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Did Mitt Romney and Rick Perry Make an Illegal Million-Dollar Backroom Deal?

A new lawsuit reveals contradictory stories about an illicit $1 million campaign contribution from “Swift Boat” funder.

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All of which recalls the old Texas political joke:

“What’s the difference between a bribe and a campaign contribution?”

“You report the contribution.”

“Who butters his biscuits?”

Few if any Texans have watched Rick Perry longer or more closely than Jim Hightower, the populist rabble-rouser and author. Perry first gained statewide office in Texas by beating Hightower, the incumbent, in the 1990 election for agriculture commissioner. The Svengali behind the scenes of Perry’s success was a political operative by the name of Karl Rove.

Perry and Hightower first crossed swords when Hightower, as agriculture commissioner, issued regulations limiting the amount of pesticides that could be applied in Texas.

“The chemical lobby was really pissed off,” Hightower told Salon, “so they wrote legislation to take pesticide authority away from my office and make my office appointed rather than elected.”

Perry, then a state legislator, carried the chemical lobby’s bill in committee, Hightower recalled, but it failed after Hightower drew hundreds of people to the hearing by inviting singer Willie Nelson as his lead witness. “When Perry called for a motion on his bill, nobody [else on the subcommittee would speak up] in front of this crowd. I remember Perry saying, “C’mon guys!’”

“That made the chemical lobby even more furious,” added Hightower. “So suddenly Karl Rove appears, recruits Perry to switch parties from Democrat to Republican and run against me.”

“Perry was a terrible campaigner back then, and Rove sent him out to attend [Texas] Farm Bureau meetings in the Panhandle to keep him away from the media. Then Rove raised millions of dollars for TV attack ads — typical stuff of a hippie burning a flag, and my face appears out of the flag.”

“What I learned from this about [Perry] is, he knows who butters his biscuits,” Hightower said. “He saw what they could do, which is to raise bucks and win him an election he probably didn’t think he could win. And that’s still who he is today: a corporate crony. You want an appointment to state office? You want a state contract? Just give him a contribution.”

“Twenty cents of every dollar he’s raised as governor has come from someone he appointed, or that someone’s spouse,” McDonald of TPJ noted. And the quid pro quo works in the other direction as well. Forty-three of Gov. Perry’s largest contributors have employed 89 people whom Perry has appointed to state boards and commissions, Crony Capitalism reports.

The “Wild West political past”

Whether Rick Perry’s apparent weakness for cronyism will hurt his chances of becoming president remains to be seen, but it does not appear to have affected his standing in Texas.

“He’s certainly been attacked on it, by both his Republican and Democratic opponents,” said McDonald. “Deborah Medina, the Tea Party candidate in the 2010 Republican primary, went after him for pay-to-play, as did [former Texas Sen. Kay Bailey] Hutchison. [Democrat] Bill White tried it in the general election too. White’s people would tell you, though, that cronyism and pay-to-play didn’t focus-group or poll very well with Texas voters. White kept pushing it, but it never did stick.”

“Why the hell not?” McDonald asked, chuckling. “Well, maybe there’s just less outrage about this stuff in Texas than in other parts of the country because of our Wild West political past and the extremely corrupt system it left us with. We have very few restrictions about how much money people can give to politicians; there’s actually no limit on what an individual can give, as long as it’s not during the legislative session. It’s outrageous, but it’s the system we’re used to.”