Politics

01.24.14

When Wendy Davis Was a Republican

The Democratic hopeful for Texas governor proved she had chops as a local Republican pol. The GOP would do well to remember when she was one of theirs.

So what do we know about Wendy Davis, Texas state senator turned gubernatorial candidate and Democratic “It” Girl? With her up-from-nothing backstory and Harvard Law degree, the woman is clearly smart, savvy, ambitious, and determined. (There’s no question that she grasps the value of a moving personal narrative.) In her five years in Austin, she has amassed one of the senate’s most liberal voting records. She does not shy from a fight, and she has a flair for political theater to make Ted Cruz envious. (Her filibuster of anti-abortion legislation was, it bears recalling, not her first such rodeo.) People have gone ga-ga over the legislator’s sporty pink kicks.

Unsurprisingly, the hard-charging, mediagenic Davis has become a hero to women’s group (Emily’s List, nursing a major crush, cheers her as “an inspiring national heroine.”) Anxious Republicans, meanwhile, are sharpening their claws. One particularly troglodytic right-winger—laboring to cement conservatives’ image as sexist jackasses—refers to Davis as “Abortion Barbie.” Get it? She supports women’s reproductive rights and is a comely blonde. What more do voters need to know?

Except… Before she emerged as “a feminist folk hero” and culture warrior extraordinaire, Davis served nine years as a member of the Fort Worth city council. There, in the unglamorous trenches of pothole politics, she earned a reputation as passionate and aggressive—“She’ll bite you if you’re not careful,” chuckles former council colleague Jim Lane—but also as a pragmatic, pro-business moderate with bipartisan appeal. Far from some lefty bomb-thrower, Davis was, in fact, a Republican voter and occassional donor before she ran for state senate, at which point many local Dems complained that she was not liberal enough. “That’s proven to be kind of funny over time,” observes long-time Fort Worth political columnist Bud Kennedy.

Davis’s party switch wasn’t some grand political drama a la former senator Zell Miller’s cantankerous shift from Democrat to Republican or Charlie Crist’s move from Republican to Independent to Democrat. (Or, for that matter, Gov. Rick Perry’s long-ago flip from D to R.) Practically speaking, it wasn’t much of a shift at all. Texas’s municipal politics are, by law, officially nonpartisan: Candidates do not run under party banners, and party IDs do not appear on ballots. In some races (such as, say, Houston mayoral battles), partisan drama bubbles beneath the surface. But on the Fort Worth council, members’ affiliations are rarely an issue. “You know who the Republicans and Democrats are, but we’re very fortunate that you don’t have a partisan overlay in play at the council table,” says Kenneth Barr, who was bumped up from council member to mayor in 1996. (Davis’s first campaign was a failed effort to fill Barr’s vacant council seat; three years later, she ran again and won.)

Davis has said that she registered Republican to have a say in local races. (In a solidly red county like Tarrant, the candidate who carries the GOP primary in, for instance, a judicial race, tends to win the whole enchilada.) Area political watchers say this is not uncommon. “People outside don’t understand,” says Dallas-Morning News scribe Dave Lieber, whose “Watchdog” column ran for years in the Star-Telegram.  “The primaries are where the real races are.”

In the unglamorous trenches of pothole politics, she earned a reputation as passionate and aggressive.

“Wendy very much followed the same path” as Rep. Kay Granger, says Kennedy. Pre-Congress, Granger served first on the Fort Worth council and then as mayor. She was carefully centrist in the way she led the city,” recalls Kennedy. Granger was so middle-of-the-road, in fact, that when she signaled her intent to succeed retiring Democratic Rep. Pete Geren in 1996, both parties aggressively courted her to run under their banner. In Granger’s case, the GOP won the day. (Granger, incidentally, is the rare Republican to whom Davis has contributed over the years.) Davis, of course, went Democratic. But both women made the move out of city politics via their centrist appeal.

As for her council work, Davis found herself immersed in the nitty-gritty of business development, with a particular focus on revitalizing the core of the city, much of which fell within her district. Soon after Davis’s arrival on the council, Barr tapped her to head its Economic Development Committee. This meant working closely with the Chamber of Commerce and other business leaders to bring in new investment and development. “She did an outstanding job,” praises Barr. (Among others impressed with Davis’s efforts was Fort Worth oil billionaire Sid Bass. Despite typically funding Republican causes, Bass has contributed some $200,000 to her campaigns in recent years.)

“I didn’t have a partisan affiliation by my name, and I didn’t govern with one either,” Davis emails me of her council tenure. “When I worked with my colleagues on issues like shale gas drilling, or strengthening economic development, they were Forth Worth issues, not partisan issues. When we worked with political leaders, community leaders, and business leaders to get $260 million in new investments that brought thousands of jobs and revitalized communities, it wasn’t a Democratic or Republican thing to do—it was the right thing to do.”

This is not to say that Davis didn’t ruffle feathers back then. Her central-city district contained a mix of tony enclaves and low-income minority neighborhoods. “It’s the most active and volatile district in the city,” says Kennedy. “It expects the most and demands the most of councilmen.”

Davis labored to balance competing interests. When the energy industry was seeking fracking rights, she supported the effort, even as she pushed for better leasing terms for the minority neighborhoods to be affected. “Wendy both very actively wanted to welcome gas drilling into the community but also spoke strongly about safety regulations, spacing, noise, and other neighborhood quality of life issues,” says Kennedy. She opposed a property-tax freeze for seniors and pushed public-safety unions to reduce pension packages. Much (much) more narrowly, in one oft-cited incident, Davis joined protesters in picketing a local Staples store that had put up a sign deemed aesthetically unpleasing. “She’s always been a lightning rod,” says Kennedy. “She was high profile on the council, just not in a liberal or conservative way. She was more of a neighborhood activist.”

These days, Davis’s neighborhood is a whole lot bigger and her activism decidedly more partisan. But make no mistake: Reductive labels like “Abortion Barbie” aren’t just insulting, they foolishly underestimate Davis’s political chops.