Texas State Senator Wendy Davis is an impressive woman. She is a charismatic Harvard-educated attorney and prodigious fundraiser with an ability to energize the state’s Democratic base better than anyone in decades. But the details of her life story have become the issue of the week in her gubernatorial campaign against Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott, and may threaten to slow down her momentum.
Sen. Davis’s political career was catapulted by a dramatic 13-hour filibuster of a bill designed to restrict abortion access statewide. She made the rounds on the national Sunday talk shows and became a statewide feminist icon. The pink tennis shoes she wore during her filibuster (throughout which she could only speak about abortion — no Green Eggs and Ham) have come to symbolize a range of issues, including fair pay and reproductive health.
Her rags-to-riches life story contributes to her iconic status: a single teenage mother living in a trailer park pulls herself up by her bootstraps to attend Texas Christian University and Harvard Law School before winning seats on the Fort Worth City Council and the Texas State Senate. This portrait, which gave me chills as I typed it, is quintessentially American and one that she actively sought to cultivate.
Of course, the story was actually more complicated. Dallas Morning News reporter Wayne Slater investigated the issue last week and kicked off a statewide uproar. The Editorial Board summed up the article and my sentiment nicely on Tuesday:
Davis or her campaign has been the source of chronological error and allowed misperceptions to jell as fact.
Yes, she was a single mother living in the family’s mobile home, but for only a few months before she and her daughter moved in with her mother and then went on to an apartment. She was not 19 and divorced, as Davis has said; the decree came when she was 21.
Davis married a second time, and her husband provided the money she needed to finish college and attend Harvard Law School. He also kept their two daughters, ages 8 and 2, in Fort Worth while she went to Boston to pursue her law degree. That marriage also ended in divorce, with her husband awarded child custody.
The fuller picture is far more complicated and less useful as a political narrative. Still, it was good to see Davis, a state senator from Fort Worth, take responsibility for the need to “be more focused on the detail” of her story.
Wayne Slater is more inclined to write an unflattering profile about Greg Abbott than Wendy Davis. His reporting was objective in the purest sense: He wrote something somewhat unflattering against someone with whom he agrees.
While Senator Davis may have played it fast and loose with some of the minor details of her biography, this behavior is totally consistent with modern (and pre-modern) campaign messaging. She did make her biography the cornerstone of her campaign, which makes the details fair game.
Ultimately, this story will not matter much in November unless one of the campaigns dramatically overreaches, which isn’t necessarily outside the realm of possibility. Demographic factors and political reality will outweigh the candidates’ biographies on Election Day.
Wendy Davis is no less impressive to me.