Wendy Davis seeks to help young women find their voices through politics
It’s been more than two years since Wendy Davis lived in Fort Worth, but her office on Austin’s east side offers prominent reminders of the city where she rose from a struggling single mother to a defiant state senator who gained national stardom with a 13-hour Senate filibuster.
Her diploma from TCU adorns one wall, not far from her Harvard law degree. A photograph behind her desk shows Davis in the Horned Frog-purple football helmet she sported on the Senate floor in 2009 as part of the light-hearted hazing ritual bestowed on freshman senators during the passage of their first bill.
Davis spent 42 years in Fort Worth — from pre-adolescence into her early 50s — before moving to Austin in 2015 after a disastrous 20-point defeat as the Democratic nominee in the 2014 governor’s race. Now, as that low point fades further into the past, she looks buoyantly to the days ahead, including a forthcoming biopic starring Sandra Bullock as Davis and — quite possibly — a re-entry into statewide politics.
State Democratic Chairman Gilberto Hinojosa told the Star-Telegram recently that state party leaders tried to encourage Davis to run for a statewide office in 2018 — he declined to say which one — but Davis said she didn’t feel the time was right. However, the former two-term senator said she is not ruling out a statewide bid four years later in the 2022 election cycle.
For governor? “Possibly,” she said.
“I’ve never lost my interest in staying involved in politics,” Davis, 54, said during an interview in her office at Deeds Not Words, the nonprofit organization she created to empower and propel young women into public involvement. “I’ve said repeatedly from my gubernatorial loss to today that I want to run again at some point.”
Davis said she “honestly thought very seriously about 2018,” but she said that she wanted to stay focused on Deeds Not Words and didn’t feel she should undertake the immense challenges of a political run until she is “100 percent ready.”
Davis dismisses the notion that her political ambitions are permanently scarred by the size of her defeat in 2014.
“I don’t see 2014 as predicting the outcome of any future election,” she said. “I personally need to be ready. That’s the only thing that’s holding me back right now. I’m not afraid of a hard fight, and I’m not at all afraid of what happened in 2014 being a precursor to a future race.”
State Republican Party Chairman James Dickey said Davis’ 20-point defeat showed “how out of sync her issues were with the average Texan” but he acknowledged that “every election is different.”
“People learn from past experience, so we would not take it lightly if she were running,” Dickey said. “But I think if anything, Texans have shown less interest in the kind of ultra-extremist policies that she is best known for.”
‘Not just a story about me’
For the moment, most of the buzz surrounding Davis is centered on the still-evolving movie project starring Academy Award winner Bullock playing the former Texas senator.
Co-produced by Dallas-born Todd Black and Jason Blumenthal, the “Let Her Speak” will focus heavily on the marathon 2013 filibuster Davis waged against a Republican abortion bill but is also expected to contain flashbacks depicting other aspects of Davis’ life.
Wearing rouge-red Mizuno running shoes, Davis drew thousands to the state Capitol, and was watched by hundreds of thousands elsewhere through live-streaming, in her attempt to kill a bill that she and other Democrats said would sharply curtail access to abortions throughout the state.
The bill, SB5, was revived and passed in a special session called by then-Gov. Rick Perry but the U.S. Supreme Court later struck down portions of the law as unconstitutional.
Davis’ stand against the power of the state’s Republican leadership made her an instant national celebrity and fueled her bid to run for governor against then-Attorney General Greg Abbott, widely viewed as the Republican heir apparent to replace Perry in the 2014 election.
Although Democrats initially looked to Davis to lead the party to its first statewide victory since 1994, Abbott consistently held the lead and vanquished his Democratic rival in a landslide to win the governor’s office. He is seeking re-election.
Davis said she learned more than a year ago through her agent that the movie, “Let Her Speak,” was in the works but the project didn’t become publicized until reports in the entertainment press this month. Black and Blumenthal are reportedly seeking to secure a director for the script by New York-based writer Mario Correa.
The project encountered a recent dust-up over inaccuracies in a version of the script obtained by the Austin American-Statesman, including a dramatic statement by then Sen. Leticia Van de Putte that the screenplay wrongfully gave to the Davis character.
