A Creepy Texas Story

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On Friday, Wendy Davis released a 60 second TV ad–her first TV ad in this year’s gubernatorial campaign, and the first campaign ad I can think of that’s caused me to ask myself if this is the kind of situation where an outbound link should be accompanied by a “trigger warning.” Trigger warning, just in case: the ad, which you can watch on YouTube, relates to a 1993 rape case, and includes a few moments of dramatic re-enactment. 

At issue is how Greg Abbott responded to the case in 1998, as a justice on the Texas Supreme Court. The rapist was a door-to-door vacuum cleaner salesman working for an independent contractor that distributed Kirby vacuum cleaners. The victim had sued Kirby for damages, arguing that Kirby had a responsibility to screen its salesman, but Kirby disavowed any liability, because the rapist was employed by the distributor, not by Kirby. Six of the justices agreed that the victim should have the right to sue Kirby itself. Abbott was among the three who dissented. (See Christy Hoppe at the Dallas Morning News and Gardner Selby at PolitiFact Texas for more details on the case itself.) 

I had a mixed reaction to this. As a moral question, of course Kirby had some responsibility in this situation. The fact that the company had shunted the business of actually selling the vacuum cleaners to independent contractors, and sought to wash its hands of any problems that might result from that model, makes them more culpable in that sense, not less. Legally, too, the Court’s decision strikes me as the correct one. Abbott notes in his dissent that Kirby’s contract with the distributor explicitly stated that Kirby wouldn’t control the hiring. The majority opinion sticks closer to common sense: insofar as Kirby’s business model was based on in-home sales of Kirby vacuum cleaners, Kirby had a “duty of reasonable care” to take some precautions against dispatching violent sexual predators into sedate suburban homes.

All of that being the case, I can see why Davis would cite Abbott’s dissent as evidence supporting an argument that her opponent has, throughout his career, been systematically cavalier about consumer protections and public safety and overly lenient to monied interests. She’s touched on that argument at previous points in the campaign, as in July, when the campaign cheerfully made hay over Abbott’s inexplicable suggestion that Texans worried about where explosive chemicals are stored can “just drive around” their town and ask people. 

But that’s not exactly what Davis is doing here, is it? The ad–its title, bizarrely, is “A Texas Story”–refers to that line of argument in its final frames, with a few words float up: “Another insider. Not working for you.” But nothing in the ad establishes, or even suggests, that Abbott had any cronies or donors at Kirby. The implication of the ad, with its somber gray palette and stalker-cam angles, is that the attorney-general is some kind of rape apologist. “Thank God this time Greg Abbott lost,” the narrator intones at the end, as the camera pans over a yard littered with symbols of shattered innocence (capsized tricycles). Yikes. I’m glad the woman was allowed to sue Kirby in the end, but “Thank God” makes it sound like Abbott wanted to give the rapist a pardon and a reference letter for a job as a high school volleyball coach. 

I can’t shake the feeling, then, that this ad is sort of a seance intended to summon the ghost of Claytie Williams. It’s not a foolproof strategy, for several reasons. Abbott is not Williams; the election is less than three months away; most polls show Abbott leading by double digits; Williams, come to think of it, is not dead. Still, at least it’s a strategy, and whether Davis’s ad is in good taste is a different question from whether the ad will be effective. On the latter front it may be more successful. Certainly it’s received more attention than Abbott’s first TV ad, which features a testimonial from his mother-in-law. 

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  • N.M. Horwitz

    “Ghost of Claytie Williams”

    He ain’t dead yet…

    • Erica Grieder

      Yes, that’s one of the reasons I think this strategy is risky.

      • John Johnson

        That reference, to most, will be over their heads. They won’t even remember, if they ever knew, who Clayton Williams is, much less whether he is stiil alive or not.

