US election 2016: Not-so-slick Rick Perry wants another tilt at the White House

Floored by a terrible TV gaffe last time around, the Texas Governor hopes his state’s success can win over America
  • @dusborne

Rick Perry, the Governor of Texas whose “oops” moment in a primary debate doomed his effort to win the Republican nomination for president in 2012, appears to be manoeuvring for a second try in 2016.

And this time he is equipped with an even more compelling story of economic success in the state he governs.

Mr Perry wants to prove he is better than the impression he left in 2011 when he vowed to close three federal agencies in Washington during a televised debate, and then couldn’t remember which ones they were.

Speculation on Mr Perry’s intentions increased when it emerged that he underwent a second baptism in the same creek where Sam Houston, the soldier and politician who led Texas into the United States in 1854, was baptised. Mr Perry calls Houston his hero.

Oil-rich Houston (Alamy)

If that was a stunt to impress Christian voters, the economic expansion in the Lone Star State is entirely real and it is best witnessed in Sam Houston’s namesake city. Already the fourth largest in the US, it is booming, fuelled by the surge in Texan oil and gas production from the fracking of its shale deposits and the expected boost to the port of the expansion of the Panama Canal, which is due for completion in 2015. 

“We already have more workers than the state of Tennessee,” said Patrick Jankowski, research director for the Greater Houston Partnership. Houston is the fastest growing city in the US, attracting no fewer than 80,000 new residents a year. Its population is 6.3 million people, up from 3.9 million in 1990.

Workers are coming to Houston and San Antonio, Dallas and Austin because there are jobs here. Nearly a third of all of America’s energy-related jobs are in Houston. According to Mr Perry, who has been touting the “Texas miracle” in the US and abroad, including Israel and London, the reason is clear: his success in 14 years in office in cutting taxes and easing regulations.

“Just about any metropolitan area in America would love to have our unemployment rate at 5.2 per cent,” said Mr Jankowski, but he also points to the advantage of the low cost of power. He offers an illustrative, if also slightly alarming, anecdote: at his home last month he paid $89 (£54) for water but his electricity bill was only $49.

The strain on the state’s infrastructure, and especially on its limited water supply, is causing concern –Texan voters were persuaded last year to authorise a $2bn fund to improve water security – but not enough to slow the progress of fracking. “The shale revolution has unlocked a frenzy in Houston,” reports Kirk Coburn, the founder of Surge, an incubator of young companies focused on new technologies for the energy industry that are moving to Texas to capitalise on the boom.

His firm, also growing fast, offers them office space, financial backing and networking support. One young company in his stable is developing “drone sail boats”. The boats are about 8ft long and are designed to take readings and transmit data for off-shore rigs. At the port of Houston, Katoen Natie, a Belgian logistics company, is increasing its investment in Texas by building a huge new facility to receive and package petrochemical by-products that will join the two it already operates there.

The investment is inspired by soaring oil production and the new ships that the enlarged Panama Canal will bring. “We know the port of Houston will expand exponentially in the next 10 years,” says Brandon Huyn, vice-president for sales.

Mr Perry characterises his visits to states such as California, Connecticut, Maryland, Missouri and Illinois as poaching trips designed to net big employers and bring them to Texas. In New York, he challenged Governor Andrew Cuomo to a public debate about which of their states is better for business – Texas, which has created more jobs than any other state in the past three years, or New York. Mr Cuomo declined.

It is obvious that Mr Perry is considering a second attempt at the White House. Later this month he will visit Iowa, the first caucus state, stopping in Ames, which will be hosting its quadrennial straw poll of Republican hopefuls in 15 months. He has also invited a group of top Republican activists from New Hampshire, the first primary state, to come to Austin to discuss his prospects in their state, including Mike Dennehy, who helped John McCain win the state’s primary twice. “I believe that people will give him a second chance,” Mr Dennehy said.

Mr Perry describes his failure in 2011 as a “humbling experience” but one that made him stronger. “I think how people respond when they’ve been knocked down is a better reflection of their character than if everything is all blue sky and the wind behind your back,” he told CBS News.

“I’ve had the wind in my face. I’ve been knocked down, and I’m ready to move on.” If he runs for nomination he has high-name recognition, a big pool of donors and a record that while deeply conservative would not confine him to the right-wing extremes of the Tea Party.

His critics note that many of those new jobs in Texas are in the low-wage sector and point to his record of putting friends in state positions, which some say has taken him to the edge of corruption. “The high jinks of King Perry’s court and his lieutenants get increasingly deeper, murkier and more malodorous than a cow pasture every day,” the Houston Press, this city’s alternative paper, recently wrote. 

More ominously, a grand jury last month began investigating claims that the Governor illegally withheld state funds from a public integrity watchdog when its leader, a Democrat, refused to step down after she was arrested for drunk-driving.

Yet, the contours of the Texas boom, as impressive as the Houston skyline, may make a new White House bid just too tempting for Mr Perry to resist. Last week his governship was further endorsed when Toyota announced it was leaving the southern California town that has been its home since 1957 to open a new American headquarters in Dallas instead.

“It’s a walk-off home run for Perry,” Mark McKinnon, a longtime Republican strategist in Austin, who served as an advisor to both for Mr McCain and George W Bush when they ran for President, casting the poaching of Toyota in baseball terms. “His jobs and economy narrative is now complete and real.”