SAN ANTONIO — Rick Perry, the longest-serving governor in Texas history who famously muttered “oops” after forgetting during a 2011 presidential debate the third of three federal departments he’d pledged to close, announced Monday he won’t seek re-election next year to a fourth full term.
A staunch Christian conservative, proven job-creator and fierce defender of states’ rights, Perry has been in office nearly 13 years, making him the nation’s longest-sitting current governor.
The 63-year-old ruled out another try for the White House in 2016, but Perry’s decision not to run again for his current post likely clears the way for longtime Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott to make a serious run at the Republican gubernatorial nomination in the March primary.
Perry had initially promised to divulge his future plans by July 1 but was forced to push that back following a rare political victory by state Democrats — a filibuster of abortion restrictions during the first 30-day special legislative session.
He called 30 more days of work to finish the job and suggested that would further delay his announcement, but then he distributed an email to a small group of friends and supporters last week promising he’d reveal “exciting future plans” Monday in San Antonio. The Caterpillar dealership he announced his plans at is the same place he announced his re-election bid for a third term in 2009.
Perry had never lost an election during his 27-year political career and became a near-instant front-runner when he strapped on his signature cowboy boots and strode into the crowded race for the GOP presidential nomination in August 2011. A ferocious fundraiser who was buoyed by both tea party activists and mainstream Republicans, Perry had presided over a Texas economy that was booming and had such TV anchorman good looks he was dubbed by some “governor good hair.”
But his presidential run flamed out spectacularly, culminating in a debate where Perry remembered that he’d pledged to shutter the U.S. Departments of Commerce and Education but forgot the other one, the Department of Energy. Quipped late-night comedian Jimmy Fallon: “It turns out George Bush was actually the smart Texas governor.”
Perry first endorsed former House Speaker Newt Gingrich in the race then turned his support behind the eventual nominee, Mitt Romney.
It was a long way to fall for Perry, considered the most powerful Texas governor since the Civil War. The governorship had traditionally been a weak one, with the lieutenant governor charged with overseeing the Legislature.
Perry set the tone for his tenure in June 2001, however, vetoing more than 80 bills in what became known in Austin as the “Father’s Day Massacre.” Since then, he has vetoed scores of other would-be laws, including a $35 billion public education budget and a ban on executing mentally disabled inmates.
But most of Perry’s power has come from his sheer longevity, remaining in office long enough to tap loyalists — and sometimes even his top donors — to every major appointed post statewide.
His tendency to shoot from the hip has occasionally caused problems. Ending a television interview in 2005, Perry smirked at the camera and signed off: “Adios, mofo.” He claimed he didn’t know he was still on the air, but it became a kind of Texas catchphrase.
Four years later, Perry hinted the state might want to secede from the U.S. While jogging in a rural corner of Austin in 2010, meanwhile, he somehow produced a laser-sighted pistol from his running shorts and shot dead a coyote he said was menacing his daughter’s dog.
Just last month, Perry had a notable dust-up with state Sen. Wendy Davis, who led the abortion filibuster and is considered the likely front-runner for the Democratic gubernatorial nomination should she run.
Perry claimed Davis should have understood the value of each human life because of her history as a former teenage mother who went on to graduate from Harvard Law School. Davis shot back that Perry’s statement “tarnishes the high office he holds.”
Perry won a seat in the Texas Legislature as a Democrat in 1984, when Texas was still reliably blue. As the state turned deeply red, so did Perry, becoming lieutenant governor in 1998 and taking his current post when Bush left for the White House in December 2000.
Though he has sought to become another Texan in the White House, Perry and Bush actually don’t get along very well. Austin insiders trace the bad blood between their respective camps back to 1998 and Bush refusing Perry’s request to appoint his attorney brother-in-law to a judgeship. And, in 2011, the Bush family endorsed Romney — not Perry.
Still, Perry won re-election as governor in 2002 and 2006, and then trounced U.S. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison in what was supposed to be a prolonged and bruising battle for the GOP gubernatorial nomination in 2010. That year’s general election against Democrat Bill White was even easier.