Amid chaos in Washington, Trump’s energy secretary Rick Perry keeps on going, quietly

Energy Secretary Rick Perry describes working with the Department of Energy’s National Laboratories, which research everything from climate change to the human genome, at a forum hosted by the Bipartisan Policy Center, January 17, 2019.
Energy Secretary Rick Perry describes working with the Department of Energy’s National Laboratories, which research everything from climate change to the human genome, at a forum hosted by the Bipartisan Policy Center, January 17, 2019. Bipartisan Policy Center

Party leaders are barely speaking with the White House about how to reopen government agencies shut down by spending disputes, but in the basement of the U.S. Capitol last week, Energy Secretary Rick Perry was laying out ambitious plans for a department that’s still running — nearly drama-free.

Dressed in a suit, tie and black-rimmed glasses, the chipper Texas Republican described a new Lithium-ion battery recycling initiative aimed at reducing dependence on foreign sources before dashing off to huddle with one of the House’s most liberal Democrats, Rep. Bobby Rush, D-Illinois, about opportunities for minority contractors to do business with the department.

Once a GOP renegade on immigration and the border — suggesting in a 2011 presidential debate that people who don’t support for in-state tuition rates for illegal immigrant students “don’t have a heart,” — Perry has barely said a word about those issues during the partisan dispute during the shutdown over President Donald Trump’s demands for a wall on the U.S.-border with Mexico.

By keeping his name out of the news Perry, a governor for 14 years, has been a rare beacon of pragmatism in Trump’s chaotic Washington, Republicans and Democrats on Capitol Hill say.

While multiple agencies, including the Department of Homeland Security, have been largely shuttered since late December over spending disagreements, Perry has deployed his well-honed retail political skills to keep a steady hand behind the scenes at an agency charged with overseeing the nation’s nuclear arsenals as well as critical energy-related research at 17 national laboratories spread across the country.

“We have controversial issues before our committee in the House and Senate... but [Perry] is able to reach compromise on at least 80 percent of what needs to be in our bills, and I give him great credit for that,” said Rep. Marcy Kaptur, D-Ohio, who chairs the House panel that approves energy department funding.

Money for the DOE’s 2019 fiscal year was approved on time in September, part of a.package of spending bills that passed the House and Senate easily with support from both parties.

“Perry has been working extremely hard in a very complex department, with complex domestic and international imperatives,” said Kaptur. “He’s batting well above the average.”

DOE has long enjoyed some bipartisanship to fund research in the national laboratories. Perry, who was a Democrat before switching parties in 1989, is used to working across the aisle.

But in an administration where key players are often brought down by scandal, public disputes with the president and bad press, Perry has made serious adjustments to survive in Trump’s Washington.

“He was king of the kingdom [as Texas governor] for a long time... [then] he left on his own terms,” said Austin lobbyist Bill Miller. “[Now] it’s Donald Trump’s world and [Perry] just lives in it, so he’s keeping a low profile.”

Perry is hardly known for avoiding the spotlight. He was elected three times as Texas’ chief executive and sought the GOP’s presidential nomination in 2012 and 2016. After his second failed presidential bid, Perry danced on national television to “God Bless Texas” as a contestant on ABC’s “Dancing with the Stars.”

But in Trump’s cabinet, Perry “knows when to intercede [with the president], when to offer his suggestions, but he doesn’t put his nose in business that isn’t his,” said Robert Haus, who until July served as Perry’s public affairs director at the energy department.

He’s “in the news when he needs to be in the news,” said Haus, and not otherwise.

Perry has long boasted about his border security credentials from his time as Texas governor, but stayed nearly silent on the issue as Trump made it a top priority of his White House.

Perry released a statement last month calling for “all parties to come to the table” to end the partial government shutdown, triggered by Trump’s demands for a wall that would cover roughly 1,200 miles in Texas. Perry praised Trump for his efforts to secure the border.

“I’m sure, though he can’t say anything, the shutdown is very unacceptable to him. It hurts interests in Texas and beyond,” said Kaptur, the Ohio Democrat.

Perry took no questions from the audience on Capitol Hill last week, while stressing his commitment to working with leaders from both parties on innovative projects coming out of the energy department.

“[Perry’s] the type of person you could put almost anywhere and he would thrive, [because] he understands chain of command.,” said Deirdre Delisi, a former policy and political advisor to Perry when he was governor. “I think it’s his military background.”

