FORT WORTH, Texas — Rick Perry repeatedly bashed Washington and said Texas was a model for the nation in his last speech as governor to a Republican state convention Thursday, sounding more like a presidential candidate than someone looking back on his legacy.
The longest-serving governor in Texas history, who will leave office in January, said his state’s booming economy had created more than a third of the nation’s new private sector jobs since 2001, thanks to keeping taxes and regulations low. He also bragged about dramatically improving high school graduation rates, especially among black and Hispanic students.
“Over the years, I’ve obtained a few more wrinkles, got some more gray hair, got new eye-ware and a seasoned perspective,” said Perry, who last year began wearing stylish, dark-framed eyeglasses and whose hair has lately shown more gray — once unthinkable for a man dubbed “Governor Good Hair.”
“Without equivocation or qualification, there is no place like Texas,” he said.
But the bulk of his speech focused on national issues and future elections — little surprise considering Perry hasn’t ruled out a second White House run in 2016.
He was introduced at the Fort Worth Convention Center by his wife Anita, who referred to Perry’s unsuccessful 2012 presidential campaign and added “we’ve both got some tread left on our tires.”
The governor drew a standing ovation when he said Texas didn’t succumb to “federal blackmail” by taking increased federal funding to expand the Medicaid program under President Barack Obama’s signature health care law. He got another when he implored “getting back” to the U.S. Constitution’s 10th Amendment, which protects states’ rights.
“The formula of higher taxes, more spending and massive debt has weighed down our economy, and it puts our nation on course to the failed polices of Detroit and Greece,” Perry said, referring to the bankrupt city and economically-depressed European country. “There is a better way and it’s called the Texas way.”
The speech was well-received Thursday, in contrast to the convention two years ago, when Perry praised Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst and was booed soundly by supporters of Dewhurst’s then-opponent for the Republican U.S. Senate nomination, tea party firebrand Ted Cruz.
Perry’s appearance this year marked the unofficial start of his farewell to Texas politics. But gains by fiercely conservative candidates during the last two election cycles mean parts of the Texas GOP may now be too conservative even for him. Cruz, though he only joined the Senate last January, is a superstar to the conservative grassroots not only in his home state but nationally — and casts a larger political shadow than the governor.
As a case in point, Tea party activists and other conservatives have pushed at the convention for a harder line on immigration.
Perry has long championed a 2001 Texas law offering in-state university tuition to children of illegal immigrants. And, in 2012, state Republican convention delegates approved a platform endorsing the “Texas Solution,” a proposed guest worker program making it easier for immigrants in the U.S. illegally to get good jobs.
A draft of the 2014 Texas Republican Party platform that will be put to a final vote later this week removes specific calls for a guest worker program. But it also endorses a visa program that would have largely the same effect.
Not everyone likes that idea. William Wynne said the committee writing the platform needed to be more conservative. He was among dozens of delegates wearing a sticker urging an end to the Texas Solution.
“It’s basically nothing less than amnesty,” said Wynn. “Democrats are watching Texas very closely this week. They love the Texas Solution.”
The final platform may also alter previous declarations that “homosexuality tears at the fabric of society.” Instead, it could endorse therapy for those “seeking escape from the homosexual lifestyle.”
Perry largely steered clear of hot-button conservative issues such as abortion, family values and immigration in his speech — but made it clear he’s not ready to cede his leadership of Texas conservatives to Cruz.
“As the grassroots, you have changed Texas for the better,” he said. “Now it’s time to change America so it lives up to its promise.”