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AUSTIN, Texas — Republican Texas Gov. Rick Perry gave a confident, wry smile beneath flawless hair for his mug shot. Then he went out for a vanilla ice cream.
That’s how the possible 2016 presidential candidate greeted his booking on criminal charges of abuse of power.
But what’s next for the longest-serving governor in Texas history isn’t so glib: Perry’s high-powered and pricey legal team will now quickly try to extinguish the case against him, which includes two felony charges stemming from his veto last summer of state funds for public corruption prosecutors.
An arraignment is scheduled for Friday, but Perry doesn’t have to be present — and he’s already planning to be in New Hampshire that day to court GOP voters as he mulls another White House run.
Perry was already in campaign mode Tuesday when he arrived at the Travis County courthouse — just a block behind the governor’s mansion — for fingerprinting and his mug shot. He strode to a lectern in front of a phalanx of cameras and reporters, and his vows to fight the charges were interrupted by chants of “Perry! Perry!” from a few dozen supporters.
About the only time Perry didn’t seem in control was when he was instructed to remove his newly signature, black-framed glasses for the booking photo.
“The actions that I took were lawful, they were legal, and they were proper,” Perry said before entering the courthouse.
Perry was indicted last week on charges of coercion and official oppression for vetoing $7.5 million for the state public integrity unit, which investigates wrongdoing by elected officials and is run by the Travis County district attorney’s office. Perry threatened the veto if the county’s Democratic district attorney, Rosemary Lehmberg, stayed in office after a drunken driving conviction.
Lehmberg refused to resign and Perry carried out the veto, drawing an ethics complaint from a left-leaning government watchdog group.
Perry was indicted by a grand jury in Austin, a liberal bastion in otherwise mostly fiercely conservative Texas.
The atmosphere all around him Tuesday felt less like an undignified perp walk and more like a full-throated campaign rally. Retired Coast Guard officer Dave Jimenez, 70, said he was standing with Perry despite being critical of his efforts to secure the Texas-Mexico border.
“He let me down back then,” Jimenez said. “But this is an attack on the political system. I’m just soured by it.”
Perry’s detractors also waited to relish a glimpse of him walking into court to face processing. Among them was an attorney who is defending more than a dozen Texas abortion clinics set to close this month under a tough anti-abortion bill signed by Perry last year.
“It’s not about politics. It’s about the governor’s abuse of power,” said attorney Jan Soifer, who’s also a Democratic Party leader in Austin.
The governor, meanwhile, isn’t letting the case keep him from a packed travel schedule that will take him to the early voting states of Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina over the next two weeks. After his 2012 presidential campaign flamed out, the Republican opted not to seek re-election as governor in November — leaving him more time to focus on rehabilitating his image nationally.
If convicted on both counts, Perry could face a maximum 109 years in prison — though legal experts across the political spectrum have said the case against him may be a tough sell to a jury. No one disputes that Perry has the right to veto any measures passed by the state Legislature, including any parts of the state budget.
But the complaint against Perry alleges that by publicly threatening a veto and trying to force Lehmberg to resign, he coerced her. The Republican judge assigned to the case has assigned a San Antonio-based special prosecutor who insists the case is stronger than it may outwardly appear.
The governor has hired a team of high-powered attorneys, who are being paid with state funds to defend him.
Perry is the first Texas governor to be indicted since 1917. Top Republicans have been especially quick to defend him, though, since a jail video following Lehmberg’s April 2013 arrest showed the district attorney badly slurring her words, shouting at staffers to call the sheriff, kicking the door of her cell, and sticking her tongue out. Her blood alcohol level was also three times the legal limit for driving.