Her rise to become the great Democratic hope in Republican-dominated Texas has been more than 17 years in the making. And her first run for elective office might not have foreshadowed the buzz she’s generating now.
Since Davis dramatically led the sinking (at least temporarily) of abortion restrictions being pushed by Gov. Rick Perry and the GOP leaders in the Texas Legislature, the national media have eagerly repeated her compelling life story: 19-year-old divorced single mom who made it from community college to Harvard Law School — and now the TV talk show rounds! And maybe the governor’s mansion next year? Or even the U.S. Senate?
But Davis’ work as a neighborhood association leader didn’t exactly make her a political darling with the powers that were when she first ran for Fort Worth City Council in 1996. She lost a nonpartisan runoff by 90 votes, then unsuccessfully sued the local newspaper for defamation over coverage of the campaign that included an editorial on the day of the runoff.
She came back to win a council seat in 1999 and, except for a quixotic protest over an oversized Staples sign in her district, proved to be a thoughtful, tough, well-prepared, strategically savvy council member who helped improve the city.
She demonstrated her skill at political maneuvering in unseating a Republican incumbent for the Texas Senate in 2008, and Texas Monthly named her Rookie of the Year in the 2009 session for tackling “substantive subjects like oil and gas drilling, electric utility regulation, and consumer debt in her debut session.”
The glowing profiles of her haven’t touched on the way she outsmarted Republicans who tried to redistrict her out of office. She sued over the maps GOP lawmakers adopted in 2011. And even though the Justice Department had not objected to the state Senate redrawing, a federal court ruled that legislators had acted with “discriminatory intent” in reconfiguring Senate District 10 in Fort Worth, which Davis represents.
While legal wrangling continued over congressional and state House districts, Davis got an agreement from state officials that left her district’s boundaries the same for 2012 as for 2008, and she won again.
To me, her hour-and-15-minutes filibuster of a 2011 spending bill that shorted Texas public schools by more than $4 billion more directly affected more Texans than the most recent spectacle.
But the latest one was about abortion, and the mother of two daughters talking about women’s ability to control their own reproductive choices is going to resonate.
And if your #StandWithWendy hashtag trends on Twitter and President Obama tweets about you, well, what politician with as much sense as she has ambition isn’t going to ride that wave?
After Davis’ education-funding filibuster, Perry called her a “show horse.” Problem for him is that she knows how to win races – and she attracts people willing to bet money on her.
After her abortion filibuster, Perry said Davis should have learned from the example of her personal history “that every life must be given a chance to realize its own potential.”
She responded that she’s had a chance to make choices and develop her potential and other women should get that chance, too.
Texas Tribune’s Ross Ramsey had the most-original description of Davis that I’ve seen lately: “Vexing the Republicans, frankly, is a quality she shares with none of the Democrats who have run for governor of Texas since Ann Richards: She galvanizes her supporters and makes the other team crazy.” (http://www.texastribune.org/2013/06/29/davis-opportunity-knocks-inopportune-time/)
The thing I find most vexing about her is that her law firm, which is certified as a minority-owned business, does a lot of work for public entities, such as cities and school boards. That’s legal, but I don’t believe lawmakers should be working on public contracts.
Davis is smart, shrewd and actually accomplishes good for her constituents. But will the thousands who’ve jumped on her bandwagon have the staying power to move the political pendulum in Texas?
It’s one thing to wear t-shirts and rally at the Capitol and get swept up in political theater and call it victory. It’s quite another to get out the vote when it really matters.
Linda P. Campbell spent 19 years as a reporter, editorial writer and columnist for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. She’s currently communications director for Tulane Law School in New Orleans.