When Mitt Romney and Rick Perry aren’t berating each other on the debate stage, with body language more befitting a bar fight, their campaigns are busy lobbing highly charged attacks back and forth: “Ponzi scheme,” “Romneycare,” “no heart” (on immigration),” “flip-flop.” And the newest verbal grenade: “tax returns.”
Earlier this week Perry spokesman Mark Miner told Politico, which had first reported the story, that “Governor Perry has always released his tax returns and Mitt Romney and the other candidates should do the same.” If history is any indication, watch for Perry to push that theme hard, and for Romney to remain firm in his decision to keep his returns private. “We’ll take a look at the question of releasing tax returns during the next tax filing season,” says Romney spokeswoman Andrea Saul about the Perry campaign’s request. By then, of course, the primary campaign could be effectively over.
Perry communications director Ray Sullivan responds: “Governor Perry made a decision a long time ago in the interest of disclosure and transparency [that] he would make his personal tax returns available. That is a wise thing to do and helps gain the trust of the voters. It would be for other candidates to do the same.” Will Perry himself start calling on Romney and others to release their tax returns? “That remains to be seen.”
For both men, this is not the first time a campaign has included a “tax returns” chapter. Although Romney has campaigned on the issue, he has never released a tax return, while Perry has released his returns dating back to 1987, according to the Texas Tribune.
For Perry, the issue first arose in 1998. During a heated debate, John Sharp, Perry’s Democratic opponent in the lieutenant governor’s race, called on Perry to release his tax returns. A week later, Perry made his returns from 1991 to 1996 (the most recent years he had filed for) publicly available, according to the Dallas Morning News.
In Perry’s 2002 gubernatorial race against Democrat Tony Sanchez, tax returns again played a role, and this time Perry’s camp was the aggressor. “The people of Texas deserve to know the financial history of the men and women who seek to represent them,” argued Deirdre Delisi, Perry’s campaign manager at the time. Sanchez released partial information about his finances for the previous decade, but Perry kept demanding that he release his complete returns.
In the 2010 gubernatorial race, Perry refused to debate with Democratic opponent Bill White until White released his tax returns. When White released the returns from 2009, Perry continued to push: He wanted returns from the years when White was deputy secretary of energy in the Clinton administration. “He needs to come clean with the people of this state,” Perry said of White. “There’s obviously something in those tax returns, or he would have released them by now.”
The Perry campaign has no plans to tie debate appearances to tax-return releases in this race, but for Perry, a man of significantly more modest means than Romney, pushing the issue could underscore Romney’s wealth in a time of economic hardship for many. It’s unclear how well that would work in a Republican primary — in which voters are more interested in becoming the 1 percent than attacking it — but for Perry, it would be a return to a familiar strategy.