The Rick Perry legacy

Tomorrow, Governor-elect Greg Abbott will take the reigns from Rick Perry and officially become just ‘Governor Abbott.’ For the first time since the Clinton administration, Texas will have a new governor. Indeed, Perry has served in office for more than 14 years, shattering all the old records set by his predecessors.

I’ve been putting off writing about this, because I do not necessarily feel qualified to editorialize about political events that transpired in 2000 or 2001. I was six years old when Perry assumed office, so opining on some of Perry’s first acts would be a lot like my father talking about his experience in observing Dwight Eisenhower or Allan Shivers’ respective tenures in office.

Perry, of course, took office on December 21st, 2000, the day that George W. Bush resigned the governorship in preparation to become president. Perry had served as the Lieutenant Governor since 1999, and previously served two terms as Agriculture Commissioner from 1991 to 1999. He also served two terms in the Texas House of Representatives, from 1985 to 1991, the first two of which as a Democrat.

I’m not going to meticulously go over the ebbs and flows of his time in office, others have done a much better job at that. Rather, I want to examine two ideas about Perry that have always stayed with me from his time in office. Contrary to what some may expect from me, they are actually quite positive.

If this makes sense, Perry is an ideologue –but in a good way. When he first took office, his co-leaders were quite different. The Speaker of the House, Pete Laney, was a Democrat, and the acting Lieutenant Governor, State Senator Bill Ratliff (R-Titus County), was a tremendously moderate Republican who could absolutely not succeed in one of his party’s primaries today (think Nelson Rockefeller, except from East Texas). After the conclusion of the 77th Legislature in 2001, Perry vetoed a record number of bills. Even when compared to Ratliff’s successor, David Dewhurst, Perry was right-wing.

Today, however, Perry is seen as an establishment figure. Bud Kennedy at the Fort Worth Star-Telegram opined that he could run for president as the “anti-Cruz,” a more pragmatic establishment type. Compared to, as of tomorrow, Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick or Attorney General Ken Paxton (or even Abbott), Perry is on the moderate side of his party. Obviously, the governor did not tack to the left in an era when so many others zoomed the other way. On the other hand, Perry has a firmly planted set of core beliefs, which does not change because of partisan winds. Love him or hate him, that’s an admirable quality, one that is less and less common in successful politicians.

Second, Perry — at his core — always appears to have all of Texas at heart. Sure, there was the rampant cronyism/corruption. But any even rudimentary student of Texas political history knows that is the rule and not the exception. Unlike Abbott or Patrick, in my opinion, Perry genuinely believed what he was doing would be good for the average Texan (as much as he may have been mistaken in some instances), not the average Republican primary voter.

I have found myself agreeing more and more with the band of Democrats who feel that Perry’s successors will be considerably worse than him, and we will one day covet the comparable pragmatism in the Perry administration. There is certainly some truth in this, but it is important to not get carried away.

Perry pushed through venal so-called “tort reform” that lobotomized much of our court system, including the resurgence of cruddy legal jurisprudence typically only found in Great Britain. He was instrumental in the horrendous gerrymandering scheme that reduced 90%+ of legislative districts to uncompetitive backwaters. More recently, he vigorously pushed the omnibus anti-abortion legislation that Wendy Davis filibustered and he attempted to coerce an unfriendly prosecutor into resigning by threatening (and following through) to veto funding (this is what he was indicted regarding).

Obviously, Texas can’t get much worse off on many fronts, but on others it surely can. Perhaps most horrifying about Abbott and his ilk is that they have no central moral principles, nothing preventing them from grandstanding and demagoguery in the face of an increasingly extreme minority that monopolizes the political process. When they start demanding book burnings or the rescinding of the bill of rights, Perry would have rightly put his foot down. Abbott and Patrick, to the contrary, I’m unsure about.

Adios, mofo. We’ll miss you (sort of).

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The wheelchair ad

State Senator Wendy Davis (D-Tarrant County), the Democratic candidate for Governor, has released the television ad we have all been waiting for: dinging her Republican opponent, Attorney General Greg Abbott, on perceived hypocrisy related to the settlement he received as a result of his disability.

