Greg Abbott: the calm after the Rick Perry storm


It was the “Father’s Day Massacre,” as Rick Perry ended his first legislative session as governor in 2001 with a bloody Sunday flourish, vetoing 79 bills in a single day, and 83 bills altogether, an all-time record.

But this Father’s Day, Gov. Greg Abbott is home with his family before heading up to Dallas to address the National Veterans Wheelchair Games. He finished poring over the last of the more than 1,406 bills and resolutions sent to his desk by the 84th session of the Texas Legislature at 2 a.m. Saturday. That’s 46 hours ahead of the midnight Sunday deadline after which anything he hasn’t acted on automatically becomes law.

His veto tally of 42 bills — many strictly local in application or containing what the governor considered a legal flaw — put his last stamp on a session that was conservative in both outcome and temperament.

Following 14 years of Rick Perry, Greg Abbott is the calm after the storm.

Where Perry was brash, brazen, intuitive, impetuous and charming, Abbott, a former state Supreme Court justice and attorney general, is careful, methodical, judicious, predictable and a bit boring.

Perry shot a coyote while jogging. Abbott snuggles with his new golden retriever puppy Pancake.

Perry ended his last session in 2013 by making good on his threat to veto funding for the Public Integrity Unit of the Travis County district attorney’s office if Rosemary Lehmberg didn’t step down after her drunken driving arrest. It was a threat and veto that ultimately led to his indictment by a Travis County grand jury on abuse of power charges. A bravura booking photo notwithstanding, those charges still hover over his second campaign for the White House and might yet require him to stand trial.

If vetoes form the theatrical bookends of Perry’s historic tenure as Texas’ longest-serving governor, it is almost impossible to re-imagine either scenario playing out quite as it did with Abbott as governor.

“He is not visceral in his approach; he is very thoughtful,” said Abbott’s chief of staff, Daniel Hodge, who has been at Abbott’s side for 14 years. “He doesn’t make decisions based on gut reaction.”

“There’s not a lot of drama with Greg Abbott,” said Wayne Hamilton, who managed Abbott’s campaign for governor. “There are no surprises.”

“Gov. Perry was a pilot, military, even from his earlier days, more of a public-type person,” Hamilton said. “Gov. Abbott comes from a legal background, contemplative and deliberative.”

Abbott had no ambition to lead the legislative session or take sides in disputes between the House and Senate, Hodge said, but rather to identify objectives — chiefly tax cuts, education, transportation, border security and ethics reform — and have his office serve as the honest broker between the two chambers, quietly mediating, guiding, nudging and problem-solving.

“We had a very robust agenda that we knew we had to work with the House and the Senate to achieve. In order to do that, we had to build trust and effective working relationships with both chambers,” Hodge said. “The old saying goes that ‘two always wins over one,’ and historically that is how the legislative process has played out. We tried to change the system and not team up with one chamber over the other. I think it was effective.”

And it was mostly done out of public view.

“We chose not to communicate with them through the press but to communicate with them directly,” Hodge said.

“Abbott came in from Day 1 saying and working and showing, ‘I want to respectfully work with legislators,’ ” said Rep. Dennis Bonnen, House Speaker Joe Straus’ top lieutenant and negotiator. “Perry’s view was, ‘I’m the freaking governor, and y’all can either work with me or not.’

“Rick Perry was quick to make enemies,” Bonnen, R-Angleton, said.

But, he said, “Greg Abbott walked out of this session with a far higher level of appreciation, respect and good will from legislators than Rick Perry had in a long time, and I think it’s because he did not try and engage in picking winners and losers. He did not try and engage in ‘you’re my favorite guy today; tomorrow they’ll be my favorite guy.’ He really engaged in saying, ‘Here, these are the things that are important to me, and I’m here to help y’all figure out how to get it done, and I’m not here to say one of you is more correct or less correct than the other; I’m just going to remind you that this is the piece that matters to me.’ ”

Bonnen said there were times when the House leadership was enormously frustrated by Abbott’s refusal to throw in with them.

“I can’t speak for them, but if I had to guess, the Senate was just as disappointed as the House was that Abbott wouldn’t take either one of our sides,” Bonnen said. Ultimately, Bonnen said, “Abbott was masterfully intelligent in taking his (own) side.”

“I’ll stop short of saying it’s a night and day difference, because he did veto one of my bills,” said Sen. Kirk Watson, D-Austin, comparing Perry and Abbott. “But even then, I’ll stop very short.”

Watson, who ran against Abbott the first time Abbott was elected attorney general and who heads the Senate Democratic Caucus, said that Abbott and his staff worked closely with him through the session. Watson said that before Abbott vetoed his bill to provide a legal defense when a drug user calls 911 to report an overdose, an aide to the governor called Watson to let him know and to say that Abbott wanted to work with him to perfect the bill for the next session.

If you’re going to have your bill vetoed, Watson said, “that’s the way that should be done.”

“I think he respected the process and respected the members,” Watson said.

“He did something that is probably very difficult for a governor to do — that it is to stay out of the way,” said Rep. Trey Martinez Fischer, D-San Antonio, who said Abbott’s staff was “accessible, knowledgeable and respectful.”

