Just two days ago, this blog ran a post that featured a piece from The Texas Observer about State Senator Wendy Davis (D-Fort Worth) the likely Donkey candidate for governor in 2014. After the Davis bio-controversy erupted, the NY Fishwrap sent Robert Draper (one of its varsity political reporters) to Fort Worth to assess the Lone Star brouhaha. The candidate gave Draper access and he reported what he found. For further insight into Wendy Davis' life as a student at Harvard Law, read One L: The Turbulent True Story of a First Year at Harvard Law School (1977) by the attorney/novelist Scott Turow. Finally, Wendy Davis with all of the imperfections in her retelling of her life story is preferable to her likely opponent, Texas Attorney General Greg (Hot Wheels) Abbott who recently has begun to appear publicly with Governor Goodhair. Abbott's mantra "I go into the office, I sue the federal government, and I go home" defines him and his Dumbo world-view. If this is the (fair & balanced) choice between the lesser of evils, so be it.
PS: If the Dumbo/Moron supporters of AG Hot Wheels are offended by references to his wheelchair, they should remember Harry S Truman's timeless political admonition: "If they can't stand the heat, they ought to stay out of the kitchen."
[x NY Fishwrap]
Can Wendy Davis Have It All?
By Robert Draper
Tag Cloud of the following piece of writing
One sunny Friday morning in late January, Wendy Davis took me on a two-hour tour of the life she led just a decade or so ago, back when she was a city councilwoman and the world knew nothing of her or the pink running shoes she wore during her epic filibuster, or her ambition to be elected this November as a Democratic governor in the deeply Republican state of Texas, or the way her parenting has become a point of debate in whether she’s a suitable candidate for that office. We were in Fort Worth, where Davis, who is a state senator, has lived for about 35 of her 50 years, most in utter obscurity. When she joined the City Council in 1999, she was only the third-most-prominent Wendy Davis in town (the other two were socialites), and to the extent that community leaders knew her at all, it was as the wife of Jeff Davis, an attorney and former city councilman, whose civic passions would spark her own. Once that fire was lit, everything would later change for her — for her marriage, for her city, for Texas and, who knows, perhaps even for a national Democratic Party in search of a post-Obama non-Hillary superstar.
Seated behind the wheel of her black Tahoe hybrid S.U.V., Davis was wearing a fitted black dress and high heels and an omnipresent half-smile that could be interpreted as both drowsy and sly. She slowed whenever we came upon a structure or a street that bore her imprint, which seemed to happen every two or three minutes. “None of this was here just a few years ago,” Davis said at one point. There was the gleaming West Seventh Street Corridor — formerly a nowhereland of rusted grain elevators and railroad tracks, now one of the most vibrant commercial strips in the city. (One of the area’s developers, Kirk Williams, told me: “Wendy said: ‘We need this on the west side. How can I help?’ ”) There was the Paris Coffee Shop, a working-class institution that nearly lost its building until Davis intervened. (“She went above and beyond; I needed her, she knew that, and to this day I appreciate what she did for me,” said the shop’s owner, Mike Smith.) There was the former site of the Ripley Arnold Place housing project, whose predominantly black tenants Davis worked to relocate after the property was sold — several of them to a white community near a country club, which provoked hysteria and threats against her, though in the end the new residents blended in easily with the old. (“She showed political courage, being willing to tackle issues that others would not,” Fernando Costa, the planning director at the time, said of the episode.)
Davis had to get back to her campaign schedule before we could visit all there was to see. But I had taken in enough to recognize a story line that was compelling, tangible and, as it would turn out, factually unassailable — one that showcased a red-state Democrat in the unexpected role of “leader of economic development in the city,” according to former Mayor Kenneth Barr. Curiously, the Davis campaign was not broadcasting this story around the state. Nor, for that matter, was it pushing the one that made her the national Democratic Party’s brightest new talent to begin with: the 11-hour filibuster that she conducted last June to halt the Legislature’s passage of a bill that would ban abortions after 20 weeks of pregnancy and set requirements that would effectively shutter many women’s health clinics — an arresting tableau at the State Capitol that was followed online via live stream by hundreds of thousands of viewers around the world.
Instead, the campaign had chosen as its lead narrative a heroic struggle of a different sort: that of a teenage, trailer-dwelling single mother, who, while raising two daughters, bootstrapped her way into Harvard Law School and soon, possibly, the governorship. On many levels, the story was politically exquisite. It connected the candidate and her devotion to issues like education in a personal rather than an ideological manner. It also sidestepped the divisive issue of abortion while framing her as the kind of hard-working mother to whom suburban women (a critical voting bloc) could relate. More broadly, as one of her Washington-based ad makers, Maura Dougherty, would tell me: “The bio connects her to Texans in a way that very few other things do. Her personal story makes her one of them.” Playing on the state’s self-reverence, the campaign titled the slick four-and-a-half-minute ad announcing her run for governor “A Texas Story.”
