Texas lawmaker Wendy Davis is getting the scrutiny that always comes when men and women seek higher political office.
If truth-stretching is found, male and female candidates must answer for it. There’s nothing sexist about it, although some of the reaction falls into that category.
Last summer, Davis and her pink running shoes warmed liberal hearts when she staged an 11-hour filibuster against Texas abortion restrictions. Last fall, the Democrat from Fort Worth attracted national media attention when she announced a run for governor.
This month, the Dallas Morning News took a harder look at the candidate whose experience as a single, teenage mother who went from hard-scrabble life in a trailer park to launching an improbable political career is a key part of her story.
In a Jan. 18 report, the newspaper wrote about a few factual discrepancies and highlighted her ex-husband’s role in her success. The paper reported that Davis was 21, not 19, when she divorced. And that she lived only a few months in what the newspaper called “the family mobile home” while separated from her first husband. Then she moved into an apartment with her daughter.
She remarried, and her second husband paid for her education at Harvard Law School by cashing in his 401(k) account and taking out a student loan on her behalf. Although Davis said she always acknowledged his contribution, the story she tells on the campaign trail stresses her personal ability to triumph over hardship.
Davis told the newspaper her language should be “tighter.” But as Esquire blogger and passionate liberal Charles P. Pierce put it, “Saying you were 19 when you were 21, and forgetting [to] mention that your ex-husband put you through law school isn’t speaking loosely. It’s sinning by omission, and you have to know the consequences. . .”
Actually, saying she was divorced at 19 instead of 21 isn’t the biggest problem for Davis. De-emphasizing the financial help she got from her ex-husband hurts more, because it undermines her credibility as a person who overcame incredible odds to get to where she is. In the quest to connect with the average guy, politicians on both sides of the aisle push to document humble roots, and the perseverance that got them past them.
Massachusetts saw a less dramatic version of this during the recent Senate showdown between Republican Scott Brown and Democrat Elizabeth Warren. In his memoir, “Against All Odds,” Brown wrote about a troubled childhood, filled with hard luck and knocks. But when he ran for reelection, at least one relative disputed just how hard he had it. He surely had it harder than Warren, who talked about growing up on the “ragged edge of the middle class.” Somehow, the edge seemed much less ragged when the Globe reported she drove a white MG during her senior year in high school.
In Davis’s case, the Dallas Morning News concluded that the basic story of a single mother who rose from poverty to a successful legal and political career holds. But details provided by her ex-husband, Jeff Davis, also highlight the story of an ambitious woman who left Texas for Harvard in pursuit of education and upward mobility.
According to Wendy Davis, her daughters lived with her in Massachusetts during her first year of law school. They returned to Texas after that, where their father took care of them. Davis graduated from Harvard in 1993. Ten years later, her career was launched, and her marriage was over.
But according to her ex-husband, she moved out the day he made the last payment on her student loan. Jeff Davis said he was awarded parental custody, and Wendy Davis was ordered to pay $1,200 a month in child support. In a statement issued after the Dallas Morning News report, Wendy Davis said they shared custody.
Of course, there’s a sexist side to this story. If Jeff Davis were the candidate who traveled across the country to go to law school, and if he divorced his wife after launching a career, some might find him callous. But the story of a man who puts career ahead of family and breaks with the spouse who supported him every step of the way is a familiar one. There’s an added edge to it when the woman is cast as the cold-hearted careerist.
But the arc of Wendy Davis’s life is there for all to see and judge because she put it out there. That’s what happens when you reach for the stars in politics.Joan Vennochi can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @Joan_Vennochi.