Texas Governor Rick Perry’s indictment makes him the third potential 2016 Republican presidential candidate accused of abusing the power of his office, complicating the party’s search to find someone to take on Democrat Hillary Clinton, if she runs.
Perry, 64, was charged today on two felony counts by a Texas grand jury investigating his decision to cut off funding for the state’s Public Integrity Unit, which was examining a cancer research-funding program championed by the governor.
His legal problems follow continuing investigations involving Governors Chris Christie, of New Jersey, and Scott Walker, of Wisconsin, and could bolster the prospects of other Republicans contemplating White House runs, including U.S. Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky.
In the wide-open 2016 primary field, governors were viewed by some party backers as having an edge because of the low political standing of members of Congress. Now, Christie is facing multiple probes of politically-motivated lane closures and traffic jams in September created by his administration. Walker has seen six former associates or aides convicted on charges ranging from doing political work on government time to stealing public funds.
Former U.S. Senator Judd Gregg, a New Hampshire Republican, said voters want a state executive to be president. He declined to talk about whether the investigations would hurt Perry, Christie or Walker.
“It’s likely that the Republican Party will nominate a governor, not somebody from the Congress,” he said.
The indictment itself isn’t likely to affect Perry’s presidential ambitions, said Dan Schnur, director of the University of Southern California’s Jesse M. Unruh Institute of Politics in Los Angeles.
“Unless he is actually convicted of something, Perry can blame Democratic game-playing, which could actually help him in a primary,” he said.
Democrats pounced on the latest scandal.
“Remember when Republican governors were arguing that Washington could learn from them? Let’s hope not,” Mo Elleithee, communications director for the Democratic National Committee, said in an e-mail.
Investigations complicate a candidate’s messaging, said Ben LaBolt, the national press secretary for President Barack Obama’s 2012 re-election campaign.
“It’s hard enough to succeed when you just have to win over the voters and the media,” said LaBolt, a co-founder of the Democratic communications strategy firm The Incite Agency, which has offices in New York and Washington. “When you add the optical issues that come with a judge, a jury and even the suggestion of corruption, candidates’ chances of winning are greatly diminished.”
Stuart Stevens, a top adviser to Republican Mitt Romney’s 2012 presidential campaign, and whose consulting firm worked on Christie’s re-election in 2013, said Perry could survive the indictment because of the details of the charges.
“I would imagine that this is one of those cases where public opinion is going to be on Governor Perry’s side pretty quickly,” Stevens said. Voters will judge that Perry was “acting in the public’s best interests,” he said.
Perry, an unsuccessful 2012 presidential candidate, tried to remove Travis County District Attorney Rosemary Lehmberg from her post as head of the public integrity office after she was arrested for drunk driving. When the Democrat refused to step down after pleading guilty and completing a brief jail sentence, Perry vetoed $7.3 million for the unit she led.
“The veto in question was made in accordance with the veto authority afforded to every governor under the Texas Constitution,” Mary Anne Wiley, Perry’s general counsel, said in a statement issued by his office. “We will continue to aggressively defend the governor’s lawful and constitutional action, and believe we will ultimately prevail.”
David L. Botsford, Perry’s counsel, said in a statement that he is “outraged and appalled that the grand jury has taken this action.”
Michael McCrum, a special prosecutor handling the case in Texas, said the grand jury indicted Perry on two counts, one of abuse of official capacity and one of coercion of a public servant.
“There’s evidence to support all of the language in both counts,” he said. “I can’t speak to the evidence, but I can tell you that I interviewed over 40 people, I reviewed hundreds of documents, and I believe there’s evidence to support the charges.”
Perry, who had hired a criminal-defense lawyer to represent him in the probe, explained his decision in the line-item veto he issued in June.
“Despite the otherwise good work of the Public Integrity Unit’s employees, I cannot in good conscience support continued state funding for an office with statewide jurisdiction at a time when the person charged with ultimate responsibility of that unit has lost the public’s confidence,” he wrote.
Texans for Public Justice, an Austin-based group that says it fights political corruption, has said Perry may have intentionally cut the ethics unit’s funding in a bid to shut down a probe of the Cancer Prevention Research Institute of Texas, which the watchdog group calls “one of the governor’s signature corporate subsidy programs.”
Craig McDonald, director of the public justice group, praised the grand jury’s decision.
“He will have to stand trial and be held accountable for this,” he said in an interview. “It’s serious stuff.”
With appearances on national television and in key states, Perry has been seeking political redemption following a 2012 White House bid even he describes as disastrous.
“I know first impressions matter, but second impressions do as well,” Perry said in a July 20 interview with Bloomberg News in Clear Lake, Iowa. “This country has been about second chances a lot more than it has been about first impressions.”
Perry’s last election chances were dashed during a November 2011 debate in suburban Detroit, when he couldn’t remember the name of the third government agency he had pledged to eliminate as president. He named two, the Commerce and Education departments, and then acknowledged he couldn’t remember the third. “I can’t. Sorry. Oops,” he said.
He came in fifth in the Iowa Republican caucuses, sixth in the New Hampshire primary, and was soon packing for home.
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