Magazine | August 19, 2013, Issue

Greg Abbott’s America

(AP/Darren Abate)
It could elect him governor

San Antonio–Houston – Greg Abbott is the man who comes from everywhere — in Texas.

Announcing his gubernatorial candidacy under the scorching-hot San Antonio sun, Abbott declares that for him and his wife of 31 years this is a “homecoming.” “San Antonio is where Cecilia and I got married,” he explains to the people assembled in the city’s historic Plaza Juarez. It’s “where she grew up,” and “where her family still lives.”

But San Antonio isn’t Abbott’s only home. In Houston, he describes setting up his first household after his wedding and taking his first job as a lawyer; in Duncanville, he talks of his years as a student at the local high school; in Longview, he holds forth about his time in the Boy Scouts’ Troop 201, remembers playing Little League baseball, and speaks warmly of learning to fire a gun; in Wichita Falls, he mentions his parents and the house where he was born, as well as his grandfather, who was a pastor. “I have lived in virtually every region of the state,” Abbott adds.

 “He’s a Texan’s Texan,” one fan tells me in Longview. “He knows this town and he knows this state.” Abbott points to people he recognizes in the audience, telling stories about their antics as students. A phone rings and interrupts his flow. “Feel free to get it,” he cracks. “As the father of a teenage daughter, I’m used to talking when people aren’t listening.”

When he has finished speaking to the 500 or so people who have crammed themselves into Houston’s Goode’s Armadillo Palace, the stage is all but rushed. Abbott acknowledges each person individually. “Great to see ya, I appreciate that,” he says. “Thank you for bein’ here.” The attendees are a hodgepodge of white, Hispanic, and black voters of all ages. Some wear suits, others cowboy hats, others T-shirts. One particularly enthused woman has an Abbott T-shirt, button, sticker, and yard sign. She holds the yard sign above her head and waves it at any camera pointing approximately in her direction.

With maybe 200 people still waiting to speak to the candidate, the noise is considerable. Abbott asks a fan for her name three times to make sure he has it right. “We want him here and there quickly, you know,” his staff complain to me. “But he just won’t leave.” After an hour or so he is moved along. “I have to go do some TV now,” he tells those still waiting. “But if you stick around I’ll be here after.” The crowd stands its ground, and it takes him 15 minutes to move about 75 feet. An hour later, 20 or so people still remain. “Sorry to keep you guys waiting,” Abbott says as he emerges from the makeshift media room. Then he starts talking to them again.

Abbott’s stump speech is not typical. Much of it is devoted to explaining why he is confined to a wheelchair. This story, little known outside Texas, keeps audiences rapt. In 1984, just after he’d graduated law school, Abbott went running with a friend. “While I was jogging,” he says, “a huge oak tree suddenly crashed down on me.” The oak completely crushed a nearby Cadillac. It smashed Abbott’s spinal column, too, instantly paralyzing him from the waist down. The pain was “excruciating,” Abbott tells the hushed assembly. It was “like someone had taken a sledgehammer to my back. The first thing I said was, ‘I can’t feel my legs.’” He remained in the hospital for over a year, during which time he started to read seriously about politics and to think of eschewing legal practice for a career as a public official.

As Abbott sees it, his story and his political appeal are inextricable. “What I symbolize,” he tells me, “is actually what Texans symbolize — and that’s perseverance. Texans get knocked down but they always get back up. We see hurricanes, we see tornadoes, and we see people victimized by circumstance. But we don’t pity ourselves in Texas.” Fred Frost, the friend who went running with him on the day of the accident, describes him as “battle tested.” Speaking to the crowd, Abbott puts it wryly: “Some politicians talk about having a spine of steel, but I actually have one.”

#page#I ask him if he ever pitied himself. He admits that he didn’t think about much other than his new condition for a few years. “I had that accident and everything got pushed aside. I stopped thinking about all other aspirations or goals and really just had to focus on surviving first — and family and first principles.” He eventually “realized that just because I was living differently didn’t mean I couldn’t go on to achieve other things; just because you’re a paraplegic doesn’t mean you can’t go on and find ways to serve your community.” Abbott has been a state trial judge and spent two terms on the Texas supreme court. He is currently serving a third term as attorney general, the first person in the history of Texas to do so.

In recent years, Texas has tended to vote for Republicans, which means Abbott would have a good shot in the general. But these are the early days of the primary. I ask him how he differs politically from the other Republican candidate, Texas work-force commissioner Tom Pauken. “I’m the only person running for governor with a proven conservative record of fighting for the ideals and values that have made this country great,” he says in his slight East Texan cadence. “I’m the only candidate running for governor who has fought and defended the Second Amendment. I’m the only one who has fought for the Tenth Amendment. I’m the only one who has enforced the United States Constitution.” These are oblique references to cases he has handled as attorney general. He has commented that his job is to “go into the office in the morning, sue Barack Obama, and then go home.” This was a quip but not exactly a joke. To me, he continues: “I’m the one who sued the Obama administration 27 times. I’m the one who is challenging Obamacare.” He tells me that if the federal government won’t enforce the border, “I will,” and that within minutes of the Supreme Court’s recent Voting Rights Act decision he moved to ensure that the state’s voter-ID regime took effect “immediately.” He emphasizes his current defense of a Texas law restricting access to abortion.

“If you want to start a fight with Texans,” he warns, “just try taking away their freedom.” At his launch rally, his supporters hand out fans with “Fast cars, firearms, and freedom — endorsed by Greg Abbott” emblazoned on the side. “One of the frustrations that conservatives in particular have had,” he explains to me in a private interview, “is that people will talk a good game but then fail to live up to that promise when in office.” Not he, is the clear implication.

I wonder if Abbott has been listening to criticisms of the state’s business-relocation incentives, which the Tea Party and the libertarian wing of the conservative movement have called “corporate welfare.” He avoids talking directly about Governor Rick Perry’s economic policy, but he says that “government should stay out of the business of picking winners and losers.” This picks up on a theme in his speech: “I believe it’s high time that people on Main Street benefit just as much as folks on Wall Street,” Abbott says at each venue, adding that he wants Texas to have an economy that “allows first-generation college graduates just as much opportunity as seasoned investment bankers.” I ask how he’ll achieve that. “A really sound tax policy” and “education reform.”

Abbott tells me that the “safety of children” is also a top priority. As attorney general, he has set up a fugitive unit to track convicted sex offenders in violation of their parole, and a cyber-crimes unit to crack down on abusers who use the Internet to find victims. A particular point of pride for him is that he has enforced the state’s child-support laws, collecting more than $24 billion in delinquent payments.

In conversation, Abbott returns often to his 16-year-old adopted daughter, Audrey, who introduces him at each stop, and to his wife, Cecilia, who he says represents the “meaning of love,” having “stood by my side during the most painful period of our lives.” Pointing to his family, Abbott says that he wants to head up a state in which “any child of any background has a chance to smile, to hope, to dream and succeed.”

The man from everywhere has to end up somewhere. From what I’ve seen, I wouldn’t bet against it being the governor’s mansion. Someday he might even move out of state.

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