Vol 30, Issue 40 Print Issue

Abbott and Davis Fight Before Fight Begins

Gubernatorial candidates Greg Abbott (l.) and Wendy Davis (r.).
Gubernatorial candidates Greg Abbott (l.) and Wendy Davis (r.).

They haven’t even won their respective primaries yet, but the leading candidates for Texas governor — Republican Attorney General Greg Abbott and Democratic state Sen. Wendy Davis — are engaged in a bitter fight in federal court.

It’s not over who should be governor. It’s about money — and bragging rights.

The gubernatorial contenders and their attorneys are battling over some $600,000 in legal fees stemming from a redistricting lawsuit that, when all was said and done, preserved the racial and political makeup of Davis’ Fort Worth swing district.

Republicans in the Legislature in 2011 drew her seat in a way that would have made it virtually impossible for a Democrat to win it, but Davis argued their plan would diminish minority voting rights. The courts sided with her, and she was re-elected in 2012, even though the district still leaned toward the GOP.

Her legal victory was made official in early September — more than two years after the Republican Legislature attempted to put in place its own controversial redistricting plan — when a three-judge federal panel in San Antonio ruled in a “final judgment” that she was entitled to recoup her legal costs.

“As prevailing parties, Plaintiffs are awarded their reasonable attorneys’ fees and costs,” the court said in its Sept. 4 ruling.

Abbott isn’t letting go of the money without a fight.

He argues in recent federal court filings that Davis is not, in fact, the “prevailing party” and that the fees being demanded by the plaintiffs are inflated and unreasonable. 

“The Davis Plaintiffs are not entitled to recover any attorneys fees or costs,” Abbott and his legal team say in pleadings filed on Oct 4, a month after the final ruling. The state claims the “prevailing party’’ status doesn’t apply because the plaintiffs “never received a judgment on the merits” of their complaint against the redraw. The two sides eventually settled on a map that left Davis’ district virtually unchanged, but not before a lot of legal wrangling.

The state also claims that the fees and hourly rates demanded are too high and potentially duplicative. 

(In a related dispute, plaintiffs in the fight over state House and congressional redistricting plans are trying to recover about $6 million in legal fees, but the Davis case has advanced further in the courts).

Both Abbott's campaign and his state office declined to comment about the ongoing fee dispute.

But state Sen. Tommy Williams, who until last week was chairman of the Senate Finance Committee and who remains a close Abbott ally, said he found it “outrageous” that a state senator would be requesting money from taxpayers to “protect her own political interests.”

“I don’t think it’s appropriate at all,” he said.

Democrats say it’s inappropriate that Abbott is using state tax dollars to fight legal fees stemming from a losing battle to adopt flawed maps.

“Greg Abbott can’t stand the thought that the story here is that Wendy Davis won and he lost. He wants to keep the myth out there, the argument, that ‘she didn’t beat me,’” Davis adviser Matt Angle said in a telephone interview. “They got their head handed to them.”

While this is a legal battle, the political overtones are impossible to ignore: Davis spent an estimated $200,000 out of her campaign account to defray legal costs in the redistricting fight; if the court approves her team’s request for reimbursement, some of that dough presumably would wind up helping to finance her run against Abbott.

Team Davis also is asking for about $40,000 for Angle’s firm, Angle Strategies. Angle, a former top aide to U.S. Rep. Martin Frost, D-Fort Worth, also heads the Lone Star Project, which barely lets a day slip by without issuing an attack on Abbott and state Republican leaders. And he’s the brother of J.D. Angle, Davis’ top campaign consultant. 

Abbott’s team, calling the services Angle’s firm provided “secretarial” in nature and not reimbursable, referred to Angle’s role as an adviser to Davis and U.S. Rep. Marc Veasey, D-Fort Worth, in the pleadings. 

“The Voting Rights Act contains no provision that would require the state of Texas to compensate a political consulting firm for services performed on behalf of a candidate,” Abbott and his team wrote.

Angle said that he testified during the trial as a redistricting expert, provided demographic analysis and participated in the map-drafting that resulted in the settlement. He said his firm also helped review legal briefs and performed tasks that lawyers or their paralegals and experts otherwise would have to do.

It may not get resolved anytime soon — a scenario both sides seem to agree on. Angle predicted the fee fight would outlive the race for Texas governor.

“They just want to keep this going so there’s not a final determination that Greg Abbott lost and Wendy Davis won,” he said.