Wendy Davis on Running for Office Again, Life After Defeat

After a disappointing loss in November, Davis is done distancing herself from the issue that made her famous

Wendy Davis is launching an initiative to encourage political participation among young women. Credit: Eric Gay/AP

On June 24, 2013, few Americans knew the name Wendy Davis. By the following evening, millions of people, including President Obama, had taken to social media to support the state senator's 11-hour filibuster to stop a virulent anti-abortion bill making its way through the Texas legislature.

The law, HB 2, was eventually passed during a special session of the legislature, but Davis had become a pro-choice icon and a political star. Riding the #StandWithWendy momentum, Davis ran for governor last November – the first female nominee for the state's highest office since Ann Richards lost re-election in 1994. Davis lost the race to then state attorney general Greg Abbott by a disappointing 20 points.

I sat down with Davis Monday at her Manhattan hotel to find out what she's been up to over the past ten months, and what lies ahead. After catching up about Fort Worth – Davis was my city councilwoman during the three-and-a-half years I lived in the city, in the early 2000s, and we're both alums of Texas Christian University – she opened up about how she hopes to run for office again, and how she would run a different campaign today than she did in 2014.

It's been reported that you're launching a women's equality initiative. What can you tell us about it?
It's still in the planning stages. But when I came out of the gubernatorial campaign, I reflected on, "What do I want to do now?" because this is the first time in 16 years that I haven't been in public office. Not being in office – not having my state senate seat – was much harder than losing that gubernatorial election, because I care so very much about these issues. I gave some thought to, "How do I continue to play a role?" And I just listened for a while, to my own inner voice and to what was happening around me, and I took note of the fact that I continue to have a real audience with young women – millennials in general, but particularly young women, who continue, regardless of where I am, to come up to me and say, "Thank you, please don't give up, we need you to fight for us." I paid attention to that, and decided I should use this platform that I have to engage millennials and hopefully to help them see the valuable role they have in the political process.

There's been a great deal of research into what millennials care about, what they're thinking about, what they're up to, and it's really remarkable – it's a generation of people that cares so much about doing something of value in the world – much more so than generations that preceded them. But they're very disengaged from the political process. They don't feel like it's something that can actually make a difference in their lives. They certainly haven't seen it function in any way close to productive in their lifetime.

Do you think that's especially true for women in Texas who grew up with Ann Richards in office and haven't seen a woman in the governor's mansion since?
I do, but in particular it's true for even younger women who didn't grow up during Ann Richards' time, who are looking and hungry for female leadership.

Were you inspired to do this work by sexism you experienced during your gubernatorial campaign or previous campaigns?
I certainly feel an obligation to women, because I know it takes a lot for women to break through into the political arena and, if elected to office, to break through in terms of making sure that our voices and our priorities are heard. When I lost the gubernatorial race, I felt a responsibility to other women who are perhaps thinking of running for office one day to demonstrate that it's OK if we lose. Sometimes we're going to. We've got to hop right back up and put ourselves out there again, and know that losing isn't the worst thing in the world. And honestly I hope to do that at some point.

Meaning you want to run for office again?
I do. I do hope to run again.

For governor, or something else?
I have no particular path in mind at this point. I am simply keeping myself open for opportunities that make sense.

One of the criticisms of your gubernatorial campaign from the left was that you didn't engage with the issue of reproductive rights as much as some had hoped you would. Would you do things differently if you were running today?
There are several things I would do differently. When you get into a race of that magnitude – and it was my first experience on a platform of that magnitude – you tend to have to rely on a team of people around you to help shape everything you do, from your day-to-day logistics to your speeches to your priorities and your messaging. And I felt like as the months ticked by, my voice was getting lost. I can't really – and certainly don't – point fingers at anyone for that. It just happens to be a side effect of that size of an organization, and the quickness with which we had to put an organization like that together. But I do believe that women wanted to hear more from me on that issue. We sort of assumed, well, everyone knows where I stand on choice and on reproductive autonomy – let's move on to other issues so they can see the other priorities I have as well, like public education, for example. But I think people really did want to hear more about [reproductive rights] in the election, and I certainly want to talk about it. It's been one of the most freeing parts of losing the election and not being an office-holder or a candidate right now: I can focus on exactly the things that matter to me, and spend my energies doing that.

The legislation you filibustered in 2013 – that you became nationally famous for opposing – has wreaked havoc on Texas over the past few years, closing dozens of clinics. Now it's potentially headed to the Supreme Court. How does that feel, to see the consequences of the law you fought so hard to stop?

It's everything we feared, coming to life. And what's worse is that not only is it taking shape in Texas, but it's spreading around the country, and obviously has occupied a big part of the conversation in the national elections right now, in particular the Republican presidential primary.