But it was also very much the story of a female politician — and was thus fraught with choices for which male candidates are seldom second-guessed by either voters or pundits. And, as it would develop two days after our drive around Fort Worth, the story was far from a tidy one. On January 19, The Dallas Morning News published a front-page article by Wayne Slater highlighting various minor inaccuracies in Davis’s tale. She divorced her first husband at 21, not 19 as she had claimed; her post-separation life in the trailer as a single parent was not as lengthy as had been implied. Slater’s article also detailed the vital role that the candidate’s second husband, a wealthy lawyer 14 years her senior, played in both paying for her education and raising the children while she was away at Harvard. The story quoted Jeff Davis saying that his wife left the family home for good the day after he made her last Harvard student-loan payment. In 2003, Slater wrote, the Davises agreed on a divorce settlement, one in which he was awarded “parental custody” of their teenage daughter Dru and his wife “was ordered to pay $1,200 a month in child support.”
As it turned out, Jeff Davis had not been awarded custody; the couple had shared “joint conservatorship” of their daughter. The Dallas paper printed a clarification to that effect, but conservatives pounced on the Democratic candidate, questioning her self-sufficiency, character and fitness as a mother. That her opponents would hyperbolize any errant move by their foremost Texas enemy should come as no surprise. Still, the scrutiny of her back story speaks to more than simply a politician’s bumpy quest to win an office that no one in her party has held since Ann Richards left it in 1995 (and, in so doing, provide a road map for how Democrats could succeed in other solidly Republican states). It also calls into question whether Sheryl Sandberg’s exhortations for women to “lean in” to their careers are transferable to the more hidebound and judgmental world of political campaigning. As former Governor Jennifer M. Granholm of Michigan, a Democrat, told me: “Politics is so far behind the other sectors, I guess because in a democracy you have to appeal to the broadest spectrum in order to get elected. People still expect a more traditional thing from female politicians. Calling a man ambitious is seen as a positive thing. With a woman, it’s a negative.”
Former Governor Christie Whitman of New Jersey, a Republican, put it this way: “It’s not that the questions about the accuracy of her narrative are illegitimate. It’s the intensity of the questioning that’s so disheartening.” Whitman recalled having herself been chided for spending time on vacation with her children after her primary race for governor — proof of lacking fire in the belly — just as Davis is now being condemned as a maternally deficient careerist for not spending enough time with hers. The persistence of a gender-based double standard, Granholm said, “is the oldest story in the book.”
But an equally familiar tale is about how narratives are spun in American politics. Davis’s rendition — “a Texas success story,” as she put it on the “Today” show — was chosen and packaged by her and her team with the greatest of care, and as Granholm acknowledged, “strategists emphasize some things and downplay other things — that’s true with every candidate on the planet.” The only thing harder to imagine than conservative voters being wholeheartedly supportive of Davis’s life choices is a savvy politician being wholly oblivious to such unease and, in concert with her campaign team, not tailoring her story accordingly.
As a gift this Valentine’s Day, former Mayor Will Wynn of Austin intended to give his girlfriend, Wendy Davis, a framed photograph. In it, Davis and Wynn — the ex-mayor floppy-haired, lanky and denim-clad; the state senator blond, petite and flashy in a white overcoat — are arm in arm and strolling off into the night, lovers cast in spectral relief by the state’s Capitol. It’s around 4:30 a.m. on June 26, 2013, and the intimacy of this private moment is at once sweet and illusory, given that an unseen stranger is photographing them at that hour.
Davis has just exited the Capitol after the longest 24 hours of her life. It began the previous morning when she left Wynn’s apartment for work; on her way out the door, she scooped up a pair of Mizuno running shoes in preparation for what she knew would be an endurance feat of incalculable magnitude. Upon her arrival at her office in the Capitol, a search ensued for a doctor who could insert a catheter so Davis could stand in front of the Senate for many hours without a bathroom break, a pause prohibited by Texas Senate rules. At 11:18 a.m., minutes after the catheter was fitted, Davis began her filibuster of Senate Bill 5. Until this moment, she had not closely allied herself to abortion rights any more so than her other Democratic colleagues had. But as a woman, and one who never hesitated to take on Republican adversaries, Davis came forward.
