State Senator Wendy Davis (D-Tarrant County), the Democratic candidate for Governor, has released the television ad we have all been waiting for: dinging her Republican opponent, Attorney General Greg Abbott, on perceived hypocrisy related to the settlement he received as a result of his disability.
In 1984, when Abbott was 26 and studying for the bar exam, a tree fell on him in a freak accident. He was running around his neighborhood following a storm. The accident left him permanently paralyzed from the waist down; it also prompted him to sue both the homeowner and the landscaping company responsible for maintaining the structural integrity of the tree in question. He won about $10 Million off of that lawsuit. Later, Abbott heralded tort reform that capped punitive damages in lawsuits and brought about big changes that made suits harder for victims. Longtime readers of my opinions will be familiar with my skepticism of so-called tort reform, but that’s not really at issue here.
Accordingly, this narrative, that Abbott rightly received justice after he was wronged but then pulled up the ladder behind him to prevent others from doing the same, is somewhat compelling. It is edgy but it makes a valid point. Considering how Abbott has used his wheelchair to benefit himself in his ads, it appears it is fair game to bring it up in a respectful manner on a relevant point.
All that being said, the ad does not talk about tort reform. Instead, the 30-second spot — filled with ominous narration and music — broadly connects the accident/lawsuit with some of Abbott’s actions in the past, none of which related to tort reform.
The first reference, reported on by The Dallas Morning News this past February, involved Abbott arguing that the State of Texas has sovereign immunity against disabled people who file suit over perceived violations of the Americans With Disabilities Act. The News literally summarized the article by stating that Abbott “tenaciously battled to block the courthouse door to disabled Texans who sue the state.” This is a fair point to bring up, but it is important to note that Abbott did not try to sue the government. There is far more direct hypocrisy with the tort reform point.
The second and third references, respectively, involved the Kirby vacuum case and the case of Dr Christopher Dunstch, both of which have been subjects of other Davis ads. These are more of stretches, as it is difficult to so plainly connect them with any hypocrisy on Abbott’s part.
Abbott, for his part, responded to the ad with shock and indignation. In an exclusive with the San Antonio Express-News, he offered to paint a parallel between himself and Davis (one, for what it’s worth, that is not completely accurate), characterizing Davis as a dirty politician and himself as a far more honest alternative.
“It’s her choice if she wants to attack a guy in a wheelchair. I don’t think it’s going to sell too well,” Abbott told the Express-News. “[The ad] is offensive. It shows the tenor of the campaign. If you look at my ads, I focused on what I’m going to be doing as governor, and my opponent spends all her time in ads attacking me, as I’m attacking the challenges that fellow Texans deal with.”
Abbott, of course, has published his own dirty attack ads, one of which takes some excessive liberties with the truth. Still, the whole “throwing rocks at a wheelchair” argument will indeed not do Davis any favors. Aaron Blake at The Washington Post called the ad “one of the nastiest campaign ads you will ever see.” A correspondent at New York Magazine called the ad “at best, in poor taste.” The Week called it “brutal.” Even Mother Jones, no one’s idea of an outlet sympathetic to Republicans, pulled no punches on the Davis campaign. Among the tidbits in their writeup on the ad (penned not by an intern, but by their de facto Online Editor) was assertions that the ad was “nasty,” “offensive” and “bull***t.”
I don’t necessarily agree with much of the sentiment espoused in those national publications, mostly written by snobby Yankees who have never visited our fine state, but — contrary to what some of my compatriots might think — their contributions are important nonetheless. The national media has decidedly figured out that the ad was offensive. My gut tells me that the general public will likely think the same.
I understand the point of the ad. I’ve been advocating for some (albeit, clearer) variation of the point for a while now. But the connection evidently was not clear enough, and the public is outraged at what appears, at cursory glance, to be a mean-spirited attack on a disabled man. For better or for worse, that’s what Davis is dealing with.