A “humble beginning” always makes for a good political story, especially for a presidential candidate. Gov. Rick Perry — who grew up a lonely child of hardworking, hardscrabble parents from the middle-of-nowhere West Texas crossroad town of Paint Creek — has just that.
But let’s start at the humble beginning of the governor’s his political life — specifically 1989, right after Perry switched parties, and jumped into the race for agriculture commissioner against incumbent Democrat Jim Hightower.
In the fall of 1989, Austin American-Statesman reporter Gardner Selby was a newly hired reporter at the Dallas Times Herald.
“My assignment was to go over to the Capitol and pin this guy down,” he says.
Perry was just a state representative with a very small office in the Capitol basement.
“I figured out by looking in the directories where the office used to be,” Selby said recently as he walked through the Capitol, reminiscing. “We’re walking past the men’s room here on the ground floor, just on the east wing. And just a little farther down there was a hallway. I’m going to guess the hallway was right about here,” Selby said, motioning to a door.
“GW.5 — that’s a hallway that led just a couple of steps down and to the left to Gov. Perry’s or then-Rep. Perry’s office, which was G.55C,” he said.
No “Perry Worked Here” plaque hangs on the wall — at least not yet.
Much will be made of the fact that a Republican presidential candidate used to be a Democrat. But political operative Reggie Bashur says it’s really just Texas political semantics. Bashur has worked with dozens of top-tier Republican officeholders during his time in Texas, including Perry and George W. Bush.
“I think at the time, conservative Democrats may have been more conservative then the Republicans in the ’80s,” Bashur says.
Democrat was the only political flavor in Texas for decades, in fact. Before the 1980s, the vast majority of Texans, including Perry, grew up with parents who voted Democrat, making them Democrats by default, too.
But it didn’t take long for the new Republican to rise to the top of the party. After two terms as agriculture commissioner and half a term as lieutenant governor, Perry moved into the Governor’s Mansion when Bush left for Washington.
Through three successful reelection bids, Perry has made an art of defining campaign messages and getting voters to the polls.
“He’s got a tremendous personality, he likes people, he can talk to an individual one on one, he gives a good speech, he carries a strong message,” Bashur says. “And that’s all proven by his success that he’s had, never losing an election.”
But can the governor see the same kind of success using a Texas template in a national election?
Will his record on the death penalty hurt him in states where there is no capital punishment? What about being governor in a state that bans gay marriage? And how will his participation in his day-long prayer, The Response, affect his image among non-evangelical voters?
Perry may actually have an advantage, though, in one of his more moderate policy approaches. State Rep. Aaron Peña, R-Edinburg, one of five Hispanics in the Texas House, says Perry’s stance on immigration is what Hispanics want to see in the Republican Party.
“We have to have commerce with Mexico, but we have to have stability,” he says. “We have to encourage the rule of law in Mexico while at the same time not being anti-Mexican. Gov. Perry has done a very good job in this session and prior sessions of being somebody who understands that.”
So how does all this add up for Perry’s pursuit of the GOP nomination? The run-up to this announcement has been paved with mostly positive stories about the governor’s chances of winning in what some consider to be a weak Republican field.
“Because this race has started so slowly, there is room for Rick Perry to jump right in,” says Reid Wilson, editor-in-chief of National Journal‘s Hotline.
The Washington, D.C., publication ranked Perry third in its presidential “power rankings” in June. Even without an official candidacy, Perry trailed only former Govs. Mitt Romney of Massachusetts and Tim Pawlenty of Minnesota. More recent polls have shown Perry running a close second to Romney.
“He is the only person in the country, I think, who has run an effective primary campaign with a Tea Party-based strategy in a way that can really appeal to the Republican Party these days,” Wilson says.
Wilson says the new incarnation of the Republican Party, with Tea Party support, has fundamentally changed the way the GOP views its candidates. And Perry, he says, is way ahead of that curve.
But what about a run against President Obama? Wilson says the governor’s strong pro-business message could prove effective if the sluggish economy persists.
“The difference is the election is not today,” Wilson says. “The election is in November of 2012. The economy is likely to improve by November of 2012. If voters believe that’s because President Obama’s actions have propelled the economy in the right direction, well then President Obama is going to be very difficult to beat no matter who he’s running against. But Rick Perry, at the moment, has a really strong contrast.”
But Bashur says that even if the economy improves, don’t count Perry out.
“He’s proven himself to be a very strong candidate for whatever office he ran,” Bashur says. “And whether he started out ahead or behind, he was able to prevail.”
Which brings us back to where it all started — the basement of the Texas Capitol, just outside what once was Perry’s office. Selby says that nothing about his interview 22 years ago with the newly minted Republican stood out at the time as particularly memorable — much less presidential.
“I do remember that he didn’t tell me anything,” Selby says. “I remember that best I could, and I was a fairly green reporter then, too, but any way I phrased the question he was, uh … I wouldn’t say ‘aw shucks,’ but he was drawling his answers back to me as if they were an echo of my question. And I can’t even remember if I typed a story out of it.”
Selby didn’t even save the tape from the interview. But then why would you for an underdog candidate running for a minor state office?
You can bet reporters are guarding their old Perry tapes closely now, and listening back for insight on what promises to be one of the most compelling candidacies since … well, since the last time a Texas governor made a run for the nation’s highest office.