It did not take long for her and everyone else in the chamber to see that the usual permissiveness attendant to Texas filibusters — furtive sips of water, hard candy for sustenance, languid reading of the Bible, leaning against furniture, even a dash to the bathroom — would not apply to her. But as the hours wore on and the spectacle of the slight woman standing erect if dehydrated, and reading testimony from women who had gotten abortions, in a chamber full of glowering and mostly male Republicans spread across the Twitterverse, something began to tilt in her favor. At one point, opponents complained that she had violated the rules by getting off topic. At another, Rodney Ellis, a Democratic colleague, whispered, “The president just tweeted about you,” and Davis responded with an expletive of surprise. When the presiding Republican, Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst, ruled that she had three violations and ended her filibuster, pandemonium ensued, thus delaying a vote on the bill until just after midnight, when the session officially ended. Shortly after 3 a.m., Dewhurst reluctantly announced that Davis’s filibuster had prevailed and that S.B. 5 was dead. (The next month in a second special session, Gov. Rick Perry reintroduced the bill, and it passed.)
When she walked out to the Capitol steps, someone handed her a microphone, allowing her strained voice to be heard by the crowd of thousands who had gathered to greet her. She then decompressed in her office, after which she and Will Wynn walked together to her car — backs to the camera, savoring the semblance of privacy.
Overnight, a once-obscure state senator had become the Democrats’ most appealing new face. “I felt like she was Joan of Arc, standing up there for women all across the country,” Granholm said. Democrats in Washington were enrapt. When Davis visited the nation’s capital a few weeks later for a fund-raiser, Nancy Pelosi and more than a dozen senators were there. Anna Greenberg, a Washington-based Democratic pollster who until recently worked for Davis, explained that even for Beltway insiders, “there has been a feeling of disappointment in Obama — the inspiration just isn’t there anymore — not to mention all of the dysfunction in Congress. Then these new voices emerge,” like Mayor Bill de Blasio of New York, Senator Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts “and Wendy, all speaking truth to power. They make Democrats feel inspired again.”
That Davis is from Texas raises the stakes for Democrats. America’s longstanding ambivalence about its most bravado-stricken state — I say this as a proud native — intensifies whenever Texans take their acts onto the national stage. Under the spotlight, they revert to type, or at least seem to, reinforcing all the crude images of dead-certain intransigence that breeds resentment both at home and abroad. In Democratic circles, two of the most despised figures in recent memory are George W. Bush and Rick Perry, who have occupied the governor’s office consecutively for the last two decades. (Another Texan, Senator Ted Cruz, today heads the liberals’ most-loathed list.) Were Davis to take the executive office, the triumph would signify a taming of an ornery conservative ethos that resides throughout America but is nurtured in Texas like nowhere else.
To this end, Davis makes for an intriguing warrior. Even her political enemies concede her toughness. After achieving a rare feat in Texas five years ago by unseating a state senator — “Usually these senators go out in a casket,” Rodney Ellis told me — she arrived in Austin as the G.O.P.'s Public Enemy No. 1. “They never gave her the benefit of the doubt,” said another Democratic state senator, Kirk Watson. “It was more, ‘Let’s kill her off.’ ” The state’s Republican Party has seemingly broken all the rules in its quest to undo her: first, in 2008 legally challenging her right to run for State Senate against the incumbent, Kim Brimer (saying Davis had not officially vacated her City Council seat by the filing deadline, an argument a court eventually rejected); in 2009 momentarily considering not seating her as a senator (because of the aforementioned lawsuit); in 2011 trying to gouge out her minority voting support by redrawing her district (prompting a federal court to intervene at her behest and mostly restore her original district map); in 2012 persuading her G.O.P. Senate colleagues to openly rally support for her opponent during her re-election campaign (a breach of unwritten Texas Senate etiquette); in 2013 removing her from the Senate Education Committee as a punishment for staging a minifilibuster in the previous session over a state budget that slashed funds for education (she continued to attend the committee’s meetings anyway); and then, of course, that same year turning Davis’s marathon filibuster into a gladiatorial contest from which she emerged an overnight sensation.
At the same time, celebrity does not altogether suit Davis. She lacks the salty oratorical verve of Ann Richards. She is unswervingly articulate and genial but maintains a lawyerly remove; her emotional thermostat remains more or less at room temperature. She is a policy enthusiast, sometimes to a fault. Her opening attack on Greg Abbott, who is the state attorney general and is expected to win the Republican primary for governor on March 4, focused on his refusal to call for further regulation of the high-interest payday-lending industry — a pet issue for Davis, but one that most people know or care little about. One day, she said to me scornfully of Abbott: “He’s not a player in Texas policy! He’s got no experience in educational issues. He’s got policy-wonk people telling him what he’s going to say. My policy comes from me, from my experience and my passion. And I force my team to develop a policy around my initiatives, my desires of where we should go.”