In 1984, when Abbott was 26 and studying for the bar exam, a tree fell on him in a freak accident. He was running around his neighborhood following a storm. The accident left him permanently paralyzed from the waist down; it also prompted him to sue both the homeowner and the landscaping company responsible for maintaining the structural integrity of the tree in question. He won about $10 Million off of that lawsuit. Later, Abbott heralded tort reform that capped punitive damages in lawsuits and brought about big changes that made suits harder for victims. Longtime readers of my opinions will be familiar with my skepticism of so-called tort reform, but that’s not really at issue here.

Accordingly, this narrative, that Abbott rightly received justice after he was wronged but then pulled up the ladder behind him to prevent others from doing the same, is somewhat compelling. It is edgy but it makes a valid point. Considering how Abbott has used his wheelchair to benefit himself in his ads, it appears it is fair game to bring it up in a respectful manner on a relevant point.

All that being said, the ad does not talk about tort reform. Instead, the 30-second spot — filled with ominous narration and music — broadly connects the accident/lawsuit with some of Abbott’s actions in the past, none of which related to tort reform.

The first reference, reported on by The Dallas Morning News this past February, involved Abbott arguing that the State of Texas has sovereign immunity against disabled people who file suit over perceived violations of the Americans With Disabilities Act. The News literally summarized the article by stating that Abbott “tenaciously battled to block the courthouse door to disabled Texans who sue the state.” This is a fair point to bring up, but it is important to note that Abbott did not try to sue the government. There is far more direct hypocrisy with the tort reform point.

The second and third references, respectively, involved the Kirby vacuum case and the case of Dr Christopher Dunstch, both of which have been subjects of other Davis ads. These are more of stretches, as it is difficult to so plainly connect them with any hypocrisy on Abbott’s part.

Abbott, for his part, responded to the ad with shock and indignation. In an exclusive with the San Antonio Express-News, he offered to paint a parallel between himself and Davis (one, for what it’s worth, that is not completely accurate), characterizing Davis as a dirty politician and himself as a far more honest alternative.

It’s her choice if she wants to attack a guy in a wheelchair. I don’t think it’s going to sell too well,” Abbott told the Express-News. “[The ad] is offensive. It shows the tenor of the campaign. If you look at my ads, I focused on what I’m going to be doing as governor, and my opponent spends all her time in ads attacking me, as I’m attacking the challenges that fellow Texans deal with.”

Abbott, of course, has published his own dirty attack ads, one of which takes some excessive liberties with the truth. Still, the whole “throwing rocks at a wheelchair” argument will indeed not do Davis any favors. Aaron Blake at The Washington Post called the ad “one of the nastiest campaign ads you will ever see.” A correspondent at New York Magazine called the ad “at best, in poor taste.” The Week called it “brutal.” Even Mother Jones, no one’s idea of an outlet sympathetic to Republicans, pulled no punches on the Davis campaign. Among the tidbits in their writeup on the ad (penned not by an intern, but by their de facto Online Editor) was assertions that the ad was “nasty,” “offensive” and “bull***t.”

I don’t necessarily agree with much of the sentiment espoused in those national publications, mostly written by snobby Yankees who have never visited our fine state, but — contrary to what some of my compatriots might think — their contributions are important nonetheless. The national media has decidedly figured out that the ad was offensive. My gut tells me that the general public will likely think the same.

I understand the point of the ad. I’ve been advocating for some (albeit, clearer) variation of the point for a while now. But the connection evidently was not clear enough, and the public is outraged at what appears, at cursory glance, to be a mean-spirited attack on a disabled man. For better or for worse, that’s what Davis is dealing with.

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It’s the season for campaign ads, obviously. Just in the past few days, the campaigns of both State Senator Wendy Davis (D-Tarrant County), the Democratic candidate for Governor, and Attorney General Greg Abbott, the Republican candidate, have each released two new 30-second commercials, respectively. Both of Davis’ continue in her tradition of negativity, while Abbott’s stand at one positive and one negative.

In the succeeding paragraphs, I will attempt to briefly explain some of the recent commercials, what their immediate implications are and some of the deeper things to start thinking about with these airing on television. Now, I’m not a very prolific watcher of live TV, and all too often I merely stream programming from Houston on my television (Houston Astros games are hard to come by in Austin). Accordingly, I cannot say from firsthand experience how often these have been coming on the airwaves at, say, primetime as opposed to during weird hours.

