Wendy Davis and the end of Ann Richards Democrats
Fort Worth, Texas — If you are looking for the end of the line for the Sanctimonious White Lady party, you might very well find it here in Dallas’s slightly less pretentious sister city, where the bleached blondeness and sequined daywear of the Big D lose just a little of their sparkle as you approach the ancient stockyards and the suburban Haltom coliseum, and where state senator and newly announced gubernatorial candidate Wendy Davis, who became a national liberal cause célèbre after staging a filibuster in favor of gruesome late-term abortions, and whose candidacy was immediately endorsed and its coffers topped up by A-list abortion organizations, is studiously not talking about abortion — she doesn’t even say the word, in fact — instead giving voice to what may very well be the last barbaric yawp of her dwindling tribe. In Texas, you hear a great deal of cocky talk from Sanctimonious White Ladies about the inevitable demographic changes that will someday soon — and maybe this time! — turn the Lone Star State into a Colorado, if not a California. Democrats have not won a statewide office in Texas since François Mitterrand’s career was a going concern and Netscape Navigator was in beta, but they are convinced of the inevitability of their ascendance.
And it may yet come to pass. But don’t bet on Wendy Davis’s faction’s being around to see it.
There are two liberal camps in Texas: 1. Sanctimonious White Ladies, and 2. all the other liberals, meaning mainly a Hispanic population that is growing in both power and political sophistication, working in coalition with government employees and an increasingly marginalized black voting bloc in and around the major cities. East Coast media types sometimes forget how urban Texas is: Six of the nation’s 20 largest cities are in Texas, Houston is the size of Philadelphia and Boston combined, and San Antonio is more populous than Prague or Munich. The power centers in those cities are not very white, and they are going to be less white over time. The future of Texas liberalism isn’t Wendy Davis trying to recapture Ann Richards’s extravagantly coiffured mojo, but the Castro twins, U.S. Representative Joaquín and Mayor Julian of San Antonio, two hard-Left and cynical practitioners of racial-identity politics raised by a La Raza Unida radical who denounced the heroes of the Alamo as “a bunch of drunks and crooks and slaveholding imperialists.” José Ángel Gutiérrez, one of the founding figures of La Raza Unida, famously said: “We have got to eliminate the gringo, and what I mean by that is if the worst comes to worst, we have got to kill him.”
The Castro twins are smart enough to forgo the kill-the-gringo stuff, and they’re smart enough to sit this election out. They know it’s not their time — not yet — and they are happy to watch the last Sanctimonious White Lady throw herself into the meat grinder. The SWLs are basically reactionary anti-conservatives, and their political philosophy is about as deep as a Facebook post: “OMG! Can you believe those Republicans are trying to force their Jesus into our uteruses?” Because they are shallow, they have an attraction to celebrity candidates, and Senator Davis fits the bill: Vogue spread, fashionable accessories (those dopey red sneakers), compellingly semi-tragic Lifetime-movie backstory (from teenage single mother living in a trailer park to Harvard Law), and attractive. The SWL agenda is almost entirely negative, consisting of opposition to various Christian bogeymen who exist mainly in their imaginations. The Castros, on the other hand, have a positive agenda: power.
Senator Davis would like Texas to take her Sanctimonious White Lady faction beyond late-term abortions, if only because late-term abortions put her on the wrong side of a two-to-one issue. But it is not clear that there is anything for her to move on to. Abortion is what white suburban liberal women in Texas are all about. Texas teachers may dream of belonging to powerful California-style labor unions, and the public sector prays devoutly for a state income tax that would shunt great streams of revenue into its ravenous maw, but the fact is that the dismembering of unborn children is the liberal project in Texas.
Ann Richards cut her political teeth on the state-legislature campaign of Sarah Weddington, the ghoulish lawyer who argued Roe v. Wade. Richards, after nearly getting out-abortioned by a Democratic-primary rival earlier in her career, was an absolute drone on the subject. And this drone now speaks through Cecile Richards, the head boss Sanctimonious White Lady at Planned Parenthood. Senator Davis is going to need a lot of out-of-state money to mount a serious challenge against presumptive Republican nominee Greg Abbott, the attorney general, and it is abortion that opens up the purses of Sanctimonious White Ladies across the fruited plains. Sanctimonious White Ladies can raise the money, and they have a disproportionate sway in the Democratic-party apparatus — because what does an SWL do with her spare time if not attend party meetings? — but there aren’t that many of them. Sooner or later, the people with the votes are going to want the power, too.
And, in truth, the SWL faction doesn’t have a particularly good record achieving or keeping power. Governor Richards, one of the most popular political figures of her time and an icon with an allure so enduring that a terrible half-witted play about her life was put on at Lincoln Center this year, barely won office the first time around — she didn’t even secure a majority, it having been an unusually good year for the Libertarian party — despite the fact that the Republican in the race, Clayton Williams, was a one-man clown show with a penchant for rape humor. Like Senator Davis, Governor Richards was best known for being on the losing side of a lopsided issue — concealed carry — and for her feminist-flavored bons mots, which were better received in the Georgetown that’s on the Potomac River than in the Georgetown in Texas. She was the recipient of some of the most fawning media coverage in the history of American politics and was a sort of mascot for liberals around the country, but in 1994 she got sucker-punched by a Hispanic primary challenger who took more than a fifth of the vote, and then was knocked out by George W. Bush — it wasn’t even close. She became a spokesman for Doritos and moved to New York City. She was a lovable loser, but what kind of party looks at Ann Richards’s shellacking and thinks: “Eureka!”
A Sanctimonious White Lady party, that’s what kind.
“[Wendy Davis’s] candidacy is very exciting for a certain class of Democratic voter,” says Mike Hashimoto, a conservative columnist for the Dallas Morning News, “a class that has for a long time — for so long you kind of feel bad for them — been shut out. It’s like being a California Republican or a New York Republican. Unless you live in the city of Austin, it’s pretty tough. So it’s a little bit of hope for them. If she could get [the race] down to single digits, which I don’t think she can, but if she could, that would be great for them. She’s in it to win it, but I don’t think she really can. Unless Abbott turns into Clayton Williams all of the sudden, which he’s not going to do.”
Senator Davis’s home turf, Tarrant County, is the most Republican-leaning Texas county with a population of more than 1 million. On the city council, she was something of a stealth liberal — her hallmark issue was the redevelopment of a shopping mall — but Mark P. Jones of the political-science department at Rice University considers her the fourth-most liberal Texas senator, and “significantly more liberal” than such players as Juan Hinojosa and Carlos Uresti. You can hide on the Fort Worth city council, and you can even hide in the Texas senate, but you can’t hide in a governor’s race. Not when you yourself have put late-term abortion front and center in a state where some cities have more churches than convenience stores.
“Some people say Wendy is the sacrificial lamb,” Hashimoto says, “that she’ll get you closer, and one of the Castros can swoop in in 2018. But I don’t think white liberal Democrats are going to give up that easy.” In a world of finite resources, that gets more complicated: “How much money do you spend from out of state on a Wendy Davis suicide mission when you could spend that money in Florida or Ohio, where you might actually win?”
It depends on how sanctimonious you’re feeling. The Wendy Davis campaign probably will end in failure, and possibly in abject failure, but it will remain an emotionally satisfying crusade for white suburban liberal women. Democrats with their eyes on Hispanic immigration and the subsequent changes in the nature of the American electorate think primarily in terms of the losses those changes will inflict on Republicans, but some elements of their own coalition are also going to see the political calculus get very complicated indeed. They’ll play nice with their teammates for now, but when the Castro twins think about the future, they don’t picture Wendy Davis.