles north of Abilene and more than 250 miles from the state capital.  

By all accounts, Ricky was a typical country boy. He and Milla rode Shetland ponies down the road to visit neighbors. Perry took piano lessons and also played sports, hunted, fished and dived into 4-H activities. When he could, Perry hung out with Paint Creek's Boy Scout Troop No. 48, which gathered Saturdays to ride bicycles around Haskell County, build forts and play in the Scouts' hand-built tower.  

 Perry loved the Scouts and still does; he wears his Eagle Scout pin on his lapel daily.  

And he enjoyed quite a camaraderie with his pals, who saw him as a friendly, big-talking boy likely to pull a prank or two.  

One day, a dead snake appeared in the wooden tower.  

"He never owned up to this, but I have a sneaky suspicion it was him," fellow Scout James Coleman said. "When I got eye level with that snake ... I liked to have had a heart attack."  

One weekend during high school, the Paint Creek boys went to Dallas for the State Fair. They spent the night in sleeping bags in a school gymnasium. While most slept, Perry and pals squeezed toothpaste into each boy's hair.  

"I was a practical joker," Perry said. "That's my defense. It was a long time ago.  

"I don't remember what brand of toothpaste it was."  

Another Paint Creek Scout, Riley Couch, said the young Perry hardly seemed interested in politics, even though his father, a Democrat, served seven terms as a Haskell County commissioner.  

"Perry and I didn't even know there was a governor, I don't think," Couch said. "We were only interested in throwing clods at each other. He was a terrible clod-fighter. He couldn't hit the side of a barn."  

 Perry attended the one-story, tan-brick Paint Creek School, where he graduated third in his class before heading to college.  

In his senior year, Perry was one of two quarterbacks for the Paint Creek Pirates.  

In one game, Coleman said, Perry was knocked flat on his back, his breath gone. As teammates leaned over, Perry winked and said: "How's the crowd taking it?"  

The Pirates won 11 games and reached the regional six-man championship against the Miles Bulldogs. On Friday night, Dec. 1, 1967, Perry threw a touchdown pass. But Paint Creek lost, 64-26.  

That game, 33 years ago, turned out to be Perry's last significant defeat.  

At Texas A&M University, Perry joined the Corps of Cadets and won election as one of the university's student yell leaders. He also fell in with students who would later win public office, including future state Sen. Kent Caperton, U.S. Rep. Chet Edwards, Rep. Clint Hackney, Land Commissioner Garry Mauro and State Comptroller John Sharp.  

Hackney said he told a Boston reporter last year that Aggie traditions are so vital, incoming Corps cadets are quizzed on A&M history. In telling the tale, though, Hackney misstated the name of the university's first president, Thomas S. Gathright.  

From his Capitol office, Perry came across the article and hollered.  

"'Hackney, you want me to tell all your classmates that you forgot the first president of Texas A&M?'" Hackney recalled Perry saying in a phone call. "And he proceeded to dress me down and tell me who the first president was."  

 Perry graduated in 1972 with a bachelor's degree in animal science before entering pilot training in the Air Force in August 1972. He served four years and four months piloting cargo planes from two West Texas air bases before resigning to join his parents on the farm.  

Off and on, Perry had been dating the family doctor's daughter, Anita Thigpen, in Haskell. They were wed in 1982 after a courtship of nearly 17 years.  

While partnering with his father on the farm, Perry nurtured his Aggie friendships, including Fred McClure, an aide to then-Sen. John Tower.  

McClure recalled a harrowing hunting trip that started late one Friday.  

As the sun set on Paint Creek, McClure was seated in the front seat of a very primitive plane, a 1952 Super Cub that Perry piloted from the rear.  

"I'm riding in the front seat, he's scaring me to death," McClure said, especially when he realized the dirt landing strip near their intended bunkhouse was not lighted.  

"We had to buzz the house so we could make sure the guys at the house knew we were there, and they would go out in pickup trucks at either end of the runway to give us a little bit of light to land," McClure said. "It was one of the scariest moments of my life. He was enjoying the opportunity to put the fear of God in me."  

Soon, Perry took a different risk by seeking the Democratic nomination for a Texas House seat vacated by the incumbent. He and campaign manager Don Comedy barnstormed in the Super Cub, outpacing two older candidates who did not have planes to traverse the West Texas district.  

Comedy said Perry was not a polished speaker, but he was sincere, upbeat and organized.  

"We'd hit some little-bitty town, a wide spot in the road. He'd meet 20 or 30 people. Immediately when we got back in the airplane, he'd write down the names and review them before his next visit," Comedy said. "Those were the kinds of things that won that election without a runoff."  

 Perry had no November opponent because Republicans did not declare themselves in Haskell County, "Yellow Dog Democrat" territory since Reconstruction. There would be no Republican primary for another six years - with Perry near the top of the ticket.  

 Perry was not a standout in the 1985 Texas Legislature, but he made friends.  

"He enjoyed the parties, he enjoyed the camaraderie of the Legislature," said Kinch, who was watching events closely as editor of a capitol insiders newsletter. "He had very little appearance of a sense of purpose other than to be a conservative Democrat who watched after a fairly narrow range of issues mainly having to do with agriculture and water."  

