Wendy Davis facing questions about her ‘Texas story’

BY JONATHAN TILOVE | Sunday, Jan. 19, 2014, 10:17PM

Coming off the best week of her campaign, Sen. Wendy Davis, D-Fort Worth, is facing fresh questions about the trailer-park-to-Harvard “Texas story” that is the core of her compelling campaign biography.

Even as the Davis campaign last week was able to demonstrate stellar fundraising prowess that lent credibility to her long-shot bid to become the first Democrat elected to statewide office in two decades, a story in Sunday’s Dallas Morning News cast some doubt on details of her oft-told tale of going from being a single teen mother living in a Fort Worth trailer park to Harvard Law School.

For example, “Davis was 21, not 19 (as she has often said), 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,” according to the Morning News.

The gubernatorial candidate’s bootstrap narrative also never mentions her second husband, Jeff Davis, a successful Fort Worth attorney who ushered her into the world of Texas politics, and whose six-figure income enabled her to pay the tuition to attend Harvard Law School while he raised the daughter they had together and her daughter from her first marriage. When they divorced, he was given custody of their daughter at her request, and Wendy Davis was required to pay child support.

“My language should be tighter,” Davis told the newspaper. “I’m learning about using broader, looser language. I need to be more focused on the details.”

Sunday evening, the Davis campaign issued a statement from the candidate that said, “My father separated from my mother when I was 11 years old and they were divorced two years later. That turned our world upside down. I went to work when I was 14 to help support our family. At the age of 19 I was a teenage mother living alone with my daughter in a trailer and struggling to keep afloat on my way to a divorce. My story is not unique, it is the story of tens of thousands of women across Texas who struggle economically in the face of divorce.”

But the discrepancies promise to provide the campaign of Attorney General Greg Abbott, her presumed Republican adversary in the fall election, with rich fodder in the days ahead.

“Sen. Wendy Davis systematically, intentionally and repeatedly deceived Texans for years about her background, yet she expects voters to indulge her fanciful narrative,” said Abbott spokesman Matt Hirsch. “It’s disappointing that a candidate would so cavalierly deceive voters about the most basic aspects of their life, while providing inaccurate testimony in the process. If voters can’t trust what Sen. Davis says, how can they trust her to lead?”

Rice University political scientist Mark Jones said Sunday that at the very least, the Morning News “certainly threw a bucket of cold water on what had until this morning been a truly banner week for Davis.”

Davis reported Wednesday that she raised $12.2 million in the last half of 2013, including money from the Texas Victory Committee, a joint venture between her campaign and Battleground Texas, which is working to revitalize the Democratic grass-roots in Texas.

‘Raised by a single mom’

Some biographical details from Wendy Davis’ narrative have been challenged in the past, in one instance by the candidate’s late father.

Davis has frequently said, “I was raised by a single mom.”

“There were four children in our family and my mother only had a sixth-grade education and it was really a struggle for us,” she has said.

But on her Facebook page, Davis’ mother, Ginger Cornstubble, who can be seen posing cheek-to-cheek with her famous daughter, notes that she did not attend college, but indicates she did go to Muleshoe High School.

And, when Gov. Rick Perry back in June at the National Right to Life Convention in Grapevine, noted that Davis had been “born into difficult circumstances,” as “the daughter of a single mother,” Davis’ father, Jerry Russell – who died in September – took strong exception to that depiction in an interview with PolitiFact Texas, the American-Statesman’s fact-checking project, which was looking into Perry’s statement.

“Jerry Russell, Davis’ father and the founder of a Fort Worth theater, returned our telephone call about Perry’s claim and challenged the reference to Davis being `born into difficult circumstances.’ Russell said it was `totally incorrect’ to conclude that Davis was born to a single mother,” according to the PolitiFact story. “Rather, he said, he and Davis’ mother were wedded in Rhode Island in 1958, some five years before Davis, the third of their four children, was born there, he said.”

After they separated, when Davis was 11, Russell said that while he was not a presence in the family home, “I was present in Wendy’s life.”

Russell also told PolitiFact that his ex-wife remarried two or three years after their split and then another time later.

Davis’ second husband

According to Tarrant County divorce records, Wendy Russell married Frank Lee Underwood on Jan. 24, 1982. Their daughter, Amber, was born August 11, 1982, when Davis was 19. And Wendy and Frank ceased living together as husband and wife on August 25, 1983, when she was 20. The divorce was finalized on May 22, 1984.

Frank was awarded the 1981 Woodlake Mobile Home, the 1972 Chrysler boat, and the stereo, while his wife got the 1967 Chevy pickup, the 1972 Pontiac Firebird and the 1981 Pontiac Grand Prix.

Davis’ initial courtship with Jeff Davis was brokered by her father, the founder and director of Stage West in Fort Worth, Jeff Davis has said previously and confirmed to the Statesman on Sunday. Russell asked Jeff Davis, who was 13 years his daughter’s senior, what he thought of younger women. At the time, Jeff Davis was on the Stage West board and Wendy was waiting tables at the theater while attending Tarrant County College.

Jeff Davis told the Statesman that he first met Wendy Davis at a Christmas party in December 1983, and they started dating in January 1984. That’s when he first met Amber, who was almost one-and-a-half. By then, Jeff Davis said, Wendy and Amber were not living in a trailer but in an apartment.

And yet, in a piece about Davis that Maria Shriver did for NBC’s Today morning show last week, Davis and Amber returned to the trailer for the first time since they lived there, and Amber said, “I remember the trailer. It was very small and very bare. We didn’t have a lot to live on. I remember staying with my grandparents a lot while she did go to school and go to work.”

Davis has signed a contract with Blue Rider Press, an imprint of Penguin Random House, to write a memoir of her personal life and career, to be published in the fall that will offer her an opportunity to revisit her personal narrative in greater depth.

Nuanced narrative

The emphasis on personal stories for dramatic effect is not uncommon in politics.

There was a time in American history when being born in a log cabin was considered an essential part of a presidential candidates’ biography, even if it meant embellishing the modesty of the dwelling.

In launching his bid for governor, Greg Abbott laid out as his defining personal narrative his overcoming adversity after he was left a paraplegic as a young man by a falling tree limb.

If single motherhood once carried a stigma, it is now viewed as a heroically modest starting point.

Jeff Davis said her story, without any dressing up, is a powerful one, and that he knows the years before their marriage “were enormously difficult for her.”

But, said Rice’s Jones, “The Davis life story presented by these neutral observers, while still very impressive and compelling, is nonetheless a bit more complex, nuanced and less appealing and compelling than that which has been presented by Davis and her campaign to date.”

Southern Methodist University political scientist Cal Jillson, said that political ego is commonly the enemy of nuance.

“I have watched politics for a long time and I don’t remember many politicians not consumed by ambition. In fact, at the presidential level, `fire in the belly’ is thought necessary to an effective campaign,” said Jillson. But, he added, “Unless the Abbott campaign can get the former husband to cut a hard-hitting spot, I think the passive-aggressive interviews will wear thin.”

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