The Woman With the Pink Tennis Shoes Is Walking a Fine Line – The Atlantic

Posted: October 21, 2020 at 2:56 am

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Back in the halcyon days of February, when healing America seemed like a figure of speech and indoor gatherings of more than two maskless people werent considered a biohazard, Wendy Davis addressed a 75-person crowd in the clubhouse of a gated community outside San Antonio. It was the third event in as many days for Davis, who was two weeks away from winning the Democratic primary to represent Texass Twenty-First Congressional District, a curiously drawn slice of the state that includes downtown Austin, the suburban sprawl of San Antonio, and a rural stretch of Hill Country. Davis delivered her standard stump speecha tight, policy-driven monologue that features the story of how she, a teen mom living in a trailer park, managed to make it to Harvard Law School, thanks to hard work, Pell Grants, and a Planned Parenthood around the cornerbefore fanning out to a case for stitching up the holes in todays social safety net. (Daviss granddaughters dont have the same opportunities she did, she said; we owe it to them to change that.) Afterward, a woman in her late 50s with a sensible brown bob and a faint twang pulled the candidate aside. I got an abortion, and I tell my Sunday-school class about it, the woman began, her voice cracking. I just dont believe in backing down. You just dont back down.

Davis nodded sympatheticallyshe gets this a lot. In 2013, Davis went from Texas state senator to feminist folk hero when she filibustered a bill to effectively close all but five abortion clinics in the state. Lean In feminism was sweeping the nation, and Sheryl Sandberg couldnt have asked for a better standard-bearer for her gospel of sharp-elbowed female empowerment. To avoid giving her (male) Republican opponents even the flimsiest reason to disqualify her, Davis followed Senate rules to the point of absurdityrefraining from sitting, eating, drinking, or using the bathroom (there was a catheter ) for 11 straight hours. The gladiatorial aspect of it all, plus the fact that Davis had done it in a pair of Mizuno sneakers that were an unapologetically girly shade of pink, captured the attention of tens of thousands on a livestream, among them President Barack Obama. When details of her biography surfaced the next day, Daviss cult status grew. Women sent macram uteruses to her office to express their gratitude. She was featured in the September issue of Vogue. Though her effort to kill the bill ultimately failed, she traveled throughout Texas on a Planned Parenthood bus, disembarking to choruses of young women chanting: Wendy! Wendy! Wendy!

A few months later, when she announced that she was running for governor, Davis wasnt expected to win, but that someone with her buzz was even seeking the office gave Democrats new hope for loosening the decades-long red chokehold on the state. Her campaign raised $40 million. Then what started as an exciting underdog effort became something like a disaster, paved with muddled messaging, accusations that shed embellished her origin story (she didnt live in the trailer for that long), and her campaigns release of a tasteless attack ad suggesting that her opponent, Greg Abbott, who uses a wheelchair, was a hypocrite for blocking disability-discrimination lawsuits as state attorney general. Davis suffered an embarrassing 20-point lossthe widest margin for a governors race the state had seen in almost two decadesand by the end of her campaign, her net favorability rating had cratered to negative 4. Apparently, most Texas voters didnt like her.

The arc of any good political story, of course, includes a comeback. When Davis announced that she was running for U.S. Congress in July 2019, Texas 21 wasnt especially high on anyones list of seats expected to flipthe district has been represented by a Republican since the 1970s. But she had a path to victory, albeit a narrow one. In recent years, the Twenty-First has experienced an explosion in population growth, with recent transplants skewing young, educated, and suburbana demographic that famously continues to drift to the left. It was an advantage compounded by the fact that the incumbent, Chip Roy, the former chief of staff to Senator Ted Cruz, is such a staunch far-right ideologue that he once blocked the passage of a disaster-relief bill that would have benefited Texas because it didnt contain sufficient funds for building President Donald Trumps border wall. In 2018, Roy topped the Democratic businessman running against him by only 2.6 percentage points.

Then came a national crisis that upended assumptions about likely winners and losers. In March 2020, almost every aspect of life became a campaign issue, even campaigning itself. In the ensuing five months, Davis held just a single in-person campaign event (outdoors, in a mask), while Roywho likened stay-at-home orders to laws in Nazi Germanyspoke with constituents in crowded restaurants and attended a large, lavish outdoor GOP fundraising gala that was investigated by the Travis County fire marshal for violating the governors COVID-19 protocols. The more daylight that shined between the candidates approach to the pandemic, the more the odds seemed to tilt in Daviss favor. (That the same dynamic was playing out on the national stage didnt hurt.) In July, following a surge of coronavirus cases in Texas, the nonpartisan Cook Political Report bumped up Daviss chances of winning, changing the Twenty-Firsts ranking from Lean R to Toss-Up. And in early September, after Obama endorsed Davis, her campaign disclosed the results of a poll it had conducted that showed the two candidates in a virtual tie. During an Instagram Live event with the actor Connie Britton, Davis appeared downright giddy about her chances of winning, letting out a Dont make a liar out of me! She was kidding, but there was also sincere trepidation in her voice. Davis, perhaps more than anyone, knows the dangers of getting swept up in the hype, and the heartbreak of assuming that this will be the year Texas turns blue.

