Among the many Texans transfixed by Wendy Davis's June 25th filibuster was her father, Jerry Russell. In July, he shared some memories about Davis's childhood, her challenges, and what he was thinking on the day that shook up Texas's political scene.
In July, Jerry Russell, the founder of Fort Worth’s Stage West theater, got a new title.
As a teenager, Russell explained, his older daughter had liked to tell customers at the theater’s cafe, where she worked as a waitress, that she was “Jerry’s daughter.” But that had changed for good on June 25, when Wendy Davis, now a Democratic state senator, gave an eleven-hour filibuster that made headlines around the country and gave her father, a well-known figure in Fort Worth’s arts community, a totally different kind of renown.
“People who come to the theater go, ‘Oh my God, you’re Wendy’s father!’” Russell continued, with evident pride. “And that’s the way it is.”
Davis is scheduled to announce her plan for the 2014 elections tomorrow, and it’s widely expected that her plan is to run for the Democratic gubernatorial nomination. Speculation to that effect has been swirling for months; even before the filibuster, she was thought to be considering a run.
The announcement itself might have been made last month, if not for a sad and unexpected turn of events. In August, Russell was hospitalized after undergoing emergency abdominal surgery and contracting pneumonia. He died on September 5, at age 77.
On July 9, however, over the course of a late-night telephone interview, he spoke ebulliently about his daughter’s childhood, her challenges, her political career thus far, and his “absolute awe” of her during the filibuster that vaulted her into the national spotlight.
Russell was from Rhode Island, and was living there when he met Davis’s mother, who was from Texas. He worked for many years at the National Cash Register Company (NCR). Davis was born in Rhode Island, and the family lived in several states before settling in Fort Worth. When the parents divorced, in the mid-1970s, Davis and her siblings–two older brothers and a younger sister–stayed with their mother. Davis has remembered those years as difficult ones for the family, and Russell, for his part, said that he had seen less of his children during that period than he would have liked. But after he left the National Cash Register Company to open Stage West, he explained, he had more opportunities to see his daughter, and the two became close again.
This interview has been abridged and edited for clarity.
So you moved to Fort Worth in 1973 and you started the theater in 1979. Can you tell me about Wendy’s childhood?
Being the first girl in the family, she got older quickly. She became like the second mother hen. Wendy was always a very nurturing child. I often thought that she would be a great obstetrician–at one time she expressed interest in doing that. She worked for an obstetrician for a while, and for a while she was pretty passionate about that possibility before she headed off into the direction of law.
How did the move from Rhode Island to Texas shape her?
You know, maybe that is a question for her, but I don’t remember for her or any of the other kids being unusual or out of the ordinary. Fort Worth’s a bit different than Dallas, as you know, and we lived in North Richland Hills. Richland Hills was a good, middle class-type area, and it was populated by really good kids and working families. It was not an uncomfortable situation, so I don’t think they ever felt out of place.
What were her high school years like?
She was always a really good student. She was always an ‘A’ student. She did a little singing in the chorus. Not too much extracurricular activity. Wendy was always just solid as a rock. She was always one of those children that–you knew that you didn’t have to pester her to do her work, or to achieve, or to want to be good at things. You never had to push her in that direction. She’s always been that way.
Did she read a lot growing up?
I don’t know what’s “a lot”. We were not a big book-reading family, I can say that, but I’m sure she did, at least in relation to schoolwork. Some, but I don’t think you could classify it as a hobby.
Wendy has described her own biography as being one of those high school students “who fell through the cracks,” her mother working at Braum’s, and living in a trailer park. How do you view her own description of her life?
She is who she is, I promise you that. The whole situation with the mother working at Braum’s–that’s all true. See, her mother and I split up somewhere around late ‘74, early ’75, and the kids lived with their mother. Their mother still lives in that house. But Wendy is exactly who she appears to be. And I think that the thing that really set her apart–and why she’s so passionate about it–none of us, myself included, had ever graduated from college. Wendy was the first.
When she finally started to gain an interest in higher education, beyond high school, she started taking classes at junior college, and it’s like a whole ‘nother world started to open up to her. To then get the opportunity to move on to a full four-year-type institution, once she managed to shift over to TCU–she just continued to excel. She was in the honors English program at TCU and graduated there with a 4.0 average, so that kind of gives you an idea about what I’m saying. Whatever position you put her in since childhood, she was going to excel.
Did Wendy and her siblings live with her mother or did they live with you?
They stayed with their mother. That’s the whole part of the story where she says she was raised by a single mother. For those years of her life was absolutely correct.
Did you see the kids a lot growing up?
I didn’t see them as much as I would like to have. But I was always a presence in their lives.
It sounds like Wendy growing up in high school was diligent but not college-bound in the sense that that was, from day, one the notion that her parents had. So what happened when she graduated high school?
What happened when she graduated high school–she got married very young. Much to, I think, our dismay. I don’t think we felt that was a very good idea. She married very young and had a child very young, and that turned out to not be a pleasant situation in not too long a period of time, and that’s when she found herself stuck with a daughter and living in a mobile home and with not much future. And you know about the story from there, because all of it’s true.