Despite Granholm’s Joan of Arc allusion, Davis is anything but a martyr. During our initial meeting last May, five weeks before her filibuster, Davis pointedly observed that “somebody’s got to step up” and run against Abbott. At the time, she wasn’t volunteering: She had no desire to be, as she would later put it, the Democratic Party’s “sacrificial lamb.” Only after the filibuster, when polling data showed that her name recognition had shot up in Texas by 40 points, that women admired her and that her identification with the issue of abortion was not damaging, did she decide to do the stepping up herself. And when she did, in October, her rollout ad was striking in its discreetness. In it, the words “Democrat” and “abortion” went unsaid. Instead, the ad was replete with sunsets and longhorn steers and working-class heroes — “It looks like ‘Friday Night Lights’ B-roll,” one Democrat told me approvingly — and with Davis conflating the Texas spirit with her own. As one of the ad makers, Peter Cari, told me: “Why cede that to the Republicans? Why give them all those powerful images? She is a Texas fighter.”
But Davis has been convinced by her advisers that the road to victory does not begin with a fight — not, at least, for a female Democrat in Texas. One day last month on the campaign trail, I asked Davis if it was true, as I had been hearing, that she wanted to be more aggressive than J. D. Angle, her top adviser, and some others did. “Yes!” she responded immediately, with a wide smile.
But then her grin subsided, and she added: “I think you have to be careful. You have to know exactly what is going to resonate with voters. And you can’t get ahead of that. You have to be very careful with your approach.”
Hence her story.
She has been telling it, in one form or another, since 1996, when she ran her first and only losing race, for Fort Worth City Council. “I understand what it means to struggle,” read one of her campaign mailers from that year. It went on: “At age 19, Wendy was the sole support for herself and her daughter, Amber. They lived in a small mobile home. But Wendy wanted more for herself and her family and knew it was within her grasp.”
When she ran for re-election to the State Senate in 2012, one of her campaign brochures quoted her as saying: “When I was a single mom living in a small trailer home, I had to make some tough choices to give my daughter a better life. I worked hard to put myself through Tarrant [County] College and later Harvard Law School because my daughters were counting on me.”
This statement — which would later turn out to be partly inaccurate (her husband at the time paid for her Harvard tuition) — is, to her mind, more than an exercise in self-congratulation. Five weeks before her filibuster last year, Davis and I sat together in Austin over a platter of barbecue ribs and discussed her life story at length. Recalling her days as a single mother, she told me: “I just saw myself in a dead end. And I was struggling, literally struggling, to pay the bills, buy the groceries and put gas in my car. I could not take an extraneous trip in my car. And when we talk sort of flippantly about, you know, rises in gas taxes and things like that, I remember those days.”
Eight months later, in January, I watched Davis sit in a room and listen to a half-dozen young Latino technical-college students in Harlingen talk about how their education was making it possible for them to advance their dreams. Though it was manifestly a media event — reporters outnumbered participants — Davis was clearly moved, for it was a community college in Fort Worth that provided her own initial steppingstone from the Lakeview Mobile Home park. Later that day, she reflected on the experience. “It’s great to talk about how good things are now,” she told me. “But we can’t sit on our laurels and expect that our time will sustain itself if we don’t do a better job on issues like education. . . . It’s absolutely the case that the low cost of college tuition that I was able to enjoy and the financial aid I was able to receive made my education possible. And we can’t just write these kids off! We can’t accept that it’s O.K. if only some kids get to go to college.”
When I reminded her that Texas is widely regarded as one of the nation’s leading engines of economic growth — and that Texans would prefer not to be told otherwise — Davis was ready with a reply that could resonate with working-class Texans of all races and political affiliations. “Yeah, we have a great story to tell,” she said. “But we need to be able to tell a story that includes our whole population. Our real job as state leaders is not to brag about how great we are, but to be forward-thinking enough to deliver on the promise that everyone has a place in that story.”
It’s axiomatic that campaigns begin biographically, with candidates seeking to humanize and soften themselves before they proceed to tear each other to ribbons. Greg Abbott’s initial ad for governor, titled “Perseverance,” describes his success in life after having been left paralyzed and in a wheelchair after a tree fell on him while he was jogging. But Davis has particularly acute reasons to lead with her story. First, she is a Democrat in a place that has not elected one to a statewide office in two decades — a state that Barack Obama lost by 13 points in 2008 and 16 points in 2012, a state where Republicans control every branch of government. Her positions — on abortion, same-sex marriage, immigration, Medicaid expansion and the need to invest more in education — are in keeping with progressive ideology and are inherently at odds with a state where a low-taxes-low-services economic model carries the day. It’s true that Davis has voted for and given money to Republicans, that she speaks supportively of the Second Amendment (while conceding that she’s a lousy shot) and the death penalty, and that, as she told me, she regarded George W. Bush as a “unifier” during his tenure as governor who “definitely viewed things as a Texan, and I like that.” Nonetheless, the state’s recent history is littered with the political corpses of Democrats who sought to evade their party’s stereotype.