Davis quickly contacted Van de Putte and dispatched a Facebook post to “my fabulous feminist friends” saying the mistake would be corrected.
“I felt like there were some inaccuracies that needed a little bit of clarification and maybe a little bit of misunderstanding about how some things happened, but all in all, I really like it,” Davis said in summarizing her initial impressions of the screenplay.
“I like it that it’s not just a story about me, but it’s really a story about the power that we have to stand up against injustice, and to inspire those kinds of actions in other people.”
Davis said that Bullock, a former Austin resident who owns an eclectic Sixth Street bakery, has not only committed to playing Davis but also expressed a desire to co-produce the the film. Davis said she hasn’t met Bullock to discuss the project “but I will, and I’m looking forward to it.”
‘I love living in Austin’
During a 50-minute interview in her office, and a shorter session after a speaking engagement the following night, the former Fort Worth city council member and one-time Democratic state senator provided insights into the life she has forged in fast-growing Austin, the nation’s 11th largest city.
“I love living in Austin,” she said. “It’s a thriving vibrant city, it’s an active city and I’m a very active person.”
Davis, who is twice divorced and was married for 18 years to Fort Worth attorney and former city council member Jeff Davis, lives with her domestic partner, Alan Schoenbaum, a 60-year-old retired lawyer whom she met through politics several years ago.
Schoenbaum served as a co-finance chairman during her gubernatorial race, raising an “extraordinary amount of money,” Davis said. The couple is building a town home in Austin’s popular Clarksville section just west of downtown.
Davis says she primarily makes her living on the speaking circuit and no longer practices law as she did in Fort Worth.
The “great thing” in her life, she says, is her status as a grandmother.
Her older daughter, Amber, who lives in Austin, is the mother of an 18-month-old girl, Ellis, and Davis has fully plunged into her new role of “bubbie,” a Yiddish term of endearment for grandmother. Davis’ younger daughter, Dru, lives in Denver and works for an advertising agency.
Davis’ Austin-based universe heavily revolves around Deeds Not Words, which has engaged high-school and college-age young women with causes that promote gender equality and issues such as sexual harassment and sex trafficking. The causes have taken on added relevance at a time when reports of sexual misdeeds by high-profile entertainment and political figures continually dominate the news.
On being sexually harassed
Davis, in her interviews with the Star-Telegram and other media outlets, has disclosed that she was a target of sexual harassment by a state House member during her first session in the Legislature.
“I had my own personal experience with inappropriate behavior from a fellow lawmaker,” Davis said, without identifying the offender. “We had our ways of making sure that he suffered some consequence from that. It took him a couple of legislative sessions before he could finally get a bill passed.”
It wasn’t an accidental brushing. It was a purposeful touching of my breast.
Wendy Davis, on being sexually harassed
Davis told the Texas Tribune that the act occurred during a political event when she was having a conversation with a recently elected first-term House member who was unaware she was a fellow lawmaker. The man leaned forward as though to pat her arm, the Tribune quoted her saying, but instead cupped her breast.
“It wasn’t an accidental brushing,” she said. “It was a purposeful touching of my breast.”
In her interview with the Star-Telegram, Davis said has had “varying experiences of what might be defined as harassing or discriminatory behavior, but I’d done … what people in my generation have done. Just sort of put your head down and plow through it, and I’m just really pleased to see young women kind of deciding that enough is enough and that they’re … doing something about it.”
A primary objective of Deeds Not Words, which Davis unveiled in March of 2016 at Austin’s South by Southwest, is to help train and inspire young women to advocate in the legislative arena. Davis describes them as “game-changers.”
During the legislative 2017 session, college and high school students supported by the organization helped obtain passage of a package of bills sponsored by State Sen. Kirk Watson, D-Austin, to strengthen sexual assault laws to protect victims.
They also worked on behalf of a bill by State Sen. Judith Zaffirini, D-Laredo, to establish a public school curriculum on sex-trafficking prevention.
One game-changer is Sophie Jerwick, a 21-year-old University of Texas junior who was inspired by Davis’ filibuster when she was in high school at Overland Park, Kan. Now she’s a research intern for Deeds Not Words and describes Davis as a role model who has empowered her to be “a more fearless, unapologetic advocate.
