Wendy Davis Comes to a Moment of Truth

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Eric Gay / AP

Texas gubernatorial candidate Wendy Davis is facing questions about her bio.

When it comes to portraits, a gauzy look can be a welcome thing for people of a certain age. But politics takes place in an unforgiving spotlight, as Texas Democratic gubernatorial hopeful Wendy Davis discovered when the Dallas Morning News exposed discrepancies in her oft-told tale of bootstrapping her way from single motherhood in a Fort Worth trailer park to graduating from Harvard Law School. That narrative has been central to Davis’ appeal as she seeks to translate the national attention from her marathon filibuster in defense of abortion rights last year into votes for her underdog candidacy this year. It has helped her raise campaign cash both inside and outside of Texas, and has put her on a first-name basis with supporters not seen in Texas since the days of Ann—the late Gov. Ann Richards that is.

But then came “Trailergate.”

Fair or not, the label emerged last week above a Fort Worth Star-Telegram column that declared the whole fiasco to be “part campaign flub, part gender bias.” It signaled a new phase in the campaign, when shorthand takes the place of narrative, and labels, accurate or not, begin to stick. “Her biography will fall under a more powerful microscope,” Jay Root of the Texas Tribune wrote presciently last September, “and what voters are likely to find is the story of an exceptionally ambitious woman who has experienced both poverty and wealth, isn’t nearly as partisan as her detractors might think and was shaped as much by her single electoral defeat as the unbroken string of victories ever since.”

Davis’ toughness is well-known in Texas, where she carried on an unsuccessful four-year legal fight with her hometown newspaper, charging the Star-Telegram with libel and saying its coverage of her first and only unsuccessful city council race had caused her physical and mental pain. That doggedness was on display again after Trailergate broke last week, when the state senator strode forward, back on message about Republican cuts to public schools, and armed with endorsements from the state’s two leading teachers’ unions. With a public school funding lawsuit already in the courts, her campaign is hoping to redirect voters’ focus to that issue. But Texans have been fighting about school funding for two decades, as a parade of gubernatorial campaigns have come and gone, and it’s unlikely to grab voters. Tales of divorce, struggle and ambition are easier to grasp.

She has enjoyed rosy national press, but back home Davis can expect the spotlight to continue to shine, and because she has been engaged in the rough and tumble of first city and then state politics, there are more cracks and corners to be explored. Her elected gigs have been essentially part-time and low-paying, so Davis’ lucrative work as a lawyer representing several major public clients, including the Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport and the North Texas Tollway Authority, is also in the crosshairs. Her likely opponent, Republican Attorney General Greg Abbott has served in the generally more genteel world of the courtroom, as a corporate lawyer, a district judge and later on the Texas Supreme Court.

After years in the gubernatorial wilderness, Texas Democrats took some comfort in a November poll that showed Davis just six points behind Abbott, although another poll put the margin at 15 percent, close to the 13-point defeat Democrats suffered last gubernatorial go-round. But Davis’ task just got tougher, and critics say it was a blow her campaign should have anticipated and dealt with months ago. There were signs as long ago as last June that her compelling campaign biography was simplistic and, perhaps, flawed.

That came back to bite her Jan. 20, when the Morning News found Davis had “blurred” key facts of her biography. Among them: She only spent a few months in a mobile home, after separating from her first husband, and she was 21, not 19, when they divorced. The report also said that her second husband, Jeff Davis, cashed in his 401(k) to help fund her education and cared for her children while she was in law school. He told the Morning News it was “ironic” that Davis left him the day after he paid off her Harvard loan in 2003. Also thrown into the mix were revelations that initial divorce filings including an allegation of infidelity (although the final decree did not) and that Davis had ceded custody of her daughter after the divorce.

Just three days before the story broke Davis had been, once again, in the limelight. Appearing on a Today show segment about women’s struggles filmed partly at that Fort Worth trailer park, she described herself as the “epitome of hard work and optimism.” But by week’s end she was telling the Morning News her story needed clarification. “My language should be tighter,” she said. “I need to be more focused on the detail.” In addressing the Morning News story, Davis insisted she had worked to help pay off the loans and had wanted her daughter by Jeff Davis to remain in her childhood home. Her daughters Amber, 31, and Dru, 25, defended their mother in letters released Tuesday.