Additionally, as the de facto challenger in the race (Governor Perry is stepping down, but Abbott is widely seen as his heir), Davis will have to point out the state’s shortcomings while being careful not to offend its tender sensibilities. The duality of Texas pride and Texas insecurity harks back to its decade-long experience as an independent republic. Those days, now widely romanticized by Texans, were tumultuous ones, so much so that its residents could not wait to join the Union, which itself was deeply divided on the subject. (At last given the chance to be annexed in 1845, Texans overwhelmingly voted their approval, 7,664 to 430 — which, considering that the state’s population at the time was 125,000, would suggest that the theme of unusually low voter turnout in Texas has historic roots as well.) Davis understands this psychic fault line. Her campaign’s first pollster, Anna Greenberg, had been pushing the theme Texas Can Do Better, but Texans on the staff believed this to be too negative. Davis herself came up with the campaign’s messaging line, Great Schools, Great Texas. It remains a given, however, that the Abbott campaign will follow the playbook of Perry’s team, who accused challengers of “running down Texas” to winning effect.
Moreover, Davis’s path to victory, though achievable, requires Olympian dexterity. It’s in fact the only route for Democrats in solidly Republican states, one that Mike Ross of Arkansas and Vincent Sheheen of South Carolina are expected to follow in their quests for governor, and one that Hillary Rodham Clinton will surely pursue as well if she runs for president in 2016: Fire up young voters, persuade suburban women, register and turn out every minority in sight. Doing all of this at once presents a communications conundrum. How, for example, does Davis differentiate herself from Obama to swing voters in the suburbs without offending his supporters in urban areas? “We have a challenge,” one of her senior advisers told me, “because we have maybe five audiences: young Anglos, base Hispanics, persuadable Hispanics who’ve been here several generations, African-Americans and Anglo women. And you can’t have five messages. You have to have one.”
That message won’t be abortion rights. In fact, Davis will have to counter the caricatures of herself as a radical feminist and liberal icon and instead sell herself to Texans as one of them. Even that will constitute an uphill effort. As Davis’s campaign manager, Karin Johanson, observed to me two days before the Dallas Morning News article ran: “They’ll try to take her story away from her. But the story grounds her here.”
Last September, J. D. Angle showed up at the Fort Worth residence of Jeff Davis, the candidate’s ex-husband. The two men have been friendly for two decades, and Angle often dropped by the home when both Davises lived in it. On this occasion, Angle, who has worked with Wendy Davis since her first City Council race in 1996, brought cheese and wine in the manner of a supplicant. He mentioned a recent article about Wendy Davis written by Peggy Fikac, a Houston Chronicle reporter, who had interviewed Jeff Davis. Davis had been measured in his remarks while nonetheless making clear his financial contribution to his wife’s success. Though the article, published a month before Wendy Davis’s official announcement of her bid for governor, did not generate much attention, it provoked a great deal of consternation inside her circle for potentially undercutting the depiction of her as a single mother who overcame adversity pretty much on her own. Since the former couple almost never talk — Jeff Davis estimates that they have spoken “maybe five times” since the divorce was made final in 2005 — Angle thought it best to take the initiative. “He asked me to be more circumspect,” Davis’s ex-husband recalled. “It was subtle. It was, ‘Understand that there’s a big picture here.’ ”
The young woman Jeff Davis met 30 years ago waiting tables at a dinner theater owned by her father, Jerry Russell, was a country mile from where she is today. She was 20, short and thin, with frizzy dark hair and a prominent nose like that of her father. Her name at the time was Wendy Jean Underwood — the surname belonging to her first husband, a heavy-equipment operator from whom she had recently separated, taking with her their 1-year-old daughter, Amber. She had attended a single semester at the University of Texas at Arlington, but she lacked the money to go any further. In addition to her waitressing job, she worked at a pediatrician’s office while taking courses at a community college in hopes of one day becoming a paralegal. Meanwhile, Jeff Davis was a 34-year-old lawyer who had already served four years on the Fort Worth City Council and at the time sat on the board of her father’s theater company. A galaxy separated their life experiences. Still, when a mutual friend fixed them up at a Christmas party, the older man talked with the young woman for three hours and was transfixed by her depth and earnestness. When she drove away that night in her red pickup truck to her small apartment, he knew he wanted to see more of her.
