To hear Texas' longest-serving governor tell it, the single biggest reason he struggled so much to get his 2016 presidential campaign off the ground was the indictment that hung over his head for the 90 days or so he was in the race. He just couldn't shake the stigma of a complaint that alleged he improperly used his office to punish a political foe — drunk-driving former Travis County District Attorney Rosemary Lehmberg — and raise the amount of money he needed to compete, Perry told Sean Hannity in September. So he dropped out before a single ballot was cast, failing to make it even as far as he did in his inept 2012 campaign, when he stayed in until just after a dismal sixth-place finish in New Hampshire.
Wednesday, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals overturned the indictment, ruling that Perry acted within his authority when he vetoed funding for Lehmberg's public integrity unit. So, what would've happened had the indictment been ditched sooner? Would Perry, who lashed out against GOP front-runner Donald Trump repeatedly during his brief time on the trail, be in a position to take the New York real estate developer down?
Not if you ask SMU's Cal Jillson, Dallas' resident dean of political thought.
"I think [Perry's campaign] was on a completely different track and would've flamed out spectacularly anyway," Jillson says. "You know, his first bite at the apple in 2012 was under auspicious circumstances. It was a weak field — he was almost cheered into the race and became one of the national front-runners very quickly. What he found out was that the style and the substance that works in Texas campaign deeply worries people in other parts of the country."
Perry squandered the goodwill he might have had around the country then, in 2012, Jillson says, and never positioned himself to earn a second chance. People didn't like the rhetoric he used — Perry talked about fed chairman Ben Bernanke getting roughed up if he came to Texas, Jillson says — and laughed at the Texas governor's unprepared debate performances. Perry, who was coming off a back surgery, was not ready to run, something he admitted during his second campaign.
We Believe Local Journalism is Critical to the Life of a City
Engaging with our readers is essential to the Observer's mission. Make a financial contribution or sign up for a newsletter, and help us keep telling Dallas's stories with no paywalls.
Support Our Journalism
"He said, during his brief 2016 race, that the indictment didn't cost him anything — that it might've helped him a little bit because people saw it as strictly political. It's only when he withdrew that he said the indictment hurt him," Jillson says. "I think what really hurt him was that 2012 performance,. People just never got over that. They never gave him a second look."
Despite Perry's recent turn campaigning for Ted Cruz, Jillson says he expects the three-plus term governor's political life is largely over. Now that Perry doesn't have budgets to sign off on, or appointments to hand out, people just don't need him anymore.
"The thing that you notice is that, although he was governor for 15 years, 15 days after he was out of office, the attention had shifted to [current Governor Greg] Abbott, because Abbott had the jobs to hand out, Abbott had the contracts to sign off on and Abbott had the media lights on him."
Perry, Jillson says, will now likely just try to make sure his family is well taken care of. Perry, unlike many politicians, wasn't rich when he entered office — he had a net worth of around $700,000 — so he'll probably "allow his longtime supporters to build him a nest egg that doesn't require much of [Perry]," Jillson says.