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Bad Law, Bad Lawyer: Davis Wings Abbott

Dem sinks in barb over Republican's defense of slashing school finance

By Richard Whittaker, 7:00AM, Thu. Dec. 5, 2013

Wendy Davis, just after the 2011 school finance filibuster
Wendy Davis, just after the 2011 school finance filibuster
Photo by Richard Whittaker

With the March primaries seemingly a done deal, the gubernatorial fight between Sen. Wendy Davis, D-Fort Worth, and Republican Attorney General Greg Abbott. The AG thought they would be arguing about school finance: Instead, Davis gave him a lesson in civics and government.

Davis' campaign is hitting the GOP hard on the massive cuts to education enacted in 2011, and how it was their candidate who mounted her first filibuster back then to highlight the issue. In fact, it was arguably that 90 minute standoff that put her political star in the ascendant.

So no surprise that, on Tuesday, Davis' folks fired off a terse press release accusing Abbott of raw chutzpah. The pair were scheduled to meet in an education forum at Academy High School in Plano ISD. Unfortunately for Abbott, that's one of the school districts he's fighting in court in the ongoing school finance lawsuit. The ISDs think the state should fund them properly; Abbott is arguing otherwise.

When the pair faced off that night, their debate had shades of the oft-cited exchange between Lady Nancy Astor and British Prime Minister Winston Churchill ("Winston, if you were my husband, I'd poison your tea." "Nancy, if I were your husband, I'd drink it.")

Abbott attempted to paint Davis as a grandstander on the issue, willfully accusing him of hating kids when he was just doing his job. "If she were governor," he said, "would she ask her attorney general not to defend the laws passed by the Legislature?"

In a rebuttal aimed clearly at Abbott and his boss, Gov. Rick Perry, Davis simply replied, "As Governor, I would have vetoed the bill."

Actually, make that bills, plural. In 2011, during a special session the House and Senate (under pressure from Perry) cobbled together a pair of funding-cutting measures: Senate Bill 1, establishing new, decreased funding mechanisms, and SB2, cutting the overall appropriation. The plan was so dismal and so universally reviled that the first chance lawmakers got, they called a joint committee to examine its catastrophic impact. It was so bad that one of the first bipartisan agreements of the last session was to restore at least some of the cuts. And yet, Abbott continues to defend both bills, even though legislators have publicly stated the trials could slow up meaningful reform.

Abbott has repeatedly deployed his own twist on the "I was only following orders" trope by saying that, as Texas' top lawyer, it's his job to enforce Texas' laws, whether he likes them or not. For example, that's why a man in a wheel chair argued that state agencies don't have to follow the the Americans With Disability Act.

However, Davis' rebuttal masks another problem for Abbott as a wannabe governor. As AG, he's spent years on the opposite side of the court room to many governmental entities, not just ISDs. And it's not just that these were cases he had to fight as part of his job description. Part of an attorney's job is to tell their client when to hold 'em and when to fold 'em. Right now, in some of these conversations, Abbott's history of pushing everything he can all the way to SCOTUS and back again is probably coming under some serious scrutiny.

Moreover, it opens up an interesting rift between the two. Abbott has never been a policy wonk, while Davis has actually had to contend with the murky waters of the legislature. There is, after all, a big difference, between being the boss and just being a consigliere.

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