Gov. Rick Perry pumped his fists in the air and gave a thumbs up sign to those in the gallery as he entered the Texas House chamber for the final time as an elected state official.
It was the room where his 30-year stint in public office began as a Democratic state representative in the 1985 legislative session. Since switching parties in 1989, he has served as the state’s agriculture commissioner, lieutenant governor and, finally, as the longest-tenured governor in Texas history.
Most members of the Texas Legislature were on hand to hear Perry’s parting words, though a number of House Democrats were still in a caucus meeting electing a new chair when the event began and opted not to come in late.
Newly elected statewide officials, including Perry’s successor, Gov.-elect Greg Abbott, and the new land commissioner George P. Bush, whose father’s possible presidential bid may prove an obstacle to Perry’s own ambitions, were in attendance. Also present were several of the outgoing governor’s current and former staffers and appointees.
In 2011, his campaign for the Republican presidential nomination was memorably unsuccessful, but in the run-up to the 2016 race, he has adopted a more statesman-like image and tone than his previous effort.
The speech received a warm reception from the gallery, though much of it had been said before. It was heavy on themes that are likely familiar to those that have heard him on the stump, such as the state’s job growth and economic expansion, which he said has contributed to a “creative and cultural arts boom.”
“I felt like it was a campaign speech,” state Rep. Donna Howard, D-Austin, said. “That may be why some people chose not to stick around. “
Perry struck a bipartisan chord in his remarks, urging fellow Republicans to “not place purity ahead of unity.”
“There is room for different voices, for disagreement,” he said. “Compromise is not a dirty word if it moves Texas forward.”
State Sen. Judith Zaffirini, D-Laredo, said the sentiment came as a “pleasant surprise.”
“It was a very good speech,” she said. “Of all the ones I’ve seen, it was his best.”
State Rep. Jeff Leach, R-Plano, who hails from the conservative wing of the Republican Party, did not take objection.
“I think he’s right,” Leach said. “There are certain convictions that all of us have that we don’t compromise on, but where we can find balance and prudent compromise, I think we’ve done that.”
Perry’s remarks also touched on his support for diversion programs for nonviolent drug offenders.
“We must remember when it comes to the disease of addiction, the issue is not helping bad people become good, but sick people become well,” he said. “Turning to diversion programs hasn’t made us soft on crime. It’s made us smart on crime.”
His speech wasn’t all conciliatory, though. Perry singled out New York’s Democratic governor, Andrew Cuomo, and that state’s ban on hydraulic fracking, an activity which has buoyed Texas economy. He said Texas’ low taxes and relatively lax regulations, and its caps on damages that can be awarded in lawsuits have helped it lead the nation in creating jobs, as has a public education system with improving high school graduation rates.
‘The face of evil’
Perry also said Texas has been instrumental in slowing the flow of immigrants pouring over the state’s border with Mexico illegally, calling people smugglers “the face of evil” and adding, “As long as Washington will not secure the border, Texas will be equal to the task.”
Perry wants Texas and America to remember him as a proven job creator and veteran chief executive of the nation’s second-largest state. He doesn’t want to be best-known for his short-lived 2012 presidential campaign, which bottomed out with his infamous “oops” moment during a debate, when he said he would shutter three federal agencies, if elected, but then couldn’t name all three.
The governor’s political career began 30 years ago, when he was elected to Texas House as a Democrat from tiny Paint Creek. He joked that after three sessions, “I became a Republican. I made both parties happy.”
While it was his last speech as governor, it will likely not be the last time Texans hear Perry speak. He is considering and preparing for a possible presidential bid, some of the staff and advisers for which were in the audience.
This report includes material from The Associated Press.