Texas Politics

Governor-for-Life Rick Perry moves on



John C. White, over the 26 years he was Texas agriculture commissioner developed a saying: at a political funeral, it’s better to be a pallbearer than a corpse.

He would be intrigued to see the success of a later agriculture commissioner by ignoring his saying.

In 1950, White — smart, affable, funny, and only 24 — upset 20-year incumbent Agriculture Commissioner J.E. McDonald in a Democratic runoff.

In 1957, White filed in a special election for the remainder of the U.S. Senate term of Price Daniel Sr., who was elected governor in 1956. In a special election, White could run without giving up his current post.

He soon decided he’d made a mistake, but not soon enough to get off the ballot. White finished way behind the winner, fellow Democrat Ralph W. Yarborough.

So White coined his “pallbearer/corpse” saying. He stayed put, was steadily re-elected agriculture commissioner — until 1977, when new President Jimmy Carter made him Deputy Secretary of Agriculture.

Nine months later, former Democratic National Committee chairman Bob Strauss — another Texan –told Carter that the even-handed White would be a good national party chairman. Carter agreed, and the DNC affirmed his choice. White stayed until 1981.

White’s broad popularity was demonstrated when he died Jan. 21, 1995. His funeral — the first ever in the Texas capitol rotunda – was conducted by the Rev. Jesse Jackson, White’s friend who he’d advised during Jackson’s 1988 presidential campaign.

At a later Washington memorial service, White’s eulogizers included his close friend, Republican Senate leader Bob Dole. Strauss said White “literally had no enemies.”

Some of White’s Texas friends in other offices tried to move up, with splotchy results, both before and after he moved to Washington:

Lt. Gov. Ben Barnes for governor, 1972: third in the Democratic primary.

Land Commissioner Bob Armstrong and Railroad Commissioner Buddy Temple for governor, 1982: both lost the Democratic nomination to Atty. Gen. Mark White.

Atty. Gen. Jim Mattox and former Gov. White for governor, 1990: both lost to State Treasurer Ann Richards.

White also saw several Texas governors become political corpses when they ran for re-election: Preston Smith, 1972; Dolph Briscoe, 1978; Bill Clements, 1982; Mark White, 1986; Ann Richards, 1994.

Republican George W. Bush, in fact, in 1998 became the first Texas governor to win a second consecutive four-year term since the state stretched terms from two years to four in 1974.

The second governor to win two in a row was Rick Perry.

Perry, in his third term as a state representative elected by Democrats, became a Republican in 1989 to run for White’s old job as agriculture commissioner. In 1990, Perry narrowly beat Democratic incumbent Jim Hightower. Perry was re-elected in 1994.

White would have been fascinated to watch Perry’s political ascent:

1998 — elected lieutenant governor. Aided by Gov. Bush’s long re-election coattails, Perry edges out his old Aggie buddy, Democratic State Comptroller John Sharp.

2000 — Becomes governor Dec. 21, 2000, when Bush resigns to move into the White House.

2002 – Wins governorship on his own, after bluffing U.S. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison out of a GOP primary challenge. In the first election after terrorists flew hijacked airplanes into New York’s Twin Towers on Sept. 11, 2000, Perry whips Democratic hope, self-funding multimillionaire Laredo banker Tony Sanchez.

2006 — Hutchison chooses re-election to her Senate seat over a partysplitting challenge to Perry in the GOP primary. Her governor ambitions kept on hold until 2010, when mutual friends assure her Perry won’t run again.

That November, Perry gets just 39 percent over Democrat Chris Bell’s 30, and Independents Carole Keeton Strayhorn’s 18 and Kinky Friedman’s 12. Not a majority, but in a general election, a plurality is enough.

2010 – Perry shows that the “Again in 2010” bumper stickers his buddies printed up in 2007 weren’t the joke some presumed them to be. In April of 2008, he says he’ll try to stretch his tenure from 10 years to 14.

Some thought Perry might be bluffing, trying to avoid lame-duck status for the 2009 legislative session. Hutchison decides it’s her turn. Perry proves her wrong, turning her time in unpopular Washington against her.

So, if you were in kindergarten in December of 2000 when Perry became governor, when you graduated from high school, he still was.

2015 — Rick Perry leaves as Texas governor Jan. 20 – after serving six years longer than anyone else — ever.

Seem long to you? It seemed really long to several other Texas political wannabes, who finally gave up waiting.

So, Perry will be gone – as governor. But he has no plans to be forgotten: he’s running again for president.

Somewhere, John C. White will be watching, to see if Perry can move up in 2016, rather than out.

DAVE MCNEELY is a political columnist. You may contact him at davemcneely111@ gmail or (512)458 2963.

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