Rick Perry's Texas Hometown Feels Abandoned By Presidential Hopeful
WASHINGTON -- When Texas Governor Rick Perry announced his run for the presidency on Saturday in South Carolina, he began his speech with an origin story bathed in sepia and ready-made for the stump.
"I'm the product of a place called Paint Creek -- doesn't have a zip code," Perry explained. "It's too small to be called a town along the rolling plains of Texas." He then invoked images of his rural school, growing cotton and wheat, his mother sewing his clothes when he went off to college, his boyscout troop (No. 48), and meeting his future wife at a piano recital at roughly age 8.
It's an effective tale for Perry and one that he has used often in his more than 25 years holding elected office. In interviews, Perry has affirmed his love for Paint Creek. "It's a great place to grow up," Perry told the Fort Worth Star-Telegram last week. "Wonderful people out there."
Except a lot of those wonderful people out in Haskell County, home to Paint Creek, don't like Perry all that much. Residents who populated just about every aspect of Perry's biographical sketch told The Huffington Post they had grievances with Perry -- especially since he changed parties from Democratic to Republican in 1990. When it comes to helping his home county, they suggest, Perry is all talk.
Even Perry's old Boy Scout Troop Leader, the one who awarded him his Eagle Scout badge, said he likely won't be voting for him.
Wallar Overton, 72, took over from his father as Perry's scout master just before the governor earned his Eagle Scout badge. When asked whether he'd support his former scout, Overton replied: "I don't know how to say this, just leave me blank on that."
"We just don't talk politics," Overton added. "Our relationship is based on scouting. Very proud of him." But when it comes to supporting Perry's candidacy, "Our politics don't jibe," Overton explained.
When asked the same question, Haskell County Sheriff David Halliburton jokingly took the fifth amendment.
"Just no comment," he said. "No comment. There's a lot of people that's for him. Some Democrats are against him. It's political."
What Perry won't include on the stump in Iowa and other states is that winning his home county in Texas has never been a sure thing. According to Texas election records, Haskell County voted against Perry when he successfully ran for lieutenant governor in 1998. When he ran for governor in 2002, the county voted in his favor. Four years later, the county supported his opponent Chris Bell. Haskell County did support Perry in the 2010 Republican primary over Kay Bailey Hutchison and in the general election, but turnout was low -- 10.6 percent in the general election.
Several elections ago, an opposition researcher went to Haskell to dig for dirt on Perry. The researcher agreed to share some documents with HuffPost on the condition of anonymity. That investigation concluded: "There is a true dislike for Rick Perry in his own District."
The researcher interviewed one resident who had known Perry since kindergarten. "She feels the Perrys operate on the edge of legality and that Rick is a big mouth who doesn't do much," the researcher wrote.
The area's notable figures believe Perry has "absolutley" turned his back on Haskell, according to Haskell's County Judge, David C. Davis, 64, who told Huffpost, "I haven't seen him in years."
It was a sentiment Davis, a Democrat, had expressed in 2005, complaining to a reporter that Perry had ignored hundreds of Haskell flood victims in 2004.
Don Ballard, the superintendent of the county's school system, concurred with Davis at the time and still does.
"It was pretty bad," Ballard recalled to HuffPost. "We lost a bunch of homes around the lake. We've got a lake that's about three miles form where the school is. We had a lot of homes damaged," but, he noted, "not enough to get any kind of aid."
"Perry didn't come by," Ballard continued. "There were several [people] that expressed concern that he didn't show. This is his home county. This was an issue for some folks."
Ballard won't comment on whether he'd support Perry for president. "I think I got to sit on the fence right now since I'm friends with his mom and dad and trying to lead the school district," he said.
When reached by phone, Perry's mother, Amelia Perry, refused to comment for this story.
Haskell County residents also disapproved of how Perry handled redistricting early in his tenure as governor. One farmer, Steve Alsahbrook, told a reporter visiting a local hangout for coffee in 2006 that it cost the area representation:
''I was disappointed in Perry and [former U.S. Rep. Tom] DeLay's actions. We're over in Iraq fighting for democracy,'' he said. ''And here I've lost my representation. They took it away from Charlie Stenholm. Through the direct actions of Perry and DeLay they took my vote away. If they'd wanted Charlie out, they should not have redrawn the lines. They should have voted him out."
''That's the democratic way to do it. If they want democracy in Iraq, we should have the same choices here.''
The coffee drinkers nodded their heads in assent. Redistricting paired two incumbent Congressmen -- Stenholm, an Abilene Democrat, and Randy Neugebauer, a Lubbock Republican -- in the same district. Neugebauer won the race in the new district, which didn't include much of Stenholm's old territory."
Stenholm told the Texas Observer that Perry had changed. "The governor of Texas sold out to Tom DeLay and the national Republican Party to the detriment of West Texas," Stenholm said at the time. "He's not the same Rick Perry that he was when he was going to Paint Creek School."
Other Haskell County residents didn't just disapprove of Perry's political dealings, his old neighbors also didn't think he was much a farmer. While Perry has played up his roots as a son of tenant farmers, at least a few questioned his knack with the land. Letajo Howard, 88, recalled to HuffPost, "Farming was not his thing."
Howard said Perry had rented some his family's farm land. Perry let Johnsongrass and careless weeds grow -- an embarrassing mistake for a man raised on a farm. "He's not a bad guy," Howard concluded. "I don't want him to particularly farm for me, but he's not a bad guy."
Another Perry land contract had ended up in court in 1987 over allegations that the governor and his father had violated the terms of their lease by subletting it out. The Observer reported that a jury found the Perrys failed to comply with the lease but did not commit fraud; the jury awarded the plaintiffs $1,850 in attorneys fees.
The opposition researcher compiled a substantial case against Perry's claim to be a farmer, reporting that Perry had no farm land completely under his own name, no fuel tax permit and no farm equipment declared on tax records. "Just because your father is a farmer, that does not make you a farmer," the researcher concluded. "Rick Perry clearly is not a farmer. ... We have sufficient data to prove that Rick Perry is not a farmer."
In the year that he gained statewide office as Agriculture Commissioner, Perry also wasn't much of a farmer, or at least not a very profitable one. Tax records [PDF] show he made $802 in net farm profit.
"I never saw him on a tractor in his life," said one of Perry's old neighbors, who requested anonymity. "And I never did see him on a horse."
CORRECTION: Due to an editing error, an earlier version of this article identified the Star-Telegram as a Dallas newspaper. It is a Fort Worth newspaper. We regret the error.