Perry served in the U.S. Air Force from 1972 to 1977. He flew planes that delivered supplies to U.S. military bases, and achieved the rank of captain.

Inside the DOE, Perry allies say the Texan is still every bit the charismatic leader he was as governor, helping the agency retain senior staff that typically stays between administrations but has fled other agencies, notably the State Department, in the era of Trump.

Addressing DOE staff for the first time after Trump took office in 2017, Perry jogged in to intro music, slapping hands like a boxer traveling down an aisle lined with staffers, according to two people who were present at the time. Perry had read up on programs the staff was working on, and addressed some of the projects specifically in a speech that endeared even some doubtful Democrats.

“I remember coming out of those introductory remarks… thinking damn, this guy is charming as f***,” said one former DOE staffer from the Obama administration who requested anonymity to speak candidly about the secretary. That employee has since left the department, because the program he was working on was not renewed by the Trump administration.

On Capitol Hill, Perry has worked to make inroads with Democrats who’ve treated many of Trump’s cabinet members as a direct extension of him in their opposition.

The Department of Energy hosts regular policy briefings for Capitol Hill staffer on issues such as advanced nuclear technologies. Perry attended one of those gatherings in November to address congressional staff personally.

“He understands [that] moving legislation in a very expeditious manner [means] doing the hearings on time, bringing the witnesses forward, and having his department prepared to testify,” said Kaptur.

“Where he is today very much fits his personality because he knows how to work behind the scenes, he knows how to make things happen,” said Bill Peacock, vice president of research at the Texas Public Policy Foundation, who worked with Perry as a staffer in the Texas Senate when Perry was governor.

There aren’t a lot of high-profile survivors in Trump’s administration. In November the president fired his attorney general, Jeff Sessions, amid public disputes between the two men. Sessions’ replacement has not been confirmed by the Senate.

Trump also parted ways with his chief of staff, John Kelly, in December, and the White House has not named a permanent replacement. Office of Management and Budget Director Mick Mulvaney is currently filling the role as chief of staff, while a deputy oversees Mulvaney’s budget office. Also gone are Defense Secretary Jim Mattis and National Security Adviser H. R. McMaster.

Scott Pruitt resigned as Environmental Protection Agency administrator over the summer after a series of news reports on his excessive spending and cozy relationships with lobbyists who have clients regulated by the agency.

“Perry’s been one who’s managed to do his job effectively, but stay under the radar,” said Rep. Mike McCaul, R-Texas, who now serves as the highest-ranking Republican on the House Foreign Relations Committee, and visited Mexico City with Perry for the Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador’s inauguration in December.

Haus, the former DOE public affairs director, credited Perry’s low profile in part to the Texan’s frugal nature.

“I think they re-stitched some pillows and fixed some torn carpet [in his office at DOE],” said Haus.

Perry, 68, returns home frequently to Texas, where his wife, Anita, still lives in Round Top.

According to schedules provided by his staff, Perry has traveled to 22 countries in roughly two years at the department, helping American allies transition to cleaner energy sources, while reducing their dependence on unstable countries for their energy sources.

In November he traveled to Warsaw to confirm a 24-year deal to expand American liquid natural gas exports to Poland that helped reduce the country’s dependence on Russian oil.

“That’s both good geo-politically [for American allies], and it’s really good for [reducing] carbon emissions,” said Rich Powell, executive director of the Republican-leaning clean energy group ClearPath, which works closely with Perry at DOE.

Perry’s also been to 23 states and visited each of the national labs, allowing him to observe the researcher his agency funds.

“The work [those centers] do remains breathtaking to me,” Perry said at the event on Capitol Hill last week, hosted by the Bipartisan Policy Institute “It’s why I call this job the coolest job in the government.”

Describing the relationships he’d cultivated with leaders from both parties, Perry stressed the need for pragmatism to keep research going at the labs, and vowed to be back on the Hill soon to once again meet with members of both parties.

“As always my message is very clear,” said Perry. “Innovation works, [and] at DOE we look forward to working with this Congress to build upon it for generations to come.”

Andrea Drusch is the Washington Correspondent for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. She is a Corinth, Texas, native and graduate of the Bob Schieffer School of Journalism at Texas Christian University. She returns home frequently to visit family, get her fix of Fuzzy’s Tacos and cheer on the Horned Frogs.