The former state senator opens up about the 'grief' of watching the Lege as an outsider and what Texas Democrats will have to do to re-energize their base and bring young voters to the polls.
It’s been almost a year since the 2014 election put an end to what had started out as a period of unusual optimism for Texas Democrats, one that began with Wendy Davis taking to the Senate floor in running shoes. Davis’ filibuster was a truly remarkable moment in the history of Texas politics, and remains a personal touchstone for many people, particularly young women. The package of abortion restrictions Davis filibustered eventually became law, but if it was a loss, it was a galvanizing, even noble, loss. The Democrats had hoped for the same kind of loss last November, but they didn’t get it — astoundingly low voter turnout, weak campaigns and intra-party turf fights left the party facing a very uncertain future.
In the last month, Davis has been slowly emerging from the post-election fog. In September, she was interviewed by Rolling Stone. On October 8, it emerged that she’d be an executive producer of an upcoming NBC show about a woman who loses the Texas governor’s race and “discovers that with no political future to protect, she can unshackle her inner badass.”
As a senator, Davis had a reputation as an intelligent, capable lawmaker with a passion for policy, and it’s clear that being fully out of public office has been hard. Recently, the Observer sat down with Davis and her 12-year-old white labrador in her Austin high-rise apartment, and at times, she seemed almost physically anguished by her departure from office. Since the election, Davis has spoken often to student groups, and she told the Observer that she’s motivated now by a desire to help young people get more involved in politics. Posted on her refrigerator door, among inspirational sayings and photos, is a letter from a young woman who decided to try for law school as a result of the filibuster.
We asked Davis to look both forward and backward, and she opened up about her gubernatorial campaign’s difficulties with organization and messaging and about the structural problems Texas Democrats face in coming years. She also speculated about her own plans for a future outside — maybe — electoral politics.
The following interview has been edited and condensed for clarity:
Texas Observer: You experienced what must have been one of the biggest emotional highs of any Texas politician in recent memory on the night of the filibuster, and then you experienced its polar opposite within the space of about a year and a half. What is it like to live that?
Wendy Davis: I wouldn’t exactly say that election night was the opposite of that moment. I certainly felt through the election the continued energy and enthusiasm of people around the state, and I think that most folks that have followed gubernatorial races would tell you that the excitement with which our campaign was greeted wherever we would go was fairly unusual. We had an extraordinary number of young people who got engaged, and the records that we were able to break in both fundraising and volunteers were truly remarkable. When Bill White ran in 2010 he set a record for the number of individual donors who had given to a statewide campaign. He had 34,000 — we had over 180,000. And that said a lot about where people are in this state. Unfortunately, it said a lot about where fewer people are than we would have hoped.
The turnout in that election was abysmal, in spite of the fact that I spent in excess of $40 million. Governor Abbott spent somewhere in the neighborhood of $60 million. So it certainly wasn’t for lack of the electorate understanding that there was a race going on. But I think when you look at the turnout among Democratic voters, it shows that people here have begun to believe that they just don’t have enough power to change. And so they don’t show up. And it’s convincing them of the power of their own voice that is the real challenge.
TO: What have you’ve been doing since the election?
WD: I’ve spent a lot of time traveling and speaking, and it has been liberating to be able to speak from my heart and to read remarks that I wrote for myself, and to be me 100 percent. That was a really difficult part for me of a statewide campaign, where there’s so much to be done every day that you have to allow other people to write your remarks, and help frame messages, and I felt like in the process of that the authenticity that I had always been able to bring to the table as a candidate and a politician was compromised. That’s not anyone’s fault, it’s just kind of the circumstances of running at that level.
I’m trying to transfer my passion to make positive change happen in this state and in this country. My speeches have given me some outlet for that. I’ve spoken to a number of Planned Parenthood organizations around the country to do some fundraising for them. I’ve spoken to some college campuses, student organizations, women’s leadership conferences. That’s been a healthy way for me to feel like I am still out there, not only talking about the things that matter but urging other people to get involved and understand how they can help bring about change.
TO: What have the last two years been like for you emotionally? How do you hold on to a sense of yourself?
WD: I definitely have gone through a grieving of sorts. You hear about the stages of grief: I’ve come to some acceptance about where I am right now. But the grief wasn’t about losing that race. The grief has been about not being in public service anymore. Not being inside the ring and fighting. It was hard for me to watch the legislative session tick by, and read about some of the issues in the paper that I would have been crying out loud and strong about.
And I began to understand what it probably feels like for so many people who live here who feel as though it’s a fait accompli and they don’t really have the power to do anything about it. And it’s difficult to resist that feeling. What I’ve tried to do is find a way to transfer that into the next constructive way that I’ll use my energy and my passion and my voice.
TO: Many younger people haven’t seen, in their lifetimes, a truly functioning political system in which they can take part, and much of that is for structural reasons, like party polarization and gerrymandering. That’s especially the case in Texas. How do you convince them that their participation matters?
