Texas Gov. Rick Perry came under fire for a 2007 executive order after Monday's… (Win McNamee, Getty Images )
A 2007 executive order by Texas Gov. Rick Perry has become the latest post-debate headache for the Republican presidential front-runner, who was accused of "crony capitalism" Tuesday by Rep. Michele Bachmann.
The fight over requiring vaccinations for young girls — which surfaced in Monday's Florida debate — involved government prerogatives and cancer. But it also had a strong moral subtext: Bachmann and other social conservatives objected to forcible inoculations against a disease spread by sexual activity, while Perry defended himself with the language of the antiabortion movement.
"I am always going to err on the side of life. And that's what this was really all about for me," he said Monday night.
The governor acknowledged that he received a contribution to his reelection campaign from Merck, the pharmaceutical giant, which stood to benefit financially from his order that sixth-grade girls in Texas be given vaccinations against a virus that can cause cervical cancer. Perry tried to brush off the pay-to-play implication by saying he was "offended" at the suggestion that he could be bought for a mere $5,000 campaign contribution.
Merck's Washington-based political action committee actually gave Perry a total of $28,500 starting in 2001, according to Texas Ethics Commission filings. The bulk of the money came prior to the 2006 campaign, when Merck donated $5,000 after the governor went on record in favor of the vaccinations and the state began discussions with the maker of Gardasil, which stood to receive at least $70 million a year from the state to provide the shots to low-income girls.
"Crony capitalism is something that people are really upset with and they are fed up with," Bachmann said on CNN Tuesday, echoing earlier criticism of Perry by 2008 vice presidential nominee Sarah Palin. "If someone uses their political office to benefit themselves outside of the system, people are upset about that, and rightly so."
Bachmann took aim at Mike Toomey, Perry's former chief of staff, who was a Merck lobbyist before and after he worked for Perry. Toomey recently co-founded a "super PAC" that is expected to wage an expensive independent expenditure effort on Perry's behalf in the presidential campaign.
But the Minnesota congresswoman may have undermined her own case by declaring that the human papillomavirus vaccine "could potentially be a very dangerous drug," a claim she initially made in the Tampa debate. She said a woman came up to her afterward to report that her daughter had suffered from "mental retardation" after receiving the HPV vaccine.
"It can have very dangerous side effects," Bachmann said on NBC. "There's no second chance for these little girls if there's any dangerous consequences to their bodies or for their parents."
The American Academy of Pediatrics described Bachmann's comments as false. It said there is "absolutely no scientific validity" to the claim that the HPV vaccine is dangerous and can cause mental retardation.
"Since the vaccine has been introduced, more than 35 million doses have been administered, and it has an excellent safety record," the academy said.
Mainstream medical organizations, including the academy and the American Cancer Society, recommend routine vaccinations for girls, "particularly those age 9 to 11," said Debbie Saslow, director of breast and gynecologic cancer for the American Cancer Society.
Other Republican candidates joined in the post-debate attacks on Perry. Rick Santorum, a social conservative, went after the governor on the grounds that "this disease is spread through sexual contact" and "unless 11- and 12-year-olds in the state of Texas are somehow encouraged to participate in that activity, this is not something that the state or federal government should be doing," the former Pennsylvania senator said on the Fox News channel.
Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich told CNN, "Gov. Perry has a little more explaining to do."
Perry, who spent much of the last week elaborating on his description of Social Security as a "Ponzi scheme" in a California debate, did not address the latest controversy publicly. He spent the day at private fundraising events in Florida, before traveling to competitor Mitt Romney's adopted home state of Massachusetts for an evening speech about the economy.
Perry campaign spokesman Ray Sullivan pointed out in an email that the governor's HPV mandate never took effect.
"If our opponents want to spend time on a Texas anti-cancer policy that was considered but never implemented, that's their prerogative. Gov. Perry will be talking about creating jobs and restoring fiscal responsibility in Washington," Sullivan said.
Sullivan did not say that the policy was never implemented because the state Legislature voted overwhelmingly to block it.
Times staff writers Melanie Mason in Washington and Jeannine Stein in Los Angeles contributed to this report.