This story has been updated throughout.
DALLAS — Gov. Rick Perry went after rising Democratic star Wendy Davis on Thursday, saying the Texas senator’s fierce advocacy of abortion rights shows that she did not “learn from her own example’’ as a single mother.
The surprisingly personal criticism of Davis, delivered at the National Right to Life convention in Dallas, came two days after she waged a now famous filibuster of a restrictive abortion measure in the state Senate.
Davis called Perry's statement "without dignity," and said it "tarnishes the high office he holds."
"They are small words that reflect a dark and negative point of view," she said. "Our governor should reflect our Texas values. Sadly, Gov. Perry fails that test."
The filibuster and protests in the Senate gallery disrupted proceedings and sunk the bill in the final chaotic seconds of a special session that ended at midnight Tuesday. The next day, Perry called a second special session so lawmakers can adopt the bill.
Perry told abortion opponents here that the way the bill was killed amounted to “nothing more than the hijacking of the democratic process” and said adopting new restrictions on abortion was “too important a cause to allow unruly actions of a few to stand in its way.”
But it was his remarks about Davis that raised eyebrows, and the comments generated a veritable firestorm of criticism on Twitter. Democratic strategist Matt Angle said Perry had "crossed the line" and owed Davis an apology.
Perry directly referenced the Fort Worth lawyer and legislator after rhetorically asking in his speech, “Who are we to say that children born into the worst of circumstances can’t grow to live successful lives?”
“In fact, even the woman who filibustered the Senate the other day was born into difficult circumstances. She was the daughter of a single woman. She was a teenage mother herself,” Perry said. “She managed to eventually graduate from Harvard Law School and serve in the Texas Senate.”
“It’s just unfortunate that she hasn’t learned from her own example: that every life must be given a chance to realize its full potential and that every life matters,” he said.
Asked to elaborate on his remarks after the speech, Perry told reporters that Davis "came from difficult circumstances.''
"I know she is proud of where she has found herself in life, and I’m proud that she has been able to take advantage of her intellect and her hard work, but she didn’t come from particularly good circumstances," he said. "What if her mom had said, 'I just can’t do this, I don’t want to do this'? At that particular point in time I think it becomes very personal for us.”
Davis has referred to the challenges of her humble upbringing in campaign literature and speeches. She is a twice-divorced single mother who had her first daughter as a teenager and was the first in her family to go to college. She worked her way from junior college and a Tarrant County trailer park to Harvard Law School and the Fort Worth City Council.
Perry had been scheduled to speak at the Dallas event before Davis launched her filibuster Tuesday morning, but the spectacular failure of the abortion legislation made his remarks particularly timely. The governor, who believes that abortion should be legal only when the life of the mother is in danger, said the theatrics in the Senate proved that proponents of abortion rights will "resort to mob tactics to force their minority agenda on the people of Texas."
The governor also took issue with a chief complaint of opponents of the proposed abortion curbs. Under the legislation that Perry wants to resurrect in the newly called special session, abortions would have to be performed in so-called ambulatory surgical centers. Because only five of the 42 abortion facilites in Texas meet that standard, opponents say that Republicans want to use the law to shut down most of them.
Perry said women should be able to expect that the care they get at abortion facilities is "up to standards." Once the law takes effect, he suggested that providers can then choose whether to upgrade or shut down.
"If the abortion industry decides that the expense of running clean, safe facilities outweighs the money that they can make, that’s entirely their call," he added.
The governor used the speech to exhort opponents of abortion to gin up the energy and activism in order to counter the hordes of protesters that filled the state Capitol and supported Davis during her filibuster.
"Going forward, we have to match their intensity, but do it with grace and civility and dignity that our cause deserves," Perry said. "And just remember this: The louder they scream, the more we know we’re are getting something done.”
Attorney General Greg Abbott, the heavy Republican favorite for governor in 2014 if Perry doesn't run for re-election, also spoke to the group. But he was far more cautious than Perry. He stuck with an upbeat tone and said Texas had some of the toughest abortion laws in the nation. He never mentioned Davis and left the event without talking to reporters.
Perry has never ruled out a run for re-election, even as speculation mounts that he will not launch a campaign for an unprecedented fourth term. Perry had said last week he would make his intentions known by July 1. But speaking with reporters after his address to the abortion opponents, Perry said he would "push back" that deadline because of the upcoming special session.
He would not say when word would come.
"I will make that announcement at the appropriate time," he said.
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