Four years ago, Gov. Rick Perry was dealt a rare political defeat.
The Republican's controversial order to require young girls to be vaccinated against a virus that causes cervical cancer was overturned by the Legislature. Perry grudgingly accepted the loss.
While the HPV mandate was largely left for dead as a matter of state policy, it has remained very much alive politically. Democratic and Republican opponents alike have hammered Perry on the issue ever since, and now Perry's rivals in the presidential race believe that they have found an opening.
"The question is, is it about life, or was it about millions of dollars and potentially billions for a drug company," Rep. Michele Bachmann said at Monday's CNN debate.
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In 2007, Perry seemed on the leading edge of a national trend when he tried to make Texas the first state to require girls entering the sixth grade be vaccinated for the human papillomavirus, known as HPV. Parents would have been able to opt out.
Not only was his order struck down, but no state has enforced such a mandate since then. Virginia and Washington, D.C., officially require some students to be vaccinated against HPV, but Virginia doesn't enforce the mandate. Over the past month, Perry has started apologizing for the order, saying he should have made the policy "opt-in" and pursued it through the Legislature.
During the debate, Bachmann mocked Perry's efforts to walk back his order, saying, "Little girls who have a negative reaction to this potentially dangerous drug don't get a mulligan."
The executive order, announced late on a Friday, was an unusual approach for Perry, who more often has pushed his agenda via the Legislature. This time, he was making an end-run around both the House and Senate. Three months earlier, state Rep. Jessica Farrar, D-Houston, had filed a bill similar to Perry's order, but Perry's office never talked to her about it, she said.
The question of whether states should mandate Merck's Gardasil has been debated nationwide since the FDA approved it in 2006.
Many doctors endorse the vaccine, but some parents worry that their kids might interpret the inoculation as permission to be sexually promiscuous.
While Perry's order came as a surprise, his position on the issue was not a secret. Chris Bell, Perry's Democratic opponent in the 2006 gubernatorial race, said that September that the state should require all young women to get the vaccine.
Perry's campaign told the Star-Telegram at the time that Perry agreed as long as parents could opt their children out.
That summer, Perry's chief of staff, Deirdre Delisi, had been meeting with Merck lobbyists about Gardasil.
In October, Merck's political action committee donated $5,000 to Perry's campaign the same day Delisi participated in another meeting with Merck officials. Further complicating Perry's position was that Mike Toomey, Perry's former chief of staff, was a Merck lobbyist.
The connections between Perry and the company, coincidental or not, added corruption allegations to critics' arsenal.
Though Perry defended himself against the $5,000 donation during the debate, he has received a total of $28,500 from Merck since 2006, and the Republican Governors Association, which Perry has chaired, received $377,500 from the company, according to Texans for Public Justice.
"That usually defined [Perry's] motivation for just about everything," Bell said. "You only had to follow the short money trail."
Perry's HPV order briefly upended Texas' political landscape. The Republican governor of Texas found himself drawing praise from Planned Parenthood chapters and the New York Times Editorial Board. Meanwhile, Perry's conservative base was appalled. Some viewed the order as a betrayal.
"A lot of us felt he was a real Republican, meaning that he believed in limited government," said Colleen Parro, who at the time was head of the Republican National Coalition for Life.
"And now he has made it the government's business of what is supposed to be the business of parents. Gov. Perry is not the father of every little girl in this state."
Sen. Jane Nelson, R-Flower Mound, a leader on health issues in Austin, led the charge in the Senate to void Perry's order.
"We were not on the same page on that issue, but no two people are going to agree 100 percent of the time," Nelson said this week. Three months after issuing the order, Perry admitted defeat while accusing lawmakers of putting politics before saving lives.
"Banning widespread access to a vaccine that can prevent cancer is short-sighted policy," Perry said at a news conference with three cervical cancer patients beside him.
But Perry isn't the only one playing defense over vaccine issues.
Bachmann drew widespread condemnation for claiming on Fox News on Monday that there are "dangerous consequences" to taking Gardasil, citing a woman who had told her that the vaccine made her daughter mentally retarded.
An anti-vaccine movement has flourished in recent years but has been discredited by scientists. Gardasil was tested on thousands of people around the world and no serious side effects were found, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Aman Batheja, 817-390-7695