As a student at Harvard Law School two decades ago, Wendy Davis was drawn to a legal clinic for the poor. For two years, she helped AIDS patients write living wills, and surviving partners figure out their legal rights.
Davis, who grew up poor and was a single mother by age 19, was destined to do that type of work, her bosses told her.
“No, I’m going to go work for a big firm,” Davis recalled telling them. “I want to be financially successful. This was great. It was meaningful. I loved it. But it is not going to be my life’s work.”
Davis went on to work at a big firm, and found it less rewarding than the legal services job, she said in an interview. She went into politics. Now a Democratic state senator in Texas, Davis, 50, is considering running for governor after gaining national attention for spending about 11 hours on her feet arguing against legislation restricting abortion.
Davis is telling her childhood narrative as she raises money from Washington, D.C., to San Francisco and assesses her prospects. Davis has gained national media attention, including an appearance in Vogue magazine. She said she will decide on running by the end of September, a timetable that was delayed because her father is in the hospital.
Democrats are urging Davis to run, even though Texas, the second most populous state, hasn’t had a governor from her party since Ann Richards left office in 1995. Davis met in July with staff at the Democratic Governors Association in Washington, who think her candidacy would energize the party and force Republicans to divert funds from races in other states, according to a Democratic official briefed on the matter who asked for anonymity to speak about private discussions.
If she decides to compete in the 2014 election, Davis will face a difficult contest. Greg Abbott, 55, the Republican Attorney General, who has won five statewide elections, already is campaigning. Incumbent Rick Perry, a Republican, said he won’t run again. Davis had about $1 million in her campaign account as of June 30, compared to Abbott’s nearly $21 million.
Davis may face criticism from Republicans over her legislative approach. Republican state Senator John Carona said she has shown unwillingness to compromise.
Davis’s ability to raise money and connect with women means she would have better prospects than most Democrats seeking statewide office, said Harold Cook, an Austin political consultant.
“She will do better than any Democrat has done in years,” Cook said.
Bill Miller of HillCo Partners, an Austin lobbying firm, recently told Davis his thoughts on her candidacy over dinner. “Beating Greg Abbott is not possible,” Miller said he told Davis. Even so, he said, “She is an attractive Democratic female with a great personal story, and she has lots of magnetism.”
Born Wendy Russell in West Warwick, Rhode Island, Davis and her family moved around the country before settling in the Fort Worth area when she was 11. Her parents divorced, leaving her mother, who had a sixth grade education, as the primary provider for four children. Her mother worked as a restaurant manager, as Davis’s father sought to open a community theater, she said.
“There were literally times we didn’t have enough food in the house,” Davis said.
Davis moved out at 17 to live with her boyfriend as she finished high school. They married, had a child and moved from an apartment to a mobile home. They soon divorced and, by 19, Davis was on her own, supporting her daughter Amber by working two jobs, she said.
A co-worker at the pediatrician’s office where she worked gave her a pamphlet about a local community college. Davis enrolled in a paralegal program. She did well enough to earn a scholarship to Texas Christian University in Fort Worth.
Spencer Wertz, 71, then a philosophy professor at the school, said Davis was one of his smartest students in more than 40 years of teaching.
“You got a glimpse as an undergraduate of what she was going to be as a politician,” he said.
Davis met her second husband, Jeff Davis, when she was 20 and waiting tables at the dinner theater her father eventually opened. They married in 1987. Jeff Davis, 13 years her senior, was a former city councilman who drove a Porsche and earned a six-figure salary, he said. They had a daughter, Dru, as Davis was still in college.
Davis graduated at the top of her class and decided to go to law school. She was accepted to the University of Texas, in Austin, and was preparing to enroll when a letter from Harvard arrived.
Her husband paid the tuition and took care of the two children in Texas, he said.
Davis said Harvard “shaped me.” She was especially struck by a course about the U.S. Supreme Court under Earl Warren’s tenure as chief justice.
“I think about it in the context of the fact that each of us bring personal experiences to the table that shape our perspective and our decision making,” she said. “I know where mine comes from, and I stay connected to it because I think it helps me to be true.”
She learned how to challenge elite classmates at the Cambridge, Massachusetts, school.
“She gained confidence being with that group of students that are the top of the top,” said Patti Kraft, a classmate and friend.
After graduating and working as a clerk for a federal judge, Davis worked for Haynes and Boone LLP in Fort Worth. Then she got into politics. In 1999, on her second try for a seat on the Fort Worth City Council, she won.
During nine years in office, she clashed with public safety unions over pensions and sought limits on natural gas development in urban areas.
Residents in low-income neighborhoods said Davis connected with them.
“The very wealthy, the very poor -- she treats everybody the same,” said Victoria Bargas, president of the Worth Heights neighborhood association.
In her fifth term on the council and after a divorce from Jeff Davis, she thought about leaving politics. She said she considered a return to legal services work. Supporters approached her about running against a Republican state senator who had been in the legislature for 19 years. She won.
Since that 2008 victory, one of her biggest causes has been increasing education funding. Republican leaders booted her from the Senate’s education committee, after she led a filibuster two years ago to temporarily block a $4 billion cut to public schools. She attended every meeting anyway.
Davis, who balances her job as a senator with legal work at Cantey Hanger LLP in Fort Worth, helped convince lawmakers to approve a measure allowing plaintiffs to sue in state court over gender-based pay discrimination. Perry vetoed it this year, saying it may hurt business.
She tried unsuccessfully this year to limit fees that payday lenders could charge by leading Democrats to strengthen a measure proposed by Senator Carona. That doomed the bill in the House, he said. Her refusal to accept a middle ground meant nothing would change, Carona said.
“One of the reasons we didn’t get there was Wendy,” Carona said. “There are not many people who would describe her as a moderate force or someone who is prone to pragmatism.”
In June, Perry called for new abortion rules, banning the procedure after 20 weeks and requiring they be performed in surgical centers by doctors with admitting privileges at nearby hospitals. Most clinics can’t afford to meet those standards, and doctors may struggle to win privileges, likely resulting in widespread clinic closures, abortion-rights advocates said.
Democratic senators decided to speak until the legislative session ended in an effort to delay or block the measure.
They gathered in an oak and pine paneled room, steps from the Senate floor. At least six senators offered to lead a filibuster. They decided it should be a woman. Davis volunteered. Senators said they agreed Davis was the best choice, saying she had developed an expertise in women’s health issues and, as an avid runner, had strong physical stamina.
Davis led the filibuster, during which she couldn’t take a break, go to the bathroom, drink water or lean on her desk, based on the chamber’s rules. Wearing a back brace and pink Mizuno running shoes, she wiped away tears as she read stories from women about their abortions.
After Davis and her supporters ran down the clock, Perry called another legislative session.
The Republican-controlled legislature approved the measure.
To contact the reporters on this story: Amanda J. Crawford in Fort Worth at firstname.lastname@example.org; David Mildenberg in Austin at email@example.com
To contact the editor responsible for this story: Stephen Merelman at firstname.lastname@example.org