WD: It’s really fairly simple. Politics is nothing but the people who are elected to serve. And when we get disillusioned about how broken it is, we have to step back and remind ourselves that it is broken when the people who are there allow it to be so. If we truly want to see change, it means we need to change the people. I think there’s a growing sentiment all over the country for the need to do that. I think it’s why we see these outsider candidates doing so well in the polls.
But for young people to understand that is very, very important. Some of it is just helping them to see the raw numbers of the power of their voices if they would show up. So, for example, in 2008, millennials were 20 percent of the voting population, but by 2020, they’re going to be 40 percent of the voting population. Think about that power and what could happen if the people who reflected the values of millennials were elected.
The reason we’re stuck with elected officials who are talking about things that don’t matter to us and aren’t important to our day-to-day lives is because they’re responding to the people who are voting for them. They’re responding to the 50- and 60-year-olds that don’t have top of mind the affordability of college or what it’s like to have the burden of coming out into a job market where you can’t find a good paying job and you’ve got $80,000 in student loans to repay.
They’re not thinking about what it’s like to lose your reproductive autonomy. They’re not thinking about the challenge of minimum wage workers in this country, or income inequality. And many of them are stuck with old notions about gun ownership, sexuality and marriage equality, and we can’t expect the people they are electing to do anything different. And if we want politics to begin to mirror the things that we care about, we have to show up and vote.
TO: What frustrated you the most about watching the Legislature from the outside this year?
WD: This legislative session began with what may have been an unsurpassed surplus. Rather than use that or at least a portion of it to solve some of the very real problems in this state, the Legislature chose to decrease the tax burden for a big business community that already sees the benefit of a decreased tax burden. I don’t feel as though the budget that was ultimately passed demonstrated a forward-thinking capacity to invest in the necessary infrastructure of this state — the human infrastructure or the water and transportation infrastructure — as it could have done.
The Legislature did nothing to solve real problems in the education system. It did nothing to solve the real problems of the affordability of college in this state or the lack of financial aid. And at the same time, not only did it fail to do nothing on expanding health care for people who live in Texas, it actually took a step backward. The recent debate about the cut in therapy services for disabled children has been both fascinating and rather disgusting to me.
Lawmakers ordered the [Health and Human Services Commission] to cut that funding. Now that they’re coming under fire, they’re trying to turn that around and somehow point fingers at Health and Human Services and say, we told you to make appropriate funding reductions and not diminish access to care, when the language they passed in the budget doesn’t do that. And anyone could have and should have seen that coming with the budget that was passed.
We’re taking another step in a state that has decided that investing in our people is not important, whether it’s in their education or their health. I don’t think that’s the way you make Texas a continuing success. Quite the contrary. As we continue to see an undereducated and unhealthy population, we are going to see the social stresses, the cost to the state, actually rise. And it is a continuing example of the old Ben Franklin saying of penny wise and pound foolish, because at the end of the day, the short-sightedness of some of these lawmakers is going to cost us a great deal down the road.
TO: What do you make of how Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick has changed the Senate?
WD: Doing away with the two-thirds rule was one of the most damaging things that’s ever happened to the state. The Senate this session was almost unrecognizable. It has always been considered to be the higher chamber — the body where bad ideas go to die. Instead, it’s become the breeding ground for them. And it’s going to take us to a very, very dangerous place. It already is.
TO: How do you feel state Senator Konni Burton, who replaced you in the Senate, has served her district?
WD: I’ve been given feedback about the extreme difference in the level of support and constituent services that’s being provided out of that office. Which is very disappointing to me, because we took great pride in trying to provide the same kind of service from my senate office that we once did from my City Council office.
TO: And how would you evaluate Governor Abbott’s first year in office so far?
WD: I’ll start with something nice. My mother would want me to do that.
I’m pleased to see his emphasis on trying to bring researchers of excellence to the university system in Texas. And I’m pleased to see that it appears as though he’s not going down the same path that Governor Perry was going down in de-emphasizing the intellectual importance of our universities.
But I think that the path that he’s put us on with regard to signing a budget that underfunded education, his failure to lead us forward in a Medicaid expansion that not only would have provided healthcare to hundreds of thousands of people in this state, but also would have brought hundreds of millions of dollars to this state is misguided, mistaken, and wrong. And I was sad to see that though Governor Abbott talked about pre-k being one of his emergency items, he signed a budget that didn’t even get halfway to restoring the cuts to pre-k that occurred in 2011.
TO: What can Democrats do from exile to highlight their competing vision for the state?
WD: Well, one of the great challenges is having the resources to communicate that message. And when you think about how few general election campaigns there are, there aren’t many opportunities for people to hear the differences between candidates. Districts are so purely drawn now as either Republican or Democrat that general election conversations aren’t happening.
