Political base has begun to criticize governor
AUSTIN, TX -- When Rick Perry quit the Democratic Party and joined the Republicans 17 years ago, he embraced and spread their core doctrine with a convert's zeal. To say he worshipped at the altar of social conservative values would be true.
Indeed, when he signed the legislation that put a gay-marriage ban before the voters as a proposed constitutional amendment in June 2005, Perry's backdrop was the image of a Christian warrior, and his venue was a Fort Worth private school owned by Calvary Cathedral International church.
The loyal support from his social conservative base was considered a key component of the 39 percent plurality that ensured his re-election in November.
But now, less than one month into his second full term, Perry finds himself under siege from the same conservative base that has propelled him to victory in five statewide elections since 1990. Central to the unrest is the governor's order requiring 11- and 12-year-old girls to be vaccinated for the sexually transmitted disease that causes cervical cancer. Other concerns from conservatives are a range of other initiatives announced in recent days but scarcely or never road-tested on the campaign trail.
Perry has called for selling the state lottery to a private company and using the proceeds to offer health coverage to low-income adults and establish an endowment for cancer research. He has also called for a new spending initiative for higher education, including $360 million more for financial aid and for putting more emphasis on treatment and rehabilitation in the state's burgeoning prison system.
What some see as Perry's move to the middle has many conservatives feeling betrayed.
"A lot of us felt he was a real Republican, meaning that he believed in limited government," said Dallas resident Colleen Parro, a Republican foot soldier for more than 30 years. "And now he has made it the government's business of what is supposed to be the business of parents. Governor Perry is not the father of every little girl in this state."
Parro, who has attended every Republican state convention since 1974 and every national convention since 1992, and others have speculated that Perry's decision to require girls to be vaccinated for the human papillomavirus might have been motivated by payback to a friend and supporter, Mike Toomey. Toomey, the governor's former chief of staff, has been a lobbyist for Merck & Co., the pharmaceutical giant that manufactures the vaccine, on and off since the 1990s.
A political move?
Others have suggested that he is seeking to raise his profile nationally to boost his chances to be selected as the Republican vice presidential candidate in 2008.
Perry has said in recent interviews that he has no national ambitions, and longtime supporters insist that the governor is more interested in making a lasting impact while in office than in helping friends.
"I believe the governor sees this term as his opportunity to offer up an initiative that's big and bold, and that's what he's trying to do," said Reggie Basher, a veteran Republican operative in Austin.
Larry Sabato, a University of Virginia political analyst, said that the boomlet for Perry for vice president has been floating around for the past year or so, but that few if any have taken it seriously. Perry's margin of victory in 2006 was too weak, and the Lone Star State has lost its luster on the national stage because of President Bush's current low standing among the electorate, Sabato said.
"I honestly think that just as George W. Bush has ended the presidential hopes for the rest of the Bush family, he has also ensured it that no Texan will be on the national ticket for quite some time into the future," Sabato said.
Perry, a former state lawmaker from Haskell who also served two terms as Texas agriculture commissioner and two years as lieutenant governor, announced in a routine news release on an otherwise quiet Friday afternoon that he would be the first U.S. governor to order the vaccine.
Initial reaction was generally low-key. Medical professionals and the liberal-leaning Texas Freedom Network endorsed the move, and the conservative Texas Eagle Forum expressed disappointment that Perry would substitute his judgment for that of parents.
Perry's aides were quick to point out that parents who objected to the vaccination could opt out of the program.
But opposition from conservatives intensified over the weekend. State Sen. Jane Nelson, R-Lewisville, said Monday that she had been inundated at home with calls from angry constituents.
Complaints included claims that the vaccine has not been adequately tested, that getting vaccinated might encourage pre-marital sex and that it's the Legislature's responsibility to enact such a policy, not the governor's.
Nelson sent a letter to Perry signed by 25 of her 30 Senate colleagues, including all the Republicans, urging Perry to rescind his order. She also asked Attorney General Greg Abbott to examine its legality. A similar letter signed by 32 of the 150 House members arrived on the governor's desk last week.
At least two bills have been filed that would overturn Perry's order, and Texas Eagle Forum President Cathie Adams has called for a telephone and letter-writing blitz urging the governor to reconsider.
"Ask that our little girls not be used as experiments for this vaccine," Adams said in an e-mail plea to her supporters.
Not backing down
Perry, meanwhile, has shown no sign of backing down. Speaking to a joint session of the Legislature, where Republicans rule in both houses, he said the health benefits of his decision far outweigh the political consequences.
"I refuse to look a young woman in the eye 10 years from now who suffers from this form of cancer and tell her we could have stopped it, but we didn't," Perry told lawmakers last week in his State of the State address.
That Perry finds himself crossways with a core constituency confounds the governor's adversaries, who are not sure whether the flare-up is a temporary brushfire or discontent that's likely to keep smoldering.
"It could be that they [Republican activists] have never really trusted him because he used to be a Democrat, and they're just not going to give him a pass," Democratic strategist Kelly Fero said.
But even Fero acknowledged that Perry has delivered on much of the GOP agenda during his six years in the Governor's Mansion, backing successful legislation to limit jury awards in lawsuits, paring social programs and redrawing the state's political map to send more Republicans to Congress.
Reggie Bashur, a Republican consultant, said that record will enable Perry to weather the tempest.
"The governor is a strong conservative and a strong leader, so I think the base will stay with him," he said. "I think all of this is just temporary."
But Parro, the Dallas activist, who heads the Republican National Coalition for Life, warned against such complacency.
"This is issue is not going to fade away. We are going to keep it alive," she said. "Republican officeholders have taken [the conservative base] for granted for a long time. But things are going to change."
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