As the story broke, the Davis campaign laid the blame squarely on Abbott. Saying she had “always been open” about her life, Davis blasted Abbott: “We’re not surprised by Greg Abbott’s campaign attacks on the personal story of my life as a single mother who worked hard to get ahead. But they won’t work, because my story is the story of millions of Texas women who know the strength it takes when you’re young, alone and a mother.” Democratic operatives close to the Davis campaign suggested Morning News political reporter Wayne Slater had been fed the story by Republicans, a charge he denied and one most Texas political observers found ludicrous. Slater, after all, is the co-author of Bush’s Brain: How Karl Rove Made George W. Bush Presidential, a book that was viewed as decidedly unfriendly by Texas Republicans.

Texas political observers said the Davis campaign should have seen it coming. “The existence of dissonance between Davis’ stylized life story and reality has been well-known in Texas political circles,” Rice University professor Mark P. Jones told TIME. “The Davis campaign’s failure to adequately get in front of this issue is one more example of a misstep by a long-shot campaign that can ill-afford any mistakes.”

While the flap over her biography garnered national attention, other missteps by the campaign have prompted some inside Texas to wonder if Davis is prepared for a statewide fight. “Of course, these aren’t the first missteps: She was unable to estimate how much her education plan would cost the state, and her campaign fouled up its own math when it tried to attack Abbott over contributions from payday lenders,” Paul Burka, Texas Monthly‘s political editor, wrote on his blog. “The words ‘not ready for prime time’ come to mind, a concern that some Democrats privately shared with me months ago.”

Even as Davis fought back, the campaign appeared to make yet another blunder. “I am proud of where I came from and I am proud of what I’ve been able to achieve through hard work and perseverance. And I guarantee you that anyone who tries to say otherwise hasn’t walked a day in my shoes,” Davis proclaimed not long after the Morning News story broke. For Davis, “shoes” conjures up the viral images of the famous pink running shoes she wore during her filibuster, but critics quickly pointed out that Abbott is wheelchair-bound and has not walked in his shoes—or anybody’s else’s—for most of his adult life.

More scrutiny is inevitable. The thread on the sweater has been pulled. But in this, the first round, Davis is sticking to her guns, declaring in an open letter on her website that her life is “a story about resiliency, and sacrifice, and perseverance. And you’re damn right it’s a true story.”

Maybe so, but the link to her old campaign bio is defunct. That shorthand version of her life story appears to have served her well, propelling her onto the national stage and boosting her fundraising. In the last six months of 2013, she reported raising $8.7 million for her two campaign accounts, plus an additional $3.5 million for a joint account with Battleground Texas, a Democratic grassroots effort. Abbott raised $11.5 million in the same period, and has $27 million on hand, compared to $9.5 million for Davis in a campaign that is expected to cost each side $40 million.

“In today’s global and real-time world, Davis will need to carefully balance her national fundraising efforts with the need to maintain a moderate image at home in order to not alienate potential cross-over voters that she needs if she is to run a competitive race,” Jones said. “It goes without saying that the stump speech she employs to open up check books in the mansions and penthouses New York and San Francisco is not the same one she will be using on the campaign trail in the Lone Star State.”

Back home in Texas, Davis needs to develop issues that will rouse the Democratic base and attract independents—she is talking public education and payday loan abuses, not abortion, as she moves around the state, and last week she emphasized her support for gun rights in an interview with the Associated Press. If there is any upside for Davis in the bio brouhaha, Jones said, it’s that the GOP has “a real tendency to be tone-deaf when it comes to gender.” Republicans would be wise to resist any urge to put the klieg lights on Davis’ personal story, Jones said, no matter how flawed her official biography has  been.

But going forward, both her detractors and the state’s media are likely to be shining a light on other aspects of her life and career. As the Star-Telegram political columnist Bud Kennedy put it: “Wendy Davis is bigger than Texas now, and so are her mistakes.”

59 comments
AlexPark
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Texan1944
Texan1944

I was taught not to believe nothing a Newspaper says, and half what you see on a News channel. I was taught to check the facts of what is being said. Before going to Viet Nam I was told by people I grownup around never trust a Black person. Back then it was as it is today very racist. Well during my first few days there was a Fire fight going on guys dropping like rocks. Then suddenly a VC dropped in front of me, when I looked around there stood another Marine smiling. That was when I stopped being a racist, for he was a Man of color. You may not understand what I am saying, should you be another Vet. you know what I feel inside.

