After declining for months to tip his hand, Texas Gov. Rick Perry, under pressure from civil rights leaders, said Wednesday that he opposes a proposed state license plate depicting the Confederate battle flag.
Mr. Perry, a candidate for the Republican presidential nomination, previously declined to comment on the license-plate application from the Sons of Confederate Veterans, calling it a matter for the Texas Department of Motor Vehicles board.
“The governor has always said this is a decision for the DMV board,” said Perry spokeswoman Lucy Nashed. “Today, he simply said that he personally opposes the Confederate plate.”
During a fundraising stint Wednesday in Florida, Mr. Perry told the St. Petersburg (Fla.) Times, “We don’t need to be scraping old wounds.”
The episode illustrates a complication Mr. Perry faces that GOP rivals Mitt Romney and Herman Cain don’t: The Texas governor is seeking the presidency while holding down a high-profile elective office.
The issue of how to treat Confederate symbols has roiled Republican races in the past and has the potential to do so again. The Sons of Confederate Veterans have successfully sued to force other states to accept the controversial design.
Calls for Mr. Perry to denounce the Confederate flag license plate intensified during the past week. Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, Texas Democrat, and Democratic state Sen. Rodney Ellis held a news conference with civil rights advocates Saturday in Houston asking the governor to weigh in against the application.
“The rebel flag epitomized slavery. It epitomized oppression. It epitomized lynching and all of the things that we worked so hard for people to move beyond,” Mrs. Jackson Lee said.
But Granvel Block, Texas Division commander of the Sons of Confederate Veterans, said politicians should stay out of what he described as a purely administrative decision.
“I think it’s inappropriate for Sheila Jackson Lee to get involved. It’s really not a public issue, it’s something that needs to be addressed by the DMV board,” Mr. Block said. “They need to look and see if our application has been filled out properly, if we’ve dotted our i’s and crossed our t’s, and if we have, then they should approve it.”
The congresswoman accused the governor Tuesday of “fooling around with the idea” of supporting the license plate in a speech on the House floor. Meanwhile, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People in Texas has gathered more than 23,000 signatures on a petition for the DMV board against the license-plate application.
Michael McQuerry, a spokesman for Mrs. Jackson Lee, said the congresswoman was pleased with the governor’s decision and plans to urge Mr. Perry to express his opposition to the specialty plate in a letter to the DMV board.
“She put a little pressure on him, but I think it was just the right thing to do,” Mr. McQuerry said.
Hilary O. Shelton, director of the NAACP’s Washington bureau, hailed the Texas governor’s decision as “great news.”
“Perry should be commended. With this kind of attitude, maybe we can actually see the healing of the wound he mentions,” Mr. Shelton told the Associated Press.
Mr. McQuerry said Mrs. Jackson Lee would like to see the DMV board either vote down the application or remove it from the agenda. The board was deadlocked on the issue at its April meeting, voting 4-4 on the application with one member absent.
Before a second vote could be held with all nine members, however, one board member died. Mr. Perry appointed a successor in August. The earliest a second vote could take place is the board’s Nov. 10 meeting.
This isn’t the first time Mr. Perry has weighed in on historic symbols of the state’s Confederate past. In 2000, Mr. Perry opposed an NAACP campaign to remove a plaque depicting the Confederate battle flag from the entryway to the state Supreme Court and Court of Appeals.
“[A]lthough this is an emotional issue, I want you to know that I oppose efforts to remove Confederate monuments, plaques and memorials from public property,” said Mr. Perry, then lieutenant governor, in a letter to the Sons of Confederate Veterans obtained by the Associated Press.
At the same time, he added, “We should never forget our history, but dwelling on the 19th century takes needed attention away from our future in the 21st century.”
Texas has approved 276 vanity plates, mainly for sports teams, colleges and nonprofit organizations. The board has never rejected a license-plate request from a nonprofit that met the requirements of the application process, said state DMV spokeswoman Kim Perkes.
“I’m not saying it’s our right to have our logo on a license plate,” said Mr. Block. “I’m saying it’s our right to have our logo on a license plate if everybody else does.”
The Sons of Confederate Veterans knows a thing or two about license-plate challenges. Three states - Maryland, North Carolina and Virginia - originally rejected similar specialty-plate applications but were later forced to issue them after the courts sided with the organization.
“They’ve always upheld our freedom of speech,” said Ben Sewell, executive director of the Columbia, Tenn.-based group.
Mr. Sewell said nine states now offer the license plates that depict the organization’s logo, a square battle flag crisscrossed with the stars-and-bars design seen on the Confederate flag. Surrounding the flag are the words “Sons of Confederate Veterans 1896.”
The license-plate application was sponsored by the Texas General Land Office, headed by Commissioner Jerry Patterson, a Sons of Confederate Veterans member. The application cost $8,000, which the group can recoup after 1,900 of the specialty plates are sold or renewed.
The newest member of the DMV board, El Paso auto dealer Raymond Palacios Jr., has not said how he plans to vote on the application. Neither has New Braunfels truck dealer Marvin Rush, the board member who missed the first vote in April.