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Perry’s political career took root in Democrats’ soil

Was conservative even before switch

“He was pretty conservative, pretty principled - almost too squeaky clean,’’ said Gib Lewis (right). “Boy had no fun.’’ “He was pretty conservative, pretty principled - almost too squeaky clean,’’ said Gib Lewis (right). “Boy had no fun.’’ (Texas State Library and Archives)
By Michael Levenson
Globe Staff / September 21, 2011

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Long before he became a pistol-packing, Bible-quoting Tea Party favorite running for the Republican presidential nomination, Rick Perry was just a rancher looking to break into politics - as a Democrat.

He sought the support of Charles W. Stenholm, the Democratic congressman from nearby Stamford, who spent two hours talking politics with Perry in a Chevy pickup parked outside a West Texas cotton gin.

Perry’s father, a Democratic county commissioner, had helped Stenholm in his campaigns, so the congressman agreed to help elect the son to the Texas Legislature in 1984.

“I knew his parents, knew his family, and that was enough for me,’’ he said.

Perry, then 34, served five years as a Democrat in the Texas House. Then, in 1989, he became a Republican, recruited by Karl Rove and other GOP leaders who saw him as a rising star in a state shifting to the right.

Perry’s years as a Democratic lawmaker - during which he voted for one of the largest tax increases in Texas history, backed a pay raise for legislators, and endorsed Al Gore for president - are drawing national scrutiny now that he is a front-runner for the Republican nomination.

But Perry was no liberal. Interviews with people who knew him at the time reveal a man who was conservative and grew more so, and a man who shrewdly anticipated the opportunities he could seize if he became a Republican in a state swinging toward the GOP.

Some in Texas say Perry, now 61 and the longest-serving governor in Texas history, merely changed his lapel pin, so to speak. “I don’t think he ever changed his politics,’’ said Wallar Overton, 72, the Democratic precinct chair in Perry’s hometown of Paint Creek, who has known Perry since he was a mischievous Boy Scout. “I just think he fit better there, and got more money and support there.’’

Perry’s switch to the GOP stunned and upset many in the solidly Democratic swath of West Texas cotton country where Perry grew up and where some hard feelings persist. Some see a changed man openly professing his faith as he courts Christian conservatives - something he never did in his early days.

“He is nowhere the same,’’ said Stenholm, 72, who served in Congress from 1979 until 2005, when a redistricting plan approved under Perry cost him his seat. “He changed philosophically. I don’t remember that he put his Christianity on his sleeve and ran on it. I know he felt more, at that time, that religion was a private affair, and should not be publicized, and he did not do it, and his family did not do it. He did not use that as a political act.’’

Perry, however, is hardly the only Texan to have quit the Democratic Party at the time.

While many Southern states flipped to the Republican Party during the Civil Rights era in the 1960s, Perry was at the forefront of a later but no less seismic shift in his state: The Texas Legislature, which was still overwhelmingly Democratic in the 1980s, is now controlled by Republicans, as is every statewide office.

“There was just kind of a sea change in Texas from the Democratic Party to the Republican Party,’’ said Brian Burgess, chairman of the Haskell County GOP, who has known Perry since the 1970s, when he was Perry’s worship leader at First United Methodist Church. “I thought it was natural for him to become a Republican, but a lot of the Democrats around who worked hard to elect him as a Democrat felt betrayed.’’

At the time, Republican leaders were successfully pressuring many Texas Democrats to leave the fold, arguing that the Democratic Party had moved too far to the left by embracing candidates who opposed the death penalty and supported gun control, gay rights, and abortion rights.

But it was no surprise to anyone when “Ricky,’’ as he was known in 1984, first ran for an open House seat as a Democrat. Haskell County, where Perry grew up, was then and remains today a Democratic stronghold.

“It’s just a longtime tradition,’’ said Sharon Mullino, 77, who has been chair of the Haskell County Democrats since 1982.

She traced the county’s Democratic roots to the kind of New Deal programs Perry now attacks.

“You just grow up thinking ever since President Roosevelt was in office that that was the way to be,’’ she said. “You were just brought up to believe the Democratic Party is the party of the people, of farmers and ranchers.’’

Perry campaigned in a 1952 Super Cub, flying from town to town to meet voters across a district that spanned 150 miles, said Don Comedy, who was the editor of the Haskell Free Press and would fly with Perry during the campaign.

“Just exactly like he is today: From early morning till late at night, he would go hard all day,’’ Comedy said. “It was just a lot of fun. We were young.’’

After crushing two Democrats in the primary, Perry went on to serve three terms in the Legislature, developing a reputation as one of the House’s “pit bulls’’ who would tear into anyone requesting more money for a program.

“He would not go out with the rest of us and drink beer,’’ said Gib Lewis, who was the Democratic speaker of the Texas House in the 1980s. “He was not one of those nighttime go-out-and-rounder guys. He was pretty conservative, pretty principled - almost too squeaky clean. Boy had no fun.’’

Despite his hard line on spending, Perry voted in 1987 for a $5.7 billion revenue increase that raised the state sales tax from 5.25 percent to 6 percent, according to the Texas Democratic Party. Most Republican lawmakers opposed the bill. But Lewis praised Perry for backing it, because it boosted education funding.

“It was desperately needed,’’ he said.

Perry also endorsed Gore in 1988. Though considered a liberal today, the senator from Tennessee was popular then among conservative Southern Democrats.

Perry has said that, in the general election, he voted for George H.W. Bush over Michael Dukakis.

A year later, Rove persuaded Perry to become a Republican and take on Agriculture Commissioner Jim Hightower, a liberal Democrat with a national following.

“Rick Perry had planned to retire from the Legislature until his best friend, David Weeks, and I talked him into switching parties and running for the GOP nomination for agriculture commissioner,’’ Rove wrote in his book, “Courage and Consequence.’’

Lewis recalled Perry coming to his office to explain his decision, a day before he made it public on the steps of the Capitol.

“He’d been talking to a lot of the top Republicans, and they’d been encouraging him to do that, and he just felt like his opportunities for the future were more in the Republican Party than they were in the Democrat Party,’’ Lewis said.

In his book, “Fed Up!’’ Perry writes that he quit the Democratic Party because it was “more interested in government and the opinions of Harvard, Washington, and Upper West Side Manhattan than the beliefs of those people in flyover country between the coasts.’’

The change clearly paid off. A year later, Perry ousted Hightower in a close fight. He has not lost an election since.

Back in Haskell County, there are mixed emotions - pride, tinged with sadness at the man they now see as a distant figure, bashing Democrats while wooing Tea Party members.

“I’m very proud of him, even where our politics don’t fit,’’ Overton said. “Very proud of him coming from this place, and seeing his face on TV, and getting calls like this.’’

Michael Levenson can be reached at mlevenson@globe.com.

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