Perry's jabs at feds may have second target as wellFrom bailouts to Ike aid, some see positioning against Hutchison in 2010 governor race
By JANET ELLIOTT
Copyright 2008 Houston Chronicle Austin Bureau
AUSTIN — From the Wall Street bailout bill to helping the Gulf Coast recover from Hurricane Ike, it seems the federal government can do nothing right in the eyes of Gov. Rick Perry.
The latest shot came Tuesday, when Perry accused federal environmental protection officials of "actively working to do more economic harm" to the state through potential regulation of carbon emissions linked to climate change.
"Washington has Texas in its sights," he said.
Many political observers believe Perry's harsh rhetoric is designed to position the governor in his bid for an unprecedented, third four-year term in 2010. The target is his likely challenger in the Republican primary, U.S. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, who is more popular than Perry in some polls.
Hutchison in late September told her Senate colleagues that she wouldn't seek re-election to a leadership post and is planning to form an exploratory committee for the governor's race.
"I guess it's a pretty good shot to take on the federal government if you're running against someone who is an agent of the federal government," said Greg Thielemann, director of the Center for the Study of Texas Politics at the University of Texas at Dallas.
"I think his criticisms are his attempt to raise his profile, and if it slows down Sen. Hutchison, that's a good thing," said Bill Miller, an Austin political consultant.
Miller also said that he thinks Perry's comments reflect the "passing of the torch up in Washington" and that he now feels more free to criticize the Bush administration.
Perry said in an interview that he has a long pattern of blasting federal government policies dating to his time as agriculture commissioner in the 1990s. Perry was lieutenant governor when George W. Bush became president in January 2001, and automatically became governor. He won elections in 2002 and 2006.
Perry has not been shy about speaking out against federal immigration policies, and most recently engaged in a back-and-forth with U.S. Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff over federal failures to deport illegal immigrants booked into the Harris County Jail.
The governor acknowledges he has stepped-up his critiques in recent weeks, but said the reason has nothing to do with politics.
"We have more at stake right now than we've ever had before," Perry said. "We have been hit by the largest storm that's hit Texas in a century. We have counties in Texas that are suffering greatly."
Sparring over bailout
The initial sally, however, was not about hurricanes.
At the same time the U.S. Senate was debating a $700 billion bailout of the financial industry, Perry, who at the time was the head of the Republican Governor's Association, joined the Democratic governor of West Virginia in a bipartisan plea to Congress to "pass an economic recovery package."
Later that October day, Perry issued a written statement opposing the use of tax dollars to finance a bailout, putting himself at odds with the only piece of legislation being discussed, the plan to spend $700 billion to buy mortgage-backed securities that Hutchison and fellow Republican Sen. John Cornyn voted to pass under heavy lobbying from Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson.
Perry's press secretary, Mark Miner, referred to Hutchison as "Kay Bailout" in an Oct. 25 story about a poll done for the Houston Chronicle that showed Harris County voters favored Hutchison over Perry 46 percent to 30 percent. (The same poll showed Houston Mayor Bill White beating both Hutchison and Perry.)
Marc Short, a spokesman for Hutchison, said Perry flip-flopped on the bailout bill.
"Being for the bill before being against the bill is how you get 39 percent of the vote after six years in office," Short said, referring to Perry's share of the vote in 2006 when a Democrat and two independent candidates were on the ballot.
A liberal interest group jumped on Perry's statements as evidence he was kicking off his 2010 re-election campaign. Texans for Public Justice, in an Oct. 13 report, said Perry had awarded $35 million in taxpayer funds to two companies involved in the financial meltdown — mortgage lender Countrywide Financial and failed bank Washington Mutual, which was seized by federal regulators and sold to JPMorgan Chase.
Job creation claimed
Both companies met their requirements to create a specific number of jobs after receiving the Texas Enterprise Fund grants in 2004 and 2005, Perry said. The fund, which Perry asked the Legislature to create in 2003, has awarded $365 million to 48 projects, and created 52,099 new jobs and nearly $14 billion in capital investment, the governor's office said.
"The fact is if the federal government had that type of track record I wouldn't have a problem in the world," Perry said. "The fact is we've thrown $700 billion at mismanaged companies, at greedy Wall Streeters, and the result has been a stock market that has continued to go down."
Tension between Hutchison and Perry has been evident since right after Hurricane Ike ripped through Galveston and southeast Texas in the early morning hours of Saturday, Sept. 13. The following day, the two made separate tours of the devastation and spoke to reporters in separate briefings.
State lawmakers initially lashed out at Federal Emergency Management Agency officials about a month after the storm, saying they were failing to get mobile homes to people, and were instead handing out motel vouchers when no rooms were available in the hardest-hit communities such as Bridge City.
On Nov. 20, Perry held a news conference in Houston and called the federal government's efforts "pretty underwhelming."
He questioned how Washington could "shower $700 billion on mismanaged Wall Street firms but can't spare the funds to help Broadway Street in Galveston."
"Thanks to congressional inactivity, if you will, Texans are unlikely to receive assistance until next summer," he said at the event.
Last week, Perry said his jabs at Congress were not aimed at the Texas delegation as much as the Democratic-controlled Congress.
However, he also has been highly critical of Chertoff, a Bush appointee, for saying Texas should use more of its own funds to help with debris removal. He said it is "incomprehensible" that federal officials would treat Texas differently than it did Louisiana after 2005's Hurricane Katrina.
"I will fight back vigorously to that type of discrimination," Perry said.
Block grants delivered
Hutchison helped secure $6.1 billion in community development block grant funding for weather-related disasters in an emergency supplemental spending bill passed about one week after Ike came ashore. She and Cornyn announced Wednesday that Texas would receive $1.3 billion for repairs to homes and businesses in the first round of funding.
"Being part of the solution by employing state resources would be more helpful than flailing criticism of the federal delegation which continues to secure billions of dollars in aid for hurricane victims," Short said. "The constant carping is counterproductive."