AUSTIN -- The initial months of the race to become Texas' next governor have relied as much on story as they have on policy, and the top Democratic candidate said she hopes to put aside more than a week of debate centered on her own personal narrative.
In a speech streamed live by The Texas Tribune, state Sen. Wendy Davis (D-Fort Worth) made her most impassioned defense yet of her single mother-to-Harvard graduate biography. Appearing at the Travis County Democratic Party Johnson Bentsen Richards dinner Tuesday night in Austin, Davis told her audience she planned to set the record straight.
"You can attack my record. You can challenge my ideas. You can play holier than life when it comes to my life story, but I draw the line when it comes to lying about my family," said Davis.
An article published by the Dallas Morning News more than a week ago renewed scrutiny over Davis' life story. Facts concerning the effective date of her first divorce and previously reported details involving second husband Jeff Davis' financial support for Davis' college education, including cashing in a 401(k) to help pay her Harvard Law School tuition, have been seized upon by many conservatives to call Davis' up-from-the-bootstraps campaign narrative into question.
Republican gubernatorial candidate and Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott's campaign responded to the article last week with a statement alleging Davis "systematically, intentionally and repeatedly deceived Texans for years about her background." Davis took aim directly at Abbott Tuesday night.
"If you know the pain of a failed marriage, if you know what it's like to raise a child on your own, if you know what it's like to get home from work from your second job only to find that your power's been shut off because you couldn't afford to pay the bill, then Greg Abbott isn't just attacking my story. He's attacking yours, too," said Davis.
The circumstances of Davis' second divorce have also been subject to controversy. Jeff Davis told the Dallas Morning News his wife ended the marriage after her college loans were repaid. He also claimed he was awarded custody of their daughter, Dru, as well as Amber, Davis' daughter from her first marriage.
Both daughters said their parents shared custody following the divorce, and defended their mother in a pair of open letters released Tuesday afternoon. Davis said she contributed to the family finances, including loan repayment, while working as an attorney in Fort Worth. Both points were emphasized again Tuesday night.
"My former husband, Jeff, was generous and supportive when it came to my education," said Davis. "When I went to Harvard Law School, our daughters came to Boston with me. But we decided as a family after the first semester that it was much better for them to be in Texas, in their home, with their friends, in their schools and with the daily help of someone that I call mom.
"I will always be grateful to Jeff for that partnership," said Davis. "When our marriage ended 10 years after my graduation, he and I remained partners, sharing the responsibilities of parenting and doing what was right for Amber and Dru. I never gave up custody of my children. I never lost custody of my children, and to say otherwise is an absolute lie."
"We're setting down some basic details about each of the candidates. We're seeing what they're made of, what their biographies were," said Ross Ramsey, executive editor and co-founder of The Texas Tribune.
After controversy over Davis' biography erupted last week, Ramsey said reclaiming the narrative was critical for the Democratic hopeful.
"She gave a pretty strong defense. She threw the gauntlet down in kind of a nicely played, 'How dare you. Don't do this again,' said Ramsey. "That said, you kind of wonder why it was this Tuesday instead of last Tuesday."
This early on, it's difficult to predict how much of a difference the current flap will make in November. Meanwhile, Davis hopes to steer the debate back toward policy issues.
Davis attacked Abbott Tuesday over his role defending the state in a school finance lawsuit filed by hundreds of school districts in the wake of deep cuts to education funding. The Democrat also said her likely opponent would "turn a blind eye" to predatory lending, noting contributions to Abbott's campaign from the payday lending industry.
"I'm staying focused on the issues that matter to Texans, because this race isn't about a distorted version of what happened to my family 30 years ago," said Davis. "It's about what's going to happen to your family 30 years from now. Greg Abbott and his folks have picked a fight with the wrong Texas gal."
Abbott's campaign offered no comment on Davis' Tuesday night speech. Neither candidate is an official nominee, though each is expected to breeze through their party primary March 4. The general election is Nov. 4.
Go here to read the open letter from state Sen. Wendy Davis' daughters.