The Wendy Davis campaign keeps blaming the “Trailergate” story on her Republican opponent for governor, Gregg Abbott. Which is both incorrect and bad strategy. Wayne Slater, who wrote the story for the Dallas Morning News, has said repeatedly he had no contact with the Abbott campaign about the details surrounding the Davis’ bio. It should be noted, however, the Abbott team was said by numerous reporters to have circulated the Davis’ divorce papers to reporters last fall in an attempt to bring attention to her story, and suggest it wasn’t all about hard work and Horatio Alger in heels.
The Davis strategists continue to hammer on Abbott for pushing the story with reporters. This, of course, is flat stupid in terms of developing relationships with the journalists who will be covering the governor’s race. Slater, who I’ve known for decades, is no one’s communications tool. The Davis camp’s rant about Abbott pushing the story and getting reporters to write it is an insult that implies reporters are stenographers for campaigns. Tactically, though, it’s a sound decision because it elevates the Davis’ candidacy to be an equal of Abbott’s and makes it clear he takes seriously the money and the message the state senator can deliver in the election cycle. But the tactic’s harming Davis’ media relations in the process. If Davis is to have a chance to beat Abbott, a certain mastery of Texas media will be required, and instead there has been an exhibition of failure. A day after Slater’s story was published Davis was set to do an in-person interview with Jonathan Tilove of the Austin-American Statesman. Tilove wrote in his blog that he had been working on the same story as Slater for a long time and did not want to publish without talking directly to the candidate. The Morning News publication, however, forced him to write a story as a follow up before he got to interview Davis, which resulted in the Davis campaign contacting him to say his meeting with Davis had been cancelled. Instead, the time was given to Peggy Fikac of the Houston Chronicle.
This was pure dee dumb. Alienate a reporter who had been trying for months to get an interview and it is set up right in the midst of a big story. And you cancel on him? It was a perfect chance to create a relationship and deliver a responsive message to the city of Austin and readers of the paper and its website. Instead, the campaign skipped Jonathan Tilove and went to Fikac. An outside observer of this last minute change might infer Davis thought she would get a friendlier story from another woman, which, again, shows bad thinking, if true, and underestimates Fikac.
Slater has been taking his shots, too, in the wake of this story. On the right wing news site Breitbart he is being celebrated as a heroic journalist, though Ann Coulter said his story was too soft. His work was, as it always is, factual, though he has also come to grief over an unattributed quote that was used to speak to the ambition Davis has displayed throughout her career. This happens in political journalism; people feel a need for a truth to be communicated but none of them wants to put their name on the quote. Slater heard the same thing many times but got no one interested in attribution. He felt it was important enough that it needed to be written into the story as a blind quote. The Davis campaign has needed to be perfect from the outset to have a real shot at winning in Texas. Instead, they have been the opposite of perfect. There is no excuse for them not being prepared with messaging and clear answers when a reporter like Slater came to call about the bio, because it was inevitable. Any political consultant could have looked at the narrative of Davis’ ascent and turned it around into something other than a hardscrabble success story. The right has portrayed Davis as an ambitious shrew who left her first child with a non-biological father to run off to Harvard, used him to pay for most of her education, and then dumped him the day her law degree was paid in full. This is nowhere near accurate, it should be mentioned; Jeff Davis was anything but a “sugar daddy” and Wendy was also involved in taking out and paying off loans to fund her law degree.
Regardless, how could they not see this coming down Congress Avenue? The broad outlines of the Davis’ story don’t change and it is still noteworthy for her accomplishments and the difficulties overcome, regardless of how long she lived in the mobile home. But details are what kill candidates and this failing is inexcusable. To compensate, or misdirect, the campaign responded by trying to change the conversation, an always-lame move that any journalist despises. Davis talked about protecting and expanding gun rights in Texas and stopping any attempt to approve a statewide income tax. Cuz our gun rights are really under attack here and there’s a big grassroots movement for an income tax?
The tax notion makes Davis sound like every other politician Texans have sent to public office over the past quarter century. We can do anything and everything without new revenue, which is utter nonsense. The money just comes from somewhere other than the legislature. School districts float bonds and have tax increase elections because the leadership in the capitol won’t come up with the money to fund education. And now Davis, who is the hope of many progressives, announces an education plan and doesn’t explain how she will pay for it; except to say she won’t raise taxes.
Oh wait, I’m supposed to be concentrating on her time in the mobile home. I forgot.