Perry’s path to politics was long, winding
ORLEANS — He was married at 18, a father at 20, divorced at 23. His own father abandoned the family around the time he was born. It took 15 years of night classes for him to earn associate’s and bachelor’s degrees.
He has launched a half-dozen businesses or careers, including a 7 1/2-year stint as a Wareham police officer that has become the focus of his opponent’s ferocious attacks in the campaign for the open seat in the 10th Congressional District.
To say Jeffrey Davis Perry took an unorthodox route to a career in politics is an understatement.
Perry, now 46, a four-term state representative and the Republican nominee in the 10th, is a late bloomer, the product of a working-class upbringing and a tortuous career path.
“I’ve enjoyed doing different things in my life, challenging myself, and taking risks,’’ Perry said. “I don’t want to be that guy who’s 85, sitting in a rocking chair, saying I wish I had started a business or run for Congress.’’
Heading into the final full week of the congressional race, Perry hopes to ride a surge of enthusiasm among conservatives to Washington and overcome controversial aspects of his past that have dogged his candidacy.
Perry was raised by his mother, Mildred, who moved in with her parents in Attleboro after his father left. His grandfather, George W. Davis, was his “de facto father,’’ Perry wrote in “My GOP,’’ self-published last year as a personal political manifesto, outlining his belief in the conservative principles of Ronald Reagan.
At 12 or 13, he met his father, Herbert, for the only time, he said.
“My mom said, ‘Your father’s here.’ I thought she was joking,’’ he said. “And I went in and this gentleman took his hand out and said, ‘I’m your father,’ and my reaction was, ‘No, you’re not my father,’ and I pointed to my grandfather and locked myself in my room.’’
An average student, he said college wasn’t an option after graduating from Attleboro High School in 1982.
Instead, Perry worked a series of odd jobs — gas station attendant, laborer, warehouse worker — and enlisted in the Army Reserve before becoming a Wareham police officer in 1986, according to his application to the Massachusetts bar three years ago.
In a three-year period in the early 1990s, he started a private investigation firm, owned a convenience store, and ran a publishing company that produced a law enforcement newsletter. The publishing company failed after four years.
While a police officer, he attended community colleges at night over nine years before receiving an associate’s degree from Bristol Community College in 1996. He also has a 1997 bachelor’s degree from Columbia State University, a so-called diploma mill that was later shut down by court order, its founder jailed for fraud.
On the website of his 2002 campaign for state representative, Perry boasted of a 3.8 grade-point average from Columbia State and a bachelor’s degree in business administration. Today, he bristles at the suggestion that he was trying to burnish his resume with phony credentials.
“I worked so long and hard to get my education and was looking for a way to bring together all those credits I had,’’ he said.
He later received degrees from Curry College, a bachelor’s in 2002, and New England School of Law, a juris doctorate, in 2007.
Perry stood out at New England School of Law, recalled a classmate, Brent T. Warren of West Bridgewater, by defending conservative decisions of the Supreme Court.
“I can remember a number of times Jeff articulating and arguing it well by taking the conservative side of things,’’ Warren said.
His mother and grandparents were loyal Democrats, Perry recalled. He said he became involved in politics when he and his second wife, Lisa, returned to Massachusetts in 1999 after spending three years in Florida.
“I guess I started getting angry as a voter,’’ Perry said.
He said a local Republican activist asked him whether he had ever thought of running for office.
“I thought ‘Why me?’ ’’ he said. “And I started thinking about it, and came down to like, ‘Why not me?’ ’’
“We knew from the beginning he was a very strong conservative,’’ said David Neal, a former Republican state committeeman from Sandwich. “He was very, very fast on his feet, and we immediately recognized that he was somebody we’d like to see in a leadership position.’’
In 2002, Perry edged Ruth W. Provost, a three-term Democrat in a newly redrawn district that included Sandwich and parts of three other Cape towns.
It was in that campaign that Perry first experienced the political liability of his Wareham police service, during which a patrolman under his command, Scott Flanagan, illegally strip-searched two teenage girls in separate instances. Flanagan later pleaded guilty to indecent assault and other charges and was sentenced to four years in prison.
Perry was never charged, and he has adamantly asserted that he left the police force voluntarily shortly after Flanagan’s indictment. But he has given conflicting accounts of his role in both cases, and his statements have been contradicted by others’ testimony.
One of the victims, Lisa Allen, 14 at the time, broke her silence last week and issued a statement accusing Perry of trying to cover up Flanagan’s criminal behavior.
