Wendy Davis holds a press conference in front of Austin Community College, Monday, February 10. (Christopher Hooks)

Wendy Davis Hits Abbott On School Finance, Defends Open Carry Comments


At a press conference today, Wendy Davis repeated her call for Attorney General Greg Abbott to settle an ongoing lawsuit over Texas’ school finance system, indicating her campaign is betting big on an issue that’s set to rumble through 2014. The lawsuit, which stems from the whopping $5.4 billion in cuts the Legislature made to public education in 2011, is part of a long history of litigation over whether Texas public schools are funded in a way that’s equitable—or even sufficient. When the Legislature restored $3.4 billion to public ed in 2013, it led to the case getting re-litigated. The suit is set to sprawl over the rest of the election calendar—and creates the potential for one or several special legislative sessions if the matter isn’t pushed to 2015 when the Legislature is next scheduled to convene.

Davis is a longtime advocate for greater education spending, and clearly hopes to associate her campaign with the issue. She first gained significant notoriety over a 2011 filibuster in protest of those sweeping cuts—and she hopes to put Abbott, who’s bound to defend the state in court as attorney general, in an awkward position by highlighting his support for the widely hated system.

“We’re locked in a legal battle that everyone, except General Abbott, seems to know is over,” Davis told a scrum of reporters outside of Austin Community College on a bitterly cold and windy day. “He’s defending the indefensible.” Abbott, though obligated to defend the state, has a significant amount of leeway over how aggressively he chooses to prosecute the case. Davis called on him to abandon appeals and “settle this case.”

It’s a bit unclear how the state might “settle” this case, now that the Legislature relies so much on the courts to decide what needs fixing. But it would likely mean a special legislative session to increase the level of school funding—which would be great for Texas kids, and not bad either for Texas Democrats, who love to bemoan the state of education under GOP control. To that end, Davis said she’d be talking more about early childhood education in the coming weeks.

For his part, Abbott said in a statement that Davis was “fixated on the past”—a strange way of describing an active lawsuit that won’t be resolved for months—and argued that improving Texas public education was less about resources than “returning genuine local control to school districts rather than continuing with the centralized control by bureaucrats in Austin.”

The press conference was notable for a couple of other reasons: first, for the fact that it happened at all. Davis has seemed excessively shy around the media for the last couple of months, which has led a lot of observers to wonder about the campaign—and the campaign’s faith in their candidate. The strangest thing about that communications strategy is that Davis is good with reporters. She’s an effective communicator and fielded a couple of tough questions today capably.

Davis also responded to questions about her recently voiced support for “open carry” laws, a move that generated significant surprise among her supporters. Far from a wedge issue, allowing individuals to carry handguns openly is generally most important to people who would never vote for Davis—and is anathema to some number of her natural progressive base. Moreover, Davis stuck out a strong position in the last legislative session against a prominent campus carry, or allowing concealed handguns on college campuses.

Today, Davis called her stance on open carry “consistent with my position on guns on campus.” That is, she’s not against campus carry, she’s against the state writing broad rules about guns. Individual municipalities should be able to decide whether they allow open carry, and campuses should be able to decide for themselves whether or not they want to allow guns on campuses. In Texas, Davis says, “we have a culture that respects the Second Amendment right and privilege to own and carry guns.”

That’s fine as it goes, but local gun carry restrictions are the precise thing the most passionate parts of the open carry movement are mobilizing against. Increasingly agitated open carry protesters aren’t looking for the right to carry guns openly in some places, they want that right in all places—so what, exactly, is the political utility of this argument? Who is it supposed to win over, and at what cost to the small number of Democrats in Texas for whom gun control is a primary issue?