Behind the Curtain With Wendy Davis

After months of campaign stumbles, does Team Wendy have what it takes to right the ship? An exclusive insider’s look at the strategy, drama, dysfunction, and determination of the Democrats’ most famous hope.
Fri February 21, 2014 10:30 am
Ap | Eric Gay

On the afternoon of Thursday, January 30, 2014, I was sitting with Wendy Davis in her office on the third story of her gubernatorial campaign headquarters. The building is situated on the edge of Fort Worth’s once downtrodden, now buzzing South Side neighborhood, which has long been her sentimental favorite. About a mile away from the building resides a popular gastropub named Brewed that was once the site of Davis’s previous campaign headquarters—the one she used to fight her 2008 underdog state Senate campaign against GOP incumbent Kim Brimer. Davis had driven me past the building a week or so earlier, and while doing so she commented that when her campaign first rented the place, “it was disgusting, both inside and out.” But the nostalgia in her voice was evident. In that building, the unknown city councilwoman waged what must have felt at the time like a guerrilla operation, with all the attendant romance. Brewed’s employees later told me that Davis often dropped by for dinner these days, though none of them was aware of her emotional attachment to the building.

The site of her new headquarters was likely selected with the intention of recapturing that same scrappy spirit. It was once a hotel, and probably not a high-end one; the senior staffers arrive at their third-floor offices by means of steep and creaky stairs. More relevant is that each strategist is walled off from the others in individual former hotel rooms, suggesting the very dearth of flow and mind-meld that has seemed to plague the campaign from its inception. Though Davis’s senior team—which includes top strategist J. D. Angle, campaign manager Karin Johanson, Battleground Texas director Jenn Brown, and Lone Star Project (a statewide Democratic opposition research firm) veterans Matt Angle and Lisa Turner—confers every morning at eight, no unified vision has resulted from these meetings, for the simple reason that there’s been no unity in the ranks. That disharmony has led to dysfunction—and it has undermined Wendy Davis’s already-slim chances of beating Greg Abbott and thereby returning the governor’s mansion to the Democrats for the first time in two decades.

After having spent much of the previous May and June in Texas to research what would become Texas Monthly’s August 2013 cover story about the changing fortunes of the state Democratic party, I returned to my native state to write about Davis for the New York Times Magazine on January 14. That day, the campaign trumpeted that it had, in conjunction with affiliated groups, raised $12.2 million over the past three months, eclipsing the Abbott campaign’s $11.6 haul during the same period. Prior to the announcement, Texas politicos had been wondering aloud, “Where’s Wendy?” Now they knew where: she’d spent the past two months doing pretty much what she ought to be doing, raising gobs of cash from Democrats across America. For the moment, any concerns about the uninspired conduct of her campaign had been laid to rest. On the 16, I watched Davis give a pugnacious speech to Harris County Democrats, one of whom literally swooned at the foot of the stage. The next morning in Fort Worth, Davis took me on a leisurely two-hour driving tour through her former council district. She was practically Buddha-like in her serenity. Two days later, Wayne Slater’s story about Davis’s narrative appeared on the front page of the Dallas Morning News. Eleven days after that, she and I sat on adjacent couches on the third floor of Hotel Wendy, and the conversation was not a pleasant one. Though Davis insisted to me that her fund-raising events continued to be well-attended, I knew for a fact that top bundlers had been telling her, in fairly blunt language: Wendy, if you don’t stop the bleeding, the big checks are going to stop coming. It’ll be over.

My story about Davis was published this past Sunday. The next day, while discussing the piece on MSNBC’s Morning Joe, host Joe Scarborough declared, “She’s not ready—maybe in five or ten years.” Dismissing Davis’s fifteen years of solid public service—exactly fifteen years more than George W. Bush possessed when he prevailed against Governor Ann Richards two decades ago—Scarborough speculated that liberal groups must have pushed poor Davis into running. Given that my story and the ensuing discussion focused on gender double standards in American politics, his condescending musings were luminous in their unintended irony.

Davis had in fact been getting lots of pressure to run—for anything. (The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee had made a case to her for challenging GOP senator John Cornyn, which Davis rejected on the spot during a meeting in Washington last summer. “I wanted to work in my state, on behalf of my state,” she told me.) Governor Bush endured a full year of cajoling before he plunged into presidential politics. It’s that way with pretty much all well-known politicians not named Steve Stockman. For that matter, it took a great deal of convincing before city councilwoman Davis agreed in 2007 to run for state Senate. By contrast, she had been mulling a gubernatorial run since 2011, when Senator Davis realized that even if she won reelection to Senate District 10 in 2012 (which she did), she might have to run again in two years instead of four because of redistricting in a district whose base of support had been depleted (which is what happened). She would probably win, but it wouldn’t be easy, and the payoff would be a return to a state legislature where the majority party viewed her with unalloyed contempt. Davis’s final decision wasn’t cavalier, but it was hers, and she made it even after her 26-year-old daughter, Dru, expressed worries that a high-profile statewide race would almost certainly invite a thorough revisitation of the Davis family’s past.

Dru was prescient. Now the more complicated version of her mother’s backstory, along with Davis’s stance on abortion, will accompany the candidate all the way to Election Day. Still, a far more decisive factor may be the

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