While the major metropolitan areas in the state have tilted toward Democrats, Texas is still a solidly red state. Our governor-turned-presidential candidate Rick Perry hasn't had to court the African-American vote, since he's won three elections and become Texas' longest-serving governor without it.
Perry hasn't ignored black Texans. He's routinely taken part in the United Negro College Fund's "Governor's Luncheon" and been the commencement speaker at both Prairie View A&M University and Texas Southern University in recent years. While his remarks usually remain generic, he did point out at Texas Southern last year that African-American enrollment in Texas higher education increased by nearly 20,000 students between 2008 and 2009.
But astute observers could see that he was more than ready to pick a fight with the nation's first black president. For the last couple of years, Gov. Perry has positioned himself as an antagonist of President Barack Obama. Perry has railed against the "stimulus" and sparred with the White House over whether the state was due emergency federal assistance for wildfires this past spring.
And when he greeted the president at the airport as Obama was making a trip to Austin, before the president could say "What's up," the governor handed him a letter asking the federal government to deploy 1,000 National Guard troops along the Texas-Mexico border. While many black Texans have viewed Perry's actions and tone as disrespectful, he's still got his fans.
Texas' Black Republicans Support Perry
Texas has its share of African-American conservatives, and many of them have had the governor's back and even echoed some of his criticism of the president. Michael Williams is in that number. He's a Republican who served as Texas railroad commissioner for more than a decade, up until March of this year.
During that time, he was the highest-ranking African-American elected official in Texas, a state where there are still no Democrats in office who have won a statewide election. Williams is now running for a seat in the U.S. Congress. His Twitter stream reads like that of any Texas Republican.
@michaelwilliams Just left lunch w/ Gov. Hailey and George Will. Now waiting for Gov. Perry. It's electric in here.
@michaelwilliams Obama turns his back on our oldest Middle East friend and reverses decades of US policy. http://tinyurl.com/3nn6tzw
@michaelwilliams President Obama just landed in TX for 2 big fundraisers. Donate now to send a conservative Texan to DC to stop Obama. http://bit.ly/lJTbWB
Edward Okpa has supported Rick Perry since meeting him in 1999. The Nigerian-born Okpa had an unsuccessful bid for mayor of Dallas earlier this year and considers himself a Republican. "I think [Perry] will be someone who will create excitement in the Republican Party," Okpa says. "He will give Obama a good run."
Okpa held two fundraisers for Perry last year when Perry defeated former Houston Mayor Bill White in the Texas gubernatorial election. He says African Americans in Texas could work more closely with Perry if only they made an effort. "Given the way he has treated me, he is accessible and approachable," Okpa says, explaining how the governor refers to him by his Nigerian name.
Okpa says black Texans have let politics get in the way of building a better constructive working relationship with the governor. "I don't think African Americans are comfortable approaching the governor's office," he says. Okpa cites Perry appointees Aaron Demerson (executive director of the governor's Economic Development and Tourism division) and Bill Jones (former president of the Texas A&M Board of Regents) as examples of black Texans who have worked successfully with the governor.
Perry and the Stimulus
Governor Perry has a peculiar relationship with the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, aka "the stimulus." When Perry announced his candidacy in South Carolina last week, he referenced the ARRA as the "failed stimulus plan." But as Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson points out, that same plan helped balance the Texas budget.
Now that stimulus dollars have dried up, Texas will have to make some tough choices as Perry touts his fiscal accomplishments. "Without further federal investment, the state Legislature is poised to make severe cuts to schools, colleges, health care and social services by balancing the state budget on the backs of the most vulnerable Texans," says Johnson.
Perry and the Death Penalty
As was the case with his predecessor, former President George W. Bush, Perry has not been shy about enforcing the death penalty. There have been 230 executions since Perry took over as governor in 2000. From 2000 to 2009, the state put 101 African Americans to death. While many states have instituted a moratorium on the death penalty, even the thought of Texas putting an innocent man to death hasn't changed Perry's views.
In 2004, Cameron Todd Willingham was executed for the murder of his three young children by arson. Willingham maintained his innocence up until his death. An hour and a half before Willingham was to be executed, Perry's office received a five-page fax from arson expert Dr. Gerald Hurst. Hurst concluded that there was no evidence of arson in the Willingham case.
"Most of the conclusions reached by the fire marshall would be considered invalid in the light of current knowledge," Hurst wrote. Perry was not moved. All appeals for clemency were denied, and Willingham was executed by lethal injection.
In 2009, an investigative report by David Grann of the New Yorker brought the Willingham case back to light. That same year, as the Texas Forensic Science Commission looked into possible missteps in the investigation of the 1991 fire, Perry removed three of the commissioners from their post. When asked about the situation, Perry said, "Our process works, and I don't see anything out there that would merit calling for a moratorium on the Texas death penalty."
This year the same commission released a draft report that examined how evidence in Willingham's case was gathered. They noted that indicators once thought to clearly point to arson "are subject to numerous variables that require study and evaluation."
With Rick Perry, what you see is what you get. While that works in Texas, there will be states where he'll have some 'splainin' to do. The Willingham case, comments about secession and his executive order mandating that girls entering the sixth grade receive the Gardasil HPV vaccine will cause many independents to pause. And most African Americans will find Perry hard to stomach, but as we know, a former Texas governor can find his way to the White House without them.
Shawn Williams is the publisher and editor of Dallas South News, a nonprofit news organization that focuses on underserved communities.