Watching Gov. Rick Perry pitch the wonders of Texas to an audience is a little like sitting in the front row of a ’50s Broadway musical. It’s easy to imagine this good-lookin’ sweet-talkin’ Texas cowboy hooking his thumbs in his pants’ pockets and breaking out in song, perhaps launching into Mary Martin’s “Cock-eyed Optimist” or blasting out “76 Trombones” a la Robert Preston. The former bible reference book salesman and Aggie yell leader is convincing, charming, and evangelical in his call for business to “come on down” to Texas and, judging by the numbers, businesses are responding to his invitation. But his high-profile pitches, including this week’s visit to Connecticut and New York have political observers wondering if the governor is selling more than Lone Star heaven.
“He speaks extremely highly of his home state,” says Connecticut businessman Mark Malkowski. “Not just the workplace, but the culture, the people. He says there’s no other place in the world like Texas.” It is a message that Perry clearly loves delivering and there is little doubt that his self-proclaimed success — the press releases on job relocations are a weekly product of the governor’s office — has bolstered his political clout at home. But as he stays mum about his political future and a possible run for another term as governor, these high-profiled, well-covered raids into blue states are sparking questions about his 2016 intentions. After his flubbed 2012 presidential debate performance when the ardent advocate of small government forgot which three federal agencies he would whack, could these blue state raids be a way to repair his image on the national stage?
“Gov. Perry has done a good job of dusting himself off and getting right back on the horse, ” says Mark McKinnon, the former Texas Democrat who advised President George W. Bush and helped found No Labels, a political consensus-building group. “He may get some snickers from the media and liberals, but Perry’s in-your-face economic caravan gets the attention of conservatives and business types who increasingly believe that something unique must be going in Texas.”
Throughout his career, Perry’s appeal to business leaders has proved a boost for his political ambitions. Texas Democrats, who have been forced to the sidelines as Perry has enjoyed the longest run as governor in Texas history, have dubbed his relationship with the state’s business sector and its economic development engine, “A Crony Capitalist Romance.” The Texas Enterprise Fund, established and funded by the legislature in 2003 at Perry’s request, has spent some $450 million since 2004 attracting almost 200,000 jobs to Texas and it is just one of several economic development funds in the state’s portfolio.
The governor’s M.O. on these raids is to mix with business leaders at an informal reception, then make his pitch, says Perry aide Laurel Nashed. The invitation list is assembled from a variety of sources; some are companies who have contacted Texas Wide Open for Business, a joint public-private economic development office, also under the auspices of the Governor’s Office, that is funded by private donations.
Sometimes, Perry simply seeks out potential potential targets, like Connecticut gun manufacturer Malkowski who heard the governor’s rallying cry at the annual National Rifle Association convention in Houston last month. “There’s still a place that loves freedom in America, where people can pursue their dreams free from knee-jerk government regulation,” Perry told the crowd. “That place is called Texas!” Perry made an even more personal pitch to Malkowski, one-on-one. “He’s really passionate about Texas, about how extremely business-friendly the state is,” Malkowski says.
A native of Connecticut, Malkowski, founded and owns Stag Arms, which produces an AR-15 type weapon. He is just one of several gun manufacturers in the New England area who are concerned about new guns laws passed after the Newton school shooting. With 200 employees and ten machinery workshops, moving his company would be no small task. Right now, he told TIME, he is being wooed by Texas and South Carolina, two gun-friendly states with low taxes. He will be on hand this week for the governor’s latest economic development foray in blue territory as the Perry pitch wagon rolls into New York and Connecticut, and he also has another private meeting with Perry scheduled. Malkowski has not made a decision on whether to move, but he admires Perry’s appeal. “If one thing, it’s a wake-up call to other states that business in their state is not guaranteed.”
Gun manufacturers are not the only sector targeted by the Texas governor in this visit — Perry also has financial and tech companies in his crosshairs. For manufacturing companies like Stag Arms, making a move is “not just folding up the laptops” and heading south. Many of the relocation announcements made by the Governor’s Office are piecemeal moves by large businesses. Raytheon recently announced the relocation of some of its high-paid corporate headquarters personnel to the Dallas area, while still maintaining other sectors in California, for example. But each announcement adds up. When Perry boasted in a recent Austin newspaper ad that in the last decade Texas had accounted for one third of the net gain in U.S. jobs in the last decade, non-partisan Politifact stamped the claim as “True.”
In addition to the personal outreach, Perry’s raids are usually preceded by a round of television and radio ads that feature the governor and his homespun, gee whiz pitch, often with a gentle poke at the local political leaders. New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg is a target in the New York radio ad that aired prior to Perry’s visit: “The new New York sounds a lot like the old New York. Higher taxes. Stifling regulations. Bureaucrats telling you whether you can even drink a Big Gulp. This is Texas Gov. Rick Perry, and there is a place where opportunity, freedom and innovation are flourishing, and that’s Texas.”
Perry’s forays are met with disdain and a parade of Texas put-downs from some political leaders (mostly Democrats) and economic development experts in the blue states he targets. New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo used the Texans’ visit to tout his own economic development plan for tax-free zones around universities: “So they are advertising zero tax – you can come to Texas and pay no income tax. Our program does one better, you can stay in New York, pay no income tax and you don’t have to move to Texas. You can live in New York.” California Gov. Jerry Brown dismissed the California ad campaign as “barely a fart.” And Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn dismissed Perry as a “big talker.”
There are also complaints about Perry’s “imperial” style as he rides into town, but as Malkowski and other targets of the Texas pitch point out, Perry really does lead a legion of Texans eager to entice “folks” to “come on down.” After being wooed by the governor, Malkowski said he was “inundated” with letters, phone calls, emails and invitations. “It’s not just a brochure in the mail,” he says. Many of the participants in the Texas is Wide Open for Business group are members of small town chambers of commerce eager to keep their communities vital and growing, Nashed says. While Malkowski acknowledges South Carolina has a favorable business climate and incentives to match Texas, Perry’s home state wins hands down bringing the small town, personal touch to the campaign, he says. It’s a style Perry will display as he slaps backs and schmoozes in New York this week.
Even as Perry’s latest ride north adds to speculation about his political ambitions, his office will not offer a specific time frame for when Perry will announce his plans. “Sometime in the future,” says press aide Nashed. If some wonder why Perry would run for governor again, Paula Burka, longtime political observer at Texas Monthly, offers his view: “The answer is simple: It’s the lifestyle, stupid. He lives the life of an Oriental potentate — even as I write, he is off in New York living a life of luxury, the best hotels in New York, the best restaurants, the kingpins of Wall Street, and don’t forget that state pension. By running again, he extends his ability to lead the Good Life for four more years, plus run for president on the taxpayers’ dime. Nice work if you can get it, and he’s got it.”