Rick Perry’s Track Record on Race

The governor supported the Texas Dream Act and appointed minorities, but ran an ad leading Hispanics in state found racist. By Paul Begala.

I cannot call Rick Perry a racist. I can't peer into the man's soul, and before someone is convicted of that moral crime, the evidence should be overwhelming. The mere fact that his hunting lease had a racially hateful name is not good. And his flirtation with secession, his incessant harping on “states’ rights”—they’re not good either. None of that evidence is dispositive--but it is certainly not exculpatory either.

On the other side of the ledger is his appointment of several minorities to important state jobs, his support for the Texas Dream Act, which extended educational opportunities to the children of undocumented workers, and more.

Sadly, there is more on the dark side as well.

In considering Rick Perry and race we should consider another campaign in which Perry played the race card; played it in what Texas Hispanics said was a stereotypical and hateful way. In 2002, Perry was running for re-election against Democrat Tony Sanchez. Sanchez, you should know, is a close personal friend of mine, so I can't be objective. George W. Bush knows Sanchez too, and had sufficient confidence in his integrity to place Sanchez on the University of Texas Board of Regents.

Sanchez is a wealthy businessman. Oil and gas, investments, real estate, banking: you name it, he has succeeded at it. His business success, his bipartisan appeal and his reputation for integrity helped Sanchez secure the Democratic nomination in his first foray into electoral politics.

Texas is, as if I need to tell you, a strongly Republican state. And 2002, coming hard on the heels of 9/11, with Pres. George W. Bush beating the drums for war in Iraq, scaring people about mushroom clouds and WMD, was a Republican year. But Rick Perry wasn't taking any chances. He ordered up a hit-job on Sanchez that linked him to the torture and murder of a federal Drug Enforcement Administration agent. Subtle, huh? Wealthy Mexican-American. Banker. Must be mixed up in drugs, right, y’all?

Here's how Pulitzer-Prize winning reporter Ken Herman of the Austin American-Statesman recalls the ad:

In 2002, Perry's gubernatorial campaign ran an ad that longtime Texas political scientist Jerry Polinard branded, at the time, as "by far the most negative ad I've ever heard. It seems to cross a line that probably shouldn't be crossed."

The ad linked Democratic challenger Tony Sanchez to the 1985 murder of Enrique "Kiki" Camarena, a Drug Enforcement Administration agent who had been kidnapped and tortured in Mexico. The ad featured two former Camarena DEA colleagues. "The same drug dealers who killed Kiki laundered millions in drug money through Tony Sanchez's bank," Hector Berrellez said on the ad.

Those of you who enjoyed the Perry-Sanchez race in 2002 recall a lot of back and forth concerning drug money that flowed through the failed Tesoro Savings & Loan, a Laredo institution Sanchez controlled. Nobody at Tesoro was ever charged with wrongdoing in connection with that money, estimated at $25 million....

Back when the ad was a big controversy, David Almaraz, who had been a federal prosecutor in the Tesoro-related drug money case, said Sanchez "cooperated fully" with the investigation. He called Perry's allegations "absolutely preposterous and completely false, without any foundation in fact."

Keep in mind, Sanchez and his bank were (in the words of the Brownsville Herald) "cleared of any wrongdoing over money laundering by federal judges and officials of federal agencies." The Houston Chronicle reported that, "a former assistant U.S. attorney, a federal drug agent and an IRS agent all testified that no Tesoro (Sanchez's savings & loan) officials knew of the money laundering."

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Democratic state senator Judith Zaffirni called the ad, “Racism personified.” Political science professor Gary Mounce told the Herald the ad was racist and “designed to suppress the Hispanic vote in South Texas.”

Perhaps that was the intent. Or perhaps it was to tell the Anglo folks all across Texas that the rich Hispanic candidate was complicit in money laundering and the murder of a DEA agent. Perry clobbered Sanchez, carrying 218 of Texas' 254 counties and beating Sanchez by 18 percent.

Would Perry have run the same ad against an Anglo banker? Remember, Sanchez had done nothing wrong, and indeed "cooperated fully" with law enforcement. If his name had been Tony Smith, would the ad have been as devastating? I doubt it.

To me the fact that Rick Perry would resort to the worst sort of anti-Hispanic stereotyping is perhaps stronger evidence of racist conduct than hunting on a lease with a racist name. The latter was, as Herman Cain said, insensitive. It was offensive. But appealing to the most malevolent sort of prejudices, caricaturing Sanchez like some slimy kingpin from "Scarface," that is wrong.

After the election, Sanchez went back to private life, a booming business, friends from both political parties, his devout Catholic faith and his all-American family. Perry, is of course, now running for president. But his smear of Texas' first Hispanic gubernatorial candidate proved that Perry is willing to go as low as whatever vermin is crawling under that rock on his old hunting lease.