SAN ANTONIO, Texas (Reuters) -- A decision on whether Texas should issue a license plate commemorating the state's Confederate heritage has landed square in the lap of Governor Rick Perry -- just as he begins his run for the presidency.
Elected officials generally manage to insulate themselves from approving specialty plates, which can be a highly controversial topic with little gain for the politician.
But when the nine-member board of the Texas Department of Motor Vehicles met earlier this year to make a decision on whether to approve plates featuring the Confederate flag, one member was absent and the vote was a 4-4 tie, DMV spokeswoman Kim Sue Lia Perkes said.
Another ballot, set for June, was canceled when a member died unexpectedly.
With the member who was absent during the first ballot apparently keeping a lid on how he might vote, and public pressure mounting on the other members over their positions, the appointment of a replacement for the deceased member is especially weighty -- and fraught with political landmines for Perry.
The new appointee could wind up being a tie-breaker.
But even if not, the decision either way could provide fodder for Perry's political rivals as he attempts to win the Republican nomination for president and sidestep accusations of racism and censorship being lobbed by both sides of the issue.
Interested groups are urging Perry to appoint a ninth DMV board member who sees the issue their way.
"We just don't think that this sort of a racist relic should be licensed by the state, or should be used in any way by the state of Texas," said Mark Glazer, executive director of Progress Texas, a liberal activist organization.
He says his group got thousands of signatures for an on-line petition urging Perry to specifically appoint a DMV board member who will vow to defeat the license plate.
The Texas NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People) also opposes the rebel plate.
"Many would view that, quite frankly, as treason," said Hilary Shelton, director of the NAACP Washington Bureau.
"The Confederates meant to destroy the existing governmental structure. But when we dig deeper, the issue becomes even more offensive to many African Americans and those who sought freedom for those of darker skin in our country."
Granvel Block, the Texas division commander of the Sons of Confederate Veterans, which requested the plate, said the purpose would not be to honor the Confederate government or its policies supporting slave-holding policies.
The plates would honor his ancestor and the other Texans who fought for the Confederacy, which he said included African Americans who joined the Confederate Army in the final months of the war. There are several black members of the SCV's Texas division, Block added.
"This is not about slavery. This is not about race," he said. "Our intention is to honor and acknowledge the pride that we have in our ancestors, and in our organization as well."
It's a tricky topic for Perry, who at a Tea Party movement rally once spoke openly of Texas seceding from the United States.
If issued, the plate, which would mark the 150th anniversary of the Civil War, would join dozens of specialty plates pushing causes ranging from supporting the arts to preserving the horned toad.
Motorists would pay a fee to get the plate, which would go toward placing markers on the graves of Confederate soldiers.
The plate would feature the Sons of Confederate Veterans logo, which includes the familiar "Confederate Jack" red battle flag.
Block says Texas has recognized the service of Confederate soldiers for generations. He notes many of the buildings in Austin that now house government offices were constructed using money from the Confederate veterans pension funds.
Nine states have approved or are in the process of approving license plates honoring Confederate veterans.
The SCV is a federally recognized nonprofit organization, and Block called it "the gravest discrimination" for Texas to honor other nonprofits with specialty license plates and reject his organization's proposal.
"We would have the situation in Texas where you have hundreds and hundreds of similar organizations requesting license plates, and not one being denied, not one, until they get to ours," Block said.
The role of Texas in the Confederate States of America has always been a sensitive subject in the Lone Star State.
Pro-Confederate lawmakers had to depose Governor Sam Houston, the legendary hero of Texas Independence, to install a secession convention. After secession was approved, Houston argued that Texas should revert to its former status as an independent nation rather than join the Confederacy.
Even though some 70,000 Texans joined the rebel army, tens of thousands resisted secession.
(Editing by Karen Brooks and Jerry Norton)