AUSTIN A defiant Rick Perry on Saturday went on the offensive one day after being indicted for allegedly abusing his power with a controversial veto, denouncing the charges as “outrageous” political theatrics and predicting that he will ultimately prevail over “those who would erode our state’s constitution and laws purely for political purposes.”
“I wholeheartedly and unequivocally stand behind my veto and will continue to defend this lawful action of my executive authority as governor,” Perry told reporters at the state capitol.
“We don’t settle political differences with indictments in this country.”
The indictment by a Travis County grand jury threw uncertainty over his potential presidential candidacy in 2016 and triggered state and national repercussions that Democrats hope will spill into this year’s gubernatorial race to choose his successor.
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Democrats at both the state and national level escalated their demands for Perry to resign, but the state’s longest serving governor effectively served notice that he plans to stay in office until the end of his term. Perry chose against running for an unprecedented fourth four-year term as he prepares for a possible second run for the Republican presidential nomination.
Perry defended his threats to veto appropriations for the Travis County District Attorney’s Office in an attempt to force the resignation of District Attorney Rosemary Lehmberg after she was arrested for drunken driving. Perry ultimately vetoed a $7.5 million appropriation to a division of the office charged with fighting official corruption.
Perry said Lehmberg, who remains in office, behaved in “an incredibly inappropriate way” following her arrest, was “abusive to law enforcement” and had to be restrained. Lehmburg, who was shown in a video kicking the door of her cell and sticking her tongue out, had a blood alcohol level of almost three times the legal limit, Perry said.
“Americans and Texans who have seen this agree with me that that is not an individual who is heading up an office that we can afford to fund,” Perry said. “Given that information, and given that choice again, that is exactly what I would do.”
The indictment stemmed from a complaint by Texans for Public Justice, a liberal-leaning public watchdog group that charged that Perry’s veto threat to force the resignation of a public official constituted an abuse of power. The grand jury indicted Perry on felony counts of abuse of official capacity and coercion of a public servant.
His press conference signaled that Perry intends a head-on PR offensive against the charges, a strategy that will continue on Sunday with an appearance on Fox News Sunday.
But he is expected to face a less friendly venue later in the week when he goes to the Travis County courthouse to be booked in and presumably fingerprinted on the charges.
Many Republicans predicted that Perry would survive what they described as a weak legal case and echoed his view that the charges were politically motivated.
But Texas Democrats pounced on the accusations and vowed to use the charges against Perry in the Texas governor’s race to bolster their political attack on the Republican leadership that has dominated Texas politics for more than two decades.
“We think it has an absolute impact because Texans are waking up today with a Republican in office that has created this culture of corruption in Austin,” said Texas Democratic Executive Director Will Hailer.
State Sen. Wendy Davis, a Fort Worth Democrat who is running against Republican Greg Abbott in the governor’s race, described the indictments “very, very serious charges” but stopped short of joining Hailer and other Democrats in demanding Perry’s resignation.
In a brief session with reporters following a campaign appearance in suburban Austin, she also declined to assess the potential impact on the governor’s race, saying, “I’ll leave it to the pundits to determine that.”
Independent analysts said the impact on his presidential hopes depend on the length of the legal case and what evidence surfaces in a trial. Nearly all agreed that Perry is done for politically if convicted.
“He could proceed without a lot of damage. But if goes on for a long time and certainty if he were convicted, that would destroy any chance of running for president in 2016,” said Cal Jillson, a political science professor at Southern Methodist University.
Jillson added that he does not expect Perry to be convicted. “I can’t imagine seeing those designer spectacles staring at me from behind a jail cell.”
Jim Riddlesperger, a political science professor at Texas Christian University, said that even before the indictments Perry faced a difficult challenge in trying to repair his image from the last presidential bid.
“I think Perry has a big uphill battle anyway because after the 2012 election he was seen as not ready for prime time,” he said. “Overcoming those first impressions is going to be a very, very difficult thing for him to do. I think that’s the issue for him, much moreso than this indictment.”
Allan Saxe, an associate political science professor at the University of Texas at Arlington said regardless of the outcome, there’s no question the indictment is “going to impact his chances of running for president. He may be completely innocent. He may be acquitted. In fact, he probably will be.
“But it won't make a difference,” Saxe said. “The word indictment has a very chilling effect. It's really not good politically for Gov. Perry.”
Montgomery reports for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. Anna M. Tinsley of thr Star-Telegram contributed to this report.