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.