The Texecutioner Part II

August 24, 2011

Jason Netek and Alan Maass report on a new Texas governor running for president.

ENDING MONTHS of speculation, Texas Gov. Rick Perry formally announced on August 13 that he was entering the race for the White House in 2012.

He promptly stirred up a hornet's nest of criticism--or declarations of admiration, depending on the source--with several widely publicized pronouncements, including the accusation that Federal Reserve Chair Ben Bernanke was a traitor for considering plans to add more money to the U.S. economy as an attempt at stimulus.

The media obsessed for a while over whether Perry misspoke or slyly grabbed the spotlight for his campaign with his brash comments. But if you're from Texas, you already know that Perry can be counted to utter all kinds of right-wing garbage--and attack anyone he considers a political enemy.

In an early speech after announcing his candidacy, Perry declared that what we need is a president who "is in love with America." But Perry's record as governor of Texas shows he has a different idea of what "love" is from the rest of us.

Perry has been governor since George W. Bush stepped down to become president in 2001. He has ruled very much in the mold of his predecessor and has managed to build on all the worst aspects of the Bush legacy. Whether the issue is executing people, limiting access to abortion, going to the mat for big business or fighting to keep science out of schools, Perry has shown he will go to any length to curry favor with the Religious Right and Corporate America.

Texas Gov. Rick Perry
Texas Gov. Rick Perry (Gage Skidmore)

Jobs and the Texas "miracle"

If you're already sick of hearing about the jobs Rick Perry "created" as governor of Texas, we're sorry, but you're in for a lot more of this hot air. This is cornerstone of Perry's presidential bid.

To be sure, Texas is a low-wage, virulently anti-union and pro-corporate paradise, with fewer regulations of any sort, and no individual or corporate income tax. According to Perry, these policies are the secret to Texas' economic success relative to other states.

But there are a few problems with the miracle. First of all, while employment statistics remained stronger in Texas in the early stages of the crisis--though more as a result of the continuing boom in oil prices than anything Perry did--Texas is notorious for its low-wage jobs. Nearly one in 10 Texas workers makes the minimum wage or less--which ties the state for last place with Mississippi on this measure.

The low-wage model means no benefits, either. Texas has the highest proportion of people without insurance in the country--fully one in four--and the highest proportion of children not covered, as well. Why? One reason, according to Washington Post columnist Harold Meyerson, is that "Texas has an inordinate number of employers who provide no insurance to their workers, partly because insurance rates are high, thanks to an absence of regulation."

Texas' claim to have done better than other states is the result of Perry winning the "race to the bottom." By offering corporations a low-wage and virtually unregulated haven--not to mention legal bribes like tax incentives and state grants--Texas has lured businesses away from other states. But as economist and New York Times columnist Paul Krugman wrote, this doesn't work as a national strategy--because "every state can't lure jobs away from every other state."

In any case, Perry's jobs-creation magic hasn't kept up with population growth, so unemployment in Texas has crept upward. According to Krugman: "In June 2011, the Texas unemployment rate was 8.2 percent. That was less than unemployment in collapsed-bubble states like California and Florida, but it was slightly higher than the unemployment rate in New York, and significantly higher than the rate in Massachusetts."

Of course, Perry's role as pitchman for Texas--according to Meyerson, the state has handed out $500 million in expansion grants and financial incentives to businesses in the past eight years--has put him in touch with a lot of potential donors.

According to the Los Angeles Times, billionaire B.J. "Red" McCombs has donated $400,000 to Perry's recent campaigns--and by sheer coincidence, a Formula One racetrack in which he's investing has been promised $25 million a year in state subsidies for the next decade.

Dallas billionaire Harold Simmons has been even more generous to Perry, contributing $1.1 million over the past decade. And no wonder--Perry delivers. Simmons' company, Waste Control Specialists, got the Texas government to allow it to build a radioactive waste disposal site that will generate hundreds of millions.

Of course, none of this is very different from how politics and business are conducted anywhere in the U.S. What makes Perry stand out is merely that he's so good at it.

The state of the schools

Perry's most recent state budget slashes almost $4 billion in funding for public schools. This will undoubtedly mean widespread teacher layoffs and a huge increase in class sizes.

It goes without saying that teachers and students will pay the price--and they weren't doing very well before. According to federal government statistics, Texas ranked 47th among the states in teacher pay--and dead last in the percentage of students who receive high school diplomas.

According to National Center for Education statistics, 48.8 percent of Texas students were eligible for free or reduced school lunches--and this was during the 2008-09 school year, before the effects of the recession really hit home in Texas. How will schools, facing radically reduced budgets, cope with higher numbers of students requiring financial assistance for their meals?

Perhaps Perry is counting on everyone who needs a free lunch to just drop out of school. No matter how high that number gets, you can't drop further down than last place.

The head executioner

Under Perry's management, Texas has continued as the death penalty capital of the U.S.--second place isn't even close.

Since capital punishment was reintroduced in Texas in 1982, the state has killed 473 people--more than one of every three of those put to death in the U.S. in the modern era of the death penalty. In just 10 years, Perry has presided over almost half of Texas' executions--234 of them--and close to a fifth of the U.S. total for the last 35 years. George Bush by comparison signed off on 153 executions.

