In Texas, they called it the “Father’s Day Massacre.”
In June 2001, fresh off his first legislative session as governor, Rick Perry vetoed 79 bills on the last day of his veto period — the time in which a governor can sign bills, veto them, or allow them to become law without his signature. Added to the three bills he had vetoed prior, Perry’s annihilation shattered the record for a Texas governor. (Perry easily knocked off Republican Bill Clements, who had axed 59 bills in 1989, from his first-place perch.) It was also a marked change from George W. Bush’s governing style: Bush had never vetoed more than 37 bills in a year.
The dramatic gesture paid off.
The Austin American-Statesman analyzed over 500 e-mails and letters that were sent to Perry’s office in the aftermath of the vetoes, and found the response overwhelmingly positive. Perry, the American-Statesman reported, “appears to have energized people who support the death penalty, oppose abortion, are wary of more government — and whose turnout at the polls is necessary for him to win a full term in the 2002 election.” Winning the trust of conservatives was important for Perry. Before the vetoes, he had signed a hate-crimes bill that was opposed by many conservatives — his office was inundated with calls the days before the bill hit his desk — and was the Democrats’ “top priority” that session, according to Texas political analyst William Lutz.
But if the vetoes soothed conservative voters’ concerns about Perry, they carried other political liabilities. He angered state doctors when he killed a bill that would have forced insurers to pay doctors more promptly. Another controversial piece of legislation he vetoed was one that would have prohibited the execution of mentally retarded criminals.
Both Republican and Democratic bills were derailed, although not equally: Fifty-six of the 82 bills vetoed had a Democrat as lead sponsor. When some legislators complained that the vetoes had been unexpected, Perry campaign consultant Dave Carney brushed off the complaints, telling the San Antonio Express-News that the charges were “great revisionist history.”
“That’s what I would say, too, if someone vetoed my bill. Would you say you passed terrible legislation that deserved to be vetoed?” Carney added.
The stunt also earned Perry accusations of being influenced by campaign donations. Perry racked up $1.2 million in campaign donations in the period after the session ended (state law at the time forbade legislators and state officeholders from accepting donations when the legislature was in session) but before the veto period had concluded. Perry hauled in $175,000 the first day after the session ended, the majority from members of Texans for Lawsuit Reform. That group opposed four bills — and Perry vetoed all of them, a decision that did not go unnoticed by Texas media. “Instead of accepting tens of thousands of dollars from the tort reform group during that period, Perry could have — and should have — imposed a prohibition on political fund raising until after June 17,” an Austin American-Statesman editorial scolded. State law was eventually changed to ban political contributions until after the veto period had passed.
In 2002, Democratic gubernatorial nominee Tony Sanchez resurrected the charge, running TV ads that painted Perry as selling vetoes for contributions. The issue also came up in a debate between the candidates. But Perry clearly didn’t buy that the vetoes played negatively. At a fundraiser toward the end of 2001, he touted them, saying, “Government doesn’t have all the answers. You want a governor that will stand up and take the heat when it’s time to veto a bill. I did that.”
Perry also expertly used the move to paint himself as being outside the (Austin) beltway.
“Those of us who are closely associated with the process may have seen 82 vetoes as, ‘Whoa, this really earth-shattering event.’ But once you get away from the beltway mentality to the bulk of the people in the state of Texas, it’s kind of, ‘Thank you governor,’” Perry told the Associated Press in 2002.
Perry added that he had been told, “Perry, the guy driving the Dr Pepper truck in Dumas, Texas, thinks you didn’t veto enough.”
It’s often noted that Perry has never lost an election. That’s no doubt partly due to the political instincts he shows in decisions just like this. What pundits deem a “massacre” may just come off as a welcome government pruning to voters.
— Katrina Trinko is an NRO reporter.