AUSTIN (AP) – Rick Perry has been a reliable conservative as Texas’ longest-serving governor, becoming an early adopter of tea party values and leaving the state further to the right than when he took office in 2000.
But Perry used his farewell speech Thursday to call for greater bipartisanship and political compromise, hinting he’s trying to cast himself as more centrist ahead of an expected 2016 presidential run. His uncharacteristically moderate tone may have to do with the emergence of another likely Republican White House hopeful, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush.
“There is room for different voices, for disagreement,” a loose and forceful Perry told a joint session of the Texas Legislature, which greeted him with a long standing ovation. “Compromise is not a dirty word if it moves Texas forward.”
Perry has said he could announce as soon as May if he will run for president again, but he didn’t mention next year’s race or any of his would-be rivals for the White House during Thursday’s address. Still, his softer message marked a clear break from the norm for Perry, who attended tea party rallies before they became national news and who still boasts of agreeing with the most-conservative wing of the GOP on key issues.
As an example of bipartisanship, he pointed to Texas’ drug courts, which have steered non-violent offenders to alternatives other than prison.
The Texas Legislature opened Tuesday with a tea party-backed lawmaker challenging Republican House Speaker Joe Straus and forcing the first floor vote for the leadership post in 40 years. Straus was overwhelmingly re-elected. Perry indirectly referenced fierce ideology when he said, “I speak to members of my own party in asking that you do not place purity ahead of unity.”
His speech wasn’t all conciliatory, though. Perry singled out New York’s Democratic governor, Andrew Cuomo, and that state’s ban on hydraulic fracking, an activity which has buoyed Texas economy. He said Texas’ low taxes and relatively lax regulations, and its caps on damages that can be awarded in lawsuits have helped it lead the nation in creating jobs, as has a public education system with improving high school graduation rates.
Perry also said Texas has been instrumental in slowing the flow of immigrants pouring over the state’s border with Mexico illegally, calling people smugglers “the face of evil” and adding, “As long as Washington will not secure the border, Texas will be equal to the task.”
Perry wants Texas and America to remember him as a proven job creator and veteran chief executive of the nation’s second-largest state. He doesn’t want to be best-known for his short-lived 2012 presidential campaign, which bottomed out with his infamous “oops” moment during a debate, when he said he would shutter three federal agencies, if elected, but then couldn’t name all three.
The governor’s political career began 30 years ago, when he was elected to Texas House as a Democrat from tiny Paint Creek. He joked that after three sessions, “I became a Republican. I made both parties happy.”
Perry also noted his humble upbringing Thursday: “When I was young, we didn’t have electricity or running water,” he said. “Mom bathed us in a number two washtub out on the back porch.”
Despite its economic and population booms, Texas has the nation’s highest rate of residents without health insurance, and its economy may cool due to the plummeting oil prices. Perry also leaves office under felony indictment, accused of abusing his power when he publicly threatened — then carried out — a 2013 veto of state funding for public corruption prosecutors after the Democratic head of the unit rebuffed the governor’s calls to resign following her drunken driving conviction.
“He used the great resources of our state and the hard work of Texans to benefit himself and his political supporters,” Democratic strategist Matt Angle said in a statement Thursday. “Even today, he is using our state Capitol and the goodwill of Texans as tools to advance his political ambitions.”
Perry became governor in December 2000, when his predecessor, George W. Bush, left for Washington. Texas’ deeply conservative politics aren’t expected to change much under his successor, former Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott, who takes office Tuesday.
Perry is building a home in a rural enclave close to College Station and his beloved Texas A&M Aggies, but he’s likely hoping not to exit the national stage.
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