Over nearly two decades of public appearances as a political figure, Greg Abbott has not shied from noting the obvious: He uses a wheelchair.
During speeches, the Texas attorney general, who is now a gubernatorial candidate, is known to pre-emptively address any questions on the topic — often humorously — with an explanation of the 1984 accident that left him partially paralyzed. At campaign events dating back to 2002, he has shown brief video clips describing how a falling oak tree crushed his spinal cord while he was jogging with a friend through the Houston neighborhood of River Oaks.
He emerged on the statewide political scene in 1995, when, after Gov. George W. Bush appointed him to the Texas Supreme Court bench, the court building updated its facilities to comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act.
"Court builds ramp to justice, for a justice," reads one headline from the Austin-American Statesman.
Now, the adversity that Abbott has faced has become the symbolic centerpiece of his recently launched gubernatorial campaign, which he announced on Sunday — the 29th anniversary of his accident.
“My greatest fight began on this date,” he said to a crowd gathered in San Antonio. “It was a challenge that made my even being here, highly improbable.”
In a five-day, 10-city tour across the state since then, Abbott has been introducing himself as a fighter for strong Texas values, a candidate with a literal spine of steel. As someone who uses a wheelchair, he says, he knows what it means to struggle with physical and emotional challenges.
“I demonstrate what every Texan exemplifies every day — the ability to overcome adversity,” he said at a campaign stop in Houston.
It is a personal story that has the potential to resonate deeply with the broad group of voters Abbott hopes to attract at the top of the state ticket. But in the past, it has also exposed Abbott to criticism from those who say that he has battered the legal protections he has benefited from for political gain.
Abbott's campaign declined a request to comment for this story.
In his first bid for attorney general in 2002, Abbott built his campaign around fierce attacks on trial lawyers and excessive lawsuit judgments, calling for strict tort reform measures. That drew cries of hypocrisy after the revelation of a reported $10 million in damages Abbott won suing a Houston homeowner and tree care company after his accident.
Abbott’s campaign called the disclosure of the settlement “a cheap political attack by trial lawyers,” and he went on to win his election against Democrat Kirk Watson, now a state senator, with almost 57 percent of the vote. Since then, Abbott's supporters have said the tort reform measures he pushed would not have affected the conditions of his settlement.
He also has a frayed relationship with several disability rights advocates in the state, many of whom had looked for a champion when he became attorney general, only to be stung by his office’s constitutional challenge of a section in the federal Americans with Disabilities Act that prohibits public entities from discriminating against people with disabilities.
To defend the state after two advocacy groups sued under the law in 2002, claiming Texas was not providing enough support for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities, Abbott’s office argued that Congress lacked the constitutional authority to enact the law.
The move generated dismay from supporters of the law, who questioned why Abbott would go after a measure that had benefited him and others who share his circumstance.
Jim Harrington, the director of the Texas Civil Rights Project, was among them.
“Here he was appointed to the Texas Supreme Court and he couldn't get in the building — and the fact that he was out jogging and a tree limb fell on him — you would think he would understand how important this law is to create access to programs and facilities for people,” Harrington said. “But you couldn't get anywhere. It was absolutely impossible to get anywhere on this point. They were going to challenge it come hell or high water, and that's what they did.”
At the time, Abbott told the Austin American-Statesman that although he was personally a strong supporter of the ADA, his legal obligation as the Texas attorney general was to defend the state when it was sued in court. He said he found the argument that he should change his approach offensive.
"They think that just because I'm in a wheelchair, I should ignore the law and come down on their side," he told the newspaper in 2003.
The state settled the lawsuit three years later after a prolonged legal battle, when advocates agreed to ask the Legislature for more money to fund Medicaid waiver programs that provide care for poor and disabled Texans.
As Abbott comes under a brighter spotlight, both his supporters and opponents will continue to navigate the complexities of a subject he has put front and center. An example of what that might entail played in a small scale on social media shortly before he announced for governor.
After WFAA-TV reporter Jason Whitely paraphrased a comment Abbott made at an anti-abortion rally in a tweet, immediate outrage followed, primarily from Republican operatives who perceived a snide slight.
“Greg Abbott said he's here 'standing for life' even though he's in wheelchair,” Whitely tweeted.
“Has your account been hacked? Unreal,” tweeted Rob Johnson, a former campaign manager for Gov. Rick Perry.
Whitely briefly became the subject of a post by Erik Erickson on the conservative clearinghouse RedState.com, which has since been removed, called “Is Jason Whitely of WFAA-TV Jackass of the Day Or Jackass of The Year?”
The candidate himself appeared unperturbed by the commotion.
“Hey Friends, it was me who said ‘I may be in a wheelchair, but I #Stand4Life,’” Abbott tweeted from his account later that evening. “@JasonWhitely was just quoting me."