Speaking before a pumped Austin crowd Monday on the issue that has revved up her campaign for governor, Democratic state Sen. Wendy Davis pressed her Republican rival Greg Abbott on equal pay, even as the Abbott campaign sought to direct attention to the ethics of Davis’ lucrative bond counsel business.
For the past two weeks, an energized Davis campaign has been on the attack on what they clearly see as a winning issue — portraying Abbott as no friend of women on the issue of equal pay for equal work. At issue is legislation sponsored last year by Davis that would have made it easier for Texas women to pursue pay discrimination suits in state court. It passed both houses, with some Republican support, only to be vetoed by Gov. Rick Perry, who viewed it as unneeded because a remedy already exists under federal law.
Last week, Abbott spokesman Matt Hirsch said that Abbott, like Perry, would have vetoed the bill. On Monday, before a packed house of about 160 supporters at Scholz Garten downtown, Davis challenged Abbott to, “stop hiding behind your staff members, stop hiding behind your surrogates.”
“This Texas gal is calling you out,” declared Davis to a roar of approval from the crowd, which, at every opportunity, booed, hissed, cheered and offered loud interjections of such classics as, “throw the bum out.”
Davis didn’t mention to the throng a new issue that threatened to change the topic and put her on the defensive: the San Antonio Express-News on Sunday detailed the brisk business Davis and her law partner, Brian Newby, at Newby Davis, a two-person firm, do in garnering work as bond counsel, most recently on a $109 million bond issue for Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport, and on a nearly $319 million bond sale for the Tarrant Regional Water District.
Matt Hirsch, the Abbott spokesman, pounced on the story as further evidence of Davis’ “ethically questionable public-sector bond work,” which the Abbott campaign likes to describe as making a “profit off Texas public debt.”
Last summer, Davis promised she would stop doing private legal work for public sector clients if she ran for governor.
Asked about that Monday, Davis told reporters at Scholz Garten, “My responsibility to my clients does require that I continue to do some work on their behalf and I will continue that until my responsibilities no longer require it,” but that she would “continue to wind that down as the campaign progresses.”
Davis said she has gone beyond the letter of the law, disclosing her public clients and, ‘I have always been a senator first and foremost who stands for the constituents who elected me to serve, and I am very proud of my record in that regard.”
She said her legal work for clients occupies only a “small portion of my time now,” and she was pleased to be devoting more and more of her time “to asking people to elect me to serve them as their next governor.”
On the issue that brought her to Sholz, Davis said, “I think equal pay resonates across the partisan spectrum.”
Rice University political scientist Mark Jones said that Davis is right about that and it may have especially useful symbolic power with the single Anglo women who represent her campaign’s best opportunity to pick up usually Republican voters.
But Jones said the questions about her legal work, which the Abbott campaign will undoubtedly hammer on in the months to come, leave voters having to take her at her word that when an entity, from a school district to a water district to an airport, chooses Newby Davis, that entity is not currying favor with a powerful senator whose help they may need, if only behind the scenes, down the road.
“What she does is technically legal, but it is unseemly,” said Jones, who said that would be clearer but for the “myopia” of those used to judging legislative ethics by relatively lax Texas standards.
Even if the behavior is not all that exceptional in Texas, Jones said, “there seems to be something a little untoward about it, something that smells bad.”
Perhaps with an eye on Davis, Abbott, who is Texas attorney general, recently added a new proposal to his list of ethics reforms. It would prohibit legislators from serving as bond counsel to any public entity.
On the pay issue, Davis faulted Abbott for successfully fighting a 2011 pay discrimination case in court — albeit one based on race and nationality and not gender — and presiding over an office in which, she said, women “earn only 74 cents on the dollar compared to men. That’s even worse than the state average.”
When Davis was asked afterward to explain why women on her staff make more than men, she attributed the pay differential to experience and ability. Asked whether that might not be the same case among assistant attorneys general, Davis said, if so, it was up to the attorney general to explain and defend that circumstance.
To which, the Abbott campaign responded, “The average male assistant attorneys general had on average more than two additional years of being licensed than their female counterparts as well as more service time.”