When President Obama arrived in Austin three years ago, Texas governor Rick Perry greeted him with a four-page letter asking for help in securing the border with Mexico. “He was not particularly enthralled with my theatrics,” Perry says. The president didn’t bother to respond. Perry heard later from a White House aide.
Obama returned to Austin in early May on the first leg of his new “Middle Class Jobs and Opportunity” tour. This time Perry met him at the airport without delivering a message. Instead he put an ad in the Austin American-Statesman: “Mr. President—Take a look at our successful ‘Texas Model.’ ”
Obama may ignore that advice, but Perry says Obama must be aware of the state’s booming economy. “He wouldn’t have come here if he weren’t aware of the success,” Perry told me. “Where do you start your jobs tour in America? You go to the most successful place in the country. That’s Texas.”
Perry has no illusions about converting Obama to the free market, small government model that’s worked in Texas. “The president is not the most open individual in the world when it comes to looking at another point of view,” he says. Obama “is a true believer in socialist policies, and to take a step away from those would be devastating to his psyche.”
So forget Obama. Perry, in his 13th year as governor, has begun a bigger crusade to persuade the country that what has worked in Texas and other Republican-led states will work everywhere. “I want to engage America in this blue state / red state discussion,” he says. This may sound grandiose, but he’s not kidding.
He started by going to California in February and Illinois in April, heavily Democratic states with two of the worst economic records in the country. He urged business leaders to pack up and move to Texas, where they’d thrive because of pro-business policies in place for a decade. “We keep our taxes low, our regulations reasonable and effective. We’ve implemented lawsuit abuse reforms and cultivated a world-class workforce,” he explained in an op-ed in the Austin paper when Obama was in town.
In California, Perry touched off a four-day tour across the state with $24,000 worth of radio ads. “Building a business is tough, but I hear building a business in California is next to impossible,” he said in the ads. “I have a message for California businesses: Come check out Texas.”
Perry’s visit irritated California governor Jerry Brown. Brown called the ads “barely a fart.” Then he turned snarky. “A lot of these Texans, they come here, they don’t go home,” Brown said. “Who would want to spend their summers in 110-degree heat inside some kind of a fossil-fueled air conditioner?” Brown’s remarks backfired. The Perry tour became big news.
A similar scenario occurred two months later in Illinois. Perry’s radio ads advised businesses to “get out while there’s still time. . . . [The] escape route leads straight to Texas.” In Chicago, Perry toned down his pitch at a biotech conference. “When people think of Texas, they tend to think football, great barbecue, and a gushing oil well in everyone’s backyard,” he said. “We’ve created a fertile climate where innovators are free to create and nurture their ideas and where government stays out of the way.”
Gov. Pat Quinn and Chicago mayor Rahm Emanuel were incensed. “We don’t need any advice from Governor Perry,” Quinn said. “His state, frankly, is water challenged, and any company thinking of going to Texas better check on the water.” That was his best argument. Emanuel ribbed Perry about his failure to recall, during a presidential debate in 2012, a third federal agency he would eliminate: “I hope when he comes he remembers all three of his reasons.”
Perry got the best of the argument in both states. Emanuel bragged about attracting new businesses, but the jobless rate in Illinois was 9.3 percent in April, while it was 6.4 percent in Texas and 7.5 percent nationally. California’s unemployment rate was 9 percent.
Quinn and Emanuel couldn’t match Perry’s case for Texas, a right-to-work state with no personal income tax. Illinois recently hiked its state income tax from 3 percent to 5 percent. The top rate in California is 13.3 percent.
And in ranking after ranking, Texas is at the top for business climate, fastest growing cities, and job growth. California and Illinois are at the bottom (as is Texas for the share of the population uninsured, and near the bottom for poverty). The Perry message impressed Gavin Newsom, the California lieutenant governor. “Perry’s getting exactly what he wanted,” he told a radio station. “He’s getting all kinds of press . . . because he’s leaning in. He’s in the game. He’s getting in our heads.”