By Mark Z. Barabak, Los Angeles Times
Texas Governor Rick Perry is not exactly a beloved figure in California. The swagger and the twang are all too reminiscent, for some, of another former Texas governor-turned-Republican-presidential-candidate, who twice lost the state by landslide margins.
He’s made sport of coming to visit, seeking to entice companies with thousands of jobs to pack up and move to the lower taxes and less-regulated environment of the Lone Star State.
But Perry seemed to come mostly in peace Wednesday night as he addressed members of the Commonwealth Club, a high-minded, old-line civic organization meeting at a grand hotel atop Nob Hill.
He was in San Francisco, the governor said, not to condemn the Golden State but rather to promote a good, healthy competition, the kind that can make both Texas and California, and ultimately the whole country, prosper. “America needs both California and Texas to be incredibly competitive, incredibly successful,” he said, to a sprinkling of applause from the audience of several hundred.
Perry praised the California climate, he praised the forests, the coasts, the parks and, above all, he praised the wine — “the finest in the world” — the latter drawing perhaps the loudest, most exuberant response of his roughly hourlong appearance.
Now, Perry said, gently, imagine the sort of onerous taxes and regulations that would make anyone want to flee such a paradise. “I’m not here to dis California,” he insisted. “I’m here to lay out what we’ve done in (Texas), economically, and let you decide which one of those economic policies best suits you.”
Perry, who waged a calamitous 2012 run for president, is widely seen as scouting a second attempt in 2016 as he prepares to step down in January after 14 years as governor.
He has returned to the national TV talk-show circuit, drawing largely favorable reviews, and filled his schedule with a combination of speechifying to groups such as the Commonwealth Club and more practical politicking, to gather potential IOUs.
His latest California visit was typical, including a meeting Sunday with Jewish Republicans in Beverly Hills, a breakfast fundraiser Tuesday for a state lawmaker in Bakersfield and a stop Wednesday afternoon at the conservative Hoover Institution think tank at Stanford University.
On Tuesday, in a showy bit of economic brinksmanship, he pulled up to a meeting with state lawmakers in Sacramento driving an electric Tesla sedan, a reminder that Texas is competing with California and three other states for a huge new battery factory that Tesla Motors is planning to build.
But Perry left that kind of braggadaccio in the parking lot, or somewhere outside the Mark Hopkins Hotel, when he arrived at Wednesday night’s forum.
He declined to engage, for instance, when a written question from the audience asked how “intelligent” people can support a Republican Party whose leaders reject the “accepted science” on evolution and global warming.
Eliding the matter of whether global warming was caused by human activity, Perry insisted the answer lay not in government intervention but a free market, which has always rallied to innovate America’s way through challenging times “I’d rather not try to divide this country into you’re wrong and you’re right, or vice versa,” he said.
He suggested that Democratic Governor Jerry Brown and the Democrats who run Sacramento, far from a bunch of liberal kooks, were the ones best able to set California’s course on major policy, just as legislatures in other states should guide their citizens without the intrusion of Washington.
Perry struck a rare discordant note, though, when asked, in another written question, whether he believed that “homosexuals can be cured by prayer or counseling.” The Texas Republican Party recently endorsed the notion in its platform.
“I don’t know,” Perry responded. “I’m not a psychiatrist, I’m not a doctor.”
“Is it a disorder?” pressed Greg Dalton, a club member and the evening’s moderator.
Perry cited a 2008 book he wrote, On My Honor celebrating the values of the Boy Scouts and defending its then-practice of excluding openly gay members. “I talked about that people make choices in life,” Perry said, choosing his words carefully, “and whether or not you feel compelled to follow a particular lifestyle or not, you have the ability to decide not to do that.”
He compared it to alcoholism. “I may have the genetic coding that I’m inclined to be an alcoholic, but I have the desire not to do that,” he said, drawing a smattering of groans and hisses.
Mostly, though, Perry seemed determined to stay within the friendly graces of the politely receptive crowd. (The Commonwealth Club draws its members from throughout the Bay Area, not just the far-left confines of San Francisco.)
His most surprising response came at the very end of the program, when asked to evaluate the perceived Democratic presidential front-runner, Hillary Rodham Clinton. “Very, very capable public servant, great secretary of State, first lady,” Perry responded, “Very capable.”
He walked off to a round of applause as big — or bigger — than the one that greeted him, though it seems doubtful that Republicans in a competitive primary will view that warm assessment of Clinton as kindly.
Photo: Gage Skidmore via Flickr