Saying she’s “had enough,” state Sen. Wendy Davis of Fort Worth unloaded on Attorney General Greg Abbott on Tuesday night, blaming him and his allies for waging a smear campaign against her family and warning that he had picked a fight with the “wrong Texas gal.”
Abbott’s campaign could not immediately be reached for comment. A day after the publication of a Dallas Morning News report questioning some details of her personal story, Abbott campaign spokesman Matt Hirsch said Davis had “systematically, intentionally and repeatedly deceived Texans for years about her background, yet she expects voters to indulge her fanciful narrative.”
Davis’ remarks Tuesday night were the most direct, personal and sustained criticism the Democratic candidate for governor has leveled at her expected Republican opponent so far.
“They know they can’t defend their public record,” Davis said of Abbott and his allies, according to a written copy of her speech handed out in advance. “So they’re attacking my private life.”
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Davis was speaking at a boisterous, sold-out fundraiser for the Travis County Democratic Party, serving as keynote speaker at the Johnson-Bentsen-Richards dinner at the Four Seasons hotel in downtown Austin. In a bit of curious timing, her speech went on at the same time President Barack Obama was delivering his State of the Union address.
Davis, a state senator from Fort Worth, rose to prominence last summer after waging a filibuster against a restrictive abortion bill. A few weeks later she announced she was running for governor. Her celebrity helped her rake in millions and raised Democratic hopes that the party can win statewide office after nearly two decades in the wilderness.
But for the last 10 days her campaign has been rocked by criticism about the way she characterized her early biography, which stressed her struggles as a single mother. Davis acknowledged that she got a couple of details wrong, in particular her age when she and her first husband divorced. She was 21, not 19 as she said previously.
On Tuesday night, Davis tried to forcefully reclaim that narrative while criticizing Abbott on a range of policy issues and promising to change the direction of Texas, where Republicans control every statewide office and both houses of the Legislature.
“This is all happening for one simple reason,” Davis said. “Greg Abbott and his allies have had a stranglehold on power in this state for two decades and they want to keep it. But now they’re hearing all those voices they have shut out and silenced for so long.”
Davis said she had a message for her opponents: “You can attack my record. You can challenge my ideas. You can play holier-than-thou with my life story,” she said. “But I draw the line when it comes to lying about my family.”
She said her detractors had “mangled the story of my life” by suggesting that she had abandoned her children to attend Harvard Law School and, later, had somehow lost custody of her children.
“I never gave up custody of my children. I never lost custody of my children,” she said. “And to say otherwise is an absolute lie.”
According to divorce records, she and her husband were granted “joint conservatorship” of her minor child, Dru, who was a teenager at the time. She continued to live with her father, Jeff Davis, in the house the couple had shared. Wendy Davis moved into an apartment and paid child support after her second divorce was final in 2005, records show.
Earlier Tuesday, Davis’ daughters weighed in on the controversy, saying their mother had been subjected to malicious and ludicrous attacks.
In open letters released Tuesday, Amber and Dru Davis said their mother indeed struggled as a single mother but still managed to participate fully in their lives. Dru Davis, who was a toddler when Wendy Davis attended Harvard Law School, called her a remarkable mother and role model.
“I hate that I feel the need to write this, but I have been reading and hearing so many untrue things about my mom and I want to set the record straight,” wrote Dru Davis, now 25. “And sadly I feel the need to be crystal clear on the malicious and false charge of abandonment as nothing could be further from the truth. My mom has always shared equally in the care and custody of my sister and me.”
Conservative bloggers and commentators have cited the time Wendy Davis spent at Harvard as proof that she “abandoned” her daughters. But in their open letters, Dru and Amber Davis called that an unfair characterization.
“Yes, she went to law school after my sister and I were born. We lived with her the first semester, but I had severe asthma and the weather there wasn’t good for me,” Dru Davis wrote. “My parents made a decision for my sister and me to stay in Texas while my mom kept going to school. But that doesn’t mean she wasn’t there for us. She traveled back and forth all the time, missing so many classes so that she could be with us.”
Amber Davis, 31, who has appeared in ads for her mom’s campaign, said in her open letter that she felt compelled to speak out after reading “ludicrous” comments on social media about her and her family.
“It is a shame that those who don’t know us feel the need to comment on the details of our lives as if they’ve lived them,” she said.
“Yes, we lived in a trailer,” Amber Davis added, tackling questions raised about that part of the Wendy Davis narrative. “Does it matter how long? Not to me.”