AP's Jay Root Has Big News: Rick Perry Used to Be a Democrat

And Jay Root's next newsflash is sure to be that Texas was once a republic. And Abe Lincoln was once a Whig.

Gov. Rick Perry, a no-apologies conservative known for slashing government spending and opposing all tax increases, is about as Republican as you can get.

But that wasn’t always the case.

Perry spent his first six years in politics as a Democrat, in a somewhat forgotten history that is sure to be revived and scrutinized by Republican opponents if he decides to run for president.

Oooh, scary. You know who else used to be a Democrat? Thousands and thousands and thousands of other Texas Republicans. Perry has led a flood of Texans who saw their old party, which was once tolerant of those who want smaller government and strong national defense, leave them and shifter ever farther to the left on everything. So like Rick Perry, they and their state moved right.

A raging liberal he was not. Elected to represent a slice of rural West Texas in the state House of Representatives in 1984, Perry, a young rancher and cotton farmer, gained an early reputation as a fiscal conservative. He was one of a handful of freshman “pit bulls,” so named because they sat in the lower pit of the House Appropriations Committee, where they fought to keep spending low.

And that's why he switched to the GOP: Today's Democrats have a feevah, and spending more of other people's money while making the government bigger and bigger just keeps making that feevah worse. By the way, you know who else used to be a Democrat? Phil Gramm.

But Perry cast some votes and took a few stands that seem to be at odds with the fiscal conservatism he champions today. The most vivid example is Perry’s support of the $5.7 billion tax hike in 1987, signed by Republican Gov. Bill Clements but opposed by most of the GOP members. The bill passed by a relatively close 78-70 in the Texas House. Even without adjusting for inflation, the legislation triggered the largest tax increase ever passed in modern Texas, according to Dale Craymer, president of the Texas Taxpayers and Research Association. Today, taking inflation into account, it would be worth more than $11 billion.

Craymer said the new taxes were used to plug a massive budget shortfall, with the money representing about 20 percent of the general revenue raised during that two-year budget period.

Almost a quarter century later, Perry, as governor, was faced with a similarly sized budget shortfall. But he took a markedly different tack in 2011: He opposed any new taxes, and signed a budget that made the first reduction in overall spending on public education since at least 1949.

So...Democrat Perry supported a tax increase decades ago, but Republican Perry doesn't now. It sounds like he is capable of learning what works and what doesn't, and acting accordingly. The horror!

I know Jay Root, having dealt with him a few times when I worked at the Texas GOP. He may be the most aggressive reporter with a national stage in the state of Texas. He is certainly one of the best. This story, though, is kind of silly. It is Not News that Rick Perry was once a Democrat, and it is Not News that he supported Al Gore way back in 1984. The whole state knows this. Al Gore 1.0 was also a fairly conservative sort at the time; he only really went off the deep end in the Bush years. Remember, Clinton put him on the ticket in 1992 to add his gravitas and conservative streaks. Al Gore then wasn't quite the wild enviro hypocrite that Al Gore now is.

Rick Perry switched parties back in 1989 and has been the bane of the state's Democrats ever since. They positively loathe him, but not because of anything in particular about him or his policies, which have been quite successful. They hate him for his hair and for how many times he has beaten them in elections and in the legislature. And they despise him mostly as an apostate who left their faith behind. When I say above that Perry has led a Democrat exodus in Texas, that's not a just talk: As Texas overall switched from a conservative Democratic state to the Republican column during the past couple of decades, Perry personally presided over party switch ceremonies and festivities all over the state. He welcomed fellow Democrats who saw the light and moved right. That may be because he remembers why he left the Democrats, and understands why so many others felt compelled to do the same thing.

I see his six years as a Democrat as a positive thing. Most Texans of a certain age grew up Democrats. That's just how things used to be. But most Texans have outgrown that party's outmoded, statist thinking and embraced the party of freedom. Rick Perry can reach out to disaffected Democrats. He has a 22-year record of doing that in Texas, to great effect. Conservative Democrats like state Reps. Aaron Pena and Allen Ritter continue to follow the path that Perry blazed, becoming Republicans as the Democrats keep lurching left.

By the way, you know who else used to be a Democrat? Ronald Reagan.