Perry has steadfastly denied that and maintained that as Flanagan’s supervisor, he acted properly in both cases.
Perry was at the scene of the 1991 incident but insists that he did not see or hear what Allen described as her “screaming and crying.’’
“If I saw it happen, I would have stopped it,’’ Perry said. “I didn’t hear about it until a year later when the victim came forward.’’
Perry’s Democratic opponent in the race for Congress, Norfolk District Attorney William R. Keating, along with allied Democratic groups, have pounded away relentlessly on the issue.
Moreover, during a recent interview, Perry acknowledged he has provided additional information to the state’s Board of Bar Overseers, which is investigating a complaint that Perry misrepresented facts about the second strip-search case in his state bar application.
Perry, who arrived on the scene after the incident on Dec. 31, 1992, said the victim was arrested — she wasn’t — and that he “notified my supervisor as to the allegations.’’ Court records show his supervisor learned of the complaint from a police officer in a neighboring town the next day.
When Perry and his wife moved to Florida, in 1996, they bought a casket business. During his first campaign in 2002, Perry told the Cape Cod Times he sold the company after a year and a half and returned to Cape Cod. His bar application, however, indicates he sold the business after eight months and then worked more than two years for
Perry told the Globe he did not recall his remarks to the newspaper eight years ago.
After returning to Massachusetts in 1999, Perry resumed operation of the convenience store and also sold real estate, his bar application shows.
When he and his wife purchased their current home in 2000, a three-bedroom Cape-style house in East Sandwich valued by the town at $286,800, it ended a transient period in Perry’s life. Over the previous 16 years, he had at least 11 different addresses in two states.
“Lisa and I are very active,’’ said Perry, who is fit and a skilled water-skier. “We have a boat, love the water, go hiking a lot.’’
The Perrys helped launch a charitable trust fund in 2006 in the name of their first grandchild, Paige Victoria Perry, who died at less than 2 months old. It raises funds for organizations that provide research into Sudden Infant Death Syndrome or support for families. Perry also sponsored legislation that resulted in a state advisory council that works with agencies and organizations on SIDS-related issues.
“It’s the toughest thing I’ve ever dealt with in my life,’’ Perry said. “It’s impossible to get your head around it, to understand the tragedy and seeing the pain in your own child.’’
His son, Christopher, and daughter-in-law, Tiffany, have since had a second child, Faith, who is featured in a Perry campaign ad.
Religious faith plays an important role in their lives, he said. Perry, a Methodist, said he attended church regularly before this year’s campaign. But he said he doesn’t think his religion necessarily informs his politics.
By any measure, Perry, who is also a part-time instructor at Cape Cod Community College and a partner in the law firm of Flannigan & Perry, is a conservative Republican. He says matter-of-factly that if he weren’t in public office, he would be at Tea Party rallies. But he demurs when asked if he is a Tea Partier, and he has distanced himself from Sarah Palin and other leading figures of the movement.
The 10th race has been fierce, and Perry has decried the blistering attacks on him, calling it a Democratic campaign of “smear and fear.’’
On a recent Saturday, he addressed a packed room of supporters at the local Republican headquarters in Orleans, saying, “Despite the rumors, I’m not here to take away your Social Security or give you a 23-percent tax increase,’’ referring to a blizzard of Democratic Party mailings.
Perry has said raising the retirement age should be an option to ensure Social Security’s long-term solvency but that no one currently over the age of 50 would be affected. He has also said the country should have a “serious debate’’ about the so-called fair tax, a proposal to institute a national 23 percent sales tax in place of the income tax.
On Beacon Hill, Perry, a four-term House member, is probably best known for leading the charge against public benefits for illegal immigrants, a cause that has attracted support from many of his colleagues. But on more than one occasion, Perry has stood almost alone, unapologetically, against issues that have passed the Legislature overwhelmingly.
He was one of two members in the 160-member House in 2006 to vote against the universal health care law that was a priority of Republican governor Mitt Romney. Last January, he was one of just four representatives to oppose a bill to ban junk food and establish healthier nutritional standards in public school cafeterias and vending machines, saying local school committees should decide.
House minority leader Bradley H. Jones Jr. cited Perry’s willingness to buck the majority as a reflection of his being among the most conservative members of the tiny band of Republicans in the House “on a panoply of issues — fiscal, social, and scope of government.’’
“I don’t want to make government more intrusive and stronger,’’ Perry said. “We can’t keep expanding the power of the state.’’
Brian C. Mooney can be reached at email@example.com.