In the first Abbott ad, the video cuts into him literally sitting on a large floor map of the United States, specifically over California. He then travels over to the Texas section, all the while narrating why companies are reportedly ditching the Golden State for the Lone Star State. Then, as the grind climax, the Texas section literally raises up as a podium. The entire thing is cheesier than Gouda. And while Abbott gives some specifics about low taxation and competitive regulation, the dialogue seems almost of second importance. The subliminal messaging is quite clear: what may originate in California will eventually end in Texas. It’s a tired phrase that has undoubtedly entered the political lexicon in Texas.

Additionally, and perhaps it’s just me, but I found Abbott’s wheelchair to be somewhat prominently featured in the ad. The camera is zoomed out far enough that you see all of him –not just his face– and then he very obviously rolls his chair across the mapped floor. I’m probably making too big a deal of it, but it stuck out to me. Abbott is obviously not averse to using his wheelchair/disability as a political tool to resonate with voters, given by the subject material of his first TV ad.

Second for the Abbott ads, in yet another 30-second spot that was released today, Abbott goes negative. He connects the dots about some broad shadow attacks that have been flung around at Davis for the past few weeks or so, regarding alleged conflicts of interest between a title company that she partially owned and contracts she voted on while serving on the Fort Worth City Council. The Dallas Morning News provided a pretty concise and fair summary of those issues rather recently, so I would suggest checking it out. The most important line from the report was that Davis never actually violated the ethics policy of the City of Fort Worth, nor engaged in any actual wrongdoing. The connections are supposedly just too close for comfort for some, I guess.

Obviously, it is a big deal that Abbott is going negative. He feels obliged to go down the road of more risk and more reward, rather than playing it safe with more of these sappy, positive shows of pathos. An argument could be made by someone more optimistic than me that this is a good sign of Davis closing the gap.

Davis’ fourth ad, entitled “Time Went By,” deals with the alleged gap between the uncovering of abuse at a juvenile detention center and the Attorney General’s (Abbott) response. The allegation has now received a “Mostly False” designation from PolitiFact.

The scandal occurred in 2005, when Texas Rangers began investigating abuse at the facility and, sensing delay from local prosecutors, one ranger appealed to the Attorney General’s office. What the Davis ad leaves out is that, under state law, the local prosecutor needs to ask the AG to step in. In 2007, after the scandal was leaked to the press, Abbott’s office indeed vigorously prosecutors the abusers.

Continuing in the tradition of negative ads with dark, ominous narration and no interaction on the part of Davis, this ad is yet another disappointment. Negative ads are an effective way to make an impact in a campaign, and I thought her first TV ad was a good way to do that, but dishonesty should never be tolerated in politics. It cheapens the process for all involved, on either side of the aisle. There are plenty of things to rightly knock Abbott on, but this is just not one of them. Obviously, the make takeaway here is that Davis’ ads are all about how Abbott merely uses his office to “cover” for insiders.

Last but not least, Davis’ most recent ad, which was also first released today. This story was described in somewhat vivid detail a few months ago by Texas Monthly, and –once again– I recommend checking it out. The surgeon involved, Christopher Dunstch, maimed and killed quite of few people before eventually being taken out of commission. In a lawsuit, restitution is obviously sought, but the constitutionality of a major tort reform law is also challenged.

The reason is that the current tort reform law currently has an absurdly high standard, “gross negligent,” for these types of holdings. Accordingly, before monsters like Duntsch can be removed from their capacity, quite a few atrocities sometimes must occur in order to prove the aforementioned gross negligence. The ad states that Abbott, after receiving $250,000 from the hospital’s chairman, intervened in the law to defend the hospital. This much is a tad bit misleading; he actually defended the constitutionality of the law.

Still, the apparent quid-pro-quo should be unsettling. And defending the bad law, for all intent and purp0ses, defends the hospital. I don’t know how Politifact will rate this one, but I am overall comfortable with its use. Hopefully, it is effective.

Once again, maybe I am over-analyzing this, but did anyone else notice the huge difference in aesthetic quality of the ads? The Abbott map ad looked to be poorly shot, and the attack ad was –in a word– cacophonous. I could be wrong, but it looks like the Davis campaign is putting more time and money into the production of the advertisements themselves.