Wendy Davis Needs to Be a Hero Again

Wendy Davis speaking

In July, Wendy Davis went on a seven-city campaign tour to call attention to Greg Abbott’s “decision to keep explosive chemical locations secret from parents.” In case you weren’t following along, Abbott decided in May to block public access to information about hazardous chemicals stored at certain facilities, including fertilizer plants like the one that exploded in West last year. Quizzed by reporters later, Abbott said citizens need only “drive around” their neighborhoods and ask companies for the information. It was a hilarious and stupid thing to say. One imagines weary moms and dads packing the kids into the car after a long day: “Dinner will have to wait, kids. We’ve got a full tank of gas and a long list of light-industrial facilities to cruise.”

Reporters and political wags had a field day with it. Local TV crews visited industrial sites, cameras in tow, to show the absurdity. Rachel Maddow ran a 22-minute segment on the issue. The Observer sent letters to chemical facilities, asking for a list of chemicals reported on what are called Tier II forms—two of the four fertilizer plants we contacted refused. “Who the hell is Greg Abbott?” one owner asked us.

Davis decided to make it a major issue. Ahead of her tour, she announced a proposal to strengthen the Texas Community Right to Know Act, the primary law requiring businesses to disclose the location and quantity of certain dangerous chemicals.

There’s no doubt that Abbott screwed up. And you can’t fault Davis for seizing on the issue. How could she not? The media jumped all over the story because nothing pisses off the press like being denied access to information. But while Davis’ emphasis on a fairly obscure issue—We Want Our Tier II Reports!—generated headlines and won a few news cycles, it seems unlikely to excite the electorate, much less bring to an end two decades of losses for Texas Democrats.

It’s part of a larger pattern for Davis. Her campaign has been largely reactive, keying off Greg Abbott’s mistakes rather than articulating a vision for Texas. For long stretches, the Davis campaign has talked about little more than the latest outrage from Abbott’s supporters: In May, a Republican woman in Midland paid a California artist to design a grotesque poster depicting Davis as a pregnant “abortion Barbie.” The campaign sent out no fewer than five Buzzfeed-style fundraising emails about that. It’s the kind of minor outrage inducement that an Internet-saturated generation is addicted to, but it wears off fast.

On women’s health and abortion—the issues that launched Davis into the political stratosphere—she’s said little. At an event celebrating the one-year anniversary of her filibuster, Davis barely mentioned a woman’s right to choose. Worse, her campaign attempted to reinvent her filibuster as a fight against “Austin insiders.”

It is understandable that Davis hasn’t made abortion—or even women’s health—a cornerstone of her campaign. This is Texas, after all, and it’s wise for a Democrat to run on issues that are more unifying. But why not a seven-city tour on, say, Medicaid expansion? Expanding Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act will not only save lives and put more than a million Texans on health insurance, it’s a terrific deal for the state. The feds will pay 90 percent of the cost. By rejecting the expansion, Rick Perry and Abbott are leaving $100 billion on the table, according to recent estimates. 

It’s good politics too—even if Republicans start hollering about “Obamacare.” (They will anyway.) Democratic governors in some red states, like Kentucky, have made Obamacare a winning issue. In Arkansas, Gov. Mike Beebe—one of the most popular governors in the nation—got a Republican-controlled Legislature to sign off on a Medicaid model that uses federal dollars to help people buy private insurance. That’s the same basic idea touted by some Republicans in the Texas Legislature. Polls, including one by Rick Perry’s own pollster, also show that a solid majority of Texans favors expanding Medicaid.

Davis, when asked recently by MSNBC’s Chris Hayes, was unequivocal in her support (“I absolutely do”) for Medicaid expansion. And in mid-June, she unveiled her economic development plan, which included Medicaid expansion. But otherwise she’s rarely discussed health care so far. The word “Medicaid” doesn’t appear once on her campaign site. 

Democratic strategists I spoke with cautioned that it’s still early in the campaign; that the Davis grassroots effort feels and sounds different than the “messaging” in the media; and that her team has been frustrated by the media’s indifference to her policy ideas.

As Paul Burka of Texas Monthly has pointed out, if she made it a central issue she’d have the doctors on her side, the hospitals, and much of the business community, not to mention local governments and—most important—millions of Texans who would see the benefits of healthier families. 

