Democratic gubernatorial candidate Wendy Davis’ two-day stop in the Rio Grande Valley this week should have been a carefully choreographed affair during which the notable state senator from Fort Worth gathered support in this Democratically rich, yet predominantly pro-life, Hispanic and Catholic region.
However, at least one of her appearances here was plagued with missteps, gaffes and goofs by the candidate and her campaign. And it has me questioning whether Davis is really ready for prime time.
Her trip began Tuesday morning at the University of Texas-Brownsville where 50-year-old Davis stumped to a group of students. There she touted her long-standing support for public education in Texas — a reference to her 2011 filibuster against education funding cuts. She also listened to Valley students explain how hard it is to attain and pay for higher education given the high rate of poverty and single-parent families here. She then attended a private meeting with editors and reporters from The Brownsville Herald, a sister paper of The Monitor, where she again stressed education and talked of her disdain for Republican Gov. Rick Perry for refusing Medicaid expansion in our state and the millions of dollars that could have come with it.
Her primary emphasis was on education and empowering women overall. Notably missing from her talks that day, and in Pharr the next day, was extensive discussion of women’s reproductive rights. She told media in Pharr on Wednesday night at Poncho’s Mexico Nuevo Restaurant that she is “not a single-issue candidate.” She did prattle on about raising women’s pay, helping families out of poverty, the safety of women, aiding veterans and the importance of higher education to get ahead. But not once did she use the A-word: “abortion.”
That’s a far cry from last summer when her stand against proposed stricter abortion laws in Texas catapulted her to national stardom with her 12-hour filibuster in June before the Texas Legislature.
We all know about her pink tennis shoes and back brace that she wore that evening to aid her comfort while she spoke. It was indeed a night of courage and Davis exhibited the kind of leadership that I, as a woman, have been craving to lend my support.
So it was with those high expectations that I went to Poncho’s in Pharr on Wednesday hoping to hear the great Wendy Davis speak and take questions from the crowd. But it didn’t play out that way.
From the poor choice of venue to her disappointing remarks and even her handlers, the event reeked of amateurism. It certainly wasn’t worthy of the leading Democratic contender nor should it be representative of how she runs her campaign if she is to have any hope of defeating outspoken, well-financed Republican candidate Attorney General Greg Abbott in November 2014.
I say this with all sincerity and with sadness. Because I want to believe that Davis could win and be our next governor. But from what I saw Wednesday night, I don’t believe it in my heart — at least not unless she makes serious campaign changes.
Rather than hold the Pharr event, which was open to the public, inside the nicely decorated and air conditioned Poncho’s restaurant, we were trotted out back beneath a palapa (large thatch hutch) that smelled stuffy and moldy amidst the evening’s rain. It had uneven floors and was poorly lit. And rather than a crowd of curious voters that I expected to find, there were numerous plastic tables manned by local volunteer phone bank callers who were admitted into the venue in exchange for stumping for Davis — on their own cellphones — for two hours prior to her arrival. They read their spiel from a typed “recruitment script” written in English and Spanish and introduced themselves on behalf of “a new grassroots Democratic organization,” Battleground Texas.
It was embarrassing to watch as a campaign staffer prematurely announced Davis’ arrival and urged everyone to stand up and chant, which they did for several minutes until it was obvious that Davis wasn’t there. “I thought she was here,” a worker mused into the microphone to the quizzical and confused glances from the crowd of 60 or so. In retrospect, it was a harbinger of what was to come (or not) and representative of the disorganization and confusion that is apparently plaguing this fledgling month-old campaign.
When Davis did come through the thatched portal, she was presented a pair of pink tennis shoes, which she held in the air to much cheer and applause. But that was the extent of her public reference to that fateful evening at the state Capitol where she championed abortion rights. Instead, she told the crowd about her desire for better public education, healthier work environments for all, especially women, helping veterans, immigration reform to help Dreamers and promoting higher education.
“I am running to be your next governor because I believe so strongly in the promise of Texas. A promise that it made to me when I was a young girl who grew up in poverty, who was a single mom at a very young age and who had the privilege of growing up in a state that believed in public education, that believed in helping me access higher education and that helped me on a journey that brought me where my feet are right here today — in high heels,” Davis said pointing to her 3-inch closed-toe lifts.
After six minutes, the media was herded into a dark area of the hut where we had 10 minutes to ask her questions to which she reiterated all of the above, with still no mention of women’s reproductive rights. So when I stated that women have been a big part of her base of support and asked whether she was trying to distance herself from the abortion issue, or to quote The Brownsville Herald, was “pro-life,” she looked at me and shook her head. But before she could articulate, her new press aide Rebecca Acuña jumped in and said “that comment was taken out of context.”
Davis then went on to say that she “fought hard against cuts in 2011 that closed so many of our health clinics across the state of Texas. Right here in the Rio Grande Valley, 10 clinics closed that were providing the only health care that many women had.” She added: “Women, I fear, will be at risk. Their health and safety will be at risk. My position on that bill was about making sure that women have access to safe care when they are confronting these difficult decisions and I wish, I would prefer, that our tax dollars are spent on improving our public education system rather than defending what I think is a bad lot in court.”
No matter how it was phrased, it was clear that Davis was not going to say “abortion” and would steer the subject back to education at every turn.
And that’s fine. No candidate can run on just one issue and to do so would clearly alienate a large part of the populace, namely conservative Catholics.
Recent University of Texas-Pan American graduate Claudia Rosales, 25, was evidence of that. With her 5-month-old baby boy, Azariah Rosales, in tow, the new mom came to the event to make calls for Davis and lend her support. She is pro-life, she told me, but she wants all women to have a choice. She hopes they’ll make the choice that she did, but said they should have the option to choose for themselves and not be decided by “men in Austin.”
And so I say it is still important for Davis to stay true to her female base.
And that’s probably why I was shocked and disappointed when her press aide, Acuña, called and woke me at 11:30 p.m. that night asking that The Monitor retract a headline on an online article that referenced Davis’ “pro-life” position. She then tried to backpedal and said her comments weren’t for publication, although they were made during a public media briefing. After the media briefing, Acuña did speak with some journalists on background but that was not the case when she jumped in during the open media conference.
Aside from not retreating from the issue that made Davis a household name, Acuña should also know that with political stakes this high you can’t cry “background” retroactively to the media.
All this leaves me seriously wondering whether Davis’ campaign has any chance of winning in 2014. Or worse: whether Davis didn’t take the Valley seriously enough to come here polished and ready and with her A-team. Surely this type of poor venue and repetitive shallow non-statements and unprofessional media handling wouldn’t play, in say, a Dallas crowd.
It’s a pity because I had great hopes for Davis.
Sandra Sanchez is Opinion editor for The Monitor. Contact her at email@example.com or (956) 683-4461.