Rick Perry is doing all the things people do as they prepare to run for president: talking to donors, attending candidate cattle calls in early-voting states – including last weekend’s Lincoln Day Dinner in Iowa – and glad-handing voters.
The former Texas governor has set June 4 in Dallas for an announcement about his intentions to run. But unlike the more than a dozen other Republicans who are either in the presidential race already or on the verge, he has another factor at play.
Hanging over his head is an indictment in Texas on charges of abuse of power when he was governor.
Perry, who says the charges are baseless and politically motivated, had expected to be able to kill the indictment by now. His high-powered legal team has been engaged in a frenetic effort to have the two-count indictment, handed down last August, thrown out.
But the presiding judge, a Republican, has repeatedly refused to do so, and lawyers are waiting on a recently empaneled Texas appellate court for a hearing. In addition, there’s speculation in legal circles on whether one of the three judges, a close Perry ally, might recuse himself.
In the latest filing, May 13, Perry’s attorneys urged the court to “speedily grant” relief. But it’s unlikely that a hearing or a decision will come anytime soon, certainly not before Perry’s presidential rollout next month, say legal experts.
“He’s been furiously trying to get this indictment dismissed,” said Craig McDonald, director of Texans for Public Justice, a political watchdog group that filed the original complaint against Perry. “There’s no way in hell” any decision would be made by June, he said.
At issue is a threat Perry made as governor in 2013 to veto funding for the state’s public integrity unit, part of the Travis County District Attorney’s Office, unless county District Attorney Rosemary Lehmberg, a Democrat, resigned after being arrested for drunk driving. She pleaded guilty – the arrest and booking videotape shows her being belligerent to officers – but refused to resign, and Perry vetoed the funding.
He’s charged with two felonies: abusing his office and coercing a public servant. The special prosecutor charged in a February filing that Perry wanted “to stymie” the integrity unit, which was investigating some of the governor’s programs.
“The case is meritless and should have never been brought in the first place,” said Anthony Buzbee, Perry’s lead attorney, via email. “It has been a huge waste of time and resources.”
It’s also been a distraction, although Perry has recently been focused on campaigning and his RickPAC spokesman, Travis Considine, said “it hardly ever comes up” in meetings with voters. “When it does come up, it’s, ‘Governor, we stand with you and your standing up for constitutional principles,’ ” said Considine. RickPAC is Perry’s political action committee.
To some Republican primary voters, the indictment is something of a badge of honor, coming from prosecutors in liberal Travis County, a Democratic enclave where the state capital, Austin, is located. Texas is largely Republican.
“Once the context within which the indictment has occurred is understood by Republican caucus and primary voters, it should not have an adverse impact on these voters’ preferences and behavior,” said Mark P. Jones, chairman of the political science department at Rice University. “But as a result of the indictment Perry must at times spend precious time explaining the indictment, as opposed to presenting the principal planks of his campaign and introducing himself to potential voters.”
Being a candidate also changes the dynamic.
“He and his political and legal teams successfully framed his indictment as purely political in Texas, and effectively redirected attention to the behavior of the Travis County district attorney,” said James Henson, director of the Texas Politics Project at the University of Texas at Austin. “But Perry was not in the midst of a campaign at that point, and the same tactics are unlikely to be as effective at rallying support in a crowded and competitive national primary.”
Donors may also be affected, at least partly, because of the indictment. Some previously strong Perry supporters in the state have contributed to Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, who was the first GOP candidate to officially join the field. Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush has the benefit of being able to tap the Bush family donor network.
Fort Worth lawyer and power broker Dee Kelly told McClatchy he’d contributed $5,000 to Bush’s super PAC.
Perry sought to head off concerns about his ability to raise money by announcing a list of 86 major donors as RickPAC’s advisory board. However, several of the high-profile donors, including San Antonio businessman Red McCombs and former Texas Rangers owner Tom Hicks, have hosted events for Cruz.
Another potential candidate has also faced a swirl of legal issues. Aides and associates of New Jersey Republican Gov. Chris Christie were investigated as part of the so-called Bridgegate scandal, a scheme to create traffic jams on the busy George Washington Bridge between New Jersey and New York. It allegedly was political payback against a local official who’d refused to endorse Christie for re-election in 2013. Two Christie allies were indicted and one pleaded guilty.
Christie himself was not indicted.
Once the early GOP presidential front-runner, Christie now polls at 5.4 percent in a Real Clear Politics average of five national polls from mid-April to mid-May.
Perry scored 2.4 percent during the same period.
Perry’s dismal short-lived 2012 presidential campaign also weighs on how voters see him, but the indictment might prove to be more than a nuisance.
“The initial effect was of a cloud on his candidacy,” said Cal Jillson, political science professor at Southern Methodist University. “It’s in abeyance, but it can return in a minute. If the case goes forward, I think it’s very destructive.”