Dave Montgomery Austin Correspondent
AUSTIN – Without tipping her hand in advance of a much-anticipated political announcement this week, prospective gubernatorial candidate state Sen. Wendy Davis on Sunday offered a sneak peek of what Texans might expect if she were to become the state’s first Democratic governor in nearly two decades. In a one-and-half hour Q&A session with Evan Smith, editor-in-chief and CEO of The Texas Tribune, Davis said she supports driving permits for undocumented immigrants and would veto proposed increases in sales or property taxes. She also deplored what she said has become a pattern of “ideological theater” in Texas’ Republican-led state government.
Davis’ appearance at the online publication’s Tribune Festival –a three-day policy conference attended by scores of political figures and policy-makers – came just days before her likely entry into the 2014 governor’s race. The two-term Democratic state senator from Fort Worth is expected to declare her candidacy Thursday at Wiley G. Thomas Coliseum in Haltom City, where she received her high school diploma 32 years ago. Despite prodding by Smith, Davis was careful not to upstage her announcement ceremony, saying she could neither confirm nor deny a spate of press reports that she has privately told influential Democrats that she plans to seek the office now held by outgoing Republican Gov. Rick Perry.
But she nevertheless presented at least a hypothetical blueprint of some of her top priorities for the state as she responded to questions on topics such as education, health care, transportation and the state’s relations with Washington. Davis, asked to identify any area where she disagrees with President Obama, restated her sharp differences with the president and the Justice Department over the administration’s suit to block a merger between American Airlines and US Airways. The issue would also likely be an early point of conflict against Republican gubernatorial front-runner Greg Abbott, who, as the Texas attorney general, has joined the Obama administration in trying to block the merger.
“I disagree very strongly on that,” Davis said of the suit filed by the Obama Administration and six states, including Texas, calling American Airlines “an integral part of the Texas economy” and a “very integral part of Fort Worth.’’ Without mentioning Abbott, she also said that no state in its “right mind” would turn away the effective relocation of Arizona-based US Airways to Texas through the merger. Abbott, in an interview at the Tribune Festival on Saturday, defended his decision to participate in the lawsuit, saying that “certain components” of the merger “violate anti-trust laws” and could hurt air service to rural Texas. Abbott, who announced his candidacy this summer, is heavily favored to win the Republican nomination and has raised more than $21 million. Former Republican Party Chairman Tom Pauken of Dallas, Abbott’s lone challenger in the Republican primary, also supports the airlines merger and has hammered Abbott for filing suit against it. Davis’ interview closed the three-day event on the University of Texas campus and was easily the headline event. More than 1,000 spectators filled the ballroom and an overflow room, sometimes applauding her answers or laughing when he she cautiously framed her responses to avoid declaring her intentions. As the program ended, many raised their cell phone cameras over the crowd to snap a picture.
Davis, who has been under intense pressure from Texas Democrats and affiliated groups to jump into the race, became an overnight political celebrity after filibustering a Republican-backed bill restricting abortions during the first of three special legislative sessions. She acknowledged that, if she runs, Republicans might try paint her as a one issue candidate supporting abortion. But she said she Texans are more concerned about issues that affect their daily lives, such as education, health care “and getting a good job.” “I’ve been through a lot of tough fights in my life and I’ve learned to weather them.” Davis said, conceding that she would likely confront sharp attacks from Republicans. She said she is “capable of withstanding all kinds of heat and all kinds of nastiness.”
Responding to a question from the audience, Davis said he supports providing driver’s permits for undocumented immigrants. Several business groups embraced a similar proposal during the 2013 legislative session as a way to insure undocumented immigrant drivers and improve security on the roads but the measure died in the House. “Employers were very insistent that we do that,” said Davis. Smith, pointing out that the proposal is strongly opposed by the tea party, asked Davis is she was prepared to support the measure “despite the heat” she might confront. “Yes,” Davis replied. Davis, who also waged a brief filibuster against more than $5 billion in education cuts in 2011, said the state must adequately fund public education to help the state develop a competitive work force and maintain its robust economic stature. “If we fail to come together and do the right thing for the school children…this wonderful story we tell about the health and vibrancy” of Texas “is likely to crumble,” she said.
As one source of possible revenue, Davis said the state should take a hard look at the millions in state sales tax exemptions to weed out those that are outdated or are no longer needed. She suggested a periodic review of tax exemptions similar to the Sunset process used to determine whether state agencies should be continued, restructured or terminated. But, asked about other ways to raise money, she said she would oppose raising sales taxes or property taxes. “I would certainly take a sales tax, a property tax increase off the table – absolutely,” she said. “And if I had – one day, some day – the privilege of being in a leadership position (to) veto legislation like that, I would.” Davis repeatedly referred to her nine years on the Fort Worth city council and said that state lawmakers should work to overcome partisan divisions that she said stand in the way of constructive solutions. She said that Republican lawmakers often worry about getting a bad rating on conservative “scorecards” if they embrace a particular position. “I think we need to have more of that town hall community input to what we’re doing ,” she said. “I’d like to see us returning to more of that kind of conversation… without worrying about the party label.” She also criticized Perry and other Republicans for repeatedly assailing Washington and the Obama administration without trying to forge areas of agreement. Abbott has cited his more than 25 lawsuits against the Obama administration as a selling point to voters. “That kind of acrimony makes for great political theater but it doesn’t solve the real problems of real people,” said Davis. “The idea that we would hold with complete hostility what could be a partner in making Texas a better place doesn’t make a lot of sense. “