SAN ANTONIO — With his wife and daughter standing near, Republican Attorney General Greg Abbott kicked off his campaign for governor Sunday in San Antonio’s sun-drenched La Villita plaza, where he promised to fight for a Texas of "boundless opportunity and limitless imagination."
At this first stop on a whirlwind tour of 10 cities over the next five days, Abbott hit the highlights of his political career. He touted his defense of religious displays in public areas, his prosecution of child predators, his opposition to abortion and his history of fighting “overreaching” government in the courtroom.
“When it comes to our freedom and our future, I will never, I will never, stop fighting,” Abbott declared. “That’s why I’m asking you — the people of Texas — to elect me as your next governor."
Abbott, 55, strayed away from policy specifics, sticking instead to broad rhetorical strokes and weaving elements of his biography into his conservative vision for state government.
"The future of Texas demands better education, safer communities and smarter government," Abbott said. "The children of Texas deserve it, and we will deliver it."
One of the most striking aspects of Abbott’s speech was something it did not include: any mention of the man he wants to replace, the swaggering Gov. Rick Perry. Abbott walked a careful line between advocating many of the same conservative policies Perry championed over the last dozen years while offering something new and different.
Some of the topics he mentioned in Sunday's speech suggest that Abbott is running to the right of Perry. While there were no detailed policy initiatives unveiled, Abbott called for an economy with a “level playing field that gets government out of the business of picking between winners and losers, and by reducing taxes on employers.”
Perry has been a fierce advocate of giving tax subsidies to companies that promise to bring jobs to Texas, but the conservative grassroots that make up Abbott’s bedrock supporters consider them to be corporate welfare. Abbott appeared to be making the point that the programs aren't necessary.
“Government is supposed to be on your side — not riding your backs,” Abbott said.
Abbott also proposed reining in state debt by “reducing the amount the state can borrow.”
“Together, we can prioritize that we need the most," he said. "Our water supplies are going too low. You know by traveling the highway that our traffic congestion is getting too thick, and our schools must do better. We can solve those problems not by raising taxes, but by right-sizing government and putting real limits on spending in Austin, Texas.”
Abbott also promised to make “skyrocketing tuition a thing of the past” and said he would usher in “a new era of education reform."
“We already have a 21st-century economy,” he said. “Now we need a 21st-century education system.” With little meat in the policy proposals, though, it was hard to say whether Abbott would represent Perry 2.0 or more of a clean break.
Texas Democratic Party Chairman Gilberto Hinojosa said people hoping for a better state leader in a post-Perry Texas would be disappointed if Abbott wins in November 2014.
“When Rick Perry announced he was stepping down, most Texans had a dream come true,” he said. “But the sad reality is that Greg Abbott's record of failure — which is far worse than Perry's — would be a nightmare.”
Abbott’s official entry into the race has been a foregone conclusion since Monday, six days ago, when Perry announced he would step down at the end of his term, 18 months from now. Abbott now becomes the front-runner in the first governor’s race without an incumbent since 1990. With a war chest of more than $20 million and the blessing of the GOP establishment in conservative Texas, he will be hard to beat.
Abbott faces Tom Pauken, former chairman of the Texas Workforce Commission, in the March GOP primary. Democratic Sen. Wendy Davis, D-Fort Worth, who rose to instant stardom after waging a filibuster that helped temporarily derail a restrictive abortion bill, is considering a run for governor. But in a state that hasn’t elected a Democrat statewide since 1994, it will be an uphill climb.
In a statement, Pauken welcomed Abbott to the race and challenged him to a "series of Lincoln-Douglas style debates and community forums across the state so that voters can come to understand our differing views of how the Republican party should govern."
The date and the location of Abbott's announcement Sunday brought together two major pillars of his biography. Exactly 29 years ago, Abbott was seriously injured, during a jog in Houston, in a freak accident that left him paralyzed and confined to a wheelchair. And it was here in San Antonio that Abbott married his wife, Cecilia, in 1981.