Maybe I’m naive, but I like to think that this is the kind of alternative that Texans fed up with the tea party, and with “Austin insiders,” are craving. 

Forget about the policy merits for a moment. Davis needs to find a way to be a hero again. Right now, she’s a focus-grouped, poll-tested, highly mediated, stage-managed candidate running a somewhat moribund campaign. I’m aware that it’s almost cliche for a journalist to call for a candidate to “be herself” or “take off the gloves” but Davis is no ordinary candidate. To many, she’s Wendy, the inspiring and brave woman who put her body on the line and stood up to a bunch of bullies. Where did that Wendy go?

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  • Jeff

    Windy Davis is no hero. She is a politician. If you claim she is a hero, you might have perception issues. Greg Abbot is no hero. None of these blowhards are heroes. Period.

  • SocraticGadfly

    She could stop “tracking right” on issue after issue, too. Like the immigration issue, rather than trying to do the me-too version of “hang em high.’ But, she started pandering to the right already last December; she ain’t changing now. I’d vote Green, but I’m not sure the Green candidate even realizes an election race is underway.

  • claytonauger

    Yep. Someday, a Democratic guv candidate will campaign like a Democrat, but not this time. Too bad she listened to the consultants.

  • 1bimbo

    the last gasps.. wendydavis: (cough.. snort.. eck.. uhng.. ack! gurglegurglegurgle.. uumph)

  • http://www.huntingtexastrophies.com/ Jess

    People like her should focus on the welfare of many than listening to few. We all know that having those chemicals have a lot of negative effect to our body. I admire her for being very smart and I’m sure she could do more better things.

  • SteveAR

    When was Davis a “hero” before? Why do Democrat pundits elevate their favored politicians far beyond reality? I mean that’s how we got their “hero” Obama, criminally incompetent and a liar.

  • bc3b

    When was Abortion Barbie ever a hero? When she left her kids with her husband (not their father) to attend Harvard when there are plenty of good law schools in the DWF area? When she left hubby after he paid her way through Harvard? When she filabustered for late-term abortion? Abortion Barbie is everything the left accused Sarah Palin of being – in spades.

  • john_robinson

    Yeah, let’s tell everyone where all the dangerous chemicals and explosives are…I thought after 9/11. we were supposed to be more careful with that information. Davis is a joke; all she had to run on was her ladyparts in the first place, and when that doesn’t work…[crickets]

  • 1twothree4

    She’d be my hero if she held her breath for, oh, I don’t know, 10-12 minutes?

  • roberto1936

    People ae critizing Wendy for LACK of being VICIOUS,well ABBOTTIS NO LION moreover,see the list of his DONORS and that should l make it clear who is going to govern TEXAS not abbott – he is going to be a PUPPETT FOR THE WEALTHY AND POWERFUL: yet people vote against their best interest. Roberto gutierrez

    • fourpmfox

      Ask some of her little victims about her lack of viciousness.

  • Sfc Ly

    She needs to fold her tent and go away.

  • RuLo

    Amen! It’s about time someone pointed this out. What kills me is her staff saying it’s still early in the campiagn… Really? 100 days out and it is still early? I think that’s what Tony Sanchez said and look how that worked out for him.

  • http://rhymeswithright.mu.nu RhymesWithRight

    Wendy Davis is, and always has been, a joke. So are the Castros, for that matter — folks with name recognition and star value but little substance. I may not like her and would never vote for her, but Annise Parker doesn’t suffer from that problem. For that matter, neither does Letitia Van De Putte. Not that I believe either of those two ladies could win — because in the end, the Democrat party is out of step with Texas.

  • Lou. G. Rection

    Abortion Barbie’s numbers are fading fast. Maybe more pink tennis shoes?

  • Lou. G. Rection

    when you see “nonprofit, watchdog journolistism”=”cheerleading for progressive commie lib causes”

    • Lou. G. Rection

      they all want to think they’re some kind of hero instead of paid political ho’s.

  • glenn

    Ted Cruz should come a knockin’ soon FoDub. You have more tea-bagged spelling champs having your blog read to them than Ann Coulter!

  • thisguy101

    cats.. cats and kitties everywhere.. they’re pooping skittles and throwing up rainbows.