A defiant Rick Perry went on the offensive Saturday, a day after being indicted on accusations of abusing his power with a controversial veto, denouncing the charges as “outrageous” political theatrics and predicting he will prevail over “those who would erode our state’s constitution and laws purely for political purposes.”
“I wholeheartedly and unequivocally stand behind my veto and will continue to defend this lawful action of my executive authority as governor,” Perry told reporters at a packed six-minute news conference near his office on the second floor of the Capitol.
“We don’t settle political differences with indictments in this country.”
The indictment, returned Friday by a Travis County grand jury, made Perry the first sitting Texas governor in nearly a century to be indicted, abruptly threw uncertainty over his potential presidential candidacy in 2016 and triggered state and national repercussions that Democrats hope will spill into this year’s gubernatorial race to choose his successor.
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Democrats at the state and national levels escalated their demands for Perry to resign, but the state’s longest-tenured governor served notice that he plans to stay in office till the end of his term and vowed that he will ultimately beat the legal charges.
Perry, who chose against running for an unprecedented fourth four-year term, will leave office in January and has been preparing for a possible second run for the presidency in 2016.
Reading from a statement and responding to three questions from reporters who filled the Governor’s Press Room, Perry repeatedly defended his threats to veto appropriations for the Travis County district attorney’s office in an attempt to force the resignation of District Attorney Rosemary Lehmberg after she was arrested for drunken driving. Perry ultimately vetoed a $7.5 million appropriation to a division of the office that is responsible for fighting official corruption.
The indictment stemmed from a complaint by Texans for Public Justice, a liberal-leaning public watchdog group, which alleged that Perry’s veto threat to force the resignation of a public official constituted an abuse of power. The grand jury indicted Perry on felony counts of abuse of official capacity, which carries five to 99 years in prison, and coercion of a public servant, punishable by two to 10 years.
Perry stood firmly behind his actions, saying Lehmberg, who remains in office, behaved in “an incredibly inappropriate way” after her arrest, was “abusive to law enforcement” and had to be restrained. Lehmberg, who was shown in a video kicking the door of her cell and sticking her tongue out, had a blood alcohol level almost three times the legal limit, Perry said.
“Americans and Texans who have seen this agree with me that that is not an individual who is heading up an office that we can afford to fund,” Perry said. “Given that information, and given that choice again, that is exactly what I would do.”
Perry also asserted that he will “explore every legal avenue to expedite this matter and bring it to a swift conclusion.”
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The news conference, coming less than 24 hours after the indictment, signaled that Perry intends a head-on PR offensive against the charges, a strategy that will continue today with an appearance on Fox News Sunday.
But he is expected to face a less friendly venue later in the week when he goes to the Travis County courthouse to be booked in and presumably fingerprinted on the charges.
The indictment is the first against a sitting governor since 1917, when Gov. James “Pa” Ferguson was indicted in a political firestorm after he vetoed state funding to the University of Texas. He was impeached and resigned before being convicted; his wife, Miriam “Ma” Ferguson, went on to serve two inconsecutive two-year terms as governor in the 1920s and 1930s.
Perry’s new legal problems became instant national news, spawning differing assessments among analysts and political officials about the potential impact on the 2014 and 2016 elections and the potential damage to Perry’s political future and historical legacy as governor.
Many Republicans predicted that Perry will survive what they described as a weak legal case and echoed his view that the charges are politically motivated.
But Texas Democrats pounced on the accusations and vowed to use the charges against Perry in the Texas governor’s race to bolster their political attack on the Republican leadership that has dominated Texas politics for more than two decades.
“We think it has an absolute impact because Texans are waking up today with a Republican in office that has created this culture of corruption in Austin,” said Texas Democratic Executive Director Will Hailer, speaking to reporters in the Capitol minutes after Perry’s news conference. “People want to see a change of leadership in Austin.”
State Sen. Wendy Davis, the Fort Worth Democrat who is running against Republican Greg Abbott for governor, described the indictments as “very, very serious charges” but stopped short of joining Hailer and other Democrats in demanding Perry’s resignation.
In a brief session with reporters after a campaign appearance in suburban Austin, she also declined to assess the potential impact on the governor’s race, saying, “I’ll leave it to the pundits to determine that.”
The indictments cast new doubts on Perry’s presidential aspirations and came at a time when he seemed to be rebounding from a disastrous first bid for the White House in 2012. But several analysts said the impact on his presidential hopes depend on the length of the legal case and what evidence surfaces in a trial. Nearly all agreed that Perry is done for politically if convicted.
“He could proceed without a lot of damage. But if goes on for a long time and certainty if he were convicted, that would destroy any chance of running for president in 2016,” said Cal Jillson, a political science professor at Southern Methodist University. I certainly don’t expect him to be convicted, let alone jailed. I can’t imagine seeing those designer spectacles staring at me from behind a jail cell.”
Jim Riddlesperger, a political science professor at TCU, said that even before the indictments Perry faced a difficult challenge to repair his image from the last presidential bid. “I think Perry has a big uphill battle anyway because after the 2012 election he was seen as not ready for prime time,” Riddlesperger said. “Overcoming those first impressions is going to be a very, very difficult thing for him to do. I think that’s the issue for him, much more so than this indictment.”
Allan Saxe, an associate political science professor at the University of Texas at Arlington, said that regardless of the outcome, there’s no question that the indictment is “going to impact his chances of running for president. He may be completely innocent. He may be acquitted. In fact, he probably will be.
“But it won't make a difference,” Saxe said. “The word indictment has a very chilling effect. It's really not good politically for Gov. Perry.”
Staff writer Anna M. Tinsley contributed to this report.