Rick Perry did the cha cha on “Dancing with the Stars,” got a “D” in a college class called “Meats” and infamously forgot the name of the Energy Department, the federal agency he’s just been tapped to lead.
Now the former Texas governor’s allies have to make the case that Perry has the smarts and experience to lead a sprawling, engineering- and science-laden department that oversees the security of the U.S. nuclear arsenal.
Their strategy: Rebrand Perry as a serious policymaker who led a state where energy is huge business — contrary to the sniping and ridicule pouring in from Democrats, who are likely to note that the last three Energy secretaries had doctorates in physics or engineering.
In interviews with POLITICO, nearly a dozen of his friends and former staffers contended that the familiar caricature of Perry as a lightweight couldn’t be further from the truth. And they predicted that the governor’s skills as a folksy retail politician will help him cruise through confirmation.
“People have this idea of Rick Perry — you hear a lot about how he’s not smart. Those people don’t know Rick Perry,” said Deirdre Delisi, the governor’s former chief of staff. “Everybody talks about how he got a ‘D’ in meats. But he is a savvy person, who brings tremendous knowledge base and decision-making skills to the job.”
“He turned what was a pretty weak governorship into a very strong one,” former state and federal regulator Pat Wood said, “not by changing the law but by sheer force of personality, by appointments, and formulating policy with a pretty supportive Legislature.”
Perry was Texas’ longest-serving governor, after all, and former regulators there credit him with policies that streamlined energy permits and helped drive a big expansion of wind power. His elected experience may also help him avoid the political pitfalls that bedeviled some undeniably brilliant past secretaries — for example Steven Chu, the Nobel-winning physicist who endured rocky relations with Congress while leading the Energy Department during President Barack Obama’s first term.
Conservatives also view Perry’s newness to DOE as an advantage, hoping he’ll raise fresh questions about programs such as the research, loan and energy-efficiency initiatives that drove huge portions of Obama’s green energy agenda — if not not bury them altogether. But President-elect Donald Trump’s team and Perry have not said definitively whether they want to ax the entire department, as the former governor advocated during his 2012 presidential campaign.
Still, Perry has long faced sniggering about his intellect, and Trump’s decision to tap him drew immediate derision from the former governor’s critics. They say Perry isn’t remotely in the same league as outgoing Secretary Ernest Moniz, the former MIT physicist who helped negotiate technical details of the Iranian nuclear deal.
“Proving once again that being even quasi-smart is not a requirement for getting a high political job — Perry has been hired by Trump to be our next secretary of Energy,” columnist Jim Hightower, whom Perry unseated as the state’s agriculture commissioner in 1990, wrote this month.
Rep. Frank Pallone of New Jersey, the top Democrat on the Energy and Commerce Committee, zinged the incoming DOE chief for his reality show adventure.
“It is also deeply unsettling that our current secretary of Energy, a renowned nuclear physicist, could be succeeded by a contestant on ‘Dancing with the Stars,’” said the New Jersey lawmaker, who doesn’t get to vote on Perry’s nomination. “Gov. Perry is simply not qualified for this position and should be rejected.”
Of course, Trump himself has faced accusations that he lacks intellectual heft, even as his ride to the White House shocked the political establishment of both parties. People close to Perry draw parallels in the media’s treatment of the two men, who reportedly hit it off during interviews at Trump Tower.
Perry’s boosters — and even some of his foes — warn against underestimating him. “I don’t underestimate Rick’s intelligence,” said Tom “Smitty” Smith, the longtime Texas director of Public Citizen, who nevertheless said Perry was “not a thoughtful person.”
“He’s a very shrewd and cunning man who has reached the level of being a presidential appointee,” said Smith, who has known Perry since the late 1980s. “And he’s done, from his standpoint — a political standpoint — achieved a great deal because of his skill as a politician.”
While Perry seems like a target-rich persona to crack jokes about, Smith said his foil’s bubbly veneer rarely cracks.
“I made some typical Smitty smart-ass comment in the press and Rick came out of the House chamber and everybody thought he was going to be really pissed at me,” Smith said, recalling a political tussle the two were embroiled in years ago. “He comes over and gives me a big hug and says something like, ‘That was a good hit.’”
Perry, he said, “lets a lot of stuff roll off of him.”
Some former DOE officials also don’t think being a scientist is a core job requirement.
David Garman, an energy undersecretary in the George W. Bush DOE, called Trump “mercurial and illogical” but argued that the agency “almost above all is a management challenge. I would take a good manager over a trained scientist if I couldn’t find someone who offered both.”
Ray Sullivan, another former top Perry aide, chalked the criticism of Perry up to the “liberal meltdown that we’ve seen since election night.”
“What I have said for years, and it’s certainly true in this case, is Gov. Perry’s political opponents and in some cases even members of our own party have constantly underestimated his abilities and skills, and they have always done so at their own peril,” he said.