Given that Davis staged what was essentially an 11-hour performance piece on the floor of the state Senate in 2013, you might expect her to be theatrical in persona wild gesticulator, or a master of dramatic pacing. You would be wrong. The 57-year-old lawyer has a regal mien that recalls a not-evil Claire Underwood (incidentally, a character who, like Davis, is a native Texan who lost her accent along the way). Daviss diction is ivory tower and her framing cerebral, even in the personal story she tells of discovering Planned Parenthood at 19, after giving birth to her first child, Amber: They made it possible for me to take control of my reproductive destiny, and that made it possible for me to take control of my economic opportunity. So I understand very deeply why that matters so much.

Two days before the stop in San Antonio in February, Davis attended an event at the Kerr County Democratic Party headquarters, in Kerrville. Kerrville is among the reddest parts of the district, so much so that six months later, Chip Roy would share a maskless fist bump with the towns former mayor, later shrugging off his behavior to a reporter for the Austin American-Statesman: When in Rome. The mostly white Boomers who came out for Davis were the areas committed Democratic minorityone man wore a MAGA-style hat that said Make Orwell Fiction Again. Most of their questions were about Daviss efforts to expand the electoratethis group loved her, but they couldnt see her convincing many more people from their demographic to vote for her. (Do you speak Spanish? one woman asked the candidate. Working on it, she replied.) Toward the end, a guy in the back about 30 years younger than nearly everyone else, with a smartwatch, a hipster haircut, and skinny jeans, raised his hand: Where did Davis stand on the Green New Deal?

Im for drafting the most aggressive billDavis pausedthat will pass in the Senate.

The question touched a nerve. Her thencampaign manager later told me that she thought the guy might have been a plant from a far left interest group. The campaign was almost certainly wary of a third-party candidate playing spoiler, as has happened in tight races elsewhere. Indeed, when a Green Party candidate threw his hat in the ring in April, Daviss campaign sued to keep him off the ballot because he hadnt paid the required filing fees. (She ultimately lost.)

Davis is not at all shy about being a moderate. In fact, she wants to lay claim to that designation, though she prefers the term mainstream. While health care is the centerpiece of her campaignand she will say approximately a billion times, to me, on Twitter, on the trail, presumably in her sleep, that Texas has the highest rate of uninsured people in the countryher solution is not Medicare for All. Rather, she prefers a competitive public option and expanding Medicare and Medicaid. Making sure every person in America has health care is a bold idea, she told me in February.. It doesnt mean were small thinkers if we dont think Medicare for All tomorrow is the correct path, right?

Her record is definitely on the mainstream side. The first political office she held was as a member of the Fort Worth city council, which didnt have party affiliations. During her time as a council member and later as a state senator, she championed a variety of causes, including commercial development in Fort Worth, protections against predatory lending, and regulation ofrather than a ban onthe nascent and booming fracking industry. (Davis even voted in several GOP primaries in the 1990s and, according to public records, donated to George W. Bush just before he announced his first presidential campaign.)

The problem is, as much as Davis and her campaign operatives believe mainstream is the way to go in a district that is purplish at best, and in a race where her opponent has given her the Trumpian nickname Extreme Wendy, the progressive faction of her party has more energy and influence than it has had in decades. She alienates the skinny-jeans set at her peril.

Its a strange spot for Davis to be in. Once described by former Planned Parenthood President Cecile Richards as someone who makes people believe anything was possible, Davis now cant take for granted the support of her partys left flank. Shes been lapped by the new generation of progressive stars, with their full-throated denunciations of capitalism and inequality, of structural racism and sexism. Daviss challenge is one faced by Democrats across the country hoping to capture traditionally Republican seats: how to keep progressives happy enough to pull the lever and woo members of the opposite party to do the same.

Davis blames her poor showing against Greg Abbott on being overly message-managed. If, for instance, she had attempted to talk about the importance of gun controlsomething she has done often in her current racemy team would have told me I lost my freaking mind, Davis told me, beginning to sound almost wistful.For me, that race felt so big and so hard. I didnt trust myself as much as I had in other races.

Bob Stein, a political-science professor at Rice University, is less existential in his assessment. Lets just get honest here. She wasnt what Id call a great candidate, he told me. He thinks Davis miscalculated how much identity politics would motivate female voters, especially on the abortion issue. She felt there were white Republican women who were offended that white males wanted to tell them what to do with their reproductive rights, and there werent. Davis has been much more circumspect about the issue this time around. At the start of the pandemic, when the state halted abortions on the grounds that they were a non-essential medical procedure, Davis tweeted about the topic only a handful of times, using relatively measured language. This makes absolutely zero sense and makes women more vulnerable, not less so, she said in one tweet.

