I must admit that Monday was not my best day. The Wayne Slater piece on Wendy’s narrative put me in a funk. There’s nothing better than a great story of a candidate for high office who started off without any advantages, struggled to get an education, attended a prestigious university to get his or her law degree, became a successful politician at the local level before moving on to seek the highest office in a large state. It fits the ideal of the American dream. It’s the contemporary version of the log cabin to White House story. That is, unless it’s partially fabricated—either intentionally or carelessly. This was the crux of Davis’ narrative: ““I’m a Texas success story,” Davis told NBC. “I am the epitome of hard work and optimism.” But is it accurate?
Jay Root wrote an article that appeared in the New York Times in September 2013. In it, he recounts her childhood in a single-parent family, her excellent record at Richland High School, though she “. . .didn’t study a whole lot.” Root described Davis’ brief marriage to Frank Underwood, the birth of her daughter Amber, her split with Underwood, and her living in a trailer. Then, she enrolled at Tarrant County Community College (TCCC) and met Jeff Davis, a lawyer and former city councilmember. She had a second daughter, Dru, in 1988. She graduated from Texas Christian University in 1990, the top student in her class. She entered Harvard Law School, graduating with honors in 1993. While Davis was in law school, Jeff Davis paid her bills and cared for the children. In 1996, she ran for city council, losing by 90 votes. In 1999, she won the seat that she had lost three years before. In 2003, her marriage faltered. Jeff Davis filed for divorce in 2003, and Wendy Davis moved into an apartment. In the 2005 final divorce decree, Jeff Davis received primary custody of Dru Davis, then 17. In 2007, Wendy Davis decided to run for the Texas Senate in a decided Republican district. She won in 2008 and 2012.
Wayne Slater dug deeper into Wendy’s person life. She had been stating that her divorce from Frank Underwood occurred when she was 19, but the divorce really occurred when she was 21. To me, that’s no biggie—she left him when she was 19. But the facts about her relationship with Jeff Davis—how they met, his paying for her education at Harvard Law, and the custodial arrangements for her daughters—are troubling to her narrative. Here are Slater’s main points:
· Davis was also waiting tables at her father’s Fort Worth dinner theater, Stage West. It was there that she met her future husband, Jeff Davis, a 34-year-old friend of her father’s.
“One day at the end of a meeting, Jerry [Wendy’s father] asked, ‘How do you like younger women? My daughter wants to go out with you,’” Jeff Davis said in an interview. “I was flattered so I took her out. We dated two or three years, then got married.”
· When she was accepted to Harvard Law School, Jeff Davis cashed in his 401(k) account and eventually took out a loan to pay for her final year there.
“I was making really good money then, well over six figures,” he said. “But when you’ve got someone at Harvard, you’ve got bills to pay, you’ve got two small kids. The economy itself was marginal. You do what you have to do, no big deal.”
The daughters, then 8 and 2, remained with Jeff Davis in Fort Worth while Wendy Davis was at Harvard.
“Harvard really impressed her with a different culture of energy, really bright young people. That was something she would like to be around. She just enjoys that culture,” Jeff Davis said.
· In his initial divorce filing, Jeff Davis said the marriage had failed, citing adultery on her part and conflicts that the couple could not overcome. The final court decree makes no mention of infidelity, granting the divorce solely “on the ground of insupportability.”
· Amber was 21 and in college. Dru was in ninth grade. Jeff Davis was awarded parental custody. Wendy Davis was ordered to pay $1,200 a month in child support.
The Dallas Morning News editorialized that Wendy Davis’ story was compelling without the discrepancies: “The bare-bones Wendy Davis story — the one without embellishment — is sufficiently inspiring as a matrix for defying expectations. The daughter of a teenage mother and a teenage mother herself, Davis managed to beat the odds by getting a college education and Ivy League law degree, then launching a political career that’s brought her national adulation. But since Davis’ Democratic gubernatorial ambitions caught fire last year, ‘facts have been blurred’ in the retelling of her life story, as reported Sunday by this newspaper’s senior political writer, Wayne Slater. That’s disappointing to see, especially since Davis or her campaign has been the source of chronological error and allowed misperceptions to jell as fact.”
If I’m like most Davis supporters, the disappointment is shared by Davis’ supporters. As Paul Burka writes, “The words ‘not ready for prime time’ come to mind, a concern that some Democrats privately shared with me months ago.”
So, the fundamental question is: Does this event damage the narrative and make Davis just another ambitious politician who will distort the facts to gain favor with the voters? How Davis responded to Slater’s article didn’t help. According to the Dallas Morning News:
Davis blamed her chief Republican opponent in the governor’s race, Attorney General Greg Abbott, for raising questions about her past.
“We’re not surprised by Greg Abbott’s campaign attacks on the personal story of my life as a single mother who worked hard to get ahead,” she said. “But they won’t work, because my story is the story of millions of Texas women who know the strength it takes when you’re young, alone and a mother.”
Abbott campaign spokesman Matt Hirsch countered in his own statement Monday that Davis had “systematically, intentionally and repeatedly deceived Texans for years about her background, yet she expects voters to indulge her fanciful narrative.”
Davis needs to be more careful in telling the story. The narrative is still compelling. There isn’t anyone who has “made it on his or her own,” and that’s not her story either. Each of us has had help in pursuing our ambitions. The admission that assistance from others was crucial to one’s accomplishments does not diminish the person or his or her accomplishments; it merely acknowledges that no one, by himself or herself, can make the transition from meager beginnings to a position of power and influence without the assistance of others. We need to acknowledge that assistance and celebrate the fact that we were fortunate enough to have people who believed in us, supported us, and joined us on the journey to our success.
The Davis campaign is asking millions of Texans to assist Wendy in her desire to be governor. Those who join the campaign, work for her election, and vote for her in November are supporting her not because they believe that she, all by herself, will bring about the change in Texas that they desire. No—they’re supporting her because she can identify with their struggles, has empathy and compassion for them, and can assemble a group of people with the talent and will to make Texas what its potential suggests it can be—the Great State of Texas—with opportunities for all Texans, regardless of social or economic status or origins. That should be the basis of the campaign.