By the 1987 session, Perry was plugged into the leadership of then-House Speaker Gib Lewis, D-Fort Worth, who appointed Perry and other second-term members to the budget-writing House Appropriations Committee. The panel pared the budget during a down time in the economy.  

 Perry and the other watchdogs were nicknamed the "Pit Bulls" for their detailed inquiries into how state agencies were spending taxpayer dollars.  

"They jumped enthusiastically into the fight," said Rep. Tom Uher, D-Bay City, who shared an apartment with Perry during the 1985 legislative session.  

In 1988, Perry joined 27 fellow House Democrats in support of presidential hopeful Sen. Al Gore, D-Tenn.  

"On the surface, Al Gore appeared to be the more conservative of the candidates," said Perry, recruited by Lewis as a Gore campaign co-chairman in Texas. Perry said he made one campaign trip on Gore's behalf.  

"Fortunately, we found out who the real Al Gore was, and I was long on the side of the angels by then," Perry said.  

In 1989, Perry may have hoped Lewis would reward him with a committee chairmanship. But the appointment did not happen. Lewis, who urged him to remain in the House, said reports that Perry was miffed about not getting a chairmanship are "absolutely nonsense."  

"The right spin on it was he got a better deal," Lewis said.  

 Kinch said Perry knew it was time for different pursuits.  

"It began to appear Perry had reached his highest and best use," Kinch said, "that he was not leadership material and not a future speaker of the House. That's when he started playing with the idea of running against Hightower."  

 Perry was being courted to switch to the Republican Party to run against Hightower, who had turned the Agriculture Commission into a bully pulpit for progressive causes.  

Conservatives were steamed at their inability to unseat the two-term commissioner.  

"We couldn't find anyone to run against Hightower," said Wayne Showers, an executive with a Rio Grande Valley produce company.  

Showers said he and other activists knew Perry could not defeat Hightower in a Democratic primary. But as a Republican, they figured, Perry might pull an upset.  

Bill McKenzie, then chairman of the A&M regents, said Perry switched in September 1989 after dining in Dallas with the McKenzies, then-President Bush, Sen. Phil Gramm and George W. Bush, who was meeting Perry for the first time.  

"I don't think he agonized over it at all," McKenzie said. "He had lots of friends in the Democratic Party at the time and still does."  

Back home when the news was announced, Perry bumped into his neighbor, a staunch Democrat.  

"'I read the paper this morning,'" the neighbor said, according to Perry.  

"Yes, sir."  

"'You know something? You never were a Democrat.'"  

"And he was probably right," Perry said.  

The decision made, Perry faced a statewide campaign requiring him to catch the white-hatted incumbent with the quickest quips in Texas. And Perry also started with no name identification or personal wealth to buy TV time.  

Ken Luce, his campaign manager, said that early in the campaign, he fielded a call late one night from Perry, in Houston for a fund-raiser. He asked the candidate how it went.  

As Luce recalled, Perry put it this way: "Well, one person showed up and that was my cousin. You've got a lot of work to do."  

Luce said the campaign succeeded because many farmers were committed to defeating Hightower, and Perry was a tireless campaigner and fund-raiser who would travel anywhere to pick up a check.  

"Rick worked every crowd, he shook every hand," Luce said. "If it was $5,000 at a dinner, Rick would go. That doesn't happen anymore."  

 Perry won by a sliver. Hightower explained to reporters the next day: "Sometimes a peacock, sometimes a featherduster." He had been dusted.  

 Perry cleared Agriculture's upper ranks of Hightower's deputies, then settled in to restore what he called the commission's lost credibility. Perry promoted Texas farm products globally and encouraged exports.  

Some thought he would try to stay the state's agriculture commissioner for life. But after handily winning a second term in 1994, Perry set higher sights, letting it be known he might run for the U.S. Senate unless another opportunity presented itself.  

When then-Lt. Gov. Bob Bullock decided not to seek a third term, Perry emerged as the leading Republican hopeful.  

For the Democrats, Sharp, the state comptroller and a fellow Aggie, won the Democratic nomination.  

The resulting race might have come out differently if then-Gov. Bush had not sought a second term. Bush, well-funded and popular, thrashed Mauro, the underfunded Democratic gubernatorial nominee, and the landslide lifted the entire GOP ticket.  

 Perry, bolstered by a late $1 million loan from conservative San Antonio businessman James Leininger and others, defeated Sharp in a closely contested race.  

 Kinch said Perry has been fortunate, but he does not expect him to leave a great mark on government.  

Then again, Kinch said: "How do I know? The public may say, this guy is just wonderful. Here's a modern cowboy and he's ours."  

LOAD-DATE: January 28, 2001


GRAPHIC: EDWARD A. ORNELAS/STAFF : perry; Texas boots are a prominent part of Gov. Rick Perry's dress as he answers questions in his office in the state Capitol last week.; Rick Perry's 1968 high school senior class photo.; Rick Perry's senior class football photo from his 1968 high school yearbook. He played quarterback.


Copyright 2001 San Antonio Express-News