A parking lot plan likely propelled Wendy Davis into public service

Posted Monday, Sep. 02, 2013  comments  Print Reprints
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A battle over a parking lot.

State Sen. Wendy Davis has become a focal point in the national debate over abortion as she weighs whether to run for re-election to her state Senate seat in Tarrant County or for governor.

But the issue that first drew the Fort Worth Democrat into politics was something far more local.

Nearly 20 years ago, Davis was a private citizen protesting a plan to convert the Forest Park “archery range” area into a parking lot for the Fort Worth Zoo.

She spoke to city leaders, explaining what she saw as the need to preserve the green space she could see from the yard of her nearby Mistletoe Heights home.

She ruffled a few feathers and called out prominent business leaders along the way, but after months of talk and negotiations, a compromise was forged to let zoo patrons park on the unpaved archery range grounds when necessary — but still maintain the green space.

That fight, which Davis believes cost her a job at a downtown law firm, may have been what propelled her to run for the City Council when the District 9 seat opened up two years later.

That became the only political race she ever lost.

“You won’t change things unless you are prepared to fight, even if you don’t win,” Davis told Vogue magazine this year. “But I do hate losing.”

A look back

In 1994, Davis was a Harvard Law School graduate, a mother and the wife of former Councilman Jeff Davis, a world away from where she was more than a decade earlier.

Married soon after graduating from high school, Davis was divorced by age 19, working two jobs and raising her daughter in a trailer park.

Trying to forge a better future, she enrolled in a paralegal program at Tarrant County Junior College, attended classes for two years and transferred to TCU with the help of scholarships and student loans.

There she graduated first in her class, became the first person in her family to earn a bachelor’s degree and met the man who would be her second husband. After that, she attended Harvard Law School, had a second daughter, graduated with honors and became a practicing attorney in Fort Worth.

After the zoo fight, she described herself as “a person who has fought the good fight” to save parkland. She also has said she believes the fight cost her a job at a downtown law firm that did legal work for the local zoological association.

In 1996, she ran for the City Council seat being vacated by Kenneth Barr, who was in the race to replace Kay Granger as mayor. It was a four-way race among her, Cathy Hirt, Lee Saldivar and Jenny Phillipson.

She and Hirt made it to a runoff, which Davis lost by 90 votes.

She later sued the Star-Telegram and former Publisher Richard L. Connor, alleging that the paper ran a series of “false and defamatory” articles to keep the zoo issue alive, including an editorial that ran the day of the runoff. A Dallas district judge threw out the lawsuit.

Council days

When Hirt didn’t seek re-election in 1999, Davis jumped into a three-way race for the council seat against public affairs consultant Dan Roberts and businessman David Minor.

As immediate past president of the Mistletoe Heights Neighborhood Association, Davis said she was making a second bid for the District 9 office because she “has a desire to serve on the City Council.”

“I was just deterred a little bit,” she said then about her 1996 loss.

This time, even Hirt supporters helped campaign for Davis, who won with 50.8 percent of the vote.

She served on the council for nearly a decade, working on economic development deals, city budgets, city bond projects, efforts to make Fort Worth an attractive place to live, even a new trash and recycling system using large carts.

“She’s very hardworking and very street-savvy,” said former Councilman Jim Lane, who served several years on the council with Davis. “She didn’t come up with fame and fortune. She came up the hard way.

“She knows the way of the Harvard Law School, but she also knows the way of a street fight.”

Not only did she help dictate policy within City Hall, but she also worked in her neighborhood to bring about change.

In 2001, Davis was angry after Staples opened anew store on South University Drive with a large, bland rectangular sign on top of a 30-foot metal pole, after officials had promised to put in a more attractive monument-style sign.

So she and others protested outside the store, carrying signs such as “Staples, you lie — from you we won’t buy,” and “Our signs will be gone tomorrow … Will yours?”

“The neighborhood said they were going to protest with their signs and she was part of it,” said former Councilwoman Becky Haskin, who served on the council with Davis for years. “Some people would have said, ‘Here’s what you need to do.’ But she gets out there and does it herself.

“She had a following even back then.”

One of the biggest controversies Davis faced was a proposal to move residents from the Ripley Arnold public housing complex into the Stonegate Villas apartments in the Hulen area.

It was a Fort Worth Housing Authority decision, but many residents at least partly blamed Barr and Davis, who represented the area.

“Wendy was unfairly attacked in that process,” Barr said. “It takes a toll on you when people are coming at you like that. She stood strong through that.

“She was a strong advocate for her neighborhoods, and she was willing to stand up for what she thought was right.”

Time for change

Elected five times, Davis served on the City Council until 2008, when she resigned to challenge state Sen. Kim Brimer, R-Arlington, for Texas Senate District 10.

“Texas is ready for change,” she said at the time. “The partnership in Austin is badly broken.”

Fort Worth firefighters sued to disqualify Davis from running because even though she resigned, she was serving out her term until a replacement could be elected. That lawsuit was dismissed and was quickly followed by a similar lawsuit filed by Brimer, which also was dismissed.

“I hope [the ruling] sends a message to my opponent,” Davis said at the time. “That message being that it’s time to start debating the issues that are important to the voters of Senate District 10 and put aside these petty legal obstacles.”

After a long and nasty campaign, Davis won with 49.91 percent of the vote.

“I liken Wendy to what I saw in Kay Granger — they were both going to go somewhere and get there fairly fast,” Haskin said. “There’s only a few of those women.

“I look forward to seeing what she does in the future.”

Another challenge

In 2011, on the last day of the legislative session, Davis began a filibuster — described by many as more like a 79-minute speech — to block passage of a key GOP school finance bill that she said didn’t keep up with enrollment growth and slashed more than $5 billion from education.

“I know a lot of you didn't want to see the session end this way,” Davis told her colleagues. “I didn’t want to either.”

Nonetheless, she talked until the end of the session, prompting Gov. Rick Perry to call a special session. “We come here to work,” Perry said at the time. “We don't come here to be show horses.”

A bill similar to the one Davis killed soon passed in a special session.

State lawmakers redrew Senate District 10 that year to make it more Republican. Davis and others fought that decision in the courts, which ultimately said the Legislature was wrong and district boundaries had to stay the same as they were in 2008.

State Rep. Mark Shelton, R-Fort Worth, challenged Davis for the Senate seat, and Republicans statewide endorsed him and dumped money into the race.

Supporters included top Republicans such as Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst, who recently said he doesn’t think Davis “stands a chance running for statewide office.” Much of the campaign was tied up with accusations, ethics complaints and other legal challenges.

Davis won with 51.12 percent of the vote.

“We knew it would be a tough campaign from the start,” Davis said after the election. “We knew there was a lot at stake here.”

The waiting game

Davis said this year that she would seek re-election to Senate District 10. But after drawing nationwide attention this summer for the filibuster, Democrats encouraged her to run for a statewide office such as governor.

She recently delayed any announcement about her political plans, likely until late this month, because her father — Jerry Russell, founder and director of Fort Worth’s Stage West — has been in the hospital in critical condition for the past week.

During one of her earliest campaigns for City Council, a testimonial from her father was featured in campaign brochures.

“Wendy is a fighter and a winner,” his statement read. “Extraordinarily level-headed and fair-minded, she assesses an issue in politics and life, makes a rational, educated decision and then has the intense will and staying power to see it through.”

Video: Bud Kennedy’s one minute on Wendy Davis

Anna Tinsley, 817-390-7610 Twitter: @annatinsley

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