There were additional qualities in the young woman that Jeff Davis did not immediately discern. After her father divorced her mother when Wendy was 13, she watched as her mother, Ginger Russell, doggedly and uncomplainingly worked menial jobs to feed her four children while instructing them not to think ill of their father — a feat of tenacity and grace that Wendy would not forget. But she also took note of how her father was willing to leave his family heartbroken and destitute in single-minded pursuit of his ambition to live the theatrical life. Or, as she would put it while speaking at his memorial service in September, “I learned the lesson of what it means to live your dreams.”
Jeff Davis and Wendy Underwood began dating. A couple of years later, she got a job as a paralegal and soon after enrolled at Texas Christian University in Fort Worth with the pure focus, she later told me, of eventually going to law school, selecting a curriculum that would best prepare her for the LSAT. At the end of her first year there, she married Jeff. Her second-year English professor, Bob Frye, would later note in a law-school recommendation letter that although she was pregnant at the time, “my records show that she did not miss a single class and turned in all of her work punctually.”
Frye and other T.C.U. professors viewed the straight-A student as exceptional beyond her grades. It seemed a foregone conclusion that she would be accepted into law school. But then Davis raised the bar. “My husband had gone to Princeton University,” she told me. “And when we first started dating, I had a lot of insecurities about not having done enough with myself. And I remember so vividly, when he would talk to peers and they would talk about, you know, their education or their travels, fine wines or foods, I just felt so left out of those conversations. And I had a little bit of a chip on my shoulder about it. And so I wanted to prove to myself, more than anything, that I could be one of those people, too. I could get an education like that, too.”
Having been accepted to the University of Texas Law School in the spring of 1990, Wendy began looking with Jeff for a residence in Austin where she and their two children — Amber, who was 8 (and would be adopted by Jeff a decade later), and Dru, who was not yet 2 — would live, a three-hour drive from Fort Worth. Then the acceptance packet from Harvard arrived, and both agreed that the opportunity was too great for her to pass up. She moved with the girls to Lexington, Mass., and began attending classes that fall.
She did not let on to her husband during their nightly phone conversations that she was intimidated by her classmates and at pains to juggle her class work with parenting. Dru had asthma that got worse after the move; at one point, Davis recalled, she had to take her daughter to the emergency room. She later saw a doctor herself. After observing her abnormally high blood pressure and rapid heartbeat, the physician held her hands and asked, “What is going on in your life?”
After four months, she told her husband, “I can’t do this.” She suggested that the girls move back to Texas to live with him and that her mother, who lived a few miles away, be recruited to help out while he was at work. The girls went back to Texas, and she tried to fly back to see her family whenever she could. According to the timeline laid out by the Davis campaign after the Dallas Morning News article, the law student “commuted weekly” back home, which the candidate later acknowledged to me was inaccurate. Instead, she said, her commuting routine was “10 days at school followed by five days at home.” Her daughter Amber remembers differently, telling me that her mother “flew down every two weeks to be with us” for “a long weekend.” In Jeff Davis’s memory, “Her goal was to come back every third weekend. And she didn’t. I’d say once a month would be closer. I didn’t blame her. She had schoolwork and a circle of friends.”
Whenever she did return, her friend and former T.C.U. professor Michael Dodson recalled: “I could tell she was energized by the experience. What I remember her talking about was her aspiration to be a U.S. attorney. She saw it as a way to use the law to influence public policy.” It was in this state of intellectual ferment that Davis considered plans for her final year at law school. Harvard’s guidelines would allow her to finish her degree at Southern Methodist University’s law school, just 30 miles from home. That the option of living near her daughters was available to Davis is a matter that has not been previously reported on, nor one that her campaign has volunteered. When I brought it up with her last month and asked her if she began attending classes at S.M.U., she replied: “No. I went to the orientation.”
She then explained: “It’s hard to describe the law-school experience if you haven’t been there. But third year, after you’ve created the bonds that you do there, becomes kind of the pinnacle experience.” She continued: “I learned as much from my fellow students and from class discussions as from my professors. These are brilliant people. I’m not saying there aren’t brilliant people at S.M.U. — I’m sure there are. But I really wanted to finish my experience in this extraordinary academic setting that I’d been in. It was the reason I wanted to go there. I didn’t just want to go to have a diploma that said Harvard Law on it.”
In May 1993, Davis graduated cum laude from Harvard Law School. After an invigorating one-year clerkship with a progressive federal judge, Jerry Buchmeyer, Davis signed on with the special litigation section of the law firm Haynes and Boone — thinking, she said, that the work would be “sexy and fun.” Instead, she didn’t find it challenging and quit after about two years. One day in early 1996, Davis, who was 32, surprised her husband by saying she would like to serve on the City Council as he once had. They enlisted Angle, a casual friend at the time, to run her campaign. She lost her race by 90 votes. “It killed me,” she recalled. “I thought I was going to die. It felt like rejection.” But, Davis added, she learned an important lesson from that defeat: She had failed to connect with the lower-income people in her district, “and it’s one of the reasons I’ve recently strived to introduce my story and where I come from.”
