My opponent wishes to rape women, but he cannot, because he is crippled. That’s the gist of Wendy Davis’s argument for why she should be elected governor of Texas over her Republican opponent, Greg Abbott. Needless to say, the people of Texas have not been too receptive. It’s hard to imagine what sort of audience she thought she was addressing — a Viking clan choosing a leader for its next raiding party?
The already infamous wheelchair ad Davis launched Friday was swiftly and widely denounced, from Mother Jones to MSNBC to the Washington Post, but I’d like to applaud Davis, and encourage her to keep going. She might not be the worst major political candidate of all time just yet, but she still has almost a month to go. Maybe her next ad should suggest Abbott uses baby pandas for target practice, or that he was once kicked out of a Juggalo gathering for indecency. At the least, maybe Donald Glover will work her into his bit about insults involving wheelchairs.
Davis’s first big ad launch, in August, presented Abbott as rapey. It was awful, not just for its brutishness, but because it botched the first and only good idea she’s had in this campaign — to portray Abbott as an insider working for special interests. Abbott is secretive, and as attorney general, he’s issued countless rulings on open records requests that favored secrecy and the interests of high-ranking politicians and business interests. He may yet pay a price for it — one of those rulings denied the public access to records on one of Gov. Rick Perry’s economic development slush funds. A recent, once-a-decade audit of the fund showed that it didn’t even bother with all the paperwork usually involved in the corporate welfare game; it just wrote big checks to well-connected companies. Abbott’s taken a hit on that — deservedly so — and there are other instances where his rulings have allowed that sort of backroom corruption to flourish. But Davis would have to work to dig them up, and the details might take a second to explain to the public. (The other problem here is that Davis lives in a glass house, trading on her elected office for a steady business in government affairs consulting.)
Instead, she chose to illustrate her point that Abbott is “another insider…not working for you” with a complete non sequitur about a vacuum cleaner salesman who raped a woman. Does she really think we believe there’s some sort of corporate rape lobby? Abbott, as a member of the Texas Supreme Court in 1998, reasoned that a vacuum cleaner manufacturer shouldn’t be held liable for not conducting background checks on salesmen hired by a subcontractor, but the majority on the state Supreme Court disagreed with him. Rulings of that sort make it foolish for employers to give felons a second chance, which in turn makes it almost impossible for ex-cons to go straight, so I’m with Abbott on the merits, but I understand why Davis would want to portray her opponent as creepy.
The problem here is that Abbott strikes absolutely nobody as creepy or sexually threatening, not least because, as Davis has just reminded us, he sits in a wheelchair. Like a lawyer who doesn’t know when to give up, Davis decided the wheelchair would give her a chance to redeem her earlier cheap shot, only now the rape case would stand for his hypocrisy, not his insiderocity. So she launched the new ad, which opens with a shot of an empty wheelchair and a voice saying, “A tree fell on Greg Abbott. He sued and got millions.” Then it goes on to mention three other cases, the vacuum cleaner rapist among them, to demonstrate that Abbott has “spent his career working against other victims.”
Davis’s few defenders say the ad hurts because it’s true, that it proves “Abbott is not the kind of person Texans want leading their state.” Plus, as the notionally literate writers at lefty Texas blog Burnt Orange Report put it, the ad means the media “is actually starting to finally focus on Greg Abbott’s actual record.” So if we finally actually focus on Abbott’s record finally, we’ll see Davis is just telling some hard truths here? Let’s do that.
Abbott sided with vacuum cleaner manufacturer Kirby because its contract with its distributors specified that the “full cost and responsibility for recruiting, hiring, firing, terminating and compensating independent contractors” lay with the distributors. “In essence, the Court rewrites Kirby’s Distributor Agreement and Independent Dealer Agreement to require Kirby to assume control over dealer selection,” he wrote in dissent. Since the distributor had the actual responsibility, that’s where Abbott places it. I get that, but I don’t get what principle Davis thinks she’s upholding. That everybody within two degrees of separation from a criminal should pay for his crimes? How about three degrees? Would a landlord who rented to a molester’s uncle be liable? How about the salesman of windowless white vans?
