Rick Perry began his political career as a young star - for Texas Democrats

Fort Worth Star-TelegramJuly 16, 2011 

Texas Gov. Rick Perry, a no-apologies conservative known for slashing government spending and opposing all tax increases, is about as Republican as you can get.

But that wasn't always the case.

Perry spent his first six years in politics as a Democrat, in a somewhat forgotten history that is sure to be revived and scrutinized by Republican opponents if he decides to run for president.

A raging liberal he was not. Elected to represent a slice of rural West Texas in the state House of Representatives in 1984, Perry, a young rancher and cotton farmer, gained an early reputation as a fiscal conservative. He was one of a few freshman "pit bulls," so named because they sat in the lower pit of the House Appropriations Committee, where they fought to keep spending low.

But Perry cast some votes and took a few stands that seem to be at odds with his current conservative stances.

As a House Democrat, Perry co-authored legislation aimed at tripling the amount of money state legislators are paid, House records show. In a 1989 interview with the Abilene Reporter-News, Perry cited the financial hardships Texas legislators faced trying to make a living back home while making a yearly salary of only $7,200 as part-time lawmakers. Voters rejected the proposal in a statewide referendum.

Perry said he could make ends meet only because his father tended to the farm while his wife worked as a nurse in Haskell, her hometown.

"I really don't know how people in the insurance business or the real estate business do it. That's one reason I voted for the pay raise," Perry told the newspaper. "I think all the people of Texas ought to be able to serve."

Perry spokesman Mark Miner said the governor no longer favors giving legislators a pay increase.

Another political move Perry made back then: He was a top Texas supporter and organizer in 1988 for then-Sen. Al Gore, who ran for president as a Southern conservative rather than the populist reformer he eventually became as the 2000 Democratic presidential nominee.

"I came to my senses," Perry likes to say when asked about his Gore days.

Perry can trace his political heritage to a great-great-grandfather, D.H. Hamilton, a former state legislator from Trinity County. Perry's father, Ray Perry, served as a county commissioner in Haskell County for almost 30 years. They were Southern Democrats, from the party that produced politicians like Sam Rayburn and Lyndon Baines Johnson.

In 1984, Rick Perry, then a young rancher and former Air Force pilot from Paint Creek, about 60 miles north of Abilene, was recruited by fellow Democrats to run for a House seat vacated by Rep. Joe Hanna, according to interviews and news articles. Democrat John Sharp, a college buddy of Perry's who later became state comptroller, recalls getting a call from Clyde Wells, then the chairman of the Texas A&M System board of regents. Wells wondered who might make a good replacement for Hanna.

"I said: 'Yeah, there was a guy in my outfit who's from Haskell. Let's find out if he's still in the Air Force,'" Sharp recalled saying of Perry. "Three weeks later, he was in the race."

Perry easily won and quickly became known as a rising star in the House.

Read the complete story at star-telegram.com

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