Once, Fort Worth Democrat Libby Willis was called too nice for Texas politics.
She’s working on that.
Her speeches still sound like history lectures, but her new lessons are about both Texas’ future and the failings of Colleyville Republican buzzsaw Konni Burton, her rival for state Sen. Wendy Davis’ Fort Worth-Arlington district.
Willis’ debut speech for Texas Democrats on Saturday included plenty of campaign red meat. She said Burton, co-founder of a controversy-driven Tea Party group, shows a “lack of common sense” by opposing tighter background checks to buy a gun.
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Willis also said Burton’s “passionate but misguided” libertarian-Tea Party vision of a shrinking Texas government is at “the far edge of politics.”
Democrats gave Willis an unusual showcase for a rookie, sending the city neighborhoods activist up ahead of veteran lawmakers as one of the first speakers for the annual Lady Bird Johnson delegates’ breakfast, then onstage later for the general session.
Beforehand, her campaign released a poll of 500 District 10 voters showing Burton with a 3-point lead, virtually even, given the margin of error. After hearing a description of both candidates, voters gave Willis a slight edge but the campaign remained even.
That gave Democrats new hope, since Davis usually had to win by overcoming a 6- or 8-point Republican majority.
Davis also won twice on the coattails of Democratic presidential victories. This time, Willis must grasp for any shred of Davis coattails and also appeal to Republicans leery of Burton.
Fort Worth Democrat Francisco Hernandez knows Willis from his work as an aide to her late father-in-law, Doyle Willis, a state senator and reprsentative for 42 years.
“I hope she wins, but she can’t run on an anti-Republican message,” Hernandez wrote by text message.
“She can only win by courting the middle voters who have disconnected from the hate rhetoric.”
After the morning speech, Willis called herself a moderate and said she will campaign to both Democrats and Republicans.
“The day after Burton won the runoff [against Fort Worth Republican Mark Shelton], my phone started ringing,” she said.
“People said, ‘I’m a Republican. How can I help you?”
In the speech, she criticized not only the Tea Party movement’s view of public education — “They speak as if our teachers are the enemy” — but also Burton’s opposition to state-financed public water projects.
Willis struck moderate notes in talking about her Abilene childhood and faith and the familiar common-sense view of guns: “Guns don’t kill people, people kill people.”
Then she focused on the people, calling for expanded background checks “to keep guns out of the hands of criminals, terrorists and the mentally ill.”
Willis also said carrying assault rifles into restaurants might be legal, but it “shows an incredible lack of common sense.”
(Burton has sided with open-carry supporters, particularly when the Arlington City Council banned rifles and shotguns from meetings.)
Willis also relied on traditional Democratic messages, supporting Planned Parenthood’s cancer screenings and criticizing Burton for opposing abortion in rape or incest cases.
But despite the ballroom setting and showcase opportunity, Willis only delivered one line that stirred loud applause: when she called for state-funded pre-K classes.
When she finished, as breakfast plates and cups clattered, most drowsy delegates applauded, but only a few sprang to their feet.
Both sides have four months to wake voters up.