In other words, Perry and Bush aren't merely supporters of the death penalty. They're enthusiasts.

The Texas criminal justice system is a rotten one, and few people who challenge a death sentence win. Police racism, prosecutorial misconduct and the near impossibility of a poor person being able to afford decent legal counsel are bad enough. But sometimes, Perry likes to get personally involved.

One such case is that of Cameron Todd Willingham. Willingham was charged with murder for a house fire in 1991 that killed his three daughters. His execution order in 2004 was signed by Perry, even though a series of problems with the verdict had emerged by then. Most important, the supposedly iron-clad scientific evidence from an arson investigation showing the fire was set by Willingham turned out to show nothing of the sort when it was examined by leading forensics experts.

Since then, the evidence that Willingham was innocent--and executed anyway on the orders of Perry--has only grown stronger. When that evidence was due to be examined by the Texas Forensic Science Commission in October 2009, Perry stepped in--and sacked the head of the commission, along with two others, with the aim of burying a report that showed the fire was caused by faulty wiring.

In spite of the Willingham case, as well several still-living prisoners who have been exonerated and freed from death row, Perry has managed to keep the death machine running at top speed. Nothing, it seems, can dampen the governor's zeal for state-sponsored execution.

Women's rights and the Religious Right

His insatiable appetite for executions notwithstanding, Rick Perry claims to be "pro-life."

This past May, he signed a bill into law that requires women seeking to have an abortion to undergo an ultrasound, listen to a doctor describe the fetus and then wait a full day before going ahead with the procedure. Perry says this measure is necessary to "ensure that every Texas woman seeking an abortion has all the facts about the life she is carrying and understands the devastating impact of such a life-changing decision."

In an atmosphere of deadly violence toward abortion providers--as illustrated by the recent firebombing of a clinic in McKinney, Texas--Perry has taken the helm in the war on women, and become an icon of the Religious Right for doing so.

The governor is also an anti-gay crusader. Perry was a supporter of the "homosexual conduct" statute, better known as Texas' anti-sodomy law, which criminalized consensual sex between two adults of the same gender. It was ruled unconstitutional by the U.S. Supreme Court in 2002, but the language making "deviate sexual intercourse with another individual of the same sex" a misdemeanor is still on the books, though not enforced--because Perry and Republican legislators have blocked measures to delete it.

Keen to capitalize on his pious image--and with an eye on his coming presidential campaign announcement--Perry hosted a 30,000-strong prayer rally in Houston in early August. It was called "The Response," and its aim was "renewing America's sense of moral purpose."

The Response received the endorsements of "moral" heavyweights like John Hagee of San Antonio's Cornerstone Church--Hagee likens the Catholic Church to the antichrist and claims that Adolf Hitler was sent by God to force the Jewish people to found the state of Israel and fulfill Biblical prophecy.

Then there's Bryan Fischer, of the American Family Association, who advocates "repatriation" of Muslims from the U.S. to their "home countries." The Response is co-chaired by Tony Perkins of the Family Research Council, who maintains that the high rates of suicides among gay, lesbian and transgender teens is the result of their awareness of being "abnormal."

Such are the people who Perry sees as a source of the nation's "moral renewal."

Seceding from the union (and we don't mean the labor kind...)

Perry is basing his presidential campaign on the belief that he can capture the votes of the Republican Party base that identifies with the Tea Party movement. In April 2009, he went so far as to toss around idle threats about Texas seceding from the union at early Tea Party events.

Of course, Perry's Texas wasn't so independent that it refused to accept the massive sums handed out by the federal government that same year in funds to stimulate the economy.

There's a myth that Texas joined the union after first procuring the right to leave peacefully if its elected government decided to. The actual clause in the treaty that brought Texas into the U.S. in 1845 allows for the state to break up into five separate states.

After citing this misunderstood clause, Perry declared: "We've got a great union. There's absolutely no reason to dissolve it. But if Washington continues to thumb their nose at the American people, you know...who knows what might come out of that. But Texas is a very unique place, and we're a pretty independent lot to boot."

Not only can Perry not decide between "loving America" and wanting to form his own country, but he's also not too very big on democracy.

Perry is on record opposing the 17th Amendment to the Constitution--and advocating a return to the days when U.S. senators were elected not by popular vote, but appointed by state legislatures. In the history of the U.S. according to Perry, the passage of the 17th Amendment was a mistake caused by a "fit of populist rage."

Perry's record is a vile one--and you're certain to hear more about it in the months to come.

For one thing, the Democrats are itching to attack Perry and his crackpot statements like Texas seceding from the union. With disappointment in Barack Obama and congressional Democrats running high among its base, the "party of the people" isn't going to be able to point to its accomplishments to appeal for votes. The Democrats need villains like Perry to scare party supporters into line.

But it's also true that Perry's rapid rise to the front of the pack of those seeking the Republican presidential nomination is another grim sign of how far the mainstream political debate has been pulled to the right.

Further Reading

From the archives