Is Rick Perry more than a ham sandwich?

     Texas Gov. Rick Perry makes a statement in Austin on Saturday concerning the indictment on charges of coercion of a public servant and abuse of his official capacity. Perry is the first Texas governor since 1917 to be indicted. (AP Photo/Michael Thomas)

    Texas Gov. Rick Perry makes a statement in Austin on Saturday concerning the indictment on charges of coercion of a public servant and abuse of his official capacity. Perry is the first Texas governor since 1917 to be indicted. (AP Photo/Michael Thomas)

    You just never know when politics is going to throw you a curveball. There was a joke going around that either Chris Christie or Scott Walker would launch a ’16 presidential campaign while under indictment — yet now, in real life, Rick “Oops” Perry has come along to snatch that dubious honor.

    It’s often said that any prosecutor worth his salt can persuade a grand jury to indict a ham sandwich. Texas Gov. Perry, during his ’12 White House bid, was barely more effective than a ham sandwich, and it’s certainly arguable that the indictment he was hit with on Friday – for alleged abuse of power and coercion of a public servant – is a thin meal. Perry had threatened to kill the state’s financing of an anti-corruption watchdog unit unless the unit’s director agreed to quit; when she refused, he made good on his threat.

    The indictment contends that his action was criminal, but it strikes me as a classic case of hardball politics – the kind that Perry has been playing for most of his tenure as Texas’ longest-serving boss. The real story is not the indictment; rather, it’s the story behind the indictment – and, assuming that Perry runs for president again, it’s a story that conservative Republican primary voters might find interesting. Because this is ultimately a story about “crony capitalism” and the waste of taxpayers’ money.

    In terms of political optics, however, Perry has a few points in his favor. He was indicted by a grand jury in Travis County, which is based in Austin, a rare Texas Democratic enclave. So now he can campaign in the early ’16 primary states by parading himself to conservative voters as a victim of partisan liberal overreach. 

    And he had a justifiable reason last year for demanding the resignation of Rosemary Lehmberg, the Travis County DA (and Democrat) who heads the state Public Integrity Unit. Lehmberg was arrested in April ’13 for drunk driving – very drunk driving – and was so verbally abusive that the cops had to strap her down. She basically put her own head on a platter for Perry, who had long been jonesing to neuter the anti-corruption unit by replacing her with a compliant Republican. This past weekend, while assailing the indictment, Perry repeatedly cited his outrage about her DWI.

    On the other hand, Lehmberg didn’t take the case to the grand jury. That task was handled by a special prosecutor, Michael McCrum – a former Dallas cop and former U.S. attorney under the senior George Bush. And McCrum was named special prosecutor by a Republican judge. And, perhaps most importantly, it just so happened that when Perry pulled the plug on the anti-corruption unit’s state funding, it was busy probing one of Perry’s pet projects, the scandal-plagued Cancer Prevention and Research Institute.

    The watchdog unit has long been an irritant for Perry; he can’t control its work. Indeed, the unit is acutely aware that Perry has run his 270 state agencies and institutes and commissions and boards for the benefit of his pay-to-play pals in the corporate community – often at the expense of the taxpayers. Based on the work of the watchdog unit, a grand jury recently indicted one of Perry’s top cancer institute guys, for allegedly steering $11 million in public bucks to a well-connected Dallas firm that hadn’t been properly vetted.

    That kind of thing is business as usual in Perry’s domain. Eleven years ago, to cite one random example, Perry invented a whole new agency, the Texas Residential Construction Commission, so that building contractors could regulate themselves (as if) –  a sweet boon to a powerful homebuilder who had pumped $175 grand into Perry’s coffers just two years earlier. He has also steered millions in taxpayer money to drug manufacturers (aka, big Perry donors) whose drugs had been rejected by the FDA.

    And according to a detailed Wall Street Journal report in 2011, Perry, using millions in taxpayer money from his so-called Emerging Technology Fund, helped grease the wheels for a big donor whose pet company failed to submit required annual reports and finally went bankrupt. As the president of Texans for Fiscal Responsibility told the Journal, “The problem with these kinds of funds is that…you’re taking from the average taxpayer and giving to someone who has a connection with government officials.”

    That’s the real context for the indictment – Perry is more than a ham sandwich; his pay-to-play cronyism runs rampant – but we’ll see whether this makes a difference to Republican primary voters. Yeah, it’s a potential distraction for Perry, it’s a drag to have an adjective appended to one’s ID (he’s now “indicted Gov. Rick Perry”), it’s possible that conservative voters really do care about taxpayer money waste, and it’ll be fun to see whether GOP rivals run ads featuring his mug shot (by law, he’ll soon be fingerprinted and photographed).

    Nevertheless, victimhood might click with the base. Maybe he can spin the indictment his way by simply claiming that his liberal persecutors are trying to criminalize politics. Heck, that’s what he said yesterday, on Fox News. He said that going to court “is not the way we settle political differences in this country. We settle (them) at the ballot box.”

    Really? We should settle political differences at the ballot box? If that’s what Perry truly believes, then perhaps he’ll urge the House Republicans to drop their lawsuit against the president.

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    Follow me on Twitter, @dickpolman1, and on Facebook.

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