The most dramatic moment of the GOP debate in Florida last Monday revolved around Gov. Rick Perry and his 2007 executive order mandating that all 11- and 12-year-old girls in Texas get the HPV vaccine. The human papillomavirus vaccine protects women and teens against a sexually transmitted disease that causes cervical cancer.
During the debate, presidential candidate Michele Bachmann called Perry's executive order an example of crony capitalism.
"The governor's chief of staff was the chief lobbyist for this drug company," Bachmann said. "The drug company gave thousands of dollars in political donations to the governor. This is flat-out wrong. Was this about life, or was it billions of dollars for a drug company?"
Back in 2007, the first reaction to Perry's executive order was mystification on both sides of the political aisle. Jim Dunnam, the Texas House Democratic leader at the time, says he went around the House floor and asked senators if they had heard about it.
"I sit next to someone who's very, very involved in health care, has been for 20 years, and I said, well, 'What's this all about?' And no one knew," Dunnam says.
While the Republican representatives and senators who controlled the Legislature were dumbfounded and getting angry, Democrats were just dumbfounded. Perry was going to make every girl in Texas get a shot to prevent a sexually transmitted disease? From a political party that was all about abstinence, this didn't compute.
But then the name Mike Toomey came up. Toomey had been Perry's chief of staff and was one of his closest political allies.
"It came out pretty quick that Toomey had been paid several hundred thousand dollars to lobby for Merck, and as soon as we heard that, it was like, 'OK, now we know what's going on,' " Dunnam says.
Toomey's career is emblematic of the revolving door between business and the Texas government. Toomey was elected to the Texas House, left government to become a lobbyist, took a job as Perry's chief of staff, then left the governor's office to lobby for the drug company Merck.
Merck was the maker of Gardasil, the HPV vaccine that the young girls in Texas would receive under Perry's executive order. Though the Legislature knew nothing of it at the time, this executive order actually had been months in the planning. But once revealed, Dunnam says there was a widespread perception that Perry was trying to make an end run around the Legislature.
"We had strong Republican majorities in both chambers," Dunnam says. "I do think that anybody that thought about it ahead of time would have felt that they couldn't have gotten it through the Legislature."
Since Democrats were in the minority, they were less resentful of being cut out of the process than they were wary of the order's backroom-deal appearance.
It emerged that Merck's political action committee had donated $5,000 to the governor's campaign at the same moment their executives were negotiating with the governor's staff. Merck would eventually donate nearly $30,000 to Perry and more than $377,000 to the Republican Governors Association, which Perry chaired.
Inside Texas' evangelical and abstinence communities, the reaction to Perry's order was anger and dismay. Tonya Waite, director of the East Texas Abstinence Program, says she didn't think it should have been mandatory.
"I always thought that it should have been the parents' choice," says Waite. "I was upset that there wasn't more time for me to get my facts together so that my schools and educators were comfortable, and we were all on the same page."
A group of Texas families quickly sued to stop Perry's executive order, and the backlash on the right became a tidal wave.
In May 2007, the Legislature overwhelmingly passed a bill vacating the governor's executive order by a veto-proof margin. Perry was furious. He held a press conference and surrounded himself with women who'd gotten cervical cancer. Perry said that the future deaths of Texas women and teens who succumbed to cervical cancer would be on the heads of the legislators who'd voted against him.
Perry's staff did not respond to requests to comment for this story, but Monday night Perry bristled at Bachmann's insinuation of corruption.
"It was a $5,000 contribution that I had received from them," Perry said. "I raise about $30 million. And if you're saying that I can be bought for $5,000, I'm offended."
Perry says his executive order was motivated by his devotion to life.
"Texas, I think, day in and day out, is a place that protects life," Perry said.
In politics, it's said that every action has a reaction. In this case, Perry's executive order may have had the unintended consequence of rallying the right to attention on the issue. Only Virginia and the District of Columbia have passed a mandatory HPV vaccination bill. More than 12,000 American women each year are diagnosed with cervical cancer.
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