“I heard Wendy say one day that we are training a new generation of filibusterers,” said Jerwick, calling the phrase as an “excellent way” to describe the mission of Deeds Not Words.
District 10 Senate seat
Davis still has the Mizuno running shoes that became an emblem of her filibuster but she sold an identical, autographed pair as part of a public moving sale she conducted in Fort Worth in February 2016 to shed many of her belongings after re-locating to Austin.
Also on the block, the Star-Telegram reported, were designer outfits, shoes, furniture and even a Dyson vacuum.
Although Davis divested her material ties to Fort Worth, her mother, brother and sister still live there, and Davis often returns to the Dallas-Fort Worth area as part of her work with Deeds Not Words.
“I still spend quite a bit of my time in my hometown,” she said.
Davis has taken a close interest in Democratic efforts to unseat Republican State Sen. Konni Burton of Colleyville, her successor in the District 10 Senate seat that spans the lower half of Tarrant County.
Former Burleson School Board member Beverly Powell and biomedical research scientist Allison Campolo of Euless are seeking the Democratic nomination against Burton, who has not drawn an opponent in the Republican primary.
Davis says she has joined local Democratic leaders in supporting Powell and has advised the candidate in what is being billed as one of the top priority Texas races in the 2018 elections.
Davis, who opted against seeking Senate re-election to run for governor, said Burton has done “a tremendous disservice to the families of Senate District 10” through her stands on abortion, pre-K funding, local control and other issues.
“I could go on and on,” Davis said in assessing Burton’s performance as a senator.
The Republican incumbent defended her record in a recent telephone interview.
“I think I’m representing the district quite well,” Burton said. “I’m in all parts of the district all the time speaking to constituents. Who I represent are the people in the district, not special interests of the district.”
She also criticized her predecessor, saying Davis presented herself as a moderate in the district but “quite clearly” compiled a liberal voting record during her time in Austin.
‘Still a star in our party’
Although Davis’ defeat in 2014 left Democrats demoralized and extended the party’s string of statewide losses, party leaders say Davis has unquestionably remained one of the state’s Democratic leaders, particularly at a time when the party is foundering to produce a formidable candidate with statewide appeal to run against Abbott in next year’s governor’s race. Dallas County Sheriff Lupe Valdez announced Wednesday that she is running as a Democrat.
Candidate filing ends Monday.
“There is no doubt that Wendy has a lot to offer Texas should she decide to enter elective politics again,” said Rep. Chris Turner, D-Grand Prairie, a veteran political consultant who was brought into manage Davis’ gubernatorial campaign during the final months of the race.
Hinojosa said Davis is “still a star in our party” and is “very, very, very much involved in crafting a message” and working with Democrats statewide to help get out the vote.
The party chairman partly attributes Davis’ 2014 defeat to a nationwide Republican wave and state Republicans’ ability to portray Davis as a one-issue candidate on abortion, effectively overshadowing her other positions on “kitchen table issues” such as education and healthcare.
“Wendy is someone on the list of statewide Democratic leaders that we would always go to to encourage that person to run for office,” Hinojosa said.
Davis keeps a high public persona, both in Texas and around the country, particularly for feminist and Democratic causes. She penned an op-ed article in a November issue of Cosmopolitan magazine in the aftermath of a recent wave of gun violence in Texas, including the church killings in Sutherland Springs, to make the case that women are disproportionately the victims of gun violence.
Davis received a robust reception for a speech sponsored by Austin’s Young Democrats the night before Thanksgiving, appearing before about 50 party activists at the historic Scholz Garten bar and restaurant a few blocks from the state Capitol. After her talk, which was largely a call for citizen activism, many of the attendees surrounded Davis to have their pictures taken with her.
“I want to see her run,” said attorney Paul Quinzi, a 43-year-old Travis County judicial candidate, asserting that “things are different than they were four years ago.”
Davis recently told the San Antonio Express-News that “it might take a lobotomy” for her to run for governor in 2018 but she made it clear in her interview with the Star-Telegram that the door isn’t closed for a potential future run.
“That probably wasn’t the nicest thing for me to say,” she said. “But I do know what it takes and I know I need to be 100 percent ready to give it that again, and when I am 100 percent ready to give it that again, I will.”