I am much older today, so I have to tell who ever is reading what I am saying. Should you point a finger at someone who is lying, just remember you there are three fingers pointing back at you, and a thumb pointing to God. Let's not what is said about Wendy Davis, do talk with her. I have, found her to be fore right in what she believes would be good for Texas, and other Texans who really do need some help. - Remember about those three finger pointing back at you before you say something as you point a finger at someone who might be a friend to you tomorrow. God Bless and Stay Safe.

TedWilson
TedWilson

Wendy Davis is a gold digging single mom who latched on to an older man to gain access to his resources. Exploited him for years and then left him when she no longer needed him. Also committed adultery in same marriage. Then lied about it with a made up history. She's toast.

GOP_rednecks_stink
GOP_rednecks_stink

Yes, to a high-minded oh-so-moral Republican you can't lie -- unless people die behind it

No interns, no trailers -- but war, torture, surveillance, bank fraud, what the hey...

chrisabray
chrisabray

It's "toughness" to spend four years unsuccessfully suing a newspaper because you don't like the way they cover your city council campaign? So then Time would admire the toughness of someone who spent four years litigating against them for reporting the news, right? Sounds to me like she's a vindictive lunatic.

BrianCunningham
BrianCunningham

Although raised by a divorced mother (as opposed to a single mother), it appears Wendy Davis's childhood was pretty middle class. Now high school yearbooks with photos of Wendy's "sixth grade educated" mother have surfaced. I doubt anything about this woman is real.

SfcLy
SfcLy

davis has been caught lying about her past, and lying to the state about her finances. she is apparently thin-skinned, and mentally and emotionally weak. 

stephenmcgregor1957
stephenmcgregor1957

Life lies like these are amazing.  Elizabeth Warren claimed to be Native American to get things she wanted, this woman Davis claims poverty, and her exagerations are outrageous.  Why can't we get people that tell the truth.  It's far easier to live with.  While Charleyman states we all lie, I don't think we all like like this. And with people in power, the lies truly impact us.  For instance, The Community Leader stated lied knowingly, "If you like your healthcare you can keep your healthcare/If you like your doctor you can keep your doctor"...  Lies have have impacted millions.  


Voting knowingly for a liar like this you accept the consequences of her character...

Charleyman
Charleyman

what the hell, we all lie sometime or another!  she will make a perfect politician.  i basically don't care.

RobertGreene
RobertGreene

Folks, simply put...a liar is a liar....whether it's the current Administration on Obamacare, or a local junior state senator who embellishes a false biography.  I repeat, a liar is a liar...enough said.

txnicole
txnicole

Sorry, but Wendy Davis has no business running for Governor. She's only been a Senator since 2009. If compared on the level of other countries, Texas has the 14th largest economy in the world out of almost 200 countries. The last place a junior senator belongs is running something as big and complex as this state. When she gets more experience she can come back and try again, but she would end up doing more harm than good out of innocent ignorance.

LisaPineau
LisaPineau

Just would like to say that Wendy Davis would bring a balance that has been missing in current political views; she is not an extremist but a realist who clearly has better public policies in her sights.  Without bias toward corporate interest, she is the leader of choice for Texans tomorrow.  This article frankly makes much ado over nothing.  Truth is, she has experienced the difficulty of supporting children alone and the poverty that half of all American children currently know at some point growing up.  Her views reflect this awareness with compassion and strength to stand for family issues.   Ironic how often those against choice are against  basic healthcare for the youngest Texans, despite its availability at no cost to Texans.  Governor Davis would stand for public schools, and strengthen Texas families with moderate, fair policies.  Most realize it is time to think of change. Too bad this article does not advance or clarify Texas public policy.  Stand firm, candidate Davis.  You have what it takes to win the hearts of Texans, and bring the  more moderate public policies we all need.

ReneDemonteverde
ReneDemonteverde

Just like Hillary long on style short on substance. I do not know if Davis ever saw a fetus being aborted or she could stand seeing one being sacrificed on the altar of liberalism. But if you really come to think of it most liberal women are shallow empty shells. The media the one building them up, suppressing their negativities. And most of them are liars too.

ilikechips
ilikechips

oh how the liberal MSM love her. Liberal media bias, what liberal media bias LOL. wouldn't even know where to start with this one.

wdvander
wdvander

So Davis is caught in a few obfuscations and it is pointed out by Texas mainstream media.  The Fort Worth daily newspaper is NOT a conservative media outlet.  Yet, the exclamation point Time puts on this story is that the GOP is perceived to be tone deaf where gender issues are concerned.  Just like NBC pointing out conservatives highlighting Hillary Clinton's short comings is picking on her because of her gender, Time is saying that any criticism of Davis is criticism of Davis as a woman, not Davis as a candidate.  

