Perry's success: Good looks, timing and politics



Posted on January 26, 2010 at 8:13 PM

Updated Thursday, Apr 12 at 11:34 AM

At the Belo televised debate Friday night, the Republican candidates for governor will tell us about where they stand on issues.

But Rick Perry, Kay Bailey Hutchison and Debra Medina might not share so much about who they are. What about the people behind the political labels?

Some have said Perry has come a long way on his good looks. But becoming Texas' longest-serving governor took more than a pleasant appearance.

SMU political science professor Cal Jillson says Perry’s experience growing up on a ranch at Paint Creek, north of Abilene, shaped his views.

"Hard times really for farmers out there, and that's the part of the state that has always been most conservative," Jillson said.

Over the past 20 years, Perry has depicted his upbringing on a West Texas ranch as a positive to voters. It worked especially well for his first statewide run for agriculture commissioner in 1990.

But his restlessness on the ranch six years earlier spurred Perry to run for the legislature as a Democrat, and Jillson said it was clear how he wanted to govern.

"In 1984 he ran for the legislature for the first time, and from Day One he was a small government, budget-cutter," Jillson said.

But with the Democratic Party changing, Perry told his father, according to the New York Times, "Those guys... aren't like you and me. They're very liberal."

At the urging of Karl Rove (who would later guide George Bush to the governor's office and the White House),  Perry became a Republican to run statewide.

"At just the right moment, he jumped -- not too early, not too late -- just the right moment in 1990," Jillson said.

With the rising tide of red voters in the 1990s, Perry's good timing continued winning as Lieutenant Governor in 1998 and then taking over as governor when George W. Bush became president.

Now Perry wants to extend his political career four more years.

It's a career that might not have happened if he had remained frozen on the farm, Jillson said.

"But he's still got that West Texas dust on his boots," the SMU professor added.