During a night devoted to Republicans, a two-time presidential contender and onetime Democrat gave members of the Gaston County GOP a glimpse into the White House.
Rick Perry, the former Secretary of Energy and longtime governor of Texas, told those attending Saturday night’s annual Lincoln Day Dinner what it’s like to work with President Donald Trump as a member of his administration.
During a 15-minute fireside chat prior to the festivities at the Gaston Country Club, Perry also spoke of what made him switch from the Democratic Party in 1989 and gave his thoughts on the 2020 presidential race.
Saturday’s stop in Gastonia was Perry’s first trip to Gaston County. He was the keynote speaker for the event that serves as the biggest fundraiser of the year for the Gaston County Republican Party.
The 69-year-old Perry grew up in a Democratic stronghold in central Texas in Haskell County as his father was a longtime county commissioner, elected seven times on the Democratic ticket, and school board member.
“I never met a Republican, or anybody who would admit to being one, until I was probably 26 or 27 years old,” said Perry, who served six years (1984-90) as a Democrat in the Texas House of Representatives.
“I think rural North Carolina is no different than rural Texas. We were part of the Old South and Texas was a Democrat stronghold until Ronald Reagan made it OK for people who shared our relative conservative philosophy.”
He said Reagan’s message of “economic freedom” made up of small government, less regulation and a strong military resonated with him. On Sept. 29, 1989, Perry announced he was switching parties.
“Reagan kind of projected all those things that we held dear in Texas. We’re an independent lot, we love our freedom and we support the military. Reagan was all of that and the other side, not so much,” Perry said.
Haskell County had not held a Republican primary until 1990, coincidentally marking Perry’s first foray as a Republican. Perry said the first person to vote in a Haskell County Republican primary since 1903 was his grandfather, who cast his vote for his grandson.
“He was the one I worried about switching parties,” Perry admitted. “We talked about history and we were great friends, but we never talked about politics. I was like, ‘I hope he understands about why I’m switching parties.’ I fretted about it for about a month and I finally went to tell him and he said, ‘Rick, I quit ‘em a long time ago. I was wondering when you was going to change parties.’”
With Karl Rove as his campaign manager, Perry would defeat the Democratic incumbent for the Texas Agriculture Commissioner’s seat.
From there, Perry’s political career would take off. After eight years as agricultural commissioner, he would become the state’s first Republican lieutenant governor since Reconstruction, taking office on Jan. 19, 1999. He would assume the governor’s office on Dec. 21, 2000, following George W. Bush, who was preparing to become president. Perry would then serve as governor of Texas for the next 15 years.
He would make presidential runs in 2012 and 2016, falling short in both attempts, including in 2016, when he eventually endorsed Trump for the presidency.
Perry admits that he was a very harsh critic of Trump when he campaigned against him.
“I didn’t think he could govern because he hadn’t done it before. But he proved to me that you don’t have to have 25 years in government to be a good manager. And that’s what he is. He knows how to bring good people around him, by and large.”
Perry served as Trump’s Energy secretary from December 2016 through December 2019. He was able to experience the president’s capabilities up close.
“He is one of the smartest people I’ve ever been around in my life. He is a very fast study of complex issues. He cuts through the noise and the chaff and analyzes what’s going on faster than anyone I’ve seen.”
Perry admits that it’s a different Republican Party today than the one he joined in 1989. But he believes all political parties “ebb and flow” through the years.
“This is Donald Trump’s party. And the interesting thing about it is that Donald Trump brings people to the Republican Party nobody else could bring,” Perry said. “He brings disenfranchised Democrats, brings Independents who said ‘a pox on both your houses.’ He brings a lot of people with the hope that this guy is finally going to make government work for me or get out of my way, overtaxing me, over regulating me.”
He admits that the country is divided not just politically, but also philosophically.
“There is a stark division in this country,” said Perry, who hopes that Bernie Sanders is the eventual Democratic nominee for president.
“He is an unapologetic socialist and Donald Trump is an unapologetic capitalist. It would probably be good for the country to have a good intellectual, passionate debate about those two philosophies.”
When asked if there is one Democrat who could pose a challenge to Trump, Perry said Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar would be a “more difficult person to run against” with her Midwestern roots and moderate views.
“She’s smart, she’s very presentable, she’s a good debator,” said Perry, who paused and then added, “But she’s no more going to the be next nominee than I’m going to be the next pope.”
You can reach Michael Banks at 704-869-1842, email firstname.lastname@example.org and follow on Twitter @MichaelBanksNC.