Yoshi
Yoshi

Just one more lying politician out for their own enrichment.

manlyman
manlyman

What? A democrat lying? Who'da thunk it!

diegoat
diegoat

Who are the Wendy Davis constituents. She became famous for standing up for late term abortion. The Majority of Americans & The vast majority of Texans are against her on this.

She either lied or stretched the truth about her background. Texans don't like liars.

She cannot win and she knows it. She is in the race to raise her profile. She is doing what she does best which is drawing attention to herself. Maybe she'll get a TV show on NBC?

 

Paul,nnto
Paul,nnto

Love the republican outreach to female voters.

TerryClifton02
TerryClifton02

Another puff piece on poor old Wendy, or should we call her Windy for her lies? She's nothing more than a lying, cheating, boozing, gold digger, who lost custody of her children. She's a mouthpiece for the abortion industry, and nothing more. Character matters, and her lies and wayward lifestyle will keep her from being Governor and that's her own damn fault. Her supporters are trashing her opponent just as bad as she's getting it.

jmac
jmac

She can't say something about walking in her own shoes and her campaign can't say ;stand up for Wendy' because her opponent is in a wheel chair.  


No wonder the cartoonists and late night jokesters are making fun of those attacking her.  What's next?  Bristol Palin saying she's a bad mother?   Yes.  That was next.   


When that's all you have, you don't have much.   Republicans need to be careful - that kind of attack can easily backfire.  

Paul,nnto
Paul,nnto

"both her (republican) detractors and the state’s media are likely to be shining a light on other aspects of her life and career"

Nice to see both groups working together. As is typical.

FloridaFishing
FloridaFishing

@CharleymanAs an employer, it is cause for termination to catch an employee lying about their C.V. and qualifications for a position.  Employees today sign dozens of documents permitting a prospective employer to conduct employment, educational financial and criminal background checks.


Politicians are employee's of the people.  Shouldn't we hold them to the same standards as a fry cook?

edb21
edb21

@Charleyman 


To believe it is acceptable for someone to lie and alter his/her life story in this manner proves your morals are also compromised.  What this says about Davis is --- if she is willing to lie about these sorts of details --- what else will she lie about in order to accomplish her political agenda?  It points to a character defect.  Like @RobertGreene said, "A liar is a liar."  I would add, a liar is a liar is a liar is a liar ... 

Docacct
Docacct

@LisaPineau Haahaaa, you are so funny.  So she lies about being poor and funding her on law school and you think that is just fine.  Also, she said recently that she was for open carry and against later term abortions, which is part of what that big show she put on the Texas Senate floor was about.  It is so funny you think she is capable of telling the truth on anything after all of this and you still support her.  LOL...You Progressives crack me up. :)

jmac
jmac

@wdvander This is being played on Fox as a "scandal".  If this is all they've got, they  must be afraid of her.  She's scaring the establishment in Texas.  

ilikechips
ilikechips

@diegoat you are correct MSNBC will snatch her up to go along with the reverend al sharp ton. might increase ratings  to .0000001% and possibly beat out reruns of Gilligans Island on TVLand.

mantisdragon91
mantisdragon91

@TerryClifton02Character maters? Have you see Texas politicians. With clowns like Rick Perry and Greg Abott running around obviously it doesn't.

ReneDemonteverde
ReneDemonteverde

@jmac Why dont she try crutches ? That way she would be one better. She lied before she can lie again.

BrianCunningham
BrianCunningham

@jmac@wdvander Texas Democrats are the ones that should be running scared. Wendy Davis is the Democrats version of Todd Akin (although she is on the opposite side of the abortion issue).

ReneDemonteverde
ReneDemonteverde

@mantisdragon91 @TerryClifton02 I do not know who is the clown Mantis. The Governor of Texas and most probably his successor or you who is trolling here anonymously with no one wanting to hear from you except your liberal mates. Dont be so presumptive. 

ReneDemonteverde
ReneDemonteverde

@mantisdragon91 @ReneDemonteverde @TerryClifton02 No, Mantis I am not insulting you. Just reminding you not to throw stones at people with more gravitas than you. That is the truth. Because if you have some you would not be trolling here like me. You would be up there with them, with thousands if not millions listening at your every word. Peace.