At the age of 69, Tom Pauken has a rich history in conservative Republican politics. He was the national chairman of College Republicans in the thick of the 1960s and of the Texas GOP during its rise to majority status in the 1990s. He served President Ronald Reagan as head of ACTION – precursor of AmeriCorps – pruning its budget and left-wing connections, and helping administer first lady Nancy Reagan’s signature “Just Say No to Drugs” campaign.
Most recently, Pauken has been a member of the Texas Workforce Commission, stepping down at the end of last month. Now he is plotting a campaign to claim the job of the man who named him chairman of that commission back in 2008, even if that man, Gov. Rick Perry, might not be ready to relinquish it.
On Thursday, Pauken filed papers with the Texas Ethics Commission allowing him to raise money to run for governor in 2014. He declared, in an interview, “We just need a different style of leadership and a different approach to addressing the issues.”
It is long-shot candidacy by a relatively little-known candidate, but one that might further clarify the choice awaiting Perry when he decides, after the legislative session, whether to seek another term as governor.
Pauken is an old-school conservative, the type for whom Goldwater and Reagan are good; the Bushes, not so good. He worries that the Republican Party has become unmoored from its conservative roots and that government has strayed beyond appropriate limits, sticking its mitts where they don’t belong, particularly in education and the economy.
On education, he believes there is too much testing, too much “Robin Hood” redistribution of wealth from richer districts to poorer ones, and too little attention to vocational training. He abhors “crony capitalism,” in Washington or Austin, which he describes as picking winners and losers instead of leaving it to the free market. Examples under Perry’s watch — the state’s Emerging Technology Fund and the Cancer Prevention and Research Institute of Texas.
He believes that Republican leaders too often indulge in divisive sound bites instead of practical governance. He supports term limits.
“I like Rick personally, but I am probably the only statewide appointed or elected official not to endorse him in the presidential race,” Pauken said. “I stayed neutral.”
Perry, who took office in December 2000, is now the longest-serving governor in Texas history. Perry has said that he will decide whether he is going to seek re-election after the legislative session ends in May. A decision on whether to run for president again will follow.
By most accounts, Perry’s most dangerous rival would be Attorney General Greg Abbott, a fellow Republican. But Perry has said that Abbott, a friend, has promised he won’t run against the governor if he seeks another term.
Pauken would seem outmatched in recognition and potential resources by either Perry or Abbott.
“The next governor of the state of Texas will be either Greg Abbott or Rick Perry, regardless of who else files to run in the 2014 Republican and Democratic primaries,” said Rice University political scientist Mark Jones.
But there is the less tangible possibility that, simply by entering the race, Pauken might embolden others. Particularly after his thrashing of Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison in the 2010 Republican primary, Perry, who has never lost a race in Texas, seemed invincible. But he stumbled badly when he ran for president, and Pauken’s candidacy might suggest other chinks in Perry’s armor.
“Nobody wants to be the first one to challenge the king,” said University of Texas political scientist Daron Shaw, but now Pauken has done that and “it could encourage others to get in.”
Back in 1978 and 1980, Pauken lost two whisker-close congressional races to Rep. Jim Mattox in Dallas. In 1998, he finished third, just behind John Cornyn, in the Republican primary for attorney general, an office that Cornyn, now Texas’ senior U.S. senator, went on to win.
Pauken is the author of two books. The most recent is “Bringing America Home: How America Lost Her Way and How We Can Find Our Way Back.” A longtime Dallas resident, he now lives in Port Aransas, with his wife, the former Ida Ayala.