Rick Perry speaks about his indictment

Rick Perry speaks about his indictment

Proudly flaunting the list of liberal pundits who have criticized his recent indictment on two felony charges, Rick Perry, the staunchly pro-Israel Texas governor and likely GOP presidential candidate, blasted the Obama administration’s foreign policy in the Middle East last week in front of an audience of policy wonks and journalists more interested in his legal predicament than the topic he was originally scheduled to discuss.

Although Perry was booked to speak about the crisis on the United States’ border with Mexico by the Washington, D.C.-based conservative think tank The Heritage Foundation, the governor spent the majority of his speech criticizing President Barack Obama’s handling of Middle East issues and criticized the president’s actions against the militant jihadist group the Islamic State (IS), formerly known as the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL).

Yet, with his recent indictment, Perry spent some time satisfying the audiences’ curiosity on how he feels about the legal situation in which he now finds himself involved.

“There are a few public officials in Travis County who have taken issue with an exercise of my constitutional veto authority. These are, fundamentally, principles that are very important – namely a governor’s power to veto legislation and funding and the right of free speech,” said Perry enthusiastically, knowing that the majority of the audience was supporting him. “I am very confident in my case, and I can assure you that I will fight this attack on our system of government; and with my fellow citizens, both Republicans and Democrats, I aim to defend our Constitution and stand up for the rule of law in the state of Texas.”

On Aug. 15, a Texas grand jury decided to indict Perry, charging him with abusing the power of his office for his well-publicized attempts to force District Attorney Rosemary Lehmberg, a Democrat and head of the Travis County public integrity unit, to resign from her position following an April 2013 drunk driving arrest for which she pleaded guilty.

Following Lehmberg’s arrest for driving three times over the legal alcohol limit and brief jail stay — from which a video surfaced of Lehmberg’s belligerent behavior toward police — Perry requested that she resign her position. Upon her refusal, Perry threatened and then followed through on defunding her office, exercising his line-item veto powers to cut $7.5 million of the state government’s share of the unit’s budget.

The charges against Perry would mean five to 99 years in prison if convicted. Yet, the governor appears confident and unconcerned — even playful. A mug shot that went viral last week, shows the governor smirking. After posing for the shot at the Travis County Sheriff’s office, Perry went out for ice cream.

Perry’s confidence stems in large part from the outpouring of support he has since received — from his usual supporters but more importantly from a number of prominent liberal politicos, pundits, legal scholars and publications.

“When David Axelrod, Lanny Davis, Alan Dershowitz, Jonathan Chait all say that this is ‘sketchy,’ ‘outrageous,’ ‘totalitarian’ and ‘McCarthy-ite,’ I agree with them,” said Perry to laughter and applause from the audience. “And that’s just on the Democratic side of the aisle!”  

The surprise outpouring from prominent liberals in support of the governor has been essential in forming the public’s perception of the case. On Aug. 18, the editorial board of The New York Times, a fashionable whipping boy among Republicans, denounced the pettiness of the charges against Perry despite slamming him for his political positions.

Dershowitz, a prominent Harvard law professor, critic of conservative policies and politicians, had even harsher words about the indictment in an interview with the right-leaning publication, Newsmax.

“The two statutes under which he was indicted are reminiscent of the old Soviet Union — you know, abuse of authority,” Dershowitz told the publication.

Dershowitz pointed out that the unit Lehmberg ran was also responsible for convicting former GOP Majority Leader Tom DeLay of Texas in 2010 for campaign finance irregularities — something Dershowitz called an “outrage.” DeLay’s conviction was overturned in 2013.

With the indictment, Perry joins two other national Republican politicians considered likely contenders for the 2016 GOP presidential nomination — New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, involved in an investigation into politically motivated lane closures on the George Washington Bridge between New Jersey and New York City, and Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, who is being investigated on accusations of illegal campaign coordination with outside political groups.

“I think this indictment is a shandah! They’ve always said you can indict a tuna fish sandwich,” said prominent Texas businessman and Republican political donor Fred Zeidman, who has known Perry since before he became governor. “There is absolutely no reason for it. I’m not a lawyer, but I’m not even sure they’re felonies that he arguably committed.”

From the moment the news broke, Zeidman thought that the indictment would backfire on the Democrats who are supporting it, mentioning that in most circles, Perry’s popularity appears to be growing as a result of the case.  

“This won’t hurt him at all” politically, Zeidman said. “In retrospect it’s going to cost [the state] a bunch of money.”

However, Zeidman suggested being careful because of the risk that something new might yet come out during a trial.

Caution is well advised, says Texas trial attorney and prominent Democratic donor, Marc Stanley.

“I haven’t seen the evidence that the grand jury has, and I’ve got to believe they wouldn’t have indicted him if there wasn’t something there,” said Stanley, adding that as long as Lehmberg’s conviction went through the proper legal channels, it should be irrelevant to whether she is able to hold her position.

“We react to 30-second sound bites instead of looking at the evidence that the special prosecutor, a Republican, and the grand jury looked at,” said Stanley.

A measure of suspicion exists as to the governor’s motive to defund Lehmberg’s office in addition to her drunk driving conviction. Lehmberg was elected by the mostly Democratic Travis County voters, and her unit is tasked with investigating officials in public office, who are mostly Republicans, since they have a supermajority in the Texas legislature.

Although no candidate has yet officially announced his or her intention to run in the 2016 primaries, Perry has been one of a handful of national-level politicians considered likely to run. He told a New York Times Magazine reporter “I’m more Jewish than you think I am.”

“He’s had this incredible passion for Israel,” Zeidman said. “He understands Israel — what it is and what it stands for, and that Israel is America’s only friend in the Middle East; and he was passionate about it when it meant nothing for him.”

Zeidman recalled that when Perry was Texas agriculture commissioner in the early 1990s, before he was considering national office, Perry used his office’s discretionary funds to subsidize the state’s Texas-Israel Exchange program after the legislature cut its share of the funding.

The Texas-Israel Exchange was a program jointly funded by Texas and the Israeli government focused on facilitating exchange and investment in Texas with Israeli technology.

“For him to cut into his own discretionary budget to fund something the state of Texas has cut, I think goes to show the depth of his belief in [Israel],” said Zeidman.

Perry’s efforts appear focused on revamping his national image after a disastrous performance in the 2012 GOP primaries. This time, Perry looks to have changed the perception of him as a free-wheeling cowboy, into something close to an intellectual, well studied in policy.

“He’s doing the things he’s doing now so that hopefully that [unsuccessful campaign] won’t be the case again,” Zeidman said.

Dmitriy Shapiro is the political reporter for Washington Jewish Week. He can be reached at dshapiro@washingtonjewishweek.com.

JNS.org contributed to this story.