Liberal hero Wendy Davis under fire for her selective biography

State Sen. Wendy Davis, who became a hero to the left when she filibustered a restrictive abortion bill, is running for governor of Texas. Now she faces charges that some aspects of her biography are misleading.

LM Otero/AP
Texas Sen. Wendy Davis speaks at an education roundtable meeting in Arlington, Texas, Jan 9. Davis' rise from a teenage single mother living in a trailer park to Harvard Law School is a centerpiece of her campaign for Texas governor, but some of the details of her personal story may be fuzzier than first thought.

Wendy Davis is learning a valuable lesson in national politics: Make sure your personal bio is accurate, that it doesn’t include targets for political rivals and enemies.

At the very least, such targets – exaggerations, things left out – distract from your message, especially if you aspire to higher office, say, you’re a state lawmaker running for governor, or a US senator with presidential aspirations.

Remember how long it took Sen. Rand Paul (R) of Kentucky to defend himself against (as it turns out, accurate) charges that he had “borrowed” from other sources for his speeches and books?

Ms. Davis is the Democratic Texas state senator and 2014 candidate for governor who burst onto the national political scene last year when she filibustered for 11 hours against a bill restricting abortions. Instantly, she was a hero to abortion rights advocates, feminists, and the liberal media.

Especially when her personal story was widely told: Teen-aged single mother, raised by a single mother herself under challenging economic circumstances. Worked as a waitress. Lived in a trailer park. Graduated first in her class at Texas Christian University, then went on to Harvard where she earned a law degree “with the help of academic scholarships and student loans,” as her website puts it.

It’s a great American up-by-one’s-bootstraps story, and it’s mostly all true.

But, as it turns out, there were significant things left out – politically significant, that is, because she’s had to acknowledge that “my language should be tighter,” as she told the Dallas Morning News.

“I’m learning about using broader, looser language. I need to be more focused on the detail,” she told the newspaper, which broke the story in a lengthy profile this week.

Some major points in the story, written by Dallas Morning News senior political writer Wayne Slater:

“The basic elements of the narrative are true, but the full story of Davis’ life is more complicated, as often happens when public figures aim to define themselves. In the shorthand version that has developed, some facts have been blurred.

“Davis was 21, not 19, when she was divorced. She lived only a few months in the family mobile home while separated from her husband before moving into an apartment with her daughter.

“A single mother working two jobs, she met Jeff Davis, a lawyer 13 years older than her, married him and had a second daughter. He paid for her last two years at Texas Christian University and her time at Harvard Law School, and kept their two daughters while she was in Boston. When they divorced in 2005, he was granted parental custody, and the girls stayed with him. Wendy Davis was directed to pay child support.”

In other words, Davis had significant – and wholly legitimate – financial help on the way to becoming a Harvard-trained lawyer, member of the Ft. Worth City Council, and then Texas state senator. It's just that she was selective in the telling.

Conservative bloggers and commentators have rushed to accuse Davis of misleading Texans whose votes she now seeks.

Not only that, writes National Review Editor Rich Lowry in a column for Politico, “Her version of her story has an ideological charge.”

“So much of her allure for her feminist political base is her status as a go-it-alone single mom,” Mr. Lowry writes. “That she benefited from the stability and resources of marriage can’t be allowed to muddy the picture.”

Syndicated columnist Mona Charen, writing in the conservative National Review, acknowledges that “Wendy Davis achieved success the way most successful people do – through hard work and the support of a loving family.”

Bu then, Ms. Charen continues:

“She, and the press who lionize her, seem all too eager to suggest that she somehow did everything all by herself. This false heroic tale is a common trope on the left these days – women doing it all by themselves. It’s more than partisan hackery. It reinforces the very damaging notion that women don’t need husbands. Many, many women are swallowing this propaganda and acting on it.”

Some sharp-tongued and sharp-penned critics on the right have been far more damming, far more personal.

Davis’ supporters are pushing back, suggesting that the latest turn in her political biography is the work of Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott, her Republican opponent in the governor’s race.

Dallas Morning News reporter Wayne Slater flatly denies this regarding his lengthy piece. He tweeted: “Story was about Davis, not Abbott. And in researching, I talked to no – zero – Abbott people. They saw story this morn when u did.”

In a piece headlined “The Most Judged Woman in America,” Liza Mundy, program director at the New America Foundation and the author of “The Richer Sex: How the New Majority of Female Breadwinners is Transforming Sex, Love, and Family,” argues that Davis is being subjected to a sexist double standard.

“Behavior that would be unremarkable in a man – leaving your kids for prolonged periods in the capable hands of your spouse, as Barack Obama did, as did zillions of other fathers who campaigned for public office – is somehow suspect, even unnatural, in a mother,” she write in Politico magazine. “Following your fundamental nature; learning that there is a whole big world out there; adjusting your aspirations upward; getting some help from people who believe in you, people whose well-being is entangled with your own: this is the stuff of the typical American success story, the American dream.”

“It’s a story we fall in love with, except, apparently, when the dreamer happens to be female,” Mundy writes.

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