When we talk about this issue, we often talk about it in terms of statistics and numbers – but people get numb to numbers. And we forget about the fact that there are very real human beings who are suffering tremendously real consequences. When you look at Texas, it is a classic example of why this dialogue about defunding Planned Parenthood at the federal level is such a bad idea. In 2011, two years before my filibuster, a very active fight with Planned Parenthood ensued [in Texas]. It was politics, political demagoguery, about getting elected by fomenting the emotion in [the GOP's] base. Planned Parenthood became the bogeyman in a way it never had before in Texas, and there was an active attempt to defund their non-abortion care services – 97 percent of what they do. As a consequence of that, we saw over 50 clinics close, and even more clinics downsized the number of patients that they were able to see. In a one-year period, 77 percent of the women who were receiving those services – family planning, breast cancer screening, HIV screening, counseling services – lost them. So we went from over 200,000 women to about 45,000 women who were getting services. There are real consequences to that. When women can't get contraceptive services, unplanned pregnancies go up. In Texas, in one year alone, our Medicaid birth rate shot up, and it cost Texas taxpayers $136 million extra – in one year. And that's on top of what it costs at the federal level, because we only pay about 20 percent of those costs at the state level. We know that women have had cancers that have gone undiagnosed. We know that women and men have had STDs that have gone undiagnosed, and have therefore spread. This is, to me, the most callous and unacceptable and disappointing part of politics. Real people are being hurt.

If you remember back when we were talking about the Affordable Care Act, when the conversation first began, Republicans were famous for throwing out the phrase "death panels." This is the real death panel. It truly is. There are women who will lose their lives as a consequence of this political maneuvering.

What do you make of the Republican presidential candidates bending over backwards to bash Planned Parenthood while presumably trying to win over women voters?
It's really fascinating to observe. It's particularly interesting to see some of the follow-up editorial commentary about Carly Fiorina and her performance at the last debate. Did she shine in terms of being articulate and intelligent? Absolutely, and I applaud her for that. I love to see women take a national stage and do well. But she also completely betrayed the real issues and concerns of so many women in this country. We can agree to disagree on abortion. We all need to remember that it is constitutionally protected, just like Second Amendment gun rights are constitutionally protected, and yet it receives so much less support in the Republican Party as a whole. But for every one of those candidates, including Carly Fiorina, to adamantly support the idea of de-funding the non-abortion services of Planned Parenthood is an absolute betrayal to hundreds of thousands of women in this country who are going to be impacted by it.

If I'm looking at these issues through my own personal lens, and understanding the benefit of Planned Parenthood, I know there are millions of women across this country who are hopefully looking at it in the same way. We know that a huge percentage of women in this country have had some relationship to Planned Parenthood in their lifetime, whether they're Republicans or Democrats, for contraceptive care, for breast cancer screenings and other services. And we understand that this effort is to remove other women's access – low-income women who have no other options. I hope this is going to be a wake-up call for women voters in this country to show up at the ballot box and respond.

What do you think Republicans are trying to achieve with these funding cuts? Given that many of these same politicians have cut funding for childcare and other services for children, it doesn't seem to be about babies.
I think it's a couple of things. I do think it's about women, women's sexuality, women's autonomy, women's ability to move up and forward in the workplace. Because there's no question that reproductive rights are essential to economic opportunity. There are so many women, myself included, who can tell you that our ability to move up in the world – and, for me, to move out of poverty through higher education – would have been completely derailed if I didn't have contraceptive care, so that I could prevent an unplanned pregnancy. I was a teenage mother, and one more child would have completely destroyed my ability to make a brighter future for myself. So when we talk about taking women's reproductive rights away, we are talking about, essentially, putting our foot on their heads and not letting them rise in the economic arena. And that's not just bad for women, it's bad for families across this country, and it's bad for the economy. So what's behind that? Why would so many Republican candidates be articulating that? They know that they're tapping into a perception in voters that women's autonomy is somehow a threat to the very fabric of what we hold dear in this country. There are women who feel threatened by other women who've made choices to stay home – who should be applauded for their decision, just as women who've decided to crack the glass ceiling ought to be applauded – but there's a feeling that somehow their chosen role will be devalued. For men, there's a feeling that new competition will arise in the workplace. But there's also simply the desire to fire up an evangelical base for whom abortion is the end all, be all issue in an election cycle, and they're hoping to be the person for whom those evangelicals become attracted to and support.

You've said before that you were able to attend TCU with the help of Pell grants and scholarships. That was my experience as well. In recent years federal funding for Pell grants has been cut, and tuition is going up, and young people are leaving college with more debt than in the past. What do you think we're losing as a country by moving in that direction?
We're losing an entire generation of economic opportunity. The more we make college an obstacle, the more we are going to continue to see income disparities, income inequality. If people believe that going to college is going to do nothing for them except put a tremendous debt burden on them, fewer and fewer are going to choose to make that climb. And what's so sad to me about it is that when you look at prior generations – the Greatest Generation, post-World War II – they believed so strongly in paying forward the great benefits that they've received in this country, who believed in investing in infrastructure, education. They understood that investing in that next generation meant a greater strength for this country as a whole, and they did it willingly. Now, it's as though that's somehow... that's been made to be a bad thing. And we see candidates who are appealing to voters' ideas that tax-supported investment like that is not a good idea. And families are suffering the burden of that.

OK, I have a sort of silly question now: Are you a Friday Night Lights fan? Is it flattering to you to be compared to Tami Taylor?
Of course, I'm a huge Friday Night Lights fan. I'm a Texan. I wouldn't be a Texan worth my salt if I didn't love that show. But I do truly love it, and I love her character. I love how strong and yet feminine she is. And I think she is the perfect representation of what it means to be a feminist. Being a feminist does not mean checking your femininity at the door. It doesn't mean giving up your desire to be sexual, to be a good wife, to be a good mother. It simply means being strong and believing in the fact that women ought to have equal opportunity in this world. She's a great character, and being compared to her is a great compliment.