Rick Perry, criminal defendant for president

     Governor Rick Perry pauses as he addresses attendees at the 2014 Red State Gathering, Friday, Aug. 8, 2014, in Fort Worth, Texas. (AP Photo/Tony Gutierrez)

    Governor Rick Perry pauses as he addresses attendees at the 2014 Red State Gathering, Friday, Aug. 8, 2014, in Fort Worth, Texas. (AP Photo/Tony Gutierrez)

    Rick “Oops” Perry is joining the Republican race today, roughly nine months before he drops out. But he’s well worth a column anyway, for one simple reason. He’s about to make history.

    Never before, in two centuries of presidential campaigning, has a criminal defendant ever stumped for a major-party nomination. Until now.

    That’s really quite something, to press the flesh for higher office while under felony indictment for abuse of office. Perry and his battery of lawyers have been trying to shrug it off as a Democratic witchhunt (a bald-faced lie, as you’ll soon see), but they darn well know it’s political baggage. Which is why they’ve repeatedly tried, without success, to get it squashed in time for Perry’s official launch.

    It’s theoretically possible for a criminal defendant to win at the polls – Boston Mayor James Curley won re-election in 1945 despite indictments for bribery and mail fraud – but Perry has to sell himself in an uncommonly crowded marketplace. Republican primary voters have an embarrassment of riches (although many candidates are simply embarrassments), and voters will need to cull the herd. Perhaps their first order of business will be to nix anyone who has posed for a cop mug shot.

    Speaking of overcrowded, Perry will need to compete for religious conservative voters with a slew of rivals who are deft at playing the God card – including Mike Huckabee, Ted Cruz, Rick Santorum, Ben Carson, and Scott Walker. And when he tries to tout his executive experience, he’ll be competing with a slew of past and present governors – Walker, Bobby Jindal (June 24 announcement, everybody!), Jeb Bush, Chris Christie, George Pataki. None of whom are criminal defendants.

    First rule of politics: When you have to keep explaining your baggage, you’re not moving forward. (And when you have to spend $1 million of your campaign money on legal fees – that tab will climb exponentially – you’re going to turn off a lot of donors.) And to paraphrase Ricky Ricardo from I Love Lucy, Rick Perry has a lot of ‘splaining to do.

    The gist of the case is that Perry, as Texas governor, yanked all the funding for the state anti-corruption watchdog unit. The same unit that had long been probing his longstanding habit of steering taxpayer-financed contracts to his donor-cronies. (In Philadelphia, we call this “pay to play.”) Reportedly, Perry over the years had steered millions in taxpayer money to drug manufacturers (aka, big donors) whose drugs had been rejected by the FDA; steered a big technology contract to a donor whose company failed to submit annual reports and finally went bankrupt; steered a big cancer research contract to a well-connected Dallas firm that hadn’t been properly vetted. (The Wall Street Journal has also bared Perry’s pay-to-play proclivities.)

    The state watchdog unit had long been an irritant to Perry. And when the unit’s director got arrested for drunk driving in April ’13, he pounced. He demanded that if she didn’t quit her job, he’d pull the unit’s funding. She refused to quit, so he pulled the funding. Perry was indicted last summer for violating two provisions of the Texas penal code: abuse of official capacity, and coercion of a public servant.

    On the trail, Perry is naturally trying to spin his legal woes as a badge of honor. He says the indictment is a Democratic conspiracy.  That happens to be a hilarious lie. Let us count the ways:

    The case initially landed in the lap of a judge named Billy Ray Stubblefield. Billy Ray is a Republican, a Perry appointee. Billy Ray assigned the case to another judge, Bert Richardson. Bert is also a Republican. Bert appointed a special prosecutor named Michael McCrum. Mike is a former cop and former federal prosecutor who was tapped for that job by George H. W. Bush. Mike persuaded a grand jury to indict, citing compelling evidence that Perry had sought to “obstruct the operation” of the anti-corruption unit. Perry’s lawyers have thrice gone to Judge Richardson (Republican), demanding that the indictment be dismissed; three times, Judge Richardson (Republican) has refused.

    Yeah. Some Democratic conspiracy.

    And Perry’s baggage will only get heavier. His lawyers are going over Richardson’s head to the Texas court of appeals; that judicial slog will likely consume the rest of the year. Yesterday, in a pre-announcement of today’s official announcment, Perry said, “I know our country’s best days are ahead of us.” But, politically, his are not.

    ——-

    Let us not forget (as if it were possible) that Texas has gifted us two candidates in the Republican race. The other, of course, is Ted Cruz. Here’s what Cruz excreted yesterday, in front of an audience, while Joe Biden was busy mourning his son’s death from brain cancer:

    “Joe Biden … You know what the nice thing is? You don’t even need a punch line. I promise you it works. At the next party you’re at, just walk up to someone and say, ‘Vice President Joe Biden,’ and just close your mouth. They will crack up laughing.”

    Spoken like a troll. Cruz later mouthed the requisite apology – which, at least in his case, is what passes for classy.

    ——-

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

     

    Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

    It will take 126,000 members this year for great news and programs to thrive. Help us get to 100% of the goal.