We tried to make that happen in the gubernatorial race. Leticia Van de Putte tried to make that happen. Mike Collier, Sam Houston, Steve Brown all tried to make that happen. But the problem is, in a state as big as Texas, the cost of communicating on TV in the media markets here makes it almost prohibitive to get that message out.
I raised an extraordinary amount of money — $43 million dollars. I couldn’t even penetrate many of the media markets here. And those that I did get up in the air in, I couldn’t buy the kind of media time that it would take to actually create a penetrating message in voters’ minds. If you can’t communicate the differences between the two parties to voters, it makes it extremely challenging to help them see the legitimacy of a choice that they could be making. And I don’t have an easy answer to that.
TO: You’ve said that you felt your voice getting lost in the course of the campaign. What is it you wish you could have said to voters that you don’t think they heard?
WD: I wish that I had done a better job of helping voters to see the vision I had for this state. We spent an awful lot of time and money telling voters why Greg Abbott was not the right choice. But we didn’t spend a whole lot of time and money telling them why I was.
The vision I had for creating a strong economy and investing in our people. For creating a bipartisan climate where all voices are heard. I don’t think that those messages really resonated outside of the rallies that I had where I had an opportunity to talk about those things. And because so few people show up at a rally, and usually when they do it’s because they’re already supporting you, it makes it really hard to get that message out. That goes back to, not only the message that we stressed but the ability to stress your message in a widespread enough way to have it sink in. And that, once again, brings into relief the issue of money, and the challenge of communication in a state this big.
TO: There’s an ongoing debate among Democrats, as there was within your campaign, about whether candidates should seek first to fire up the party’s base, or to move more to the center to pursue moderate voters. What’s your advice for the next statewide campaign?
WD: I would encourage them to understand that they need to speak to the base. We can’t take the base voter for granted. We can’t just expect that they’re going to show up and elect us because they know we’re good people. We have to inspire them and we have to give them a reason to want to take the time to come and vote for us.
When we try to have too much of a center-right message, because we think we might convince some fence-sitters, we risk losing the passion of our base voters in the process. I absolutely do believe that that happened with me. Not only with our messaging, but also with our field efforts, and the way that field program was designed.
TO: Your campaign’s field program was run by Battleground Texas, and your campaign had an unusual organizational relationship with the group in which you attempted to share money and resources. Was that a mistake?
WD: I think the structure of that relationship was a mistake. I think that when you look at the work that Battleground is doing post-election, you see a continuing passion for engaging voters, for registering voters, for helping to create a dynamic that will play upon the state’s continuing demographic shift. That work is very important.
But our structure didn’t provide the kind of oversight of the field program that, looking back, would have been advisable. In my two very difficult Senate races, we devised and designed and implemented our own field program. And we understood at every turn where we needed to change direction or emphasis or resources based on what we were seeing in the field. When you have two separate entities attempting to work together, the fluidity of communication and decision making that needs to take place gets lost.
TO: There’s been a lot of talk about how the issue of abortion affected your electoral prospects. At one point, some hoped that you might be able to win over some number of generally suburban women who tend to vote Republican, but might be pro-choice. Why do you think that didn’t happen?
WD: If you ask a voter in a poll, is this issue important to you, you might have someone say, I agree with this, or disagree with that. But what it doesn’t necessarily tell you is how enthusiastic they are on that issue. At the end of the day, people are going to vote either through defaulting to partisanship, or they’re going to vote based on a core belief that’s been tested and that they feel strongly about.
In 2014, it probably wasn’t the case that a lot of Republican suburban women felt strong enough about what was happening to reproductive rights in our state to make that a voting incentive. The temptation to default to partisanship is really strong.
Unfortunately, one of the reasons that what’s happened with reproductive rights in Texas hasn’t created enough of an emotional response with a lot of people is that they feel like it doesn’t impact them. When you look at the landscape of access to abortion in Texas, for example, the fact of the matter is that women of means don’t have any problem. It’s the women who don’t have the means to travel, the means to pay for an overnight stay, those are the women that are going to be impacted. We’re still at this point where there are some women are going to react strongly to that, but others aren’t, because it hasn’t touched them yet.
TO: Is there anything else you’d like to say?
WD: There’s one thing I want to talk about that we haven’t touched on and it’s been heavy on my mind since the Oregon shootings. We have got to find the backbone to do something about this issue.
If there is a regret I will point to for the rest of my life in my own actions and behavior, it will be my decision to support open carry. It was a decision made more for expediency than for what was right. If someone who is as committed to understanding and fighting for reasonable gun laws as I am can find themselves in a campaign taking that position on because of political expediency, we’ve got a problem.
For all of us who feel like things have gone in the wrong direction, it’s our responsibility to turn it around. And the only way we’re going to do that is if we vote for people who are brave enough to talk about the fact that we need to do something about it.