  • WUSRPH

    Davis apparently sees her only hope being in making Abbott unacceptable to enough voters to give her a shot at closing the gap. If this is the case, we can expect many more “he’s a no good x,y,z” ads over the coming weeks. At some point they have to switch to “positive” why you should vote for Wendy ads, but they will not do much good until at least a plurality of the voters are unsure about whether they want Abbott as their governor. At this time that is not the case and until it is, if ever, Davis’ campaign is going to be much more negative than positive. (Just like Perry’s campaigns have always been.)

  • WUSRPH

    Can we expect a piece by somebody at TM on the outcome of the Hall investigation? The saddest thing about this outcome is that virtually no one will read the full motion/report so opinions will be fixed without any relationship to whatever evidence the committee found.

  • it’s a great ad

    It’s a great ad because it shines the spotlight on something Abbott never thought he’d have to explain. And there’s just not a good explanation for it.

    • John Johnson

      Has he responded yet? Can’t imagine what he would say. After he received his big settlement bucks for the act of God that lost him use of his legs, he has worked diligently, it seems, to keep others from getting theirs. See what the TLR has contributed to his campaign coffers over the years. There’s just always been a proclivity in all Big’s vs. small’s for him to side with the Big’s. That’s the unwritten code of the entire Republican Party it seems. The only reason I can think of for this tendency is the money the Big’s offer in return. How else can it be explained?
      The AG’s office does it; the Insurance Commissioner does it; our PUC does it.

      • Blue Dogs

        Look for Abbott’s campaign to hit back HARD at Davis, just watch.

      • WUSRPH

        Abbott campaign spokeswoman Amelia Chasse issued a statement to the Daily Caller in response to the ad, which she called “despicable”:

        This ad is a continuation of the type of rhetoric we’ve seen from a candidate who is paper-thin on substance and running a failing campaign devoid of any real vision for the future of Texas. Texans deserve better than the gutter politics they are getting from Sen. Davis. No one has a stronger record fighting the heinous crime of sexual assault than Greg Abbott. Not only did he create dedicated units to arrest and prosecute sex offenders and protect women and children from assault, he’s responsible for putting more offenders in jail than all of his predecessors combined. In the case referenced in Sen. Davis’ despicable ad, Greg Abbott’s decision left intact the liability against the sex offender and his employer. No amount of desperate distortion attempts or token ad buys by Sen. Davis can change the facts of Greg Abbott’s record of fighting for Texans.

        http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2014/08/08/wendy-davis-television-ad_n_5662013.html

        • Unwound

          Well, she told the Daily Caller that, so what, like 3 people will read it?

          • WUSRPH

            Press release went to everybody…

          • Jon

            My guess is the Abbott campaign also were the ones who pushed the Davis’ death penalty moratorium story that showed up on the AP wire on Monday.

          • WUSRPH

            That’s what his opposition research team is intended to do…..Keep her on the defensive…If she did her own research into herself, as should have been the first task of her campaign staff, she would be prepared for these attacks….Plus you can be sure the Abbott campaign is pushing the story about HB 1188, above. TLR should have briefed them within minutes of the Davis ad’s first appearance if not long before. That is how professional campaigns are run.

  • WUSRPH

    A moment of silence please for Robin Williams, one of the funniest ever.

  • cjhowe

    Wendy Davis voted for HB 1188 last session. The rapist was on probation for third degree indecent exposure to a child. Had that bill been law in 1993 it would have removed the liability of Kirby.

    In fact, the new law actually goes one step further than Abbott’s opinion. Abbott said that Kirby should be allowed to be sued if they controlled the hiring process. The bill eliminates liability even if they did control the hiring process.

    • http://www.fortbendconservative.org/ John Bernard Books

      and Windy voted for it? Talk about speaking out of both sides of her mouth.
      Windy’s campaign team is desperate and this is a hail Mary to appease democrat voters. Abbott wins huge in November.

    • Steve!

