by Kelley Shannon
The Associated Press
When Gov. Rick Perry chose his former political aide to head the Texas Transportation Commission, he bypassed prominent business people who some legislators say were better equipped for the job, state documents show.
Perry’s selection of Deirdre Delisi led to claims of political cronyism. But Perry’s office and Delisi herself say she has the policy expertise and legislative experience needed for the transportation hot seat.
Before appointing her in April, along with non-controversial pick William “Bill” Meadows, Perry received resumes and recommendation letters for at least eight potential transportation nominees, according to records obtained by The Associated Press under the Texas Public Information Act.
Only one candidate — Meadows, who was vice chairman of the North Texas Tollway Authority — appeared to come directly from a regional transportation board, records show. Others up for consideration for the five-person commission, which oversees the Texas Department of Transportation, known as TxDot, were attorneys or businessmen.
“The governor recognized that TxDot needed to communicate better not only with the public at large but certainly with the Legislature,” said Perry spokesman Robert Black, calling the 36-year-old Delisi one of the best communicators the governor knows. “That was the governor’s choice.”
Delisi was Perry’s 2002 campaign manager and more recently his Capitol chief of staff.
The transportation commission’s work is crucial to Perry’s gubernatorial legacy, and until December his longtime friend and former legislator Ric Williamson led the push for Perry’s proposed Trans-Texas Corridor.
Williamson died of a heart attack Dec. 30 at age 55.
The proposed toll road corridor has gotten the Republican governor some national notoriety, but he’s also endured home-state denunciation. Perry says his bold road-building plans are necessary to cope with Texas’ growth in population, trade and traffic.
One businessman who came heavily recommended but wasn’t selected for the commission was Erle Nye, chairman emeritus of Dallas-based TXU Corp. Political and business leaders in the Dallas-Fort Worth area united in recommending Nye and Meadows, a former Fort Worth city councilman.
Others expressing interest in the commission were Dallas attorney Alan Wade Tompkins; Houston attorney Felix Chevalier; Southlake Mayor Andrew Lee Wambsganss; Livingston businessman Benny Leon Fogleman; and Snyder civic official Jay D. Burns, records show. Some of the applicants listed multiple state boards they were interested in.
It isn’t clear whether Perry considered any additional candidates, either informally or those who submitted applications before this year.
“Names inevitably bubble up to the top and are sent to the governor for his consideration,” Black said. “The appointments process is an inexact science.”
Black said Perry looks at a candidate’s commitment to public service, an ability to lead and make difficult decisions and his or her governing philosophy.
Delisi said Perry approached her about the transportation position.
“We had extensive conversations,” Delisi said, adding that their talks focused on Perry’s expectations for the job. “I wasn’t really aware of who else had applied.”
Republican state Rep. Linda Harper-Brown of Irving, a high-ranking member of the Texas House Transportation Committee, said she joined other North Texas political and business leaders in supporting Nye and Meadows.
She said she worries that Delisi, because of her close ties to Perry, may have difficulty taking the transportation department in a new direction it desperately needs.
“I did think it was a questionable appointment,” Harper-Brown said, explaining that even though Delisi may be capable and has reached out to those interested in transportation, she’ll have to overcome the perception that Perry simply is moving his former aides onto state boards. “She’s going to have to work very, very hard.”
Besides endorsing Nye and Meadows, Harper-Brown said she did not urge the governor to choose other possible appointees.
“I really do think that it is his prerogative, at this time,” she said. “That is the role and that is his choice.”
Lawmakers may consider changing the structure of the commission and possibly diminishing the governor’s power over it when the transportation agency comes up for a periodic review in the 2009 legislative session.
Republican Sen. John Carona of Dallas, leader of the Senate Transportation and Homeland Security Committee, said he supported Nye for the commission and thought Meadows was a “solid appointment.”
Carona said he considered several other potential choices more experienced than Delisi in the business world, a qualification both Carona and Harper-Brown said are necessary for overseeing the state’s multibillion-dollar transportation system.
“Unfortunately, the governor went in a different direction,” Carona said. He said he has made no secret that he believes Delisi “was a political appointment, for sure. ... I do feel that they were interested in a strong political ally. Clearly, the governor had that in former Chairman Ric Williamson.”
But Carona said it’s the governor’s choice and that Delisi is a bright person who seems to want to do a good job. He said he is optimistic she will try to improve the troubled agency.
The transportation department has come under fire for financial secrecy and attempts to turn private land into toll roads.
“The governor realizes he has a political problem on his hands,” said Terri Hall, founder and director of Texans Uniting for Reform and Freedom, a group critical of Perry’s transportation policy. She said her organization didn’t recommend any potential appointees.
“We could have put forward twenty names, and it would have made no difference with this governor,” she said.
Delisi is technically filling the position vacated by outgoing transportation commissioner Hope Andrade of the San Antonio area. Meadows is filling the seat left vacant by Williamson. Perry can decide which member serves as chairman.
Though a business background is useful, Delisi said, her 12 years of experience in and around the Legislature is her strength. She said she wants to bring more openness to the transportation department and rebuild public trust in it.
Even Perry’s conservative GOP base railed against the Trans-Texas Corridor at the recent state Republican Convention and produced a party platform adamantly opposing the superhighway. Potential 2010 candidates for governor, U.S. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison and Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst, spoke against the corridor at the convention.
Delisi has now presided over two monthly meetings as commission chair. On Thursday, the commission took a step closer to building Interstate 69, part of the Trans-Texas Corridor that’s to run from northeast Texas to the Rio Grande Valley.
“So far, so good,” Delisi said. “Things are going well. I’ve had very productive meeetings with members of the Legislature.”