HOUSTON — The woman who wants to be the next Texas governor stood at a podium in an inner-city community center here last week, a polished blond in a tailored pink jacket, black slacks and heels, and invoked her rags-to-riches narrative.
"The promise of Texas is that where you start does not determine where you go," state Sen. Wendy Davis said.
Davis, a Democrat, is attempting to sell Texas voters on her transformation from single mother in a Fort Worth trailer park to Harvard-educated lawyer and state lawmaker gracing the pages of Vogue. It's a story that has been picked apart by her opponent — dubbed "Trailergate" in scathing news reports about inconsistencies in the pitch — but she continues to champion it.
"I want every Texan to have the same opportunities that I had," Davis said at her appearance last week. "God bless you all, and God bless Texas."
Davis rose to national prominence in June during her filibuster of Republican-backed legislation that curbed access to abortion statewide, holding the floor for 11 hours in her trademark pink sneakers. In October, she announced her bid for governor and began fundraising, headlining events in Chicago, New York, San Francisco and Washington.
Though much of Davis' money has come from Texas, hundreds of thousands of dollars have come from outsiders, including Dodgers co-owner Bobby Patton, Barbra Streisand, Martina Navratilova and New York billionaire Sid Bass.
Still, to win, Davis must sell herself inside the state.
"We've had a bit of a drought in Texas. Davis is our hope for a revival," said Democratic strategist Paul Begala, a native Texan. "She's larger than life, and Texans love a larger-than-life figure."
Democrats have not won statewide office in Texas in a decade. Davis' opponent in the November election, state Atty. Gen. Greg Abbott, has raised more than twice the amount of money she has, about $30 million, and Davis lingers about 10 to 15 percentage points behind him in recent polls. Her success is likely to hinge on her ability to motivate Latinos and moderate suburban women, who are remaking the state's political landscape.
Texas is increasingly Latino — the bloc accounts for 19% of registered voters, according to a Gallup poll released this month. But only 43% of Latinos are registered to vote, compared with 77% of African Americans and 82% of whites, Gallup found.
Argelia Cardenas, 75, lives near the Houston community center where Davis spoke. The retired medical interpreter is registered as a Democrat but is also ardently against abortion rights and is a fan of current Gov. Rick Perry. She considers herself independent.
She had planned to vote for Abbott, whom she has met, but was inspired by Davis' strength during the filibuster and her compassion for immigrants — a major issue for Cardenas and one she says Republicans have neglected.
"She's a woman I can admire," Cardenas said.
Then criticisms of Davis' personal narrative surfaced, and Cardenas said she wondered, "Why did you lie?"
Last month, the Dallas Morning News published a front-page story noting that Davis divorced her first husband at 21, not 19 as she had claimed. After they separated, she did not live in a trailer for very long, the story said. It also implied that Davis used her second husband for his money, leaving him to raise their two daughters while she was at Harvard University (at his expense), then returning to divorce him before embarking on her career.
Davis' daughters responded by issuing letters dismissing the criticism as "ludicrous" and "malicious." Days later, Davis addressed the issue at an Austin fundraiser.
"I pursued my education not instead of being a good mother, but because being a good mother required that I build a better life for my family, and a better education made that possible," she said.
Davis, 50, is not a native Texan. She was born in West Warwick, R.I., and moved to Fort Worth with her family at age 11. She has a lilting accent, not the Texas twang of self-styled good ol' boys like Perry and George W. Bush. The last Democratic governor, Ann Richards, was cut from their cloth, a Waco native and mother of four with a chain smoker's rasp who liked to hunt, fish and drink.
But if Davis is no Richards, Texas is also not what it was when Richards held sway in the early 1990s. It has become a more urban state as Dallas, Houston and San Antonio have mushroomed, drawing in people from out of state and overseas. Texas grew more than any other state last year (followed by California) with an estimated 400,000 new residents, according to the Census Bureau.
"She represents the new generation of Texas — the urban versus rural part, without the accent and braggadocio. It's not her style. She's more professional," said Bruce Buchanan, a professor of government at the University of Texas at Austin, noting that Davis hails from Fort Worth, the scruffier stockyard neighbor of Dallas, and appeals to the Texas frontier spirit of self-reliance.
Anne Wilburn, 61, a native Texan who lives near where Davis spoke in Houston, said she could relate to her story and planned to vote for her.
"I certainly don't think an accent and a cowboy hat and graduating from Texas A&M makes you more Texan," said Wilburn, who works part time from home as an office administrator.
Davis' effort has required distancing herself from more liberal supporters — many from out of state — who flocked to her after the abortion rights filibuster. During her appearance in Houston last week, she expressed support for allowing people licensed to carry concealed handguns to carry them openly as well, though as a member of the Fort Worth City Council she supported gun control measures.
She also said she would not oppose a ban on abortion after 20 weeks of pregnancy, and backtracked on past support for legalizing marijuana.
It's not clear whether these policy shifts will motivate or repel voters. Jeremy Bird, a founder of the Democratic advocacy group Battleground Texas, said its targets were Latinos alienated by Republicans' stance on immigration and voter registration as well as suburban women troubled by the party's position on abortion and education funding — its recipe in other conservative states that are becoming more moderate.
Wendy Faith, 39, a teacher and mother of three in the Houston suburb of Katy, is an independent voter who favors abortion rights and some gun restrictions.
Faith likes Abbott, but is upset by Texas Republicans' support for voucher programs and cuts to school funding. She also likes some of Davis' more liberal approaches, but doesn't know her as well. To this native Houstonian, both candidates seem like slick politicians.