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Rick Perry: The Best Little Whore In Texas

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While Bush made a great political career pretending to be a hick Texas rancher, Perry started out as the real thing, a cotton farmer and cattle rancher who spent his early adulthood looking for a way out of life on his dad's farm. "He was ranching with his family," says Fred McClure, a former aide to Sen. John Tower who met Perry in 1978. Perry had come to Washington to observe the American Agricultural Movement, a grassroots campaign launched by farmers to get the federal government to raise farm subsidies. Though the movement was the ideological opposite of the Tea Party, begging for government handouts, Perry knew a political opportunity when he saw it. "This was an early indicator of his ability to evaluate politically what was going on," says McClure, who remains friends with Perry today. "The grassroots nature of the American Agricultural Movement was not unlike the grassroots nature of the Tea Party. He developed the skill set to read the political tea leaves." It was after watching the angry farmers descend on Washington that Perry decided to run for the state legislature. "I think part of it was that he was bored farming in Haskell," McClure says.

Perry's early political career was marked most particularly by a seeming lack of ambition to accomplish anything specific. After being elected to the Texas House in 1984, he told a newspaper in Abilene, "I had not one piece of legislation I planned to carry." When the state land commissioner asked him to sponsor a bill, Perry told the commissioner not to bother explaining it. "I wouldn't understand it anyway," Perry said.

Back then, the future global-warming denier was a Democrat, and even supported Al Gore for the presidency in 1988. But with Texas moving to the right, Perry switched parties the following year – not for ideological reasons, it appears, but because he could sense the wind shifting. "Perry is a really, really good politician," one Republican strategist later explained. "He understood where the state of Texas was going." The move also enabled Perry to defeat Jim Hightower, a popular Democrat, as agricultural commissioner, a powerful post in America's second-biggest farm state. During his two terms in the office, Perry demonstrated little ideological bent, even expressing support for Hillary Clinton's health care plan in the early Nineties. In 1998, Perry was elected lieutenant governor alongside George W. Bush, serving with the kind of distinction that made his boss look like Winston Churchill. Perry reportedly zoned out during a series of breakfast meetings that Bush held with top Texas politicians. "Sometimes, to pass the time, he would file his nails," The New Republic reported.

Bush and Perry reportedly had a chilly relationship, thanks in part to Bush's refusal to let Perry test the limits of political nepotism. In 1995, Perry wanted to nominate his brother-in-law, Joseph Thigpen, to the 11th Court of Appeals. Bush blocked the move, and legend has it that Perry blamed Karl Rove for the incident and never forgave either of them. This might help explain in part why Perry was so eager to start packing the state offices with cronies the moment Bush left for Washington.

Perry's prowess in building his political machine at the expense of taxpayers can be tied directly to his administration's almost mathematical precision in making government handouts match the campaign contribution. "There are a couple of things you need to do if you want to raise obscene amounts of money," says Andrew Wheat, research director at Texans for Public Justice. "One, you need to send the message that you're carefully counting who's giving how much, to create a competitive atmosphere. And two, you want to send not-so-subtle signals that there's going to be a return on the investment. And this governor has been a master of sending those signals."

How masterful has he been? According to Texans for Public Justice, Perry appointed 921 of his donors and their spouses to government posts over the past decade. All told, those appointees gave a staggering $17 million to his campaigns – 21 percent of the entire amount he raised during that time. To give an indication of just how completely for-sale public appointments became during his administration, Perry collected $6.1 million from the 155 people he appointed to be regents of state universities in Texas.

You can get a fairly decent summary of Perry's track record as governor just by going down the list of political favors that were granted to the 204 "Central Committee" members who collectively contributed half of his campaign money. Start at the top: Perry's biggest single donor, the homebuilder Bob Perry, was rewarded with his very own regulatory agency.

