Rick Perry Says He's Mr. Grassroots, But His Trans-Texas Flop Suggests Otherwise

Tea Party people say they hate Washington and its top-down style of governance. They're the political version of eat-local. Everything should be grassroots.

Here in Texas the Tea Party loves Governor Rick Perry, but if you talk to people who've gone up against Perry on local issues, they will tell you that grassroots is one word the man cannot even find in the dictionary.

I ran into this particular Perry disconnect when I was doing the reporting for a story on Perry in this week's newspaper. One of the little sagas we had to trim back for space had to do with his attempt to build the Trans-Texas Corridor, a proposed but now defunct 4,000-mile-long high-tech transportation right-of-way, four football fields wide, from Mexico to Oklahoma.

Talk about top-down. Perry got beat badly on the TTC because he acted like he didn't even know local communities existed. The local communities that probably had more to do with beating him were our own town, Dallas, and Fort Worth.

For that part of my Perry story, I hardly talked to any progressive anti-highway Democrats at all. The people who fought Perry on it and beat him were mostly conservative-leaning pro-road-building Republicans. They all told me they liked Perry's basic idea but just couldn't reason with the man because of his autocratic style.

The TTC was the brainchild of an oil and gas millionaire pal of Perry's from back in the day, the late Ric Williamson, whom Perry had appointed chair of the state's Transportation Commission. The idea is dead now, shot many times over in the head by the Legislature. In fact, even though it had already been dead four years, the most recent Legislature dragged out the corpse and shot it again just to make sure, passing new legislation to curb the state's use of eminent domain.

One of the first people I interviewed for my piece was Republican State Senator Florence Shapiro of Plano. She said rural dwellers in the proposed path of the TTC learned the details from local newspapers and blogs, not Perry.

"Think if you're living in one of these communities. You've had farm land for three generations, and one day you read in the paper that this mammoth, behemoth, much larger than necessary thing is going to condemn most of your property. They were livid and rightfully so."

But so were the cities. Dallas and Fort Worth at the time were pouring hundreds of millions in infrastructure dollars into our two competing "logistics centers" -- rail and freeway hubs with gargantuan automated warehouses to handle Pacific Rim trade coming up from deep-water ports in Houston, Mexico and Southern California. The TTC would have stepped around both centers, carrying all of that lucrative trade instead out into hinterlands where people didn't want it.

Bill Blaydes, then the Dallas City Council member in charge of our "inland port" project, says he, like Shapiro, thought the TTC idea had merit. He says it could have been married to Dallas' project, as well as to Fort Worth's Alliance Logistics Center, had Perry merely been willing to deal.

"It was a magnificent idea, had he been willing to work with the metropolitan areas and not try to bypass something that we had been working very hard to promote," Blaydes says. "We probably would not have fought it as hard as we did, but we fought it all the way to Washington."

In several years of trying, Blaydes said he was never able to find an inch of common ground with Perry or his friend Williamson. "They were headstrong and hard-headed. They could not and would not revise their vision," he says.

Sandy Greyson was the Dallas City Council member responsible for long-range transportation planning policy. She says when Dallas realized Perry wouldn't negotiate, the city mobilized quickly, hiring David Dean, a transportation lobbyist with strong ties to the Legislature.

Before Dean ever approached the capital, Greyson says, he ventured into the boondocks and did the grassroots work Perry and Williamson had failed to do, knitting together a coalition of every town council, aggrieved rancher and outlet mall he could find along the proposed route. By the time Dean took his "River of Trade" coalition to Austin, the TTC was a dead letter.

Greyson calls Williamson "a brilliant man" and mourns for the better parts of his concept. But, she says, "The fatal flaw in the whole thing was that it seemed to be a very top-down plan that would be imposed on people and cities and counties."

Shapiro says of the plan now, "It's gone." She says Perry could have pulled it off, had he been willing or able to work the grassroots.

"The idea should have been from the bottom up rather than from the top down. You would talk about it," Shapiro says. "You would have discussions about why we need this kind of infrastructure, so it comes from the grass roots, from the community leaders, from the people who own the land, not the government here telling you what to do."

Toss in Perry's decision to order HPV vaccinations for Texas girls and the way he handled the education budget in this recent legislative session: You have a man here who doesn't know a grass root from a railroad tie.

Given his campaign ads and his promises on the stump to put power back in the hands of states and local communities, there is enormous irony in how he really governs. But if something happened to Romney, Perry got the GOP nod and beat Obama ... well, that situation would go way beyond irony.

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