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Rick Perry's Roots: A World of Difference From Washington

Rick Perry's Roots: A World of Difference From Washington

By Erin McPike - July 29, 2011


PAINT CREEK, Texas -- It's not hard to understand why Rick Perry hates Washington after driving along the farm-to-market roads where he was raised.

His roots are rural: He's a farmer-rancher by trade, and his supporters say the reason he understands the plight of small business owners is because in his younger days he ran the family's cotton farm. He rails against centralized government because he thinks it's too far removed from the people it governs. It's certainly plain to see that the trappings of Washington couldn't be any farther away from the modesty of Paint Creek, where clouds of dust still blow behind the cars that travel from farm to farm, and signs other than those pointing out the names of roads are hard to come by; billboards and political displays are non-existent.

Perry's parents still live in the house where he grew up in this tiny farming town about an hour's drive north of Abilene in West Texas, and they don't seem enthused by the prospect of their son, the Texas governor, running for the presidency.

"We don't talk to reporters," his father, Ray, said when he answered his door this week. "Y'all twist around what we say." Despite promises to the contrary, the elder Perry had no interest in bragging about his son, although there was a small sign promoting him affixed to the window next to his front door.

On most afternoons, though, the governor's father can be found down the road in Stamford at a dark little diner called Cliff House, which looks like the kind of place you'd find in a 1970s murder mystery set out West. RoseAnn Hill, who works at Cliff House, says he sits at the same table of coffee drinkers almost every day, arguing about politics.

Some of those who gather in the diner say that the governor's mother, Amelia, "started walking a little taller than everyone else" when her son started running the state. But that may be about as far as she wants him to go.

"We won't be doing anything like that," Amelia Perry, a quilter, told Hill after all the buzz started two months ago about whether the three-term governor would seek the nation's highest office.

But Perry can't seem to help himself from taking his horse over the next hurdle (apologies to Texas Monthly's Paul Burka, who cautioned national media outlets against cowboy analogies like this one).

Born James Richard Perry in 1950 -- but called Rick since childhood -- he was the quarterback of his school's six-man football team, which, as Hill put it, is all there is to Perry's town. "Paint Creek is the school; the school is Paint Creek -- that's it," she said.

He met his eventual wife, Anita, who was from the neighboring (and much bigger) town of Haskell, and later left his hometown for college at Texas A&M, a not-insignificant feat for someone from a place like Paint Creek.

The couple met at a piano recital in grade school. And like many touchstones from Perry's early days, the piano-playing reappeared years later in his political career: A TV spot made when he ran for state agriculture commissioner in 1990 features him holding his now-grown son, Griffin, on his lap when the boy was learning to play the piano.

That same ad shows him in a jean jacket and cowboy hat, riding a horse and telling voters he was the only farmer-rancher in the race. In other words, he understood the issues and the job because he had lived it, and that's why his close friends in politics convinced him after three terms in the legislature that he ought to seek the statewide office. He had studied animal science in college, and the horse he was riding and the saddle he was using were his own.

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Erin McPike is a national political reporter for RealClearPolitics. She can be reached at emcpike@realclearpolitics.com. Follow her on Twitter @ErinMcPike.

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