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.”