Abbott's teenage daughter, Audrey, introduced her father to the audience and recalled their quieter moments outside the political spotlight — hunting together, preparing for school and going to movies and concerts.
"I know my dad will be a great leader, just like he's been a great dad," she said. Abbott's wife and daughter appeared with him when he came onto the stage and then stood to his left during the speech. The event started at 1 p.m. with testimonials about Abbott's conservatism and character, requiring supporters to wait for an hour or more in the sweltering July heat before the candidate came out at 2 p.m.
"Come on, let's go!" one of them yelled before Abbott took the stage. "It's hot."
Abbott’s campaign selected many of the cities he visited to highlight key moments in his life. After San Antonio, Abbott travels to Houston, where he began his legal career and got his start in politics as a judge on the 129th state district court.
On Tuesday, Abbott, 55, will visit his birthplace, Wichita Falls. He’ll stage an event there in front of the first home he knew as a little boy. He’ll also visit Longview, where he attended elementary school, then Duncanville, where Abbott graduated from high school and excelled at track and field. Abbott will wrap up the 10-city tour Thursday in Austin.
There’s a political message in the chosen locations: In San Antonio, McAllen and El Paso, Abbott is sending the signal that he wants his Republican Party to do a better job of reaching out to the growing Latino population, which is expected to eclipse whites as the domination ethnic group in Texas within a decade.
Abbott highlighted his introduction to Latino culture by talking about his marriage to Cecilia Phalen Abbott, whose mother is Hispanic, during his speech Sunday. Abbott’s in-laws live in San Antonio, where about 60 percent of the population is Latino. Abbott noted that he married his wife not far from here 31 years ago at Our Lady of the Lake Catholic Church.
“It was a joining of hands, but it was also a joining families,” he said. “But more important than our marriage was a uniting of cultures: my Anglo heritage and Cecilia’s Irish and Hispanic heritage." Abbott dropped a few words of Spanish into his remarks, referring to his mother-in-law as "mi suegra," and saying that his marriage represented a union of two houses that had one foundation.
"Dos casas, pero una fundación," he said.
While Perry will leave office as the state’s longest-serving governor, Abbott would leave his own precedent-setting mark if he is elected governor.
Abbott, following in the tracks of former President Franklin Roosevelt, a former governor of New York, and George Wallace, the late Alabama governor, apparently would become the first governor in state history who uses a wheelchair; the Texas Legislative Reference Library had no example of previous governors who were unable to walk.
Everywhere he goes on his announcement tour, Abbott will talk about the accident that changed his life forever. It happened in 1984, when Abbott, a recent graduate from Vanderbilt University's law school, was working for the Butler & Binion law firm. Taking a break from the tedium of studying for the bar exam, he went for a jog in the exclusive River Oaks neighborhood in Houston.
While out on the run, Abbott says he heard what sounded like an explosion. The next thing he knew he was on the ground, pinned under a 75-foot oak tree that had snapped and fallen. It crushed his lower spine and left him instantly paralyzed.
He never walked again.
In a recent interview with the Houston Chronicle, Abbott said the accident brought him closer to God and family by providing a constant reminder about what’s important in life. On the other hand, it robbed him of some of life’s most precious memories — like dancing with his wife or walking with his daughter, Audrey.
“The inability to ever dance with her again, or to see her eye to eye as she is standing, or to hold her … or to walk into a lake. You know how it’s fun when a dad and daughter get to walk into a lake together and curl your toes into the sand? Not happening. The little things in life that matter the most — many of them are lost,” he told the newspaper.
During Sunday's speech, he said he began putting his life back together when doctors straightened his shattered vertebrae with two steel rods that will remain in his back for the rest of his life.
“You know, too often you hear politicians get up and talk about having a spine of steel,” he said. “I actually have one, and I will use my steel spine to fight for you and for Texas families every single day.”