Rick Perry no stranger to racial politics

All the media hoopla about the racially insensitive words on a rock at the entrance to Texas Gov. Rick Perry’s hunting lease in West Texas misses the point about Perry and racism.

Perry won his first statewide election — for agriculture commissioner — in 1990 on the basis of a race-baiting television ad late in the campaign. Had Perry not blatantly used race to win his first major election, he probably would never have been governor — and never been a major contender for the Republican nomination for president today.

Let’s set the scene: When Perry ran against incumbent Democratic Texas Agriculture Commissioner Jim Hightower 21 years ago, race was still a potent weapon in Southern politics.

Perry’s 1990 campaign was run by Karl Rove, who later masterminded George W. Bush’s rise to political prominence. Rove’s closest political ally, and political mentor, was Lee Atwater — the master of Southern racial politics. Atwater had managed Rove’s successful campaign for chairman of the College Republicans in 1973.

Atwater in 1988 inspired the now famous Willie Horton attack ad on the Democratic presidential candidate Michael Dukakis. The ad featured a menacing picture of Horton, who was African-American, and described how Dukakis granted a prison furlough to Horton, who then committed additional serious crimes.

Atwater said he was going to “make Willie Horton his [Dukakis’s] running mate.” The ad, regularly cited as a key element in that rough presidential campaign, was a blatant appeal to racial prejudice.

Two years later in 1990, another political consultant followed Atwater’s lead and produced a racist ad on behalf of North Carolina Sen. Jesse Helms, for his campaign against an African-American opponent, Harvey Gantt. The ad featured white hands tearing up a rejection notice after a job had gone to a “less-qualified minority.”

That same year, Rove saved Perry’s campaign for agriculture commissioner with another race-tainted ad. He put together a TV commercial featuring film footage of Hightower and the Rev. Jesse Jackson, as the voiceover said, “Does Agriculture Commissioner Jim Hightower share your values?”

Hightower had supported Jackson’s 1988 campaign for president. The ad was run heavily in the rural, white parts of the state.

Those of us who were veterans of Southern politics of that era immediately understood what Perry was saying with the “share your values” line. This was racism pure and simple, circa 20 years ago in the South.

I was first elected to Congress in 1978 and served throughout the 1980s and ’90s. No one had to explain the significance of that ad to me.

Perry’s defense team has been quick to respond to the controversy about the words on the rock, and to this television ad, by saying that Perry can’t be a racist because he appointed many African-Americans to high positions when he became governor 11 years later.

But the passage of time does not make Perry’s conduct in his first major campaign excusable. Maybe he doesn’t have any racist bones in his body — as one of his black supporters has suggested.

However, there is a cardinal rule in politics — when you put your name on an ad, you own it. You can’t blame your campaign operative (Rove) for an ad that you may now regret.

Perry is running for the highest office in the land. Certainly his current views should be carefully scrutinized. But no one should forget that he would not be a candidate for president had he not traveled the Atwater-Rove path of appealing to white prejudice against African-Americans in our not-too-distant past.

Martin Frost served in the House from Texas from 1979 to 2005 and was Democratic Caucus chairman and head of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. He is now an attorney with Polsinelli Shughart.