Saying she’d “had enough,” state Sen. Wendy Davis unloaded on Attorney General Greg Abbott on Tuesday night, blaming him and his allies for waging a smear campaign against her family and warning he had picked a fight with the “wrong Texas gal.”
Abbott's campaign could not immediately be reached for comment. A day after the publication of a Dallas Morning News story questioning some of the details her personal story, Abbott campaign spokesman Matt Hirsch said Davis had “systematically, intentionally and repeatedly deceived Texans for years about her background, yet she expects voters to indulge her fanciful narrative.”
Davis' remarks on Tuesday night were the most direct, personal and sustained criticism the Democratic candidate for governor has leveled at her expected Republican opponent so far.
“They know they cannot defend their public record,” Davis said of the attorney general and his allies. “So they’re attacking my private life.”
Davis was speaking at a boisterous, sold-out fundraiser for the Travis County Democratic Party, serving as keynote speaker at the Johnson-Bentsen-Richards dinner at the tony Four Seasons hotel in downtown Austin.
Davis, a state senator from Fort Worth, rose to prominence last summer after waging an 11-hour filibuster against a restrictive abortion bill. A few weeks later, she announced she was running for governor. Her celebrity helped her rake in millions and raised Democratic hopes that the party can win statewide office after nearly two decades in the wilderness.
But for the last 10 days, her campaign has been rocked by criticism about the way she characterized her early biography, which stressed her struggles as a single mother. Davis acknowledged she got a couple of details wrong, in particular the age at which she and her first husband divorced. It was 21, not 19, as she had previously stated.
On Tuesday night, Davis attempted to forcefully reclaim that narrative while criticizing Abbott on a range of policy issues and promising to change the direction of Texas, where Republicans control every statewide office and both houses of the Legislature.
“Greg Abbott and his allies have had a stranglehold on power in this state for two decades, and they want to keep it," Davis said. "But now they’re hearing all of those voices they shut out and silenced for so long.”
Davis said she had a message for her opponents: “You can attack my record. You can challenge my ideas. You can play holier-than-thou with my life story,” she said. “But I draw the line when it comes to lying about my family.”
She said her detractors had “mangled the story of my life” by suggesting that she had abandoned her children to attend Harvard Law School and, later, had somehow lost custody of her children.
“I never gave up custody of my children. I never lost custody of my children,” she said. “And to say otherwise is an absolute lie.”
According to divorce records, she and her husband were granted “joint conservatorship” of her child, Dru, who was a teenager at the time. She continued to live with her father, Jeff Davis, in the house the couple had shared. Wendy Davis moved into an apartment and paid child support after her second divorce was final in 2005, records show.
In the Harvard years, Davis said, her children lived with her the first semester, but they realized it was best for them to return home to be with their friends, family and Wendy Davis’ mother, who acted as a caregiver.
But she returned home often and said her daughters “have been at the center of my life since the moment that theirs began, and they will be at the center of my life until the moment that it ends.”
Davis and her husband both said last summer that Jeff Davis had cashed in his 401(k) to help pay for her education at Harvard. But it has only been in recent days, after publication of the Dallas Morning News story, that critics have seized on his support for her education.
On the campaign trail, the Fort Worth senator has talked a lot about the financial aid she got to attend college but did not stress her former husband’s help in campaign biographies. She did that Tuesday evening.
“My former husband Jeff was generous and supportive when it came to my education,” Davis said. “The truth is that this was a family effort from beginning to end. … I will always be grateful to Jeff for that partnership.”
Apart from addressing the biography flap, Davis offered a preview of the policy fights with Abbott in the race for governor.
She said he would do nothing to stop “predatory” lenders, opposed taking billions of dollars in federal aid for health care, was fighting in state court to defend state cuts to education and wanted to ensure “the fat cats keep getting fatter.”
At the dinner, Cecile Richards, the daughter of former Gov. Ann Richards, predicted Davis was about to "repeat history" by becoming the first Democratic governor since her mother was elected in 1990.
Davis said she would fight to make that happen.
“Greg Abbott and his folks have picked a fight with the wrong Texas gal if they think that I will shrink from working to fight for a just and right future for all Texans,” she said. “I will keep fighting hard — no matter what the other side throws at me.”