When Texas Gov. Rick Perry was indicted last month on two felony charges stemming from how he dealt with a misbehaving Democratic state official, the image of the stuttering 2012 Republican primary challenger was replaced with that of a hero-cowboy in the eyes of many conservatives. Perry was under attack from the left wing, and his response was not to apologize but to walk through a hail of blue-hued bullets and emerge laughing, without a mark on him. But some conservative true believers have begun to notice something rather suspicious: The company Perry keeps seems more suited to a mainstream Republican—or a right-of-center Democrat—than to their hero-cowboy.
Perry is associated with three operatives who have concerned some members of the die-hard right wing: lobbyist Henry Barbour, former Bill Clinton aide Mark Fabiani, and McCain-Palin campaign chief and MSNBC pundit Steve Schmidt.
Well, maybe “concerned” is putting it somewhat mildly.
“The only two options are that Rick Perry is a complete imbecile and he has no idea who these people are and what they’ve done and how the conservative base—who votes in primaries—feels about these guys, or he’s doing it on purpose because that’s the kind of message he wants to send,” said Keli Carender, the national grassroots coordinator for the Tea Party Patriots. Either way, she assured: “It will be an issue. We will make it an issue.”
Barbour is already working on Perry’s 2016 bid for the White House. But conservatives know him best for his role running the political action committee Mississippi Conservatives, founded by his uncle, Haley Barbour, the former governor of Mississippi. In this year’s Magnolia State primary fight—and “fight” is an understatement—between U.S. Sen. Thad Cochran and state Sen. Chris McDaniel, Barbour reportedly played an influential and controversial role. According to National Review, his PAC funneled money to produce ads against McDaniel that alleged he would set back “race relationships between blacks and whites and other ethnic groups.” The ads, which seemed intended to drive African-American voters to the polls, enraged McDaniel’s Tea Party supporters.
As reported by Breitbart News, some conservatives loathe Barbour so much that they tried to get the Republican National Committee to censure him, to no avail.
“Republicans should not hire Henry Barbour unless and until he apologizes for the tactics he helped fund in Mississippi...I don’t think [keeping Barbour around] necessarily means Perry is endorsing what he did, but it means he’s certainly not properly condemning it or taking it seriously enough,” Quin Hillyer, a conservative writer and activist, told The Daily Beast. “What he helped finance was so far beyond the pale that he should be blackballed by conservatives, and if Perry wants to be considered a conservative, he should no longer employ Henry Barbour.”
Rick Shaftan, a Republican consultant who involved himself in the Mississippi primary, offered a somewhat different view of Barbour to The Daily Beast: “I don’t like what he did in Mississippi, but you know what? It shows he’s a ruthless, cutthroat operative, and there’s something to be said for that on the Republican side. Because we don’t have enough of them. If the force of evil can be brought to do good, then that’s a good thing.”
Normally, staffers don’t matter much to voters, Carender noted. But Mississippi is different for many on the far right. It’s become the ultimate test of Tea Party fidelity, a measuring stick for whether a conservative will sell out his principles to inside-the-Beltway Washington RINOs or will stay true to the cause and the grassroots activists who are the heart and soul of the movement.
People don’t recognize, Carender said, just “how plugged in the conservative base is to Mississippi…If you’re a man of integrity, you don’t associate with Henry Barbour as far as we’re concerned.”
Perry has associated with Barbour since at least 2012, when Barbour served on his ill-fated but memorable presidential campaign. (Haley Barbour, for his part, supported Newt Gingrich.)
Publicly, Perry may have shrugged at last month’s indictment—but that doesn’t mean he hasn’t been taking Lone Star State-size measures to ensure it doesn’t sink him for good.
As part of his legal team, Perry has hired the Harvard-educated Mark Fabiani, best known for his ties to the Democratic Party. From 1994 through 1996, Fabiani worked as special counsel to President Bill Clinton. He then served as Al Gore’s communications director during his 2000 presidential campaign. Fabiani has worked for the Democratic former San Francisco mayor Gavin Newsom as well.
Perry also has hired Steve Schmidt, a Republican strategist and former consultant to John McCain in 2008. Schmidt has long enraged Tea Party conservatives with his candor about members of his own party. Schmidt has called McCain’s VP pick, Sarah Palin, “someone [who] was nominated to the vice presidency who was manifestly unprepared to take the oath of office should it become necessary and as it has become necessary many times in American history.” Asked whether Palin would have a future in politics, Schmidt once remarked: “I hope not...And the reason I say that is because if you look at it, over the last four years, all of the deficiencies in knowledge, all of the deficiencies in preparedness, she’s done not one thing to rectify them, to correct them.”
Then Schmidt described Palin’s unflattering qualities, which could, unfortunately for Perry, double as descriptions for most members of the Tea Party: “She has become a person who, I think, is filled with grievance, filled with anger, who has a divisive message for the national stage...”
Conservative radio host Mark Levin wondered of Schmidt, “Why would Perry hire this conservative attacker and Palin hater?”
Schmidt made those comments on MSNBC, where he is employed as a political analyst. Shaftan said of Perry hiring the strategist: “If they have Steve Schmidt working for them, why are they telling people? That I don’t understand.”
Perry has been basking in the glory of the conservative credibility his fight with Texas Democrats has lent him—so much so that his mugshot features a prominent smirk, one you can wear on a T-shirt being sold by his PAC for just $25. Some Republicans made that same image their Facebook profile pictures in a show of support, in the way some do for gay marriage, or to end violence against children. But you’re only as good as the company you keep, according to some members of the far right who have in the past proved themselves to be loud enough to get their way.
Conservative HQ columnist Richard Viguerie wrote of Perry’s team: “When you hire a consultant, you hire his reputation, strategy, and tactics. We doubt that Governor Perry plans to win the Republican presidential nomination by race-baiting, recruiting Democrats to vote in Republican primary elections, and trashing as ‘poisonous’ conservatives such as Rush Limbaugh…”
Hillyer agreed: “A very important law of politics and government, as emphasized again and again by conservative movement leader Morton Blackwell, is that personnel is policy. If somebody wants to get a sense of how a political leader might govern, it certainly is important to see who he hires.”