What's All That Secession Ruckus in Texas?

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Peter Silva / Zuma

Republican Texas governor Rick Perry speaks at Austin City Hall protesting excessive government spending and bailouts as part of 'tea party' demonstrations across the country

It was the shout-out heard around the world: Texas' Republican governor Rick Perry's praise for his state's tea-party protesters, accompanied by not-so-veiled references to a potential Lone Star State secession. The remarks prompted glaring red-website headlines and instant fodder for cable-TV pundits. But for Texas political insiders, Perry's waving of the flag of secession was just the latest volley in a Texas-size Republican civil war — a face-off between Perry and his potential rival for the 2010 Republican gubernatorial nomination, U.S. Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison. (See pictures of tea-party tax protests across the country.)

Most observers in Texas believe Hutchison will indeed challenge Perry. She has moved from being coy about her plans to being less coy about running for governor. Still, there has been no official announcement. And so Perry has embarked on a Pavlovian political exercise: you say, "Hutchison," and he says, "Washington." Some Perry backers have even dubbed the 16-year Senate veteran "Kay Bailout Hutchison." (See pictures of the richest little county in Texas — and the U.S.)

This week's tea parties afforded the governor an opportunity to tap into the Texas spirit of independence, a surefire crowd-pleaser in the reddest of red states, one with a profound sense of its own identity, independent history and anti-Washington sentiment. "Texas has yet to learn submission to any oppression," Perry told roaring tea-party crowds in Austin and Fort Worth, quoting Sam Houston, Texas' founding father. (See pictures of a post-Dubya Crawford, Texas.)

Dressed in jeans, boots and a baseball cap with a camouflage peak and a hunting outfitter's logo, the Texas governor was one of the few major politicians to appear at the tea parties across the country. While crowds yelled "Secede! Secede!," Perry — 60 but telegenic and youthful — thought out loud that secession might be the outcome if Washington does not mend its "oppressive" high-spending, dictatorial ways. (Most experts say the notion that Texas can legally secede is mistaken, but the state does have the right to split into five states, offering the prospect of 10 U.S. Senators, math that would send cold shivers down any Democratic back.)

After the rallies, Perry downplayed his secession comments, amending them in an interview with the Fort Worth Star-Telegram to say, "I'm trying to make the Obama Administration pay attention to the 10th Amendment." The so-called 10th Amendment movement, asserting the rights of the states to claim all powers not granted specifically to the Federal Government, has been grist for conservatives for more than a decade. The movement got a boost following the Democratic return to dominance in Congress and more traction when federal dictates about how to spend stimulus money raised hackles in places like Texas and South Carolina. Some two dozen state legislatures are considering or have passed resolutions supporting the 10th Amendment.

Is the governor's strategy working? While Perry was whipping up the tea-party crowds, Senator Hutchison was in Houston touting her work in Washington and her support for the federal deductability of state sales taxes. "The Senator is on the front lines in working against the Obama Administration and their unnecessary spending," her spokesman said. It was weak tea compared to Perry's red rhetoric. Straddling the Washington-Texas divide has been difficult for Hutchison. While Perry has been outspoken in rejecting federal unemployment funds, saying they would result in increased premiums for Texas employers, Senator Hutchison has been criticized for a less-than-clear stand on the issue. She voted against the stimulus bill, then said Perry should find a way to take the benefits without burdening employers in the future.

Nevertheless, one longtime Republican analyst and numbers cruncher, Royal Masset, believes Hutchison will defeat Perry and be the next governor of Texas. Polls suggest she has an early lead, and Masset points to her overwhelming victories in the past as evidence of her wide support not only among Republicans but also among independents, who can vote in Texas primaries. He has urged Perry to forgo another gubernatorial bid. Masset believes that Perry should be content with one major accomplishment: helping to create more jobs in Texas than the rest of the U.S. during his tenure. "Your place in history is secure," Masset wrote in a recent analysis piece for the Quorum Report, an insider political newsletter that circulates out of Austin, the state capital. "You would be freed up to do great things on the national scene where real power is now held by media stars such as you."

It is not likely to be advice Perry will heed. He is already the longest serving governor in Texas history — as lieutenant governor, he took over for President-elect George W. Bush in December 2000. That has given him unparalleled influence over state government, where much of the governor's power resides in appointments to boards and commissions. Masset believes that more of that kind of centralization of power "will lead to Washington-style corruption. We need new people with new ideas. We need new appointees and new blood."

All this talk of front lines, "oppressive Washington" and states' rights and cries of "Texas not taxes!" ironically comes as Texans get ready to commemorate on April 21 the Battle of San Jacinto, the decisive battle of Texas' fight for independence from Mexico. It is also the day legislative hearings will be held in Austin on Texas' 10th Amendment resolution — so far, about half the members of the house of representatives have signed on as co-sponsors of the measure, which affirms Texas sovereignty under the 10th Amendment and serves notice to the Federal Government "to cease and desist certain mandates." Meanwhile, Texas house Democratic leader Jim Dunnam introduced a counterresolution Thursday, disagreeing with "any fringe element advocating the 'secession' of Texas" and adding that Perry's remarks were anti-American. Perry downplayed the brouhaha, telling reporters, "This is America, baby. The First Amendment, we like that too."

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