Christopher Hooks

The Future of the Equal Pay Fight

The Davis campaign is doubling down on equal pay. Is it enough?


Above: At a meeting of the Capital Area Democratic Women, Davis supporters smell blood in the water over Equal Pay. March 20, 2014.

We’re entering the second week of real conflict between Greg Abbott and Wendy Davis over equal pay, and Davis’ camp is doubling down in a big way. Now’s the time in an issue’s media life cycle when observers turn contrarian, so let’s ask ourselves: How well will this issue suit Davis going forward?

A brief recap: Davis authored a bill last session that would have made it easier for women who’ve experienced pay discrimination to sue their employers in state courts. A version of the narrowly-tailored bill received bipartisan support and passed the Legislature with relatively little fanfare. In what seemed like a strange move, Gov. Perry vetoed the bill. For weeks, Davis tried to draw Abbott into a debate on the issue. He finally relented, making it clear that he, too, would have vetoed the bill, after a week of some fairly bizarre utterances from supporters. (And on the same day that the San Antonio Express-News raised substantive concerns about pay equity at Abbott’s own office.)

Abbott handled the issue badly, and he’ll be dogged by it for a while. Think about it this way: As a well-funded Republican running in a red state, Abbott has a substantial margin of support over Davis to play with here. Moreover, blocking a state Lilly Ledbetter Act is not a priority issue for movement conservatives. Hell, tea party idol Donna Campbell voted for Davis’ bill. If you’re Abbott’s campaign manager and thinking about this in a purely tactical light, saying “yes” to a hypothetical version of Davis’ bill gives your candidate a little bit of moderate cred, a little bit of goodwill with women, doesn’t hurt you with your base and deprives Davis of an important issue. The business community that opposes the bill might not like it, but it’s not at the top of their issue list. It shuts down the whole issue, likely for the duration of the campaign.

For whatever reason, Abbott didn’t do that. And the Democratic machine hitting Abbott on the issue early last week has kicked into overdrive, approximating a jackhammer. On Monday, Davis appeared at Scholz Beer Garden in Austin to talk about the event, and the Express-News‘ story. It was the most aggressive she’d been since she declared her run—a pretty remarkable reversal after months of playing defense on small-ball issues.

“I have a message for Greg Abbott today: Stop hiding behind your staff members. Stop hiding behind your surrogates. This Texas gal is calling you out,” she told the crowd. “Act like a Texan and answer this question for yourself: What on earth is going on at your Attorney General’s Office? Why do you think it’s okay to pay women in your office less than men when they do the same work?” (Abbott has stayed pretty far away from the media lately, and as long as he does, Davis will be able to criticize him for “hiding.”)

Democrats up and down the chain have got the message. Last Thursday, Grace Garcia, the executive director of Annie’s List, joined Austin state Rep. Donna Howard to speak at a meeting of the Capital Area Democratic Women. Underlining the sense of political opportunity, the event took place at a Joe’s Crab Shack, underneath an enormous hanging shark.

Afterwards, Howard told me she thought the Legislature should take a deeper look at pay equity in state agencies next year. “If we’re doing things that are discriminatory, that’s against the law. If we’re aware of something that’s discriminatory and could result in a lawsuit,” she said, “I would think that it would be our responsibility to put a stop to it in any fashion we can.”

The effect of the whole thing has been to give the Davis campaign—and the Democratic ticket generally—a burst of energy after what had seemed like a long and demoralizing slide. But can it sustain the momentum on this issue alone?

There’s a specter hanging around this year’s governor’s race—that of Clayton “Claytie” Williams. Williams, the good-old-boy oil magnate who ran against Ann Richards in the 1990 gubernatorial contest, started the campaign with a 20-point lead. He lost the election by 3 points. The reversal was thanks in large part to an unbelievably crass rape joke, which was in turn leveraged by the Richards campaign to make Williams look like an out-of-touch dinosaur. That, together with other critical errors, doomed him, even though he outspent Richards 2-to-1.

Why are Democrats thinking about Clayton Williams? The implication is that the Davis campaign doesn’t just need to run a tight ship themselves—they need Abbott to slip. But Abbott hasn’t seemed like the kind of guy to do that, at least not in the grotesque way Williams did. Since early in the cycle, Democrats had talked about the possibility that hip-shooting state Sen. Dan Patrick, who doesn’t seem to have much respect for either immigrants or non-Christians, would win the Republican nomination for lieutenant governor, and spent the next six months alienating moderate voters. He seems likely to win, which will cheer some Democrats.

In truth, the memory some have of Williams—he lost because of the rape joke—is a bit too simple. The rape joke played into a bigger narrative that Richards was able to construct about Williams: a glad-handing, reckless, good-old-boy wildcatter who didn’t belong in state office. Davis will need to build a narrative like that for Greg Abbott if she’s going to retain the traction she’s experiencing right now. But Abbott isn’t as soft a target as Claytie. In public he seems relatively thoughtful and likeable.

The equal pay fight is the second strike against Abbott, after February’s sordid Nugent affair. The Davis campaign is doing a pretty effective job right now in defining their opponent—but they’ll need more unforced errors from the Abbott camp to carry this through.