There was a point during Texas Governor Rick Perry’s speech to a packed lunch crowd at this year’s National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials (NALEO) conference that I felt something akin to pity. This is the man who’s playing coy with his own party, teasing a run for the presidency. I wanted for him to stop the platitudes, end the lame jokes, say thank you and leave the podium. He didn’t.
He trudged through to the end of his off-the-cuff remarks.
To give him a sliver of a benefit of a doubt, it wasn’t the warmest crowd he could have spoken to. The audience was almost entirely Latino; elected and appointed officials from all levels of government and from all across the country, staffers, advocates, political activists, political junkies and consultants.
They had just listened to San Antonio Mayor Julian Castro deliver a spot-on speech about the contrast between two different Texas’. He said the state was like a shiny coin you find on the floor; you pick it up and the underside is rotted – Latino education attainment is dismal; bills calling for a ban on sanctuary cities and measures much like Arizona’s SB1070 will disproportionately affect Latinos; voter ID and redistricting plans will effectively nullify the political effects of the Latino population growth. Castro meticulously enumerated what he saw as the state of the state from a Latino perspective, then he left the podium for Governor Perry, the would be president.
Perry was greeted at the door of the conference hotel by a group of angry protesters who hold him personally responsible for the anti-Latino tenor of the legislative session. But the Governor tried to put a good face on it all: he avoided the subjects. He reached into his bag of podium platitudes and strang together a series of awkward lines that may have been well received in another place and at another time. But on this day, in front of this crowd, his words had a hard time competing with the clinking of silverware against lunch plates.
He extolled the greatness of Texas as a state that’s dealing with the weakened economy better than the rest; he talked about how the secret to Texas’ economic success was its people; he invited those present to leave their states and move to Texas; he listed the names of the Latinos that he’s appointed to high office, including the Commissioner of the state Alcoholic Beverage Commission, Jose Cuevas. What a perfect name for that position, he joked. I think he may have been alluding to the similarity with Jose Cuervo, of Tequila fame. The joke tanked.
Perry’s option was to not attend the conference, avoid it altogether.
President Obama has snubbed the NALEO gathering for three years running. But every year the Governor of the NALEO conference host-state makes an act of presence. You’d think that with the growing political clout of the Latino community every politician running for national office would want a few minutes in front of these folks. You’d think.
Obama’s no-show has been taken by many at the conference as a not-so-subtle message – he thinks he’s got Latinos in his back pocket. But this Perry speech? It felt like someone had brought the AC down a couple of notches.
That evening the speech was fodder for attendee conversation, then it fizzled and folks went on to other topics and concerns of the day. I don’t know if the Governor will forget it as quickly as that. Admit it or not, he’s got presidential aspirations and this may not have been the best of introductions to a national Latino audience. One conference goer, not from Texas, said “close your eyes and listen to him, his speech patterns, his use of words, he sounds just like George Bush.”
Follow Victor Landa on Twitter: @vlanda