Back in the Nineties, Bob Perry made a fortune building cheap homes, and he had enormous success in circumventing regulation, taking advantage of arbitration clauses that prevented homeowners from suing in the event of leaks or faulty construction or other problems. But after he lost a high-profile arbitration case, he and other builders decided to go straight to the top. In 2003, his company's general counsel, John Krugh, served on a task force established to craft new legislation. The result was a bill creating the Texas Residential Construction Commission, which Gov. Perry signed into law that year. Not long after getting a $100,000 check from Bob Perry, the governor appointed Krugh to serve on the new nine-member commission.

The commission, which initially included four builders and not a single consumer advocate, was a masterpiece of deregulation – actually a kind of deregulation from within, in which builders created and ran a toothless regulatory agency to non-police themselves. The body forced homeowners to pay, at minimum, hundreds of dollars for an inspection fee before making any complaint against a builder. And though the commission frequently ruled in favor of ripped-off homeowners, it had no enforcement power at all – meaning homeowners rarely got their homes fixed.

Perry's entire career as governor is marked by a history of similar handouts to his top donors. In 2005, he signed an executive order to speed approval for 17 new coal-fired power plants that would drive the state's carbon footprint past that of Florida, California and New York combined. Eleven of the plants were slated to be built by TXU, a million-dollar donor. Then there was the chicken-farming king Lonnie Pilgrim, who once handed out $10,000 checks on the floor of the Texas legislature in advance of a bill; he gave more than $600,000 to the governor and his causes, and Perry repaid the favor by petitioning the EPA for a waiver of federal ethanol mandates, which had jacked up the price of corn feed for Pilgrim's business.

Perhaps the single most interesting favor that Perry doled out is one that directly violated his supposedly "conservative" Tea Party principles. One of his first big moves as governor was to back the Trans-Texas Corridor, a $175 billion project to privatize the state's highways. This was to be the mother of all public-works projects, a 4,000-mile highway network, at some points four football fields wide, that would also include commuter rails, freight rails and telecom pipelines. The TTC, in essence, was the ultimate Tea Party nightmare, a massive public boondoggle that would have created a huge network of new tolls and required a nearly unprecedented use of eminent domain to help the state seize nearly 500,000 acres of land from ranchers and farmers.

Though most of the project was shot down by the state legislature, Perry did manage to push through several parts of it, most notably a few stretches of new highway construction around Houston and Dallas. Some of the beneficiaries of those projects were American firms that had donated lots of money to Perry and the governors association, like Williams Brothers Construction ($621,000), Parsons Corporation ($410,000) and JP Morgan Chase ($191,000). But another beneficiary was a Spanish firm called Cintra, part of a consortium that won the development rights for the original TTC project.

Cintra's involvement was an obvious case of revolving-door politics. A Cintra consultant named Dan Shelley left private practice in 2004 and joined the Perry Politburo that same year, working as the governor's legislative liaison during the time Cintra was in line to win the multibillion-dollar project. A year later, Shelley went back to private practice, earning more than $50,000 in consulting fees from Cintra once he left "public" office.

Cintra ultimately received about $5 billion in contracts from the state to develop three major highway projects, one of which, a toll road in central Texas, is one of the few surviving remnants of the hated TTC. On another Cintra highway, the North Tarrant Express near Fort Worth, the state ponied up $570 million to subsidize the project and permitted Cintra to recoup its investment by building toll lanes for drivers who want to bypass the free lanes. That means future generations of Texans who are in a hurry to get somewhere will have the pleasure of being able to jump on a toll lane they already paid taxes to help build. It turns out you can mess with Texas after all.

That's if the road ever gets finished. Cintra received a similar contract to run a toll road in Indiana, but it soon ran into financial problems and had to jack up tolls to pay for the $3.8 billion project. In Texas, Cintra will have some latitude to raise rates on its roads, and if you don't like it, well, fuck you. "What are we going to do – go complain to a board in Spain?" says Terri Hall, founder of an advocacy group called Texans Uniting for Reform and Freedom that fought the highway deal.

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ABOUT THIS BLOG

Matt Taibbi

Matt Taibbi is a contributing editor for Rolling Stone. He’s the author of five books and a winner of the National Magazine Award for commentary. Please direct all media requests to taibbimedia@yahoo.com.

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