AUSTIN – Gov. Rick Perry, the longest-serving governor in Texas history, turned himself in amid the cheers of supporters at the Travis County Courthouse on Tuesday to face two felony counts of abuse of power.
He was not a contrite defendant.
"I believe in the rule of law," he told the crowd. "We will prevail."
Perry, a Republican who is considering a run for president in 2016, has vehemently denounced the charges in televised press conferences and through his legal team since being indicted on Friday.
"Like a true Texan, he's being pushed and he's pushing back," said Mark P. Jones, political scientist at Rice University. "He's making a conscious decision not just to fight this head-on but to utilize the national attention for political gain."
It's the first time in nearly 100 years that a Texas governor has been indicted. The last one was Democrat James Ferguson, who was convicted and removed from office for vetoing funding for the University of Texas after objecting to some faculty members.
Perry's indictment stems from the drunken-driving arrest last year of Travis County District Attorney Rosemary Lehmberg, who was captured on video berating officers following her arrest. She served jail time, underwent counseling and returned to her post.
When she refused Perry's call to resign, the Republican governor vetoed $7.5 million in state funding for the public integrity unit overseen by Lehmberg, a Democrat. A grand jury found sufficient evidence to put Perry on trial on charges that his veto overstepped his legal authority.
The two felony charges carry prison sentences of up to more than 100 years, if convicted.
Perry and his legal team say the charges are politically motivated. They say he legally used his veto to withhold funds from someone unfit for office. Democratic leaders in Texas have called for his resignation, but people around the country have backed him.
Perry appeared at the courthouse Tuesday dressed in a dark blue suit, powder blue tie and signature dark-rimmed glasses. Supporters in the crowd, who seemed to outnumber his detractors, greeted him with thunderous applause and chants of "Perry! Perry!" as he stepped forward to make a short statement before going inside to be booked. Backers held signs such as "Keep Calm & Veto On" and "Free Perry," turning the legal procedure into an impromptu pro-Perry rally.
Whereas in previous statements Perry pointed to Lehmberg's actions as justification for his veto, on Tuesday the governor sought to turn the issue into a constitutional fight over government's rights.
"This indictment is nothing short of a an attack on the constitutional powers of the office of governor," he said to loud cheers. "There are important fundamental issues at stake, and I will not allow this attack on our system of government to stand."
Will Hailer, executive director of the Texas Democratic Party, said Perry overstepped his powers by pushing Lehmberg to resign. His group has called for Perry to step down.
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"It's about coercing a public official and abuse of his power," he said. "That's what this is really about."
But Hailer was outnumbered at the rally, which was overrun by Perry supporters. Amanda Shell, 26, held up a sign that had a picture of the Texas flag next to a heart and "Perry."
"There's a lot of Texans supportive of Perry's decision," she said. "We feel he did the right thing."
Perry, who has been governor for 14 years, has worked hard to resurrect his national image after an embarrassing end to his 2012 presidential run, when he momentarily lost his train of thought during a televised debate in the Republican primaries.
How the national scrutiny of this latest legal wrangling affects his 2016 chances remains to be seen. The indictment may actually endear him to Republican voters, who could view the charges against him as political, said Ross Ramsey, executive editor of the Texas Tribune, an online politics and public policy news site.
"Perry's completely killing them in the public fight," he said. "His story is the story being told right now."