Then the ad alludes to the case of surgeon Christopher Duntsch, saying Abbott “sided with a hospital who failed to stop a dangerous surgeon who paralyzed patients.” For once, Davis is guilty of understatement. Duntsch left a trail of carnage before his license was taken away: two dead, four paralyzed, nerves and arteries severed, bones unnecessarily removed, metal hardware meant to be placed on a patient’s spine found inches away during a repair surgery, sunk into the patient’s lower back muscles. If you wanted to make the case against Texas’ medical tort reforms, you’d start with Duntsch.
But if you wanted to sue Duntsch, or rather, the hospitals where he worked, you’d have to start by making a case that there was something wrong with the way the state legislature approved those reforms. That’s where Abbott comes in. He has filed briefs in a federal lawsuit defending the legislature’s authority to define the terms it uses in state law. In 2003, lawmakers defined “malice” as “a specific intent…to cause substantial injury or harm.” The state Supreme Court had previously established a broader definition that included “gross negligence,” making it much easier to sue. If the trial lawyers somehow convince a federal court that lawmakers can’t write the law, the ruling would affect not just Duntsch’s victims, but the entire state and the basic function of a democracy.
In the third case, Davis attacks Abbott because he “argued a woman whose leg was amputated was not disabled because she had an artificial limb.” This is absurd. The Supreme Court had directed other courts to determine on a case-by-case basis whether individuals are still functionally “disabled” once you take the prosthetic into account. Lower Texas courts had found that Evelyn Little, the plaintiff in this case, was not disabled, because she could walk with a limp. Attorney General Abbott was simply doing his job as defense attorney for state agencies being sued for alleged violations of the Americans with Disabilities Act.
But the fact that Davis thinks Little’s case is an outrage turns out to be quite revealing. She cites an article in the Dallas Morning News that says Little was “passed over” fourteen times between 1995 and 1999 for a job as a food services manager in the state prison system, which is a funny way to say she was never hired at all for anything. Little had slight experience in food service; her applications list fourteen months working as a cook at a Ramada Inn in Georgia in the mid-1980s, and a few jobs as a home health care aide, but little in the way of food service or management experience. Then there were the long gaps, including the six to ten years preceding her application. For undergraduate education, she listed fifteen hours at something called Angelina College, where she “majored” in WordPerfect.
The reason given for leaving one job had to do with “misappropriated funds,” and it turned out later that she had indeed been convicted over some missing funds. Then there was the work experience cleaning a kitchen for the Georgia Department of Corrections. And the reason for her lost leg in the first place: shotgun blast.
Texas prison officials gave her interviews anyway, and those didn’t go much better. There were the questions that “anyone with any limited food service knowledge should have known the answer to,” according to a deposition by one official. The best part of the whole case came when Little, who handled the interviewing herself, decided to challenge the official about her supposed ignorance:
Q: Okay. Let me ask you this. There was a question on one of the boards that, about a foreign object being in the food. That’s something I never heard of and I been a food service…now, and you said that that is something that I should have known?
A. Yes, ma’am.
Q. About a foreign object being in food?
A. Yes, ma’am.
Q. Okay. Did you know that before you worked in food service?
A. Yes, ma’am. My mother taught me that.
Little’s discrimination lawsuit was initially tossed on summary judgment — the legal term for getting laughed out of court. But it was reinstated on appeal. Then she lost on a directed verdict, which is another way to lose badly.
In all, Little spent the years 1995 to 2002 (the newspaper had the dates wrong) unsuccessfully applying for a job in the state prison system, and then spent the next nine years unsuccessfully pressing lawsuits over her supposed discrimination — sixteen years dedicated to one mission.
The outrage, remember, is that Abbott tried to put a stop to it.