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Innocent before proven guilty? The bizarre bipartisan rush to clear Rick Perry
Even if Perry gets off scot free — which is far from inevitable — that shouldn't erase a long history of dubious quid pro quos
 
Cool it there, shooter.
Cool it there, shooter. (Win McNamee/Getty Images)

If you're planning a second presidential bid — especially if your last one didn't go so well — getting indicted would seem to be, at the very least, a major roadblock.

But the news that Texas Gov. Rick Perry (R) is facing felony charges has so far brought the man nothing but support and sympathy. As the Texas Observer's Forrest Wilder put it, "Judging from the reaction of national pundits and journalists, the verdict in the case of State of Texas vs. James Richard 'Rick' Perry is already in: Rick Perry is not just innocent; he's being railroaded by liberal Democrats in a vindictive, politically motivated prosecution."

On both the right and the left, politicos have sympathized with the governor, arguing the case is nothing but a political witch hunt. "Sketchy" is how David Axelrod described the whole affair.

Rather than taking a hit, Perry has managed to turn his ordeal into an indictment of the apparently oh-so-powerful liberal establishment in Texas. He's largely played offense. On Tuesday, he got booked, smiled through his mug shot, then went out for ice cream at Austin-favorite Sandy's. His statement on the charges explained that "this indictment amounts to nothing more than an abuse of power and I cannot, and will not, allow that to happen."

The greatest irony with Perry being cast as victim is that the many charges of cronyism and legalized corruption that have long dogged his tenure are now at risk of fading to the background — just part of those ostensibly trumped-up integrity charges.

But the highlights alone show a theme. Perry's biggest backer, the late home-building magnate Bob Perry (no relation), once got his own commission, the Texas Residential Construction Commission, which largely shielded builders from consumer complaints. In another case, Perry mandated an HPV vaccine for all Texas girls after his former chief of staff, Mike Toomey, became a lobbyist for the vaccine maker, Merck. Then there was the time construction firm HNTB hired former Perry spokesman and friend Ray Sullivan less than a year after he left the governor’s office; from 2004 to 2009, when Sullivan returned to Perry’s staff, the company got $300 million worth of state contracts. (One $45 million contract, for disaster recovery, had to be canceled after the company disastrously mismanaged rebuilding from Hurricane Ike.)

For now, the indictment gives Perry more allies than he has any right to expect, which allows him to gain distance from charges of corruption on every front.

Of course, that might not last.

The charges aren't nearly as straightforwardly bunk as many reports make them sound. In 2013, Travis County District Attorney Rosemary Lehmberg was arrested for drunk driving and displayed appalling behavior — screaming and crying and spitting — as she was pulled over and cuffed, all of it caught on camera. Many thought she should resign, but Perry uniquely stood to gain from her departure. Housed within the Travis County DA's office is the Public Integrity Unit, which investigates and prosecutes corruption in the state. It's one of the most significant checks on the power Perry has amassed in his 14 years in office. Had Lehmberg resigned, Perry would have appointed her successor.

Perry threatened to veto all funding for the Public Integrity Unit if Lehmberg didn't resign. And when Lehmberg didn't step down, the state funding got cut. But Perry, through intermediaries, continued to make offers in exchange for her resignation, including a promise to return funding to the office and another position for Lehmberg within the DA's office. Though no one disputes that the governor has the power to veto funds or to call for a DA's resignation, Perry's guilt or innocence rests on whether these threats and promises amount to an illegal coercion of public officials.

Though some national pundits have claimed a liberal witch hunt because a left-leaning group, Texans for Public Justice, filed the complaint against Perry, it was actually a Republican judge, Bert Richardson, who gave the case to special prosecutor Michael McCrum, a man who's received support from Democrats and Republicans. We still don't know what evidence McCrum has gathered in his investigation.

It's certainly possible that as the case drags out and more information comes to light, Perry will lose his glow of invincibility. Even if the evidence is not enough for a guilty verdict, it may still hang Perry in the courtroom of public opinion. But these aren't easy cases to prove, and Perry has assembled an impressive team to combat the charges.

For now, Perry should pretty pleased with turning what should have been a black eye into some sort of beauty mark. He might even go out and get more ice cream to celebrate.

 
Abby Rapoport, a former staff writer for The Texas Observer and The American Prospect, is a freelance reporter in Austin, Texas. Her work has appeared in The Texas Tribune, Salon, and The New Republic, among other places.

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