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The Charges Against Rick Perry Are Thin. But They Are Also Clarifying.

Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

Barely had their schadenfreude subsided over the indictment Friday of Texas Governor Rick Perry for abusing the powers of his office than even some liberal commentators began questioning the charges. The two counts brought against Perry by a grand jury concern his attempt to force the resignation of the district attorney for Travis County (which includes Austin) after her 2013 drunk-driving arrest by threatening to veto $7.5 million in funding for the state’s Public Integrity Unit, which is housed in her office. The grand jury has charged Perry with “abuse of official capacity,” a first-degree felony, and “coercion of a public servant,” a third-degree felony. But it is not going to be easy for prosecutors to convince a trial jury that a governor wielding his veto power in even the rawest, most ad hominem form, as Perry did here, amounts to a crime. My former TNR colleague Tim Noah, now of MSNBC, tweeted: “I’m no fan of Rick Perry & I'm no lawyer. But this indictment looks pretty thin to me.” Another former colleague, New York’s Jonathan Chait, went further, calling the indictment “outrageously unfair.” Even David Axelrod, Barack Obama’s former strategist, called it “pretty sketchy.”

But regardless of how strong the charges against Perry are, it is worth noting how fitting they are. Put simply, the case against Perry points to an aspect of his political persona that is well known in Texas but has too often been overlooked in the national portrayal of Perry. On the national stage, Perry is alternately depicted as a hardened ideologue—the states’ rights gunslinger who openly flirted with secession—and as a bumbling buffoon who watched his high-octane 2012 presidential campaign flame out in a moment of debate-stage befuddlement. Both of these caricatures miss Perry’s essence. As I argued in a 2011 profile of him for this magazine, Perry is both more conniving and less ideologically-motivated than the national perception of him would have one believe. He is, at heart, a political operator and a striver who has wielded the many levers of power available to him as governor of the second largest state less to advance a coherent conservative agenda than for his own aggrandizement and that of his cronies.

This is a politician who, after being elected to the state legislature as a Democrat in 1984, blithely admitted, “I had not one piece of legislation I planned to carry.” Who told the state’s then-land commissioner not to trouble him with the details of a bill he was promoting: “Don’t waste your time. I wouldn’t understand it anyway. Just make sure you’re there to talk about it.” Who switched parties not via some grand epiphany but at the suggestion of a young Karl Rove, who saw in Perry an ideal challenger for the state’s liberal agricultural commissioner, Jim Hightower. Who was so uninterested in public policy that, at the weekly breakfasts he attended as lieutenant governor with then-Governor George W. Bush and Democratic House Speaker Pete Laney, he would barely engage with the other two, filing his fingernails while Bush and Laney discussed state business. In other words, when it comes to being a warrior for the conservative cause, Rick Perry is no Ted Cruz.

Where Perry made his mark, once he ascended to the governorship, was not in advancing a policy agenda but in wielding power to curry favor with the wealthy supporters who made him the most formidable fundraiser in the history of a state with next to no limits on campaign contributions.  Often, this meant taking actions that were in contravention of some elements of conservative orthodoxy. His failed highway and rail plan, the Trans-Texas Corridor Initiative, would have required a massive land grab at a time when many conservatives have grown wary of eminent domain takings. But the project also would have benefited three highway contractors who had contributed hundreds of thousands of dollars to him. His attempt to mandate that Texas girls receive a vaccine for HPV, seemingly at odds with Perry’s social conservatism, looked more explicable when one considered that his former chief of staff was lobbying for Merck, the vaccine’s manufacturer. And yes, Merck contributed $30,000 to Perry over his first decade as governor. Back in 1999, Perry’s first year as lieutenant governor, an e-mail from a Dallas insurance executive surfaced claiming that, by offering a $25,000 contribution, a lobbyist had convinced Perry against convening a Senate committee on insurance deregulation; shortly after the e-mail was sent, Perry received $19,000 at an insurance industry fund-raiser. In 2008, Perry requested a Texas waiver from federal ethanol mandates—one month before an East Texas poultry producer who was pressing for the waiver to keep his feed-costs lower contributed $25,000 to Perry.

The influence game, under Perry, has been played primarily in two different venues. First, there are the thousands of appointments he gets to make to the 270 boards and commissions that oversee vast swaths of the state’s functions. Perry expressed his gratitude to James Leininger, a staunch conservative whose last-minute loan to Perry helped him narrowly win his 1998 race for lieutenant governor and who gave him $239,000 more over the next decade, by appointing former top employees of Leininger’s hospital-bed company—in which Perry’s personal investment during the ’90s resulted in a $38,000 gain—to the Texas Board of Health, as chair of the influential Texas Workforce Commission, and as head of the nonprofit that oversees the state’s faith-based grant-making. In another case, Perry created a whole new government body, the Texas Residential Construction Commission, to allow building contractors to self-regulate rather than fight claims in court, thereby rewarding the homebuilder Bob Perry (no relation), who gave Perry $175,000 in the two years prior to the board’s creation in 2003 and whose own corporate counsel was given one of the seats on it.

Second, there are the two enormous “job creation” funds Perry has set up to disburse taxpayer funds to big companies moving jobs to Texas (or promising to keep them there) and start-up tech ventures. Typical of the way these funds worked was a $50 million grant in 2009 from one of them, the Emerging Technology Fund to create the National Center for Therapeutics Manufacturing, which would seek to turn Texas A&M, Perry’s alma mater into a hub of vaccine development. As I reported in my 2011 piece:

A year earlier, the A&M system had entered into an agreement to develop vaccines with a therapeutics manufacturing firm called Introgen; this put the firm in a position to benefit from the new center. Introgen’s founder, David Nance, is a close friend of Perry’s. He contributed $100,000 to Perry over the decade, he had previously served on the advisory committee of the tech fund awarding the $50 million, and Perry’s son, Griffin, owned Introgen stock between 2001 and 2004.

Introgen had its main drug rejected by the FDA and declared bankruptcy shortly before the $50 million award, but Nance continued to do well by the state. In 2010, the tech fund awarded $4.5 million to his next venture, Convergen, even after a review panel rejected the application. The fund paid Nance’s daughter $70,000 for promotional work, and several fund employees went to work with Nance. Perry also provided $1.9 million in federal funds to a separate Nance venture, Innovate Texas, founded in 2008 as a sort of clearinghouse for Texas tech firms. The outfit paid Nance a six-figure salary. It is now defunct. I was unable to find any trace of Nance—his name is still on the directory at his gated community outside Austin, but the line has gone dead.

These sorts of dealings—so at odds with the conservative movement’s avowed scorn for “crony capitalism”—would have gotten far more scrutiny had Perry’s 2012 presidential campaign not disintegrated so quickly. But now they are back in the public eye, because they are at the heart of the showdown between Perry and the Travis County district attorney, Rosemary Lehmberg. At the time of her drunk-driving arrest, the Public Integrity Unit under her command had been investigating Perry’s appointees at the state’s Cancer Prevention Research Institute, another favored dollar-disburser of Perry's, for making an improper $11 million grant to a Dallas firm. In making his righteous demand for Lehmberg’s resignation and then revoking the funding for the Public Integrity Unit when she refused to quit, Perry was undermining one of the few entities in the state with the ability to expose the taxpayer-funded web of influence and favor-peddling that he has constructed. He may well avoid conviction on the charges that have now been brought against him a result of that maneuver, and who knows, may still resume his post-2012 comeback and mount a second run for president. But if he does so, we will as a result of this case have a clearer sense of who Rick Perry is than we did last time around, and what questions need to be asked about him.