      It passed 31-0 in the Senate. That means, gasp!, Dan Patrick voted for it too!

      http://www.journals.senate.state.tx.us/sjrnl/83r/pdf/83RSJ05-17-F1.PDF#page=4

      Bill analysis…
      http://www.capitol.state.tx.us/tlodocs/83R/analysis/html/HB01188E.htm

      • cjhowe

        Did Dan Patrick say that companies should be financially liable for the crimes committed by their independent contractors independent contractors? It’s good law, the only person who thinks otherwise is apparently Wendy Davis’s campaign manager.

        • Steve!

          Who knows what Dan Patrick is saying! He’s MIA!

    • WUSRPH

      If true, it is another example of the failure of the Davis campaign to adequately “opposition research” herself….as was obvious for the early days with the less than totally accurate bio. The true believers who surrounded her at the beginning were unable to sit her down and ask tough questions or to do the basic checking to find weaknesses. They believed too much to question anything……

      • http://www.fortbendconservative.org/ John Bernard Books

        Does anyone really believe Windy had a chance, other than dems? Windy never believed she did and only ran to build name recognition (fame in dems eyes) and wealth.

  • Door to Door Joe

    Bad commercial. It takes 20 seconds or so to get to Greg Abbott and by that time you’ve forgotten what the ad is about.

    • WUSRPH

      One ad is not supposed to undermine someone’s faith in Abbott. It takes a dirip-drip-drip of ads to cut away his support. You can expect more of them

      • Really Windy Wendy

        If it takes 20 seconds to explain to people that it’s Greg Abbott they won’t be in the room to hear it; they’ll be pulling the handle on the commode by then. Flush-flush-flush.

    • Blue Dogs

      Took only 20 seconds or more to mention Abbott’s name, that’s horrible.

  • Jon

    It would be a more effective ad if Kirby was first party to the case. Since it’s Kirby being sued via the failure of its subcontractor, the direct connection isn’t as solid, in terms of how much outrage/votes that can be gained over Abbott’s vote in the case (in terms of Abbott’s vote here versus Clayton Williams, it would have been the equivalent of if one of Claytie’s ranchands had told the “If rape is inevitable” joke in his presence and within reporters’ earshot, and not Williams himself. He still might have caught grief and lost votes over not disapproving of the joke, but he would have been once removed from it, as opposed to being the instigator).

  • http://www.fortbendconservative.org/ John Bernard Books

    The standard “whole harmless agreement” takes away most democrat lawyers main vehicle to loot. It takes away their getaway car.

  • Madrigalian

    Nice commercial for a commercial. You even wrapped it up in a “creepy” editorial for legitimacy as an article. How clever of you.

  • Jared

    It was more than 14 years ago….stop thought policing!

  • Kozmo

    I don’t see why Davis can’t have her own Willie Horton just as Bush the Elder did. Sauce for the goose, etc.

  • C.C.

    Negative campaigning is pathetic. Wendy Davis needs to get up and tell people what she intends to do if she’s elected not bash Abbott. Why not mention the other justices that didn’t vote. Maybe Abbott shouldrun an ad saying that she will personally be performing late term abortions. It has about as much truth. At least Mr. Abbott had enough of a background to become a justice on the Texas Supreme Court. What has she done except stand around in pink shoes! Run on your abilities. People aren’t that stupid Wendy! She’s desperate

    • Jed

      negative campaigning is the only kind that works.

  • St. Wendy

    Oh please. Abbott’s dissent did not merely “note” the existence of the distributorship agreement assigning to the distributor the responsibility for screening against “dispatching violent sexual predators into sedate suburban homes” as Erica so quaintly put it. This agreement is what the whole case turned on. Abbott followed the law. Period. No amount of sleazy campaign ads sprung from the minds of the Texas Trial Lawyers Association can change that fact. The plaintiff in this case had a remedy in this case against the distributor. Contracts exist so that there is clarity about rights and responsibilties and it is the judges duty to decide cases based on these agreements, not to substitute his judgement about what the preferred outcome should be. Abbott is a man of integrity and this decision cleary shows that he is not afraid to follow the law, even if it might not be a popular decision. That is the real story here.