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The Texas Blue
Advancing Progressive Ideas

Can Wendy Davis Turn Fort Worth Blue?

If the 2008 race for Senate District 10 ends up as an underdog success story, it would, in many ways, parallel the life of the Democratic candidate. Wendy Davis overcame tough odds before, as a single teenage parent struggling to support her child. She got through college, graduating at the top of her class at TCU, and went on to Harvard law school before coming back to serve for nearly a decade on the Fort Worth city council. Now she is one of the most anticipated Democratic candidates in Texas, with a 2-to-1 lead in the primary vote count against a Republican incumbent in a conservative county.

Davis’ opponent, State Senator Kim Brimer, has 21 years in the legislature, yet almost half of his constituents don’t know who he is according to a recent Lone Star Project poll. The same poll shows Brimer’s approval rating at 23 percent.

“Kim Brimer is going to have a tough re-election campaign,” said Hector Nieto, communications director for the Texas Democratic Party. “People in the district are ready for change.”

Davis’s campaign hopes that Brimer’s low polling numbers in a year of favorable conditions for Democrats will add up to a win in November.

“You can tell that [Brimer] is running scared,” Nieto said. “You can tell he’s seen the writing on the wall and he’s basically running for his political life.”

Even a strong Democratic candidate will likely face a tough election in Senate District 10. Davis has faced tough odds before. She was raised by a single mother, and started working at age 14, selling newspapers door-to-door. By 19, she was a parent herself, struggling to feed herself and her daughter. She got into the paralegal program at Tarrant County Junior College: “It looked like a good way to raise my income level, but with only having to go to school for two years, in a way that I could do it while I was still working these two jobs and raising my child,” Davis said.

While at TCJC, she earned a scholarship to Texas Christian University. The next few years were grueling, as she balanced studies, work, and motherhood. She graduated at the top of her class, but her ambitions didn’t stop there. After graduating, she was accepted at and attended Harvard Law School.

“It was the most difficult thing I’ve ever done,” she said. “But the way I got through it was just every day I would say to myself, ‘you know, you can go 10 years, and wind up at the end of the day with a law degree, or you can go 10 years and not have a law degree,’ and so I pushed myself.”

She went to school for 10 days at a time, then flew back home from Massachusetts to be with her family for 10 days. But her double-life Harvard schedule gave her time to be both a mother and a student without worrying about sacrificing one for the other. At Harvard, she was inspired to civic involvement by her classes and her work as a legal assistant at an AIDS clinic.

After graduating, Davis moved back to Fort Worth to work for a legal firm. She became involved in her community and eventually ran for city council. Her experiences at Harvard had given her a deep respect for the legal system and a desire to help those who struggled as she had.

“It taught me to think about law and everything else, understanding that we as human beings bring forward our life experiences in a way that can have profound impacts,” said Davis. “And I feel like that’s what I’ve tried to do, and honestly what I can’t escape doing in public service.”

Kristi Wiseman, Davis’s former aide on the city council, still looks on her former boss with loyalty and admiration. Now that Davis has moved on, she works for her successor, Councilman Joel Burns.

“Wendy treats everybody with respect, appreciation, and regard,” she said. “She never takes advantage of people, and she never forgets to say please and thanks.”

Although she has many supporters, Davis recently faced a challenge that threatened to take her name off the ballot. On December 31, members of the Fort Worth Professional Firefighters Association filed a challenge against Davis’ eligibility to run. State law prohibits council members from running for the legislature. Davis resigned before filing for candidacy, but local law required her to stay with the city council until her successor was sworn in on January 8. Davis’s prior obligation would make her ineligible for the Senate race.

The Texas Supreme Court and the 2nd Court of Appeals rejected the firefighter’s suit on the grounds that only another candidate can challenge a candidate’s eligibility. Brimer hasn’t spoken up yet, but the assumption of those involved is that he was behind the challenge. Bryan Eppstein, Brimer’s political consultant, also works for the Fort Worth Professional Firefighters Association.

If anything, the scandal seems to have energized Davis’s staff.

“For us, it really rallied the troops,” said Matt Latham, her campaign manager. “There were a lot of people who’ve known Wendy and know what kind of person she is and have known her for a long time that said ‘we know Wendy, we know that she does what’s right, and we’re not going to be fooled by political stunts.’ We got a lot of people signing up to volunteer, and our campaign went on without a hitch regardless of what was going on.”

“There was no reason for him to pull a stunt like that if he wasn’t concerned that Wendy Davis was going to win in November,” Latham said.

Davis shares these suspicions. “…unfortunately I think he asked [the firefighters] to be a surrogate in a way that may not have served their interest as well as they should have,” she said. “I felt frustrated that it appeared as though my opponent was afraid of answering to the voters.”

Kim Brimer’s campaign declined to comment on the Senate District 10 race. Eppstein and the Fort Worth Professional Firefighters Association could not be reached for comment.

With the question of her eligibility settled, the real work of the campaign has started. Patrick Lively, Davis’ communication director, and Matt Latham, her campaign manager, have been friends since childhood, and now both work in politics. They both call the decision to work for Davis an easy one.

“Every cycle I look for a candidate I believe in,” Latham said. “It took me about 10 minutes of talking to her to realize that she was the candidate that I felt like I could work for.”

“It’s great to be working for her because she cares about real solutions. Sometimes you don’t find that in candidates,” Lively said. “They just want to be an officeholder, they want to be a state senator or something, but Wendy, it’s not so much about the title with her as it’s about what she’s gonna be able to do when she’s in Austin.”

The 2006 elections changed Texas politics. Democrats won key victories on the national and state levels. Voters in Dallas replaced Republicans with new Democratic officeholders.

Stephanie Klick, chair of the Republicans of Tarrant County, doesn’t see a Democratic takeover happening.

“Texas is still a red state, and Tarrant County is one of the reddest in the country,” she said.

Democratic officials clearly disagree, and the rest of Texas, and Tarrant County, may go blue in 2008, according to Tarrant County Democratic Party chairman Art Brender.

“I think the political tsunami has hit Tarrant County,” he said.

This year’s primary elections had a high turnout due to the presidential race. All previous Texas polling booth records were shattered, as throngs of voters showed up, many of them new and voting Democratic. The previous state record for primary turnout was in 2000, when 83,656 Republicans turned out for the Presidential primary in Tarrant County. This year, 100,793 Republicans voted in the county, but so did 199,567 Democrats. Statewide, Democratic primary voters outnumbered Republicans two to one.

“The diehard Republicans got out; they were just subsumed by our numbers,” Brender said.

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