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Davis Shines While Linking TEF Scandal to Abbott in Debate

By Mary Tuma, October 1, 2014, 5:00pm, Newsdesk

While the first gubernatorial debate featured a seemingly rehearsed – some would even say stiff – state Sen. Wendy Davis, D-Fort Worth, the second brawl against Attorney General Greg Abbott showed a side many Democrats and progressives have been waiting for – an aggressive, forceful candidate unafraid to expose current leadership’s failures.

Not shying away from pressing the candidates (unlike the those at the initial debate), moderators at Tuesday evening's Dallas showdown played the role well, offering up rapid-fire follow up questions and fact-checking on the spot. The questions ranged from how they would handle the recent Ebola case in Texas to education funding, standardized testing, immigration, health care, marriage equality, and abortion. Moments of note: Abbott called the Texas DREAM Act, a 2001 measure that allows undocumented immigrants to pay in-state tuition at public universities, “flawed” and said he wouldn’t veto any legislation attempting to repeal the law (a contrast to conservative Gov. Perry’s support of the act but a reflection of lieutenant governor candidate state Sen. Dan Patrick’s wishes).

The two diverged over Texas’ refusal to expand Medicaid (Abbott concurs; Davis would expand the program and accept federal funding) and predictably, marriage equality – Davis is in full support of marriage equality and would happily welcome a new referendum on the issue, while Abbott is actively fighting a legal attempt to repeal the Texas constitutional amendment that bans same-sex marriage. Memorably, Abbott ended his anti-gay defense with some awkward logic: “For me personally, this is more than a constitutional amendment. I’ve been married to my wife Cecilla for more than 33 years now.” And audience members were reminded of the conservative A.G.’s extremist views on abortion: Abbott, a staunch advocate of the state’s restrictive reproductive health care laws, doesn’t even support the procedure even in cases of rape or incest.

However, the most significant point of contention centered on the mismanagement of the Perry-backed Texas Enterprise Fund. The fund – seen by critics as a personal quid pro quo piggy bank intended to boost GOP leadership’s campaign coffers – has come under renewed scrutiny after a state auditor discovered millions of taxpayer dollars – some $222 million distributed over 10 years – were doled out to companies that had not even applied or agreed to create jobs, although that was the ostensible purpose of the fund. Abbott has received more than $1 million in campaign dollars from fund beneficiaries.

Davis, on the attack, took Abbott to task over the TEF scandal, and in doing so, displayed her ability to emerge as a strong voice against the institutional pay-to-play strategy that has plagued the state for decades. “You were the chief law enforcement officer over the Texas Enterprise Fund. It was your responsibility to make sure millions of dollars going to companies were resulting in jobs,” she said. “Not only did you fail to do that [...] you covered it up,” she continued.

Abbott sought to distance himself from any wrongdoing in the auditor’s report, and claimed he had questioned the fund throughout his entire campaign. He also attempted to swing the gross misuse of taxpayer dollars back to Davis, claiming the state senator had personally profited from the funds through recipient, Cabela’s, while working at a title company when she served as a Fort Worth City Council Member. Davis wasn’t having it. “You are not telling the truth right now, and you know you are not telling the truth,” she interjected. “I did not personally profit.”

Davis then recentered the criticism squarely on her opponent, charging Abbott with overseeing a corrupt “slush fund” and calling on the A.G. to return the TEF-linked campaign contributions. “This was about your failure as chief law enforcement officer of this state to review, that these funds weren’t being used as a slush fund for your donors,” she said.

Abbott appeared stunned by the forcefulness of Davis’ rhetoric, and he failed to deliver a concrete answer when pressed about his office’s role in not disclosing to the public a handful of TEF applications, said by the auditor to be nonexistent. In his moment of weakness, we saw Davis shine. Unfortunately for voters, this week’s event marks the last gubernatorial debate of the season – while Davis initially suggested six debates, apparently two sufficed for Abbott.

According to the resounding applause and cheers from the packed room at a Scholz Garten debate watch party Tuesday night, Davis supporters appeared prouder than ever to support their chosen candidate. Hosted by the Travis County Democratic Party and local political blog, Burnt Orange Report, the party featured Travis County Judge nominee Sarah Eckhardt, state Rep. Donna Howard, D-Austin, and TCDP Chairwoman, Jan Soifer, who all underscored the message of the debate – an Abbott reign would invariably mean profit over people. “Greg Abbott stands up for corporations. He’s not the people’s lawyer; he’s Perry’s lawyer,” said Howard. “But Wendy Davis will stand up for all of us.”

Watch the debate via C-SPAN/KERA News here: Texas Governor's Debate

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