AUSTIN, Texas—Reporting on Rick Perry this week has included more talk about a spit guard than I would have expected. The Texas governor is thinking about running for president again and he’s been on an extended reboot to get himself ready to make the final decision. Lately, though, there has been speculation that his plans might be derailed by a grand jury investigation into whether he abused the powers of his office. The probe concerns Perry’s effort to eject the district attorney of Travis County after she was arrested and convicted of driving while intoxicated. Police video from the arrest last April shows that the DA, whose blood alcohol level was nearly three times the legal limit, was so furious at being booked for driving under the influence that she risked putting officers under the effluence. A spit guard was administered, said officials at the jail, to protect her from herself because she kept sticking out her tongue.
What about the allegations? That’s a pretty safe question to ask of Republican governors thinking about running for president in 2016. New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie faces a long, extended look into the lane closures of the George Washington Bridge. Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker faces questions about an old investigation in which his former aides were caught doing political work on government time. Now Perry faces the uncertainty of a special prosecutor and a sitting grand jury.
Could this be Perry’s Bridgegate? The spit guard may save him. No politician wants a special prosecutor on the prowl. That a judge has put one to work sounds ominous—a fact the Democratic National Committee is trying to exploit—and the industrious fellow with subpoena power may actually find something damaging. The special prosecutor, Mike McCrum, told the Austin American-Statesman that he was “very concerned” about what his investigation had uncovered so far, but said no more. Like Christie, Perry must sweat it out while the prosecutor hunts. But unlike Christie, Perry has a story that works in his favor.
The story of Perry’s legal imbroglio doesn’t start with Rick Perry, but with Travis County District Attorney Rosemary Lehmberg. A year ago she was found in a church parking lot after police received a report about a driver weaving on the road. She was sharing the company of an open bottle of vodka and was given a sobriety test. She failed because she was not in any way sober. “Don’t you know who I am?” she asked the officers. She also asked them to contact Sheriff Greg Hamilton, between tantrums of kicking the jailhouse door, presumably because she thought Hamilton would get her out of the embarrassing jam. Ultimately, Lehmberg pleaded guilty and was sentenced to 45 days in jail, which she served.
Republicans called for Lehmberg to resign. She refused. The governor said that if she did not resign, he would veto $7.5 million in state funding for the Public Integrity Unit that she oversees. (In 2005 the work of the Public Integrity Unit led to the indictment of former U.S. House Majority Leader Tom DeLay; it is the highest government entity that Republicans or Perry don’t oversee.) She didn’t budge, and Perry made good on the threat, saying she had “lost the public’s confidence.” Austin insiders say there was another reason Perry wanted to oust Lehmberg, an elected Democrat. The Public Integrity Unit was investigating the governor, and with Lehmberg out of office, he could appoint a Republican to the post, which would effectively defang the watchdog. But recent reporting by the Texas Tribune and San Antonio Express-News suggests that Perry’s office promised to replace Lehmberg with a Democrat, including one already working in the DA’s office, if she stepped down.
A watchdog group, Texans for Public Justice, filed a complaint charging that Perry’s veto was an abuse of power. A judge agreed there was enough evidence to appoint a special prosecutor, who is looking into both whether Perry tried to coerce a public servant and abused his power. The legal questions involve not only the veto but the public threat that preceded it, and whether the threat rises to the level of a crime under state law.
If the special prosecutor finds something we don’t know, that could obviously harm Perry politically. He’s hired a high-powered lawyer to defend him, so the governor is not leaving anything to chance. But at the moment, this doesn’t bear much resemblance to the potentially catastrophic problems Gov. Christie is facing. In Christie’s case, when people think about the bridge shutdown, they can imagine their own frustration in traffic. With the Perry story, it’s the dangerous and outrageous behavior of the drunken district attorney (which happens to also be on video) that captures the imagination. Unlike in New Jersey, where the governor’s aides secretly used their power to punish a petty infraction, Perry made his threat publicly and then followed through on his word. If any primary opponent wants to raise this issue, perhaps by saying Perry tried to eliminate an investigation into his personal integrity, Perry need only repeat a few highlights from Lehmberg’s arrest and explain why he thought that didn’t make her fit for the job. He will quickly put his opponent in the position of having to defend the dangerous drunk. To any primary voter, this looks like a governor taking charge. For Perry, who would like to remind voters that he was a governor for 14 years, and not a bumbling debate participant for a few short months in 2012, emphasizing this moment of decision-making isn’t such a bad thing. Perry has a compelling cinematic story to tell if he is asked to account for himself. Now he just has to hope that the special prosecutor doesn’t come up with a better one.