AUSTIN, Texas — A defiant Governor Rick Perry on Saturday vowed to fight his indictment for abuse of power, calling it a “farce” and a political prosecution.
It was his first appearance since a grand jury indicted him on two felony counts Friday on charges of trying to pressure the district attorney here, a Democrat, to step down by threatening to veto state funding for her office.
“I wholeheartedly and unequivocally stand behind my veto,” Perry said, adding, “We don’t settle political differences with indictments in this country.”
Vowing to stay in office until the end of his term in January, Perry said he would “explore every legal avenue” to fight the charges and was “confident” he would prevail.
The governor, a Republican, was accused of abusing his power last year when he threatened to veto state financing to Austin’s top prosecutor — Rosemary Lehmberg, the Travis County district attorney — in an attempt to get her to resign after her arrest for drunken driving.
The grand jurors charged Perry with abusing his official capacity and coercing a public servant.
Perry was unsparing about her, saying she had a blood-alcohol level three times the legal limit. “Americans and Texans who have seen this agree with me,” he said.
The indictment Friday marked a change in fortunes for a man who has been an unrivaled power in Texas. Throughout his nearly 14 years as governor of Texas, Perry has filled every position on every board and commission in the state.
That amounts to thousands of appointments, from the most obscure positions on the Texas Funeral Service Commission to more influential posts on university boards of regents, all of them loyal to some degree to one of the longest-serving governors in US history and one of the most powerful ever in Texas.
But there were two things he did not control. The first was the prosecutor’s office here in the state capital. The second was the 12 seats on the grand jury investigating what critics said was his attempt to force out Lehmberg and shut down a potentially damaging investigation into a medical research institute that has been one of Perry’s favorite avenues for grants and jobs.
On Friday, like a plot out of Shakespeare, Perry’s attempt to control one of the few things of substance in the state that was out of his reach led to the two felony charges that threaten to tarnish his legacy and derail his hopes for a second presidential run.
The indictment was a stunning rebuke to Perry, but also set in motion a battle of competing narratives over just what kind of overreach it reflects.
Democrats say the charges describe the arrogant overreach of a governor with unchecked power. Republicans took up Perry’s argument Saturday, that the excess was in the investigation and indictment themselves, which they describe as political in nature and extremely dubious in legality.
Few criticisms or legal challenges to Perry’s actions or policies have done any significant damage to his popularity among Texas Republican voters, lawmakers and officials.
‘We don’t settle political differences with indictments in this country.’Rick Perry, responding to charges of abusing his official capacity and coercing a public servant
Even after Perry stumbled on the national stage with his embarrassing first campaign for president in 2012, he remained feared and respected in Texas. But his critics have seized on his criminal indictment with a new vigor, saying it was a sign that he had been blinded by his own power. Democrats have already called for Perry to step down.
“It’s a reminder that there ain’t no cowboy that can’t be thrown,” said John Whitmire, a Houston Democrat who is the state Senate’s longest-serving current member.
Republicans defended Perry’s actions as lawful and said the indictment would not do any long-term political damage to him. They said the grand jury, in one of the state’s few Democratic strongholds, had exceeded its authority and inserted itself into politics.
Having decided against running for a fourth full term as governor, he has spent much of this year seeking to reintroduce himself to Republican donors and voters in states with early presidential primaries.
Perry has seemed determined to prove that a disastrous campaign signified by the infamous “oops” debate moment should not define his national political legacy. He has repeatedly used the same mantra: “I think America is a place that believes in second chances.”
He has received tutorials from policy experts and traveled abroad. This month, he unveiled a political action committee, RickPAC, that will allow him to contribute money to candidates for federal office this year, a way to earn gratitude and stay engaged in some of 2014’s most high-profile races.
RickPAC was also created to serve as a campaign-in-waiting, and Perry used it last week to release a web video carrying his response to the surge of Central American youths to the border and criticism of President Obama on the matter.
The border issue had been heartening to Perry’s backers in recent weeks, portraying the governor, they said, as an effective leader on a topic of great interest to conservatives.
“The message to the president of the United States is clear,” he said last week in Iowa. “If you will not secure the border of our country, then the state of Texas will.”
Perry has taken this sort of tough talk to Iowa in repeated visits. He has trips to New Hampshire and South Carolina, the two states with early presidential primaries, on his schedule for this month.