MICHELE NORRIS, Host:
From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.
MELISSA BLOCK, Host:
And I'm Melissa Block. We begin this hour with the story behind one of the most dramatic moments in this week's GOP debate. In 2007, Governor Rick Perry issued an executive order. It mandated that all 11- and 12-year-old girls in Texas get the HPV vaccine. The vaccine protects women and teens against a sexually transmitted disease that is the main cause of cervical cancer. During Monday's debate, Michele Bachmann called Perry's executive order an example of crony capitalism.
(SOUNDBITE OF DEBATE)
MICHELE BACHMANN: The governor's former chief of staff was the chief lobbyist for this drug company. The drug company gave thousands of dollars in political donations to the governor. And this is just flat-out wrong. The question is: Was it about life, or was it about millions of dollars and potentially billions for a drug company?
BLOCK: Well, what was it about? NPR's Wade Goodwyn takes us back to Texas in February of 2007.
WADE GOODWYN: Although many other reactions were to come, it's fair to say that the first reaction to Governor Rick Perry's executive order was mystification on both sides of the political aisle. Jim Dunnam was the Texas House Democratic leader at the time.
JIM DUNNAM: I went around the House floor and to some senators, and have you heard about this. And 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.
GOODWYN: 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 Texas girl 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. Mike Toomey had been Perry's chief of staff and was one of his closest political allies.
DUNNAM: 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.
GOODWYN: Mike Toomey's career is emblematic of the revolving door between business and Texas government. Toomey was elected to the Texas House, left government to become a lobbyist, took a job as Governor 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. Although 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.
DUNNAM: We had strong Republican majorities in both chambers. And I do think anybody that thought about it ahead of time would have felt that they couldn't have gotten it through the legislature.
GOODWYN: 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 a $5,000 check 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's evangelical and abstinence communities, the reaction to Perry's order was anger and dismay. Tonya Waite is the director of the East Texas Abstinence Program.
TONYA WAITE: I don't think that it should have been mandatory. I always thought that it should have been the parents' choice. 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.
GOODWYN: 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 of 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 announced the future deaths of Texas women and teens who succumbed to cervical cancer would be on the heads of those legislators who'd voted against him.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED AUDIO)
RICK PERRY: We just didn't have the gumption to address all the misguided and misleading political rhetoric.
GOODWYN: Governor Perry's staff did not respond to requests for comment for this story, but Monday night, Perry bristled at Michele Bachmann's insinuation of corruption.
(SOUNDBITE OF DEBATE)
PERRY: It was a $5,000 contribution that I had received from them. I raise about $30 million. And if you're saying that I can be bought for 5,000, I'm offended.
GOODWYN: Perry says his executive order contained an opt-out for the parents and was motivated by his devotion to life.
(SOUNDBITE OF DEBATE)
PERRY: Texas, I think, day in and day out, is a place that protects life.
GOODWYN: In politics, it's said that every action has a reaction. And Rick Perry's executive order may have had the unintended consequence of rallying the right to attention on this 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. Wade Goodwyn, NPR News, Dallas.
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