AUSTIN — Texas Gov. Rick Perry has spent a record 14 years in office vanquishing nearly all who dared confront him: political rivals, moms against mandatory vaccines for sixth graders, a coyote in the wrong place at the wrong time.
But with eight months left on the job and a decision to make about the 2016 presidential race, the governor known for his Texas swagger is now the focus of a grand jury investigation that could cause more difficulty than any adversary has.
What should have been a political victory lap for Perry could now wind up in a final tussle that has implications for his political future.
“Gov. Perry is used to being challenged every step of the way in almost every issue. In that sense, this is not significantly different,” said Ray Sullivan, Perry’s onetime chief of staff and a former spokesman. “This just comes with the territory.”
A judge seated a grand jury in Austin this week to consider whether Perry abused his power when he carried out a threat to veto $7.5 million in state funding for public corruption prosecutors last summer.
Aides to Perry said he legally exercised his veto power. Others said Perry was abusing his state office and is finally getting his comeuppance.
Perry never lost an election until his run for the Republican presidential nomination flamed out in 2012. If he makes another bid upon leaving office in January, he’s positioned to boast of an even more robust Texas economy and to project a slightly toned down image: he now wears a pair of thick-framed glasses and seldom slides on his cowboy boots anymore.
But the grand jury probe could draw attention back to more contentious issues, even if Perry is not indicted. And if the panel does pursue charges, “that would be very, very hard to overcome, particularly because voters already have a perception of him in their mind, and right now he’s been busy cleaning that perception up,” said Ford O’Connell, a Republican strategist in Washington. “It would put him on life support as a presidential candidate.”
Some legal experts see the allegations against Perry as shaky.
“If the governor were to pressure someone to not prosecute someone, that would be some violation of some clear legal duty. Pressuring them to quit? That’s a little less clear,” said David Kwok, a law professor at the University of Houston.