Earth to Perry: Southern politics don't always play nationally
It’s pretty apparent to anyone paying attention that Governor Rick Perry is no longer the belle of the ball among anxious GOP voters in search of a candidate who can mount a worthy challenge to President Obama’s bid for re-election.
Governor Perry’s fall from grace began with his stumbling performance at the last GOP presidential debate, in which he dared to defend Texas’ right to implement its own version of the DREAM Act. As a result of his comment that those who oppose granting in state tuition to children of illegal immigrants “don’t have a heart,” his stature was sullied in the eyes of the conservative base that was supposed to champion him.
And now thanks to a Washington Post story claiming his family leased a hunting ranch called “Ni**erhead” since the 1980s, Perry is making himself look even worse to the public at large.
WATCH REV. AL SHARPTON’S COVERAGE OF THE PERRY CONTROVERSY:
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The expected responses to the report have already poured in. His main opponent for the Republican presidential nomination, former Massachusetts governor and frontrunner Mitt Romney told Sean Hannity during a radio interview, “I think it’s offensive. I think most people think it’s offensive.” The newly re-energized candidate Herman Cain initially dismissed the Perry family’s handling of the matter as “insensitive,” although he’s since backed away from criticism following a backlash from conservatives like Rush Limbaugh.
There’s also been a number of “Rick Perry is not racist” declarations from multiple Texas politicians of every political persuasion, including Wallace Jefferson, the Perry-appointed first black chief justice of the Texas Supreme Court. Perry himself has claimed there are inaccuracies in the report and claims that the offensive term was painted over decades ago, though the Post quotes multiple anonymous sources with different recollections.
The damage may have already been done, though, which would make the Texas governor another example of a problem plaguing many southern candidates with political ambitions that stretch beyond familiar terrain.
While Republicans don’t rely on minority voters to win national elections, GOP leaders know that changing demographics won’t be kind to any candidate that invites widespread talk about racism. It’s a lesson another fallen star of the 2012 fold, Governor Haley Barbour, quickly learned once he caught flack for describing life growing up during the civil rights movement. “I just don’t remember it as being that bad,” he asserted in his Weekly Standard profile while defending a historically racist group, Bill”>the Citizens Council Reed, a distributor for Coors beers who also leased a hunting parcel on “Ni**erhead” ranch, echoed that same sort of insensitivity, when he told the Post, “You know, Texas is a little different — you go where it’s comfortable. It would have been one thing if they had named it, but they didn’t. So, it’s basically a figure of speech as far as most people are concerned. No one thought anything about it.”
Less than a week ago, my mother told me that she was referred to as “a nice colored woman” by a white woman on her job. In that woman’s eyes, she likely thought that she was paying my mom a compliment. Unfortunately, all she did was highlight lingering racial tensions in the South and the obvious cultural differences that exists between there and the rest of nation.
I’m not arguing that the South is more racist than any other part of the country, but there are arguably varying levels on how “comfortable” people are with outright expressions of racism.
That’s why Perry’s ranch name never thwarted his success in Texas despite it not being that great a secret. It’s also why he can and has used “race-baiting” for political gain when need be, as he was accused of doing in 1990.
The same goes for the likes of Barbour, who has often invoked coded racist rhetoric to resonate with area voters. That doesn’t make them racists, merely opportunistic politicians. However, that kind of background doesn’t guarantee any politician the kind of national success that it used to.
It’s no wonder a Civil Rights revisionist didn’t think he could beat the nation’s first black president. That “it wasn’t so bad” mantra Barbour spewed may appeal to someone like Hank Williams. I’m even sure there are quite a few folks who think the “Ni**erhead” story is much ado about nothing.
But, while those opinions might be common among some, the bulk of the electorate isn’t “comfortable” with those sorts of sentiments — and no presidential contender tied to them can win on that.