As he prepares for his confirmation hearings, Perry is getting advice from several of his former top advisers. Sources also told POLITICO that Trump’s transition team has tapped “sherpas” to guide Perry through the confirmation process, including Marc Palazzo, a former lobbyist for a Koch Industries subsidiary, and Brian Waidmann, a former top aide to George W. Bush administration Interior secretaries Dirk Kempthorne and Gale Norton. Neither Palazzo nor Waidmann responded to requests for comment.
Wood, who has known Perry for more than two decades, said Perry is “not a huge detail guy” and prefers to lean on his staff while he takes in the big picture.
A Texan himself, Wood said natives of the state are used to the not-so-sharp treatment that Bush also faced when he stepped onto the national scene.
“I kind of understand that empty-suit thing,” he said. “I think people tend to stick a lot of people from Texas in that mold, and it’s something that we generally try to use to our advantage, quite frankly.”
Perry took over the governorship in late 2000, following Bush’s White House win, when Texas was in the midst of overhauling its electricity system to create a deregulated market. For months, California’s electricity crisis amid the Enron scandal had spooked several states about following a similar path. But Perry stuck to the plan.
“Perry definitely provided the muscle to get the market open at a time when the winds were blowing pretty hard,” said Wood, who was soon jetting off to become FERC chairman in the summer of 2001. And Perry stuck with the plan after price spikes in 2005 following hurricanes Katrina and Rita.
Perry may not be a detail guy, people who know him say, but he learns what he needs to learn when he needs to learn it.
Wood recalled being summoned to Perry’s office in 2013 along with two others to discuss an obscure topic: The state was debating whether its electricity markets should adopt so-called capacity markets, which would pay power generators for guarantees that they be available in times of need.
“When he called me in there he was just as abreast of the issues as if he were sitting on the [public utilities commission],” Wood recalled. “He said: ‘I just need to know where to come off on this stuff publicly. And I want to have you guys debate it in front of me.’”
Wood said the debate reminded him of “the best days of Bush,” who was also known for having people he trusted argue in front of him to help make a decision.
“Rick would be sitting behind his desk and he’d be fiddling with something in his hands,” Wood said. “But then he’d get up and walk over and sit down next to me and go: ‘Well, why would I want to do that? Does that get more investment or not?’”
Former Perry advisers say his priorities as Energy secretary would include encouraging domestic energy production, promoting renewable sources and streamlining government bureaucracy. Smith, of Public Citizen, praised Perry for backing long-haul transmission lines that brought wind power to Texas’ cities and expects him to champion similar issues at DOE.
“He’s very focused on bringing efficiency to the process,” said Abby McCloskey, the former policy director for Perry’s 2016 presidential campaign. “The governor, whether you like him or don’t like him, is known for being incredibly pragmatic.”
Perry oversaw a rapid expansion of wind energy in Texas, which is now the country’s No. 1 producer of wind power. Supporters say one reason was a law he signed in 2005 that expanded the state’s mandate for energy producers to increase their reliance on renewable sources, to a total capacity of 5,880 megawatts. The bill also directed the state Public Utility Commission to begin developing “Competitive Renewable Energy Zones” that would later help bring renewable energy from isolated, wind-heavy sections of the state to population centers.
Texas’ wind industry also benefited from federal tax incentives that conservative Republicans in Congress want to kill.
Barry Smitherman — whom Perry appointed to serve on the Public Utility Commission and the Railroad Commission of Texas, which oversees the oil and gas industry — said the governor’s tenure was marked by a disdain for government bureaucracy. He said Perry was eager to streamline the process for approving permits for energy projects. (The Railroad Commission now processes drilling permits in as few as six to 10 days.)
That may suggest Perry is likely to speed up DOE’s work to approve exports of liquefied natural gas, a priority of the fossil fuel industry.
People close to Perry say they expect him to lead the Energy Department as a CEO might run a company, delegating key tasks to his deputies.
“There are certain similarities between Perry’s governing style and what we’re seeing in President-elect Trump,” said Avik Roy, a former adviser to Perry’s 2016 presidential campaign. “Perry very much believes in hiring good people and then delegating to those people.”
One major question, though, is what Perry intends to do at DOE. And he may be charting a collision course with Congress if he acts on his past talk of bulldozing large sections of the department.
Perry vowed during his 2012 presidential campaign that he would scrap the agency, dovetailing with recent suggestions from the Heritage Foundation that large portions of it be eliminated. While a Trump spokesman recently dodged a question about whether the new administration would consider following through on the idea, doing so would face steep challenges: DOE isn’t as big as DHS, but its nearly 110,000 employees and contractors — spread across dozens of congressional districts — could turn deep cuts into political minefields for the incoming secretary and his team.
In addition, the agency’s nuclear weapons program and Cold War cleanup efforts — amounting to about two-thirds of DOE’s budget — are obligations with strong roots among both Democrats and Republicans. The rest of the agency’s budget is still a significant figure: $10 billion.
“When you’re thinking about ‘what can I cut?’ in fact most of it is not cuttable for practical reasons about imperatives for cleanup, imperatives for national security and the political imperatives of the agency’s footprint,” said Sue Tierney, a former Clinton administration DOE official who worked on Obama’s transition team.
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