Anita Perry—From Small Town Nurse to White House Hopeful

First Lady of Texas left nursing to become a political force in state government

+ More

AUSTIN, Texas (Reuters) — Inside the Texas governor's big, black SUV rides a small-town girl who never expected to be first lady of the state. Anita Perry, the wife of Republican presidential hopeful Rick Perry, is still a nurse at heart, reaching out to friends and strangers with warmth and health advice. But the quiet blonde who first dated Perry in high school has blossomed over the years into a formidable partner in his political career.

The governor credits her with pushing him into the race for president, and now Anita Perry's campaign stops in crucial primary states are starting to make headlines. Just recently she described to a South Carolina audience how God spoke to her about persuading her husband to run. Both Perrys are evangelical Christians who have made their faith a centerpiece of the governor's bid for the White House.

During two decades in Austin, the Texas capital, Anita Perry has taken advantage of the opportunities presented by her husband's political rise, traveling worldwide to promote the state and enjoying access to Texas' movers and shakers. The first Texas First Lady in memory to take a paying job, Mrs. Perry left nursing and in Austin took a series of positions intertwined with the policy and politics of state government.

[See a collection of political cartoons on the 2012 GOP hopefuls.]

Three Anita Perry employers have lobbied or done business with the state government. One is the Texas Association Against Sexual Assault (TAASA), which supports abortion rights, although both Perrys oppose abortion. TAASA also promoted a controversial "pole tax" on strip club patrons. Her fundraising efforts have garnered a substantial number of contributions from her husband's conservative supporters for the group.

JOB SEEKER

Another group, The Texas Medical Association, rebuffed then-state representative Rick Perry's request to give Anita a job, concerned about possible conflicts of interest. And as first lady, Anita Perry has taken more than a dozen trips abroad to promote the state, all paid for by private groups, sometimes enjoying the use of a wealthy Texan's private jet.

And yet despite her years of involvement in politics, Anita Perry is still defined by being a nurse. She brought enough skill to her first career to become director of nursing at a hospital in her hometown of Haskell, Texas, and to this day she is known by many for her empathy.

Annette Burrhus-Clay, the director of the TAASA, remembers Perry coming into her office and making a beeline for the couch, where Burrhus-Clay's middle-school-aged daughter lay sick with a fever.

"Anita immediately starts feeling her head, rubbing her shoulders," Burrhus-Clay said. "She's making comments like, 'The good news is, you get to miss school today.'"

Burrhus-Clay says she is also in awe of Perry's Rolodex and her easy access to influential people such as Mica Mosbacher. The Houston philanthropist was so affected by her first meeting with Perry seven years ago that she let out a secret she had held for three decades -- her own sexual assault at age 19. "I felt so comforted and encouraged by the first lady, I felt inspired to tell my story," Mosbacher said. "I thought she had a very special healing touch."

'UNPLEASANT TASK'

After that visit from Anita Perry in 2004, she began to donate to TAASA. She and her late husband, Robert Mosbacher, a former U.S. Secretary of Commerce, also became major contributors to Rick Perry's political campaigns after she met Anita Perry. She was appointed by the governor to the University of Houston System board of regents and served as chairwoman of Rick Perry's 2007 inaugural committee while continuing to help TAASA.

"I thought, 'Here is somebody who has tackled sort of an unpleasant task. It's not a glamorous charity - it's one of the tougher ones.' I readily agreed to help." A number of other Rick Perry donors and appointees have given money to TAASA as well.

[See a slide show of 10 reasons Obama should be re-elected.]

Anita Perry declined to comment for this article. In a rare television interview in 2005, about halfway through her current tenure as Texas first lady, she described herself as "very normal," and talked about shopping for her own groceries while living in the governor's mansion. She also recalled her childhood in Haskell, about a three-hour drive from Dallas-Fort Worth.