What’s your relationship with Wendy like now?
Terrific, and has been terrific for a long time. When I first started the theater and she was just in her teens, I started a little café in the theater and Wendy came and would wait tables. From that point on, we had an opportunity to have a lot more contact.
How did being around the theater influence Wendy?
If I would say anything–especially the years when she worked at the theater–she was, because of the clientele, exposed to a lot of really great people and she was exposed to something pretty special, that people regarded as pretty special. She was exposed to an awful lot of different types of stage plays. She was exposed to material, perhaps, that she wouldn’t have otherwise [encountered]. I just think that that whole experience was part of her formative experience. There are, these years later, there are still people who come to the theater who knew Wendy when, and they just passionate supporters of her.
Was Wendy a talkative child and young adult? What was she like?
I would say she was talkative. I wouldn’t say she was shy. I don’t think she was rude or pushy, but her social skills were very good. That has always been one of my fortes, and I think if I gave her anything she gets some of that from me. Her mother’s a quieter person.
Who were the clientele at the theater who were coming in and eating, and going to the plays?
All kinds of people, but they were generally–people who go to the theater are generally more educated. So if I define that in one broad category, the people she was exposed to were a more educated group of people.
What was it like for her when she started college at TCU? How old was she?
It’s going to be real hard for me to remember that. I can’t pin that down. I can’t even pin down the years she was at Harvard. That all just is kind of a blur to me. It just happened as life does. I’ve never sat down and tried to go, “What was the year she was there?” I think when she was at TCU she was older than most of her classmates because she had a daughter–and then she remarried before she went to college, and they had a nice home.
Then what happened when she went to Harvard?
You know….I’m not going to get into that side of the story, I think that crosses into some personal information that I’m not comfortable with.
How did her ideas change and who did she become when she went to Harvard?
I think she started to become much more independent, especially, during her years at Harvard. I think she began to feel really what she could be. And, of course, being there, it’s such a place of ideas–and certainly liberal-minded thinking for the most part, I would think. Harvard has that personality. And so consequently she made some very good friends who were well to do, who had grown up in entirely different circumstances, and were very, very, very smart. I think those years at Harvard were a great part of the person she’s become
What were your politics like and how did your politics influence Wendy’s?
I think my politics have changed a lot over the years. I can remember when I was in my twenties, I was probably a very, very conservative-minded person, because I can remember I was a Barry Goldwater supporter. Over the years, I don’t even know when or how, my thinking became much more liberal and my allegiances shifted. I think it probably started with JFK. I’m almost sure that’s when it started because I remember when JFK won the presidency and it was quite a turning point. He had a tremendous effect on me, and ever since then [so have] those who followed in his footsteps. Was politics something you discussed with Wendy? Did she have political ideas?
No, I don’t think we ever had those kinds of discussions. She just became who she is. And as I say, going to Harvard; Harvard is a very liberal university. And with me being in the theater–you have extremely broad-minded people you are in contact with, so many different philosophies and ideas in the plays that you do, you are exposed to people. I think all those experiences naturally morphed into who she became, but it’s not one thing, it’s a series of things. That was a slow, steady progress, but surely the culmination of that was Harvard.
When she graduated, did she move back to Texas immediately?
Yes. I don’t think there was any question about that. She was married at the time and had a child, her home was still here.
When did she develop political ambitions?
I remember when she finally decided that she wanted to run for City Council. She had become somewhat more of an activist when, in her neighborhood, she was one of the people fighting against the zoo expanding their parking and encroaching into the neighborhood. She was quite a fighter on that issue. Not winningly, because the powers and the money that were behind the zoo were going to win that battle, and they did. But it set her in a battleground, and I think ultimately that led to an interest in being in political office in Fort Worth, and that’s when she ran for council.
What was it like when she decided to run for the [Texas] Senate?
She’d been so successful as a city councilperson. Her district was unique in that her district had all the downtown area, which meant all the big money people and all the big business people, but it also had the South Side, which was heavily minority, largely Hispanic and some African-American. And the way that she represented that total district and the way that those people on the South Side adored her, it was like, “Yep, this is what she’s meant to do.” That support, I think, was her greatest satisfaction, because the heavier side of that for her was working for people who were underserved, underprivileged. And so once she decided to run for state office, it was no surprise. She had built such a coalition of support across all social lines and income levels, and that’s rare.
In the context of her background, what do people not understand about Wendy? If you were to describe Wendy as a character in a play today, how would that description go?
I view Wendy as a strong, intelligent, hardworking, committed, fair-minded individual who is amazingly compassionate. All those nurturing things that existed in her childhood, those are the things I see of her as an adult. I see the things that she’s passionate about in the Legislature, and her responses to her obstacles at present.
How do her responses to obstacles she encounters today in the Legislature relate to obstacles she encountered beforehand?
