Texas state senator and gubernatorial candidate Wendy Davis fought back last week against questions about the veracity of her personal story. Davis took to the stage at a Democratic fundraiser – the JBR Dinner in Austin on Jan. 28 – where she said she would “take a moment to set the record straight, so that we can get back to the issues that are so important in this campaign,” according to her prepared remarks.
Questions over Davis’ personal story as a teenage mother who rose from poverty to earn a Harvard law degree and launch a political career surfaced earlier this month after a report by the Dallas Morning News highlighted discrepancies in her account. The Morning News story by senior political writer Wayne Slater followed an earlier report by Jay Root in the Texas Tribune that also raised some questions. Those criticizing Davis’ account of her history have cited several discrepancies cited by Slater, including her account of how long she lived in a trailer as a single mother and her age at the time of her first divorce. She has also taken heat for rarely mentioning her second ex-husband, Jeff Davis, who cashed out his 401(k) to help her go to Harvard Law School. In her interview with the Dallas Morning News for Slater’s story, Davis admitted, “My language should be tighter,” when recounting her personal story.
In her Austin dinner speech, Davis blamed her presumed Republican opponent, Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott for the ongoing controversy. “Greg Abbott and his folks have picked a fight with the wrong Texas gal if they think I’ll shrink from working to fight for a just and right future for all Texans,” she said. The Abbott campaign has denied any involvement in the Morning News story and Slater told the Austin American Statesman that he never spoke to the Abbott campaign before publishing the story. SMU political science professor Cal Jillson said Davis seemed unprepared to deal with the questions about her resume. “It certainly has set the campaign back because three weeks ago we were talking about these wonderful fundraising numbers,” he said. “Then, all of a sudden, comes this resume set of questions and it’s knocked her off her stride. She’d rather be talking about education, health care that sort of thing.” While Davis’ campaign has been fighting back on that front, Abbott has been touring the state discussing his education platform. A rising star in the Democratic Party, Davis announced in October she would run for governor. A former member of the Fort Worth City Council, she had won a hard-fought victory for re-election to her District 10 state senate seat in 2012. She then captured the national spotlight with her now-famous 2013 filibuster against an abortion bill. Jim Henson, executive director of the Texas Politics Project at the University of Texas in Austin, said the episode underscores previous predictions that an Abbott-Davis gubernatorial race would be an early-starting, intensely fought campaign. “I think it kind of confirms what we thought going in, that this was going to be different from past gubernatorial campaigns that we’ve seen in the past few cycles,” said Henson, noting that the campaign is being waged by two non-incumbents with no serious opponents in their respective primaries. “What this has done is whipped up the bases (in both parties)…but your average voter is still not paying much attention to this.”
According to one of Davis’ supporters – Grace Garcia, executive director of Annie’s List – the attacks on Davis’s personal background have “definitely energized” Davis’ support among women. Garcia’s Austin-based organization helps recruit and fund Democratic women candidates and has been heavily involved in Davis’ past campaigns. “While it has been a distraction, it has really kind of galvanized her female support in Texas and now we can move on to the issues that really matter,” said Garcia. In her speech, Davis remained defiant: “And I want to say it right here, right now, with Texas listening – because I want to make sure our opponents can hear it loud and clear: You can attack my record. You can challenge my ideas. You can play holier-than-thou with my life story. But I draw the line when it comes to lying about my family.” Davis took particular exception to suggestions that she gave up or lost custody of her children in her second divorce, or abandoned them when she went to law school.
“And for those who have mangled the story of my life – either carelessly or purposely – know this,” she said. “I never gave up custody of my children. I never lost custody of my children. And to say otherwise is an absolute lie.” According to news reports by Slater and others, Wendy and Jeff Davis were granted “joint conservatorship” and Jeff retained physical custody of their daughter Dru. Wendy Davis’ daughter from her first marriage, Amber, was a 21-year-old college student at the time of the divorce. On the same day that Davis addressed supporters in Austin, her campaign released open letters from Dru and Amber in support of their mother. “She never missed a school performance or a parent-teacher conference,” Dru wrote. “Even if that meant she had to miss something else important. My sister and I were always her first priority. She was there when I needed her and even when I thought I didn’t.” In her letter, Amber called her mom her “best friend.” And she pushed back against critics who have suggested that Davis abandoned her daughters when they were young to go to Harvard Law School:
“After graduating at the top of her class at TCU, she went on to Harvard law school. Dru and I lived with her the first semester but our parents soon realized that it would be better if we stayed in our childhood home in Texas, be around extended family and attend our regular schools. This was a decision made by both parents. I have recently heard the phrase “abandoned” quite often in the past week. That our mother “left us to be raised by our father” while she went on to pursue her education. Not only is this ridiculously unfair; it’s completely untrue. Dru and I have always been her number one priority. Always.”
– Dave Montgomery and Robert Francis wrote this report with additional information from CNN reports.