USA — Texas Gov. Rick Perry, currently a GOP front-runner for next year’s presidential nomination, left the campaign trail in South Carolina to return to Texas to command what’s become an epic battle against dozens of major runaway wildfires.
Since December, some 21,000 Texas wildfires have burned 3.6 million acres and claimed more than 1,500 structures, including nearly 1,000 over Labor Day alone as a 14-mile-wide fire burned across Bastrop County, 25 miles east of Austin. The fire instantly became the most destructive in the state’s history as it joined dozens of other major conflagrations cutting across over 100,000 acres in bone dry central Texas.
While the Texas wildfires provide an opportunity for the only sitting governor in the presidential race to display his leadership bona fides, the disaster is also leaving Governor Perry open to charges of hypocrisy from the tea party movement. Some small-government advocates are asking why Perry, a states’ rights proponent and critic of federal power, is berating the Obama administration for dragging its heels in sending federal taxpayer money and resources to Texas.
In the short run, Perry’s ditching the campaign for the emergency command in Austin could help him contrast himself with other candidates, including Obama. But at some point, the campaign may have to explain the philosophical contradictions between Perry’s ideological view of federal power and his more practical willingness to rely on federal largess to solve the state’s fire problem.
“If I was running the Perry campaign, I would let other people sort the [disaster-aid argument] out later on down the line,” says Andrew Taylor, a political scientist at North Carolina State University in Raleigh. “For a sitting governor running for president, it’s always safe to err on the side of just doing your job, looking like you’re busy, and caring for people. When it comes to serving your state in an emergency, politics goes out the window.”
As far back as April, Perry jousted with the White House over federal disaster declarations for an earlier bout of Texas wildfires that destroyed 170 homes across the state. After first denying the application, the Obama administration quietly approved a partial federal disaster declaration on July 1 after an appeal from Perry.