I don’t know, because we don’t have discussions about it how difficult it is for her to build coalitions there. In my view of it, in the limited exposure I have of the Texas Legislature, it is a mixture of people with varying educational backgrounds, varying social backgrounds. That Legislature is so mixed, I don’t know how anyone gets anything done. Some of them are just downright stupid. Sorry, but they are! You wonder how in the hell they got there. And the fact is, however you slice it, this is a predominantly conservative, I guess Republican, state, and they dominate the Legislature, and that’s where we are. I don’t know how she manages to get anything done, but she’s gotten a lot of good things done. And she certainly is not afraid to stand up and fight for the things she believes in. And she’s not alone. I saw a piece on the news earlier that “Stand Up for Wendy” has morphed into “Stand Up for Texas Women” signs in Texas and other parts of the country.
When did you watch the filibuster and where were you?
I was home for most of the day. I had it on my computer, but I was not watching it moment by moment. I was in absolute awe of her. I couldn’t even begin to imagine how she or anyone could be forced to stand for the amount of time that she was expected to stand for, to not have nourishment, to not be able to go to the bathroom, to not be able to sit down. I stood there, not following it moment by moment, but checking in periodically just to see–“Is she still doing it? Is she still going?” When it got to the last two hours, and the woman on the Republican side–I forgot her name, the one who raised the point of order because Wendy started talking about the sonograms–when she raised that point of order, I kind of walked away from the computer monitor.
Later, I went back and they were still huddled in a big huddle about the rostrum there. It was about ten o’clock. Wendy was still standing; she wasn’t speaking anymore because there was all this hullabaloo that was going on. From then on I could not take my eyes off it. It was must-see TV. And when [Lt. Governor David] Dewhurst got challenged and had to step down; and the other fellow took over, who really was obviously not going to be able to control that situation and wasn’t very good at it; and all those challenges were going on; and Kirk Watson–yes?
–Who was fighting so hard to keep that argument going, and to go back to that point of order, and to be able to negate the decision. All that conflict was going on. And the Republican-controlled Senate just kept stomping on them and pushing them down and pushing them down. The gallery, recognizing the unjust nature of this whole thing, of shutting Wendy down from that filibuster. Wendy, who was still standing, by the way.
That whole uproar which started to build in the gallery, which Rick Perry likes to call a ‘mob’ and David Dewhurst likes to call a ‘mob’, were people that were so indignant about the unjust decisions that were made about those points of order that they eventually, when they started to try to take that vote, just could not contain themselves. I sat there watching it and thought “Oh my God. It’s Mr. Smith goes to Washington.” You probably don’t know that movie. And the worst part of it was they theoretically managed to take the vote right there at midnight. I turned the computer off and went to bed. I was seriously depressed.
The next morning I got up and I went on the computer for something, and because I’m on the Planned Parenthood mailing list, I had an email from Cecile Richards saying, “Yay for Wendy,” and “We gotta all support Wendy,” and I’m going, “Wait, did you write this before the vote?” I went and looked in the Star-Telegram online and found out at three o’clock they had decided that, “Nooo, the vote didn’t happen on time.” And I was elated. It was amazing. It was an amazing night.
When did you talk to her first after the filibuster?
Right after I found out that morning, it was a “Raving congratulations and I’m so proud of you” kind of text. We text a lot. I have found that I don’t call Wendy, because most times she won’t answer her phone–even, I think, if she sees it’s me. She won’t pick up her cell phone. It’s not a good way to reach her. But I can send her a text and I know that she very shortly will get back to me. Even emails are not the way to go because she gets too many. But if I send her a text, she’ll text me back. I know she’s always busy down there, and I don’t want to pester her.
I did not see her until the Sunday before last, when all the news shows had her–Face the Nation, George Stephanopoulos, Meet the Press. The Stephanopoulos show wanted to conduct the interview at Stage West, so I was there. Her whole interview there was thirty minutes long. They did a lot of shots around the theater and talked to me. Finally Wendy and I got to have a few moments together, but that’s about the only time I’ve spoken to her since. I did record all the news shows on that Sunday and I still have them all.
What is like to be Wendy Davis’ dad and go grocery shopping in Fort Worth and be around town now?
It’s at the theater where I get the focus of that. I have become “Wendy’s father”. There was a period of her life when she was “Jerry’s daughter”; when she was waiting tables at the theater she would never hesitate to tell people she was waiting on she was “Jerry’s daughter” because it made her tips a whole lot better. For a long time that was the running joke between us and people in the theater, who would say “Hi, Jerry’s daughter”. Now we always joke about the fact that the whole situation is reversed. People who come to the theater go, “Oh, my God–you’re Wendy’s father!”
What do her siblings think?
Oh, I think they’re enormously proud of her. And I can tell you… [pause] I’m not going to go there.
Come on, tell me.
I’m not…well, I’m just going to say not all of my children hold the same political views. Let’s put it that way.
What does her brother think–that he’s proud of her in spite of himself?
[Laughs] Yes, of course, yes. They’re all extremely proud of her. How can you not be? They all bask in this reflected glory now.