What It Takes

After months of anticipation, the most interesting Texas gubernatorial contest in decades will (probably) start Thursday. Does Wendy Davis have a chance?
Wed October 2, 2013 9:30 am
Evan Smith, CEO and Editor-in-Chief of The Texas Tribune, speaks with state Sen. Wendy Davis during the closing one-on-one keynote session of The Texas Tribune Festival on September 29, 2013.
Callie Richmond

Tomorrow, Wendy Davis will almost certainly consummate Democrats’ fantasies by at last declaring her candidacy for governor. Last weekend, I watched her participate in an hour-long one-on-one conversation at the annual Texas Tribune Festival with Tribune Editor-in-Chief and CEO (and former Texas Monthly editor) Evan Smith before a decidedly admiring Austin audience. Davis didn’t want to cannibalize her own rollout, so she remained coy that Sunday morning as to her ambitions. But she revealed a lot about what to expect from a Davis candidacy—and, to a lesser degree, from a Davis administration.

Though a duel between the petite but tough Democrat and the wheelchair-bound but rock-ribbed Republican Greg Abbott augurs an optically fascinating race, rhetorically we’re in for a year of numbing message-discipline. Abbott commits few unforced errors; and I’m here to report that in a public setting Davis is every bit as measured. (This is pronouncedly less so offstage; more on that in a minute.) Comparisons to Ann Richards are misguided: Nothing we’ve seen thus far suggests that Davis is a dazzling orator, or even all that quotable. She does come across as sincere, thoughtful, and serious—and those traits will balance her newfound celebrity with some much-needed gravitas. Still, there are politicians—Richards, Bill and Hillary Clinton, Rick Perry, George W. Bush, Barack Obama, Chris Christie and yes, Sarah Palin—who instantly own the airspace of any room they enter. Davis, by contrast, still seems a bit abashed by the fact that she’s in the room at all.  

When Smith asked her a question about higher education, Davis immediately went to her own hardscrabble unwed-mother narrative: from the squalor of a trailer park to a community college to TCU and then to Harvard Law School. It’s a stirring story that I predict will serve her well for about two or three months. An Austin Democratic operative had insisted to me earlier, “All she needs to do is tell her story, and we’ll provide the infrastructure.” So easy! But in fact, the story Wendy Davis needs to tell most if she wants to be governor is one she has yet to articulate, which is the story about how Texans should give her party a fresh look after two decades of viewing Democrats with studied antipathy.

At the conclusion of the Davis/Smith colloquy, I stepped up to the microphone and asked her to give an example of an issue where she disagreed with President Obama. Cunningly, Davis cited a single area: the Department of Justice’s lawsuit against the US Airways/American Airlines merger, which she believed would cause the Fort Worth economy to suffer. More significantly, the suit marked the rare instance where Abbott was in lockstep with the feds. (Until several days later, when he announced that Texas would withdraw from the lawsuit.) But she’s going to need to do better than that. Why? Because, as Davis told me herself with wry understatement during our first interview for my August cover story , “Let’s face it: Obama is not a hugely popular figure in the state of Texas.” In her 2008 and 2012 state senate races, Davis significantly outperformed the president. Her opponents in both of those contests sought to cast her as an Obama liberal. When I asked her how she had responded to such charges, she coolly replied, “I just didn’t.”

What this means, among other things, is that Wendy Davis has no experience explaining what it means to be a Texas Democrat. I’ve seen her tell several interviewers now that she doesn't believe that people see things through “a partisan lens.” That may be true in Fort Worth, where Davis is known as a results-oriented former city councilwoman with staunch ties to the local business community. Elsewhere, however, she’s known as Abortion Barbie , a darling of the Pelosi set. Already she’s being pilloried as a standard-bearer of limousine liberalism. If, like John Kerry in 2004, Davis leaves it up to voters to determine that she’s more than the sum total of her caricature, then “I just didn’t” is sure to be her political epitaph.

But for what it’s worth, the candidate does have a rejoinder to those who wonder how a Democrat like her could possibly end the party’s long statewide drought. Here’s the rather elaborate reply she gave me in May when I asked what she says to such doubters:

“I say, I represent a conservative district and I’ve been able to win. And anecdotally I’ll just tell you that I think people—when they don’t have a choice in front of them that excites them, they fall back into their political framework that their comfortable with, right? I don’t think you can say that that decides the equation, that Texas is quote-unquote conservative. Texans care about public education. Texans care about property rights. Texans care about making sound economic policies and infrastructure investment. I don’t think Republicans own the ground on those issues. The problem is we haven’t necessarily communicated that those are Democratic values as well.”

Davis went on, by way of illustration: “I and others have urged, for the last few sessions, that we take a very serious look at the tax exemption and loophole policies that we have in the state of Texas. What’s been happening here is that somebody gets a loophole, and forever more they have it. In the last legislative session, when decisions were being made about cutting billions of dollars out of public education, we pointed out that the LBB, the Legislative Budget Board—a completely objective group of staff people—had suggested that we needed to go back and look at these things. And one of the ones that they pointed out was the high cost gas well exception. It was created—specifically, really, leading up to the drilling in the Barnett Shale, to help stimulate the technological development to make that possible. And it was a good idea. I chaired the Economic Development Committee of Fort Worth for eight years, and I firmly believe in public-private partnerships. I think they yield

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