Is Sen. Wendy Davis poised for statewide race?

Posted Saturday, Jan. 19, 2013  comments  Print Reprints

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AUSTIN -- Fortified by a convincing re-election victory, state Sen. Wendy Davis is resuming her role as a fierce critic of Republican-led education cuts as she enters her third regular session of the Legislature.

Political watchers say the session could set the stage for Davis to run for statewide office.

In a wide-ranging interview last week, the Fort Worth Democrat said one of her objectives is to reverse deep cuts in education and other services that she says were orchestrated by Gov. Rick Perry and other Republicans during the 2011 session.

"If we continue on the track we are today, with the tremendous underfunding of public education and higher education, we are putting Texas on a path to fail," she said.

Davis amassed Democratic star power by repelling a well-funded Republican assault in November and gaining a second term in her Tarrant County Senate seat.

Her defeat of then-Rep. Mark Shelton, a Fort Worth pediatrician endorsed by Perry and other Republican leaders, heightened speculation that she is on her way to a statewide political run, possibly in 2014.

"From the perspective of electability, she's one of our top superstars in Texas," said state Democratic Chairman Gilberto Hinojosa, who believes that Davis is a potential candidate for governor, lieutenant governor or the U.S. Senate. "Her sensibility and approach to politics will just automatically propel her as a top candidate for statewide office."

Davis has acknowledged an interest in moving up the political ladder but says her immediate focus is on working for District 10 and pushing a diverse legislative agenda in the 83rd Legislature, which will run until May 27.

A key step in her decision could come Wednesday, when senators draw lots to determine whether they will have two- or four-year terms.

The staggered terms are required after decennial redistricting, which places all 31 senators in redrawn districts.

Asked last week about her political future, Davis said she is "solely focused on my Senate work right now and certainly focused on the possibility that I may have to run for the seat again in two years."

Davis, a Harvard-educated lawyer and former Fort Worth councilwoman, entered the Senate in January 2009 after unseating longtime Republican Sen. Kim Brimer with less than 50 percent of the vote in the November 2008 election.

She was named "Rookie of the Year" by Texas Monthly magazine during her first session.

Two years later, Davis drew national attention -- as well as the enmity of Republican leaders -- for an end-of-session filibuster over more than $5 billion in education cuts, forcing Perry to call a special session.

A New York Times online headline described Davis as "an overnight celebrity."

Now Davis, 49, is back with a legislative portfolio that includes unfinished business, such as tougher regulations on payday loans, as well as a number of emerging initiatives.

She has weighed in heavily on a scandal at the Cancer Prevention and Research Institute of Texas by calling for an audit of questionable grants and by pushing legislation to reform the institute.

In what might be considered an unlikely partnership, she is working with two Tea Party-backed Republican freshmen who supported her opponent in November.

Davis and Rep. Jonathan Stickland of Hurst have teamed up on companion bills to help military families. And she is Senate sponsor of a bill by Rep. Giovanni Capriglione of Southlake to increase transparency of state officials' personal finances.

Late last week, Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst, the Senate's presiding officer, removed Davis from the Senate Education Committee in what may have been an attempt to diminish her influence in opposing Republican education policies.

Davis spokesman Rick Svatora said that the senator is "obviously disappointed" but that "this action will not silence Sen. Davis or hamper her efforts on behalf of public education."

Sen. Leticia Van de Putte of San Antonio, the Senate's Democratic leader, said Davis "is going to play a critical role on education, whether she sits on the committee or not."

She said Davis will also help lead the chamber's 12 Democrats on other fronts, including healthcare and transportation.

Van de Putte described Davis as "tenacious" and "scary smart" and as a "mama lion" when it comes to protecting Tarrant County interests such as Naval Air Station Fort Worth.

Even Perry compliments Davis' political and legislative skills despite his polar-opposite stance on many state issues.

"She's very capable, obviously a good campaigner," Perry said in an interview with the Star-Telegram on the opening day of the session. "She and I don't always agree on philosophical issues, but that's why we come here."

The Shelton campaign depicted Davis as a "liberal Obama Democrat" who is out of step with her district.

Davis, by contrast, sees herself as a centrist Democrat sensitive to the needs of constituents who she said have suffered under the lean-government policies of Perry and other Republicans.

To underscore her connection to those she serves, Davis often cites her own story as a 19-year-old single mother who became the first in her family to get a college degree -- from TCU -- and who went on to graduate with honors from Harvard Law School.

'The new normal'?

Davis has criticized newly released draft budgets for the next two years, which include money for public school enrollment but do not restore the $5 billion cut from education in 2011. The hold-the-line spending plans also call for a 6 percent cut in community colleges, Davis said.

"I don't think that's an acceptable solution to where we find ourselves in public education funding today," she said. "Essentially, what it does is institutionalize an unacceptable level of cuts that were made in the last session," when lawmakers cut more than $15 billion in state services in the aftermath of the national recession.

"Many of my colleagues refer to those cuts last session as the new normal," she said. "But I don't believe Texans want that to be our new normal. They want us to support public ed."

Davis, who favors drawing from the state's rainy-day fund to help reverse education cuts, says robust funding of public schools and higher education is essential to maintaining an educated workforce and a vibrant state.

"I think most people would agree that in order for Texas to maintain its excellence, we've got to invest in the most valuable resource we have -- that's our human capital," she said.

"I know the economy is important to Gov. Perry. Obviously, he likes to talk about what a great place Texas is and what a wonderful climate we've created here for that. But if we don't have an educated workforce, it won't be long before we lose our footing there."

Better-than-expected revenue estimates have prompted calls for spending beyond the level in the proposed House and Senate budgets. But Republican leaders want the state to continue a conservative, no-tax budget approach, which they say has fostered a booming state economy. Much of the debate, Davis said, will focus on "providing the bare-bone basics vs. providing the excellence that Texas has the capacity to provide."

Davis and other Democrats oppose a GOP-backed voucher system that could give parents state aid to send their children to private schools. She also questions Perry's overtures toward using the projected additional revenue for some form of tax relief.

Teachers and other education groups rallied behind Davis in last year's election by making donations and volunteering.

"We're very happy we have her in the Texas Senate," said Ed Martin of the Texas State Teachers Association, adding that Davis "made her mark" as a champion of public schools with her stands against the education cuts.

Political future

Davis' political path may become clearer after the session, when candidates begin jockeying for position. The candidate lineup in 2014 will strongly depend on whether Perry runs for a fourth four-year term, a decision he expects to announce in June.

Assessments of Davis' statewide prospects depend largely on the partisan perspective.

Republican consultant Matt Mackowiak of Austin said Davis is "unabashedly liberal" and is unlikely to win a race for governor or lieutenant governor in such a red state.

"She has demonstrated an ability to raise money, she does come from Dallas-Fort Worth, and she did survive a tough race this last time, so those are in her favor," he said.

But the next Democrat to win statewide office -- something that hasn't happened in two decades -- will be moderate, Hispanic or both, he said.

"And she's neither."

But Hinojosa said Davis has the résumé to run for any top office and can attract voters from across the spectrum.

"Wendy has shown that she's not only an excellent public official but that she's very electable among a moderate to conservative electorate in Texas," he said.

Jim Henson, director of the Texas Politics Project at the University of Texas at Austin, said a statewide run by Davis is "much more a matter of when rather than if."

"I think since the early days of her tenure in the Legislature, she has been somebody that Democrats have looked at with high expectations," he said.

Dave Montgomery is the Star-Telegram's Austin bureau chief. 512-739-4471

Twitter: @daveymontgomery

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