In late September, when Senator Bernie Sanders hosted a virtual town hall, cheekily titled As Goes Texas, So Goes America, with various Texas Democratsincluding Julie Oliver, running a tight race in the neighboring Twenty-Fifth, and Jos Garza, vying for district attorney in Travis County, which overlaps with the Twenty-FirstDavis was conspicuously absent. Less polarizing special guests like Julin Castro and Beto ORourke werent enough of a counterbalance, it seemed, for Davis to risk being perceived as even socialist-curious. (When I asked her about her decision not to participate, Davis claimed ignorance. I certainly dont remember making a decision not to attend it, she said. I may not even have known about it, and thats probably the case.)

On the drive back to Austin from Kerrville in the winter, along a stretch of Highway 290 dotted with peach stands and personal-injury lawyers billboards, Davis explained where she sees herself in the landscape of Democratic talent. It would not be AOC. It would be Amy Klobuchar, she said decisively. It would be the person who goes in, puts her head down, and just works with people quietly and gets it done, you know? And thats not to take away from AOC, because I know that shes working hard on the things that really matter to her, but thats just not me.

The irony is, despite Daviss efforts to distance herself from the younger progressives, theyve helped provoke changes in attitude that are making her life easier, especially with regard to feminism. For one thing, there is much more recognition now that concepts such as likability are polluted by gender stereotypesand Daviss likability, recall, was underwater by the end of the governors race. A major cause of Texans disenchantment with Davis was media reports that she had fudged parts of her biography: She only lived in the trailer for a few months, which critics deemed not long enough to mention at all. Most damning, though, was the revelation that her then-husband had paid her law-school tuition and cared for their two children in Fort Worth while she was studying at Harvardprompting Ann Coulter to call Davis a gold-digger who found a sugar daddy. As proof that beliefs have evolved, look no further than what happened in March 2019, when Daviss fellow Texan, Beto ORourke, made a passing reference while he was running for president to his wife assuming most of the parenting duties. That he seemed to take this arrangement for granted, without so much as an Im so lucky, incited a barrage of accusations of male privilege. (He later apologized.)

Beto-for-President seems like ancient history. So much has happened in the past year and a half, and those events are still reverberating in the contest between Davis and Roy. Even as Trumps poll numbers have fallen in Texas, Roy has not stopped praising the presidents handling of the outbreak or trafficking in conspiracy theories, such as speculation that Democrats will experience a magic awakening after the election and their fears about the coronavirus will vanish. (Roy did complain, however, that his comments about Nazi Germany were taken out of context, explaining that he was referring only to a specific policy in Maine related to travel restrictions.) Meanwhile, Daviss campaign has pronounced Roy the nations top coronavirus skeptic and a danger to Texas families. Im observing my opponent going on CNN and telling the interviewer that everythings just fine in Texas on the day that we actually had the highest number of deaths in our state that wed had to that point, Davis told me when we spoke in August.

The contrast between the two candidates responses to police brutality against Black people isnt quite as sharp. After George Floyds killing in May, Davis slammed the presidents response, tweeting, True leaders mourn with the families who have lost loved ones, and she held a virtual town hall on the topic of racial justice and trans rights on June 11. But the next month, after a protester was fatally shot in downtown Austin and the national call for defunding the police reached a peak, she lowered the temperature of her rhetoric, tweeting: The incident last night in Austin at the Black Lives Matter protest was horrific. As we await more info, let us reaffirm that the right to peaceful protest is sacred in America. No doubt, Davis, who supports reforms such as banning chokeholds but has stopped short of anything more radical, is aware of just how badly defunding the police plays with the suburban voters shes trying to get. This is not lost on Roy, either. He took a staunch law-and-order tack amid the tear-gas standoffs between protesters and police that rocked Austin and San Antonio over the summer. And in September, after NBA players boycotted a handful of games to protest police brutality in Kenosha, Wisconsin, he appeared on the floor of the House with a framed jersey emblazoned with a 43: the number of on-duty law-enforcement officers killed so far this year, he said. Where is the NBA on this issue? Roy demanded.

One of Daviss favorite pieces of political trivia is about how Ann Richards, Ceciles mother and the patron saint of female politicians in Texas, won her 1990 bid for governor. The prevailing lore is that Richardss opponent, Clayton Williams, immolated a winning campaign with a single bizarre joke about rape (comparing it to bad weather, he said, If its inevitable, just relax and enjoy it).

But it wasnt the rape joke that did it, Davis told me, offering a slightly more nuanced account. Williams actually blew it at a public event right before the election, when Richards extended her hand to him, and he refused to shake it. Had that happened on any other daytwo days prior, or three days latershe probably wouldnt have won, Davis said excitedly. It was perfect timing. Its a lesson about just how swiftly circumstances can change in a campaign. Its also about how, if youre patient as a candidate, you just might get an openinga once-in-a-century pandemic, sayto show voters what youre really all about.

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The Woman With the Pink Tennis Shoes Is Walking a Fine Line - The Atlantic

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October 21st, 2020 at 2:56 am

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