Greg Abbott is attorney general of Texas and the Republican nominee for governor. He spoke with Daniel Allott about his life as a politician with a disability.
ALLOTT: Can you talk about how you sustained your injury, and how it affected your choice of profession? Were you planning a career in politics? If so, did you think that you’d have to change those plans in the immediate aftermath of your injury?
ABBOTT: Twenty-nine years ago, I faced a challenge that made it highly improbable that I would be running for governor today. While I was jogging, a huge oak tree suddenly crashed down on me, crushing my spinal cord and leaving me unable to walk.
The immediate aftermath of my accident was, naturally, a very painful and difficult time — both physically and spiritually. I was extremely blessed to have faith, family, and friends — especially the steadfast support of my wife, Cecilia — to help me through this tough time and help me come out of it a stronger person.
A lot of candidates say they have a spine of steel, but I like to point out that I’m the only one out there who actually has a spine of steel!
ALLOTT: You’ve mentioned before that being paralyzed makes you more empathetic toward others, especially people who use wheelchairs. Does it inform your policy positions or political priorities?
ABBOTT: The accident that put me in this wheelchair has helped me to understand the challenges that people in Texas and across this country face every day. After my accident, I realized our lives aren’t defined by how we’re challenged. Instead, we define our lives by how we respond to challenges. I believe that the best way to help all Texans is to fight for policies that ensure greater prosperity and economic freedom. Everyone deserves the opportunity to overcome adversity and achieve success.
ALLOTT: You took some heat as attorney general for defending Texas in a lawsuit over the Americans with Disabilities Act, arguing that part of the law was unconstitutional and asserting that state authority trumps federal regulations involving access for people with disabilities. Most disability-rights activists reside on the left. As a person with a disability, do you feel pressure to approach disability-related issues from a certain perspective?
ABBOTT: While I recognize the merits of the Americans with Disabilities Act, that does not mean I can abandon state sovereignty and abdicate my responsibilities to defend the state. It is deeply offensive for anyone to suggest that I should abandon my responsibility as the attorney general of the state of Texas just because I have a disability.
ALLOTT: In your current campaign, there have been some minor eruptions over the way you have been portrayed by opponents. Some news was made when supporters of Wendy Davis were caught on tape chuckling about your disability. It’s hard to know exactly why they were laughing, and it’s easy to take such things out of context. How do you respond when your disability is raised in the political arena?
ABBOTT: As I’ve said, denigrating the disabled is unworthy of Texas. However, I know from personal experience that Texans care about character, not superficial appearances. Texans know that I have the strength of character to represent them and their values.
ALLOTT: You are poised to become the second most prominent American politician ever to use a wheelchair, and the first to do so openly. Do you feel there are special obligations or opportunities that come with that distinction?
ABBOTT: My obligation is the same as that of anyone else who seeks to serve the public — to fight every day to create a better future for Texans, one that includes greater prosperity and economic opportunity.
ALLOTT: Do you think the way voters respond to politicians with disabilities has changed over the last 30 years?
ABBOTT: It’s disappointing that there was a time when it was difficult for a disabled American to pursue a career in public service. Fortunately, Americans and Texans in 2014 have shown they value qualities like character, substance, and experience over a person’s appearance or any other superficial issues. We are all blessed to live in a great country where anyone has the opportunity to achieve their dreams.
ALLOTT: How has your Catholic faith informed how you view your disability and your career?
ABBOTT: My faith was integral to my recovery, as it is to the values I hold today. I have defended the values I believe in throughout my career. I represented all 50 states in defending the words “One Nation, Under God” in our Pledge of Allegiance and have passionately defended including prayer in presidential inauguration ceremonies. As governor, I will continue to fight for these values.
ALLOTT: How does using a wheelchair affect the logistics of your campaign?
ABBOTT: There is nothing that will hold me back from traveling to all corners of the state, listening to all Texans and telling voters about my vision for a better future for Texas. I will out-campaign and outwork anyone.
ALLOTT: Do you have any funny or interesting anecdotes about how people react when they meet you and discover that you use a wheelchair?
ABBOTT: Well, often when I tell the story of how my accident took place, I can tell that whomever I’m talking with is thinking but afraid to ask — how slow was I jogging, anyway?
— Daniel Allott is a writer in Washington, D.C.