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August 19, 2014

High drama in Texas governor’s office

As moments of high political drama go, it doesn’t get much better than this. Indicted Gov. Rick Perry, we’re ready for your close-up.

As moments of high political drama go, it doesn’t get much better than this. Indicted Gov. Rick Perry, we’re ready for your close-up.

And so was he, characteristically confident beyond doubt as he met the press Saturday for the first time since he became indicted Gov. Rick Perry late Friday afternoon.

The body language exuded defiance as Perry, his lawyers nearby, took the four steps that got him from the door to the rostrum in his Capitol press conference room, which was full. He caught my eye as I stood on the side. He winked at me with his left eye, opened the box that held his remarks and launched, starting with predicate and escalating into full battle mode.

“As governor,” he said,“I took an oath to faithfully uphold the constitution of the state of Texas, a pledge that I have kept every day as I’ve worked on behalf of Texans for the last 14 years.”

And that, he said, included vetoing state money for the Travis County district attorney’s office, which he said is led by someone who“had lost the public’s confidence by acting inappropriately and unethically.”

“This indictment,” he said of the charges alleging that his handling of the veto was an abuse of official capacity and coercion of a public official,“amounts to nothing more than abuse of power, and I cannot and I will not allow that to happen.”

If it does happen, Perry faces up to 99 years in prison on one charge and 10 years on the other. It was a two-count indictment, inevitably leading Twitter snarkists to surmise it was supposed to be three counts but grand jurors forgot the third. (One has to wonder, if Perry is convicted and imprisoned, would fellow inmates also taunt him with “oops”-related zingers? That, I’d think, would be cruel and unusual and something else I can’t remember.)

During Q-and-A on Saturday, the somewhat measured tone of Perry’s prepared statement heated up a bit, particularly as related to Travis County District Attorney Rosemary Lehmberg, a Democrat whose April 2013 DWI led to Perry’s veto of state money for her office’s Public Integrity Unit. The governor was eager to remind everyone that Lehmberg, who pleaded guilty to DWI, had a blood alcohol level three times the legal limit, “had to be restrained” when booked, “was abusive to law enforcement, was kicking the door.”

Shortly after Friday’s indictment, Perry backers gleefully distributed via Twitter and elsewhere highlights (lowlights?) of video of Lehmberg’s arrest and jailing. It was by all measures abominable behavior, particularly by a law enforcement official. Lehmberg subsequently apologized, served a stiff sentence for a first-offense DWI, sought treatment and returned to work.

Perry’s Saturday performance, just over six minutes, ended with him somehow segueing into a border security riff and talk about doing his job and “that is what I’m going to do from today until I leave office in January of 2015. Thank you.”

For Perry, a veteran politician who’s been through a battle or two, it’s game on. In addition to one man’s battle to stay out of prison, it’s a battle — with potentially significant impact — over the limits of a Texas governor’s power.

When he decided he’d fielded enough questions, Perry strode away, leaving several questions hanging and leaving the assembled news people looking at a rostrum on which the gubernatorial seal was about 40 percent in shadows.

Ken Herman is a columnist for the Austin American-Statesman. E-mail: kherman@statesman.com.

© 2014 Cox Newspapers

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