She ran again in 1999, won and promptly threw herself into civic affairs. Though one of the male council members insisted on referring to her as “little lady” and another would later remark on her “wardrobe of exciting skimpiness,” her talent for tough negotiating soon won her the respect of the city’s power brokers. After her first term, Mayor Kenneth Barr appointed her chairwoman of the City Council’s Economic Development Committee. Before long, the former inhabitant of a Fort Worth trailer park was being mentioned as a potential future mayor of the city.
The work consumed her. Because she was paid almost nothing and because Jeff Davis was proud of the mark she was making on their city, in 1999 he decided that his title company, Safeco, would pay her an annual salary of $40,000. Davis told Wayne Slater of The Dallas Morning News that she had been “a vibrant part of contributing to our family finances” during the decade after she graduated from law school. When I asked one of the company’s top supervisors at the time what Davis did in her four years with Safeco, this person replied: “Nothing. She was never in a strategy meeting, a marketing meeting, an escrow meeting or a compliance meeting. I never once saw her on the premises of our office. There was no reason for Safeco to have her on the payroll.”
Somewhere along the arc of Davis’s evolution from economically desperate single mother to political dynamo, the foundation of her union with Jeff Davis began to collapse. As with any faltering marriage, the precise causes and chronology depend on your point of view. But one evening in late November 2003, almost 20 years after the two first met, and with their 15-year-old daughter, Dru, still living in the house, Wendy Davis moved out. She took up residence in a small loft in downtown Fort Worth, surrounded by a glimmering skyline that she helped bring to realization.
When, in 2007, some local leaders met with her and urged her to run against State Senator Kim Brimer the next year, “she seemed a little taken aback,” recalled one of them, Marc Veasey, who is now a congressman. It was only after they presented polling numbers indicating that Brimer was vulnerable that Davis decided to run.
Still, said her 31-year-old daughter, Amber: “People said, ‘Oh, it can’t be done.’ She’s like, ‘O.K., watch me.’ Don’t underestimate her — ever.”
Not long after the Dallas Morning News article made national news, I sat with Davis in her office on the third floor of her campaign headquarters on the edge of Fort Worth’s once-downtrodden and now-buzzing South Side neighborhood. The controversy over her narrative had metastasized into criticisms that her communications team had proved inept at controlling her message, in turn feeding broader concerns among Texas Democratic supporters that Team Wendy did not have what it took to wage an underdog campaign in a solidly Republican state.
“Name one good day they’ve had,” one such ally told me. There had in fact been a single good day: Jan. 14, when it was announced that her supporters had raised $12.2 million, a surprising amount that eclipsed Greg Abbott’s $11.5 million over the same six-month reporting period. (Over all, the Republican’s campaign treasury is approximately three times that of the Davis campaign.)
That good news, however, had been snuffed out by the Morning News article five days later. Davis and her team believed that the timing of the publication was no coincidence — that her opponents, threatened by her fund-raising prowess, planted the story, which Slater vehemently denied. Her campaign tried to push back against conservative detractors, some of whom crassly insinuated that a well-heeled older man plucked her from ignominy, footed the bill for her intellectual pursuits and was subsequently kicked to the curb. Two days before the meeting at the campaign office, Davis’s daughters each issued a statement indicating that Davis had been an exemplary mother, and later that evening, Davis gave a feisty speech calling out “Greg Abbott and his allies” for “attacking my private life.”
When we sat down, facing each other on adjacent couches, I asked her to be clear: Was she saying it was inappropriate for people to be scrutinizing her private history? She had always run on her biography, I pointed out. Wasn’t that an implicit invitation to examine her personal life?
“Sure, I think it’s absolutely fair to take a look at it, I do,” she said. “But I think there also needs to be a responsibility to fairly report and make sure you thoroughly understand things before they’re reported,” she continued, referring to the newspaper’s claim that she lost custody of her daughter. “And what happened here, in my opinion, was there was a distortion of the reality.” What Davis found particularly galling, she said, was “the allegation that I abandoned my children. And it’s important for me that people understand that that was not the case.”
That accusation had always struck me as over-the-top. But I was interested in discussing with Davis the difficult choices she made as a career-minded mother, which seemed eminently defensible and, to many, laudable. But not everyone in a conservative state like Texas would approve of, for example, Davis’s decision to leave the children with their father in Fort Worth while she spent three years at Harvard. I asked her: Was she sensitive to the possibility that a complete airing of her life choices might not play well with Texas suburban women who were deemed crucial to her chances of victory?