One result, Martinez Fischer said, was that “when (Republican Reps. Matt) Schaefer and Jonathan Stickland were trying to kill the governor’s pre-K agenda, I’m the guy arguing against their points of order.”

“That’s pretty symbolic of the tone and temperament of the session as it relates to the governor’s office,” Martinez Fischer said. “If this is emblematic of the governor’s approach to the Legislature, I think he’s off to one hell of a start.”

A straightforward agenda

Unlike Perry or George W. Bush before him, Abbott does not appear to have his eye on the White House.

“I think Abbott is genuinely interested in governing,” said Daron Shaw, a professor of government at the University of Texas.

Perry’s decision-making, he said, “was either kind of obviously political — and I don’t say that as a bad thing — or baffling, very quirky, idiosyncratic: ‘Really, we’re doing vaccines? OK.’

“Perry was not predictable by any stretch of the imagination. I still haven’t figured out, after observing him for 14 years, what I think of Perry,” said Shaw, who was among the political scientists brought in to advise his 2006 gubernatorial campaign.

But Shaw said Abbott’s agenda seems more straightforward: “It’s his best appraisal; where can we do the most good or have the greatest impact?

“It was a very deliberative approach to governing from the middle office,” said Deirdre Delisi, who was deputy chief of staff in Perry’s first term, served in various capacities in his administrations and campaigns after that, and was a volunteer adviser to Abbott’s campaign.

For all the scrutiny given to relations between them, Delisi said, “Abbott, (Lt. Gov. Dan) Patrick and Straus were really able to work together to set the goals they all pretty much shared.”

“Given that Gov. Abbott, Speaker Straus and Lt. Gov. Patrick were all on relatively the same wavelength on most issues, you don’t see the kind of fireworks like you have at the national level,” said Rice University political scientist Mark Jones, who said his voting analysis indicates this was the most conservative House since Straus became speaker.

Hodge said that on a couple of occasions, the governor’s office was able to solve a quandary dividing the Senate and House.

For example, the two chambers were at an impasse, threatening timely approval of the budget, over whether Texans would vote on raising the homestead exemption in a costly September special election, which would make it effective this year, or wait until the regular November election, which would delay implementation until 2016. Hodge said it was Abbott’s budget director, Kara Belew, who came up with a novel solution. It would enable the November vote to take effect this year by permitting local assessors to send out provisional property tax bills before the election indicating two scenarios: if the exemption passed and if it didn’t.

“The light bulb went off,” Hodge said. Comptroller Glenn Hegar blessed the plan, and both chambers were satisfied.

“If this wasn’t resolved, we were inexorably headed toward a special session,” Hodge said, and for Abbott, the orderly completion of work within the allotted 140 days was a paramount objective.

Calm and careful

Perry called a dozen special sessions during his tenure.

Delisi said comparing Perry and Abbott is “apples and oranges.”

“Perry’s first Legislature had a Democratic speaker of the House, a token Republican majority in the Senate and a lieutenant governor who was not nearly as conservative as Dan Patrick,” she said.

“By his first session as governor, Rick Perry was a veteran of numerous political battles in both legislative chambers and was used to being criticized and underestimated,” said Ray Sullivan, his former chief of staff. “In 2001, those who underestimated or ignored the new governor received a strong constitutional reminder when Rick Perry vetoed a record 82 bills. (The official count of 83 by the Texas Legislative Reference Library includes one line item veto.) No one could ever ignore a Perry policy priority or veto threat again.”

“He aggressively took charge of Texas and established that he was the new governor as Bush left the stage, and certainly, over the course of his long governorship, he did think seriously about how to garner and wield power and using appointments to seed Texas government with like-minded friends,” said Southern Methodist University political scientist Cal Jillson. “Perry systematically pursued power in Texas as governor as much as anyone since John Connally.”

But Jillson said, “Perry would not just campaign but govern with bumper stickers. Abbott’s a calmer, more careful guy, and he thinks at least as much about not making mistakes as he does about dominating the next news cycle.”

“It was vintage Greg Abbott,” said Tom Pauken, a former state Republican chairman who briefly challenged Abbott for the gubernatorial nomination. “He’s risk averse, and that’s the approach he took in the legislative session.”

Pauken faulted Perry for being too interested in helping himself and his friends as governor. He faults Abbott for not tackling the big issues of school finance and more meaningful property tax reform and for not doing anything to keep Republican Rep. Cecil Bell’s legislation defending the Texas gay marriage ban from being scuttled.

Yet Pauken said of Abbott, “his rhetoric makes it hard for anyone to get to the right of him.”

Indeed, Abbott’s language on the stump reflects little of the restraint of Abbott under the dome. Witness his broad suggestion in a post-session interview with Texas Monthly that, in a future session, he would sign constitutional carry legislation doing away with all handgun licensing requirements, a measure that even some gun rights members of the Legislature showed little use for.

But when asked at a small gathering of reporters just after legislators headed home what he saw as the lesson of his first session as governor, Abbott sounded a less provocative note, though one that might catch Rick Perry’s ear.

“We learned something very important,” Abbott said “and that is that conservatives can lead; they can achieve meaningful legislation that will improve the lives of people in this state. Unlike Washington or some other states where gridlock exists, we can come in Texas and gather for a session of 140 days and pass substantial reforms that improve the state and advance the state.”



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