Davis fixed me with an expression that could have belonged to Lyndon B. Johnson or Bill Clinton — one of defiant, chilling composure. “No,” she said.
Then, more strongly: “No! I think that any woman who had a conversation with me and had an opportunity to truly understand my life story wouldn’t view it through a critical lens. There are people, of course, in the world of politics, who look for things to be critical about. But those people are already against you. I think women who aren’t of that mind would not look at my story with judgment. I would hope they would share some admiration for what I did to climb from where I was.”
I then brought up the conflicting accounts I had heard — from her, her campaign, her daughter and her ex-husband — about how often she visited her family while at Harvard. Davis insisted that her memory was correct: She’d come home every 10 days. (After reviewing their clashing versions of this and other matters, Jeff Davis replied by email with palpable weariness, “Print the legend!”) But, she added, regardless of whose memory was more accurate, “The point is that I was going to school and coming home and being with my girls as much as possible to make that work, and that as their mother I made the choice that was best for them — and it was best for them — to be back at home with my mom instead of all day at day care.”
So I asked her why she and her campaign hadn’t just said that all along. Trumpeting that she had adhered to an every-10-day visiting regimen seemed like a way to shade her biography out of concern that Texas voters would not approve of her decisions.
“I’m not shading anything,” Davis replied calmly, though her warmth had plunged noticeably. She reiterated: She believed her recollection to be accurate. The campaign’s version was an honest mistake. Amber was a child at the time and “won’t have a precise memory of this.” Her ex-husband “has a memory that’s different from mine.” She could not resist adding a lawyerly flourish: “I guess the question I would ask is why that shade even matters, because for me the important message is the one I just told you.”
She then acknowledged: “Of course, I would expect people who are inclined to think negatively about me to pick on something like this. Do I think it’s reasonable? No. Do I think that I’m being held to a different standard than a man who would be in this exact same race with the exact same story might be? Yes. But that’s reality, and I don’t spend time worrying about it.” She continued, “And it really is, I think, rather absurd that we’ve spent so much time picking over details of my biography.”
At the end of our hour together that day, Davis stood and shook my hand and then closed her office door behind me, leaving me to mull over her words as I walked out of the building. Davis had succeeded on two levels — as a professional and as a mother of two adult daughters who seem to love and admire her — but getting to this point was probably not as simple as her campaign made it sound. Political narratives are necessarily reductive, invariably gauzy and thus often misleading. They tell two conflicting tales at the same time: I’m absolutely amazing and unique, and I’m just like you. But it seemed undeniable that female politicians were far more constrained than men in how they recounted their stories. A man could break the mold of American virtue. A woman challenged stereotypes at her peril. The archetype — an unimpeachable balance of dedicated public service and exemplary mothering — seems inescapable, even in 2014. Bill Clinton could be seething with lifelong ambition; George W. Bush could be a beneficiary of immense privilege; Barack Obama could be a self-described outsider, marijuana smoker, community rabble-rouser. Any of these qualities might, if so espoused, disqualify a woman from high office. Meanwhile, no one ever stopped Clinton, Bush or Obama in his biographical tracks to say: “Wait. If you were out there, conquering the world, then you could not have been here, with your family.”
Meanwhile, the reality of Davis’s achievements were all around me as I drove back to my hotel, along a route that took me through her old City Council district, where few people probably spent much time wondering about what personal sacrifices went into the building of this bridge or that residential tower. What had once been a languid cow town was now a sleek city where folks still un-self-consciously stroll around in cowboy hats. Davis played a notable role in the integration of what Fort Worth had always been with what it was becoming. It struck me as a pretty good campaign theme. But perhaps it wasn’t good enough: It was impersonal, unrelatable and technocratic, a nice tale for a Texas Democrat to promote on the way to a landslide loss, just as the state’s last Democratic candidate for governor, former Mayor Bill White of Houston, did in 2010.
Instead, Davis had reassured voters with a near-perfect narrative: a portrait of herself as modern-day Supermom, a woman who existed only in our imaginations. Ω
[Robert Draper is a contributing editor to Texas Monthly. He also writes regularly for the New York Times Magazine. Draper is the author of the authorized biography of President George W. Bush entitled Dead Certain: the Presidency of George W. Bush (2007). He is also the author of Rolling Stone Magazine: The Uncensored History (1990) and the novel Hadrian's Walls (1990). Draper's two most recent books are Do Not Ask What Good We Do: Inside the U.S. House of Representatives (2012) and When The Tea Party Came To Town (2012). Draper is a graduate of the University of Texas-Austin with a BA in journalism.]
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