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The Next Governor of Texas?

On the campaign trail with Greg Abbott

Apr 14, 2014, Vol. 19, No. 29 • By MICHAEL WARREN
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“I am going to strive to set an all-time historical record for the number of votes a Republican garners in the Rio Grande Valley,” he tells the crowd.

A more realistic hope may be that conservative Hispanic Democrats stay home in November. Davis herself doesn’t appear to be making much effort to court the Valley vote, or any vote for that matter. She’s noticeably inconspicuous on the trail, and even friendly media have a hard time finding her. During the final weeks of the primary, one desperate MSNBC employee actually called up the Abbott campaign to find where Davis would be stumping.

Abbott mostly ignores his opponent. In his primary night victory party in San Antonio, he doesn’t mention Davis at all. With some coaxing in our interview, he simply notes that she’s too liberal for Texas.

“After Senator Davis got into the race, she realized, wait a second, Texas is a little bit different than the narrow focus that she had,” he says. “As a conservative who has been involved in running the state of Texas for more than a decade, I know where Texans stand on issues. Where they stand is where I stand on issues.”

A big theme for Abbott is that he’s an embodiment of the Texas spirit. He was born in Wichita Falls in 1957, just a few years before a local professor named John Tower became the first Republican senator from Texas since Reconstruction. His parents were Republicans, unusual in midcentury Texas, and he distinctly remembers a Goldwater bumper sticker on their car when native son Lyndon Johnson was running for president. Abbott spent his youth in Longview, in deep East Texas, and then went to high school in Duncanville, outside of Dallas. 

For college, it was the University of Texas in Austin, which would make him the first Longhorn governor since Dolph Briscoe in the 1970s. There, he met Cecilia Phalen, with whom he started attending Catholic Mass. It wasn’t long before they were a couple, and they soon married in her hometown of San Antonio. Abbott would later formally convert to his wife’s faith, which would make him the first Catholic governor of Texas. And, as he frequently notes on the trail, Cecilia is the granddaughter of Mexican immigrants and would be the state’s first ever Latina first lady.

“My family is like so many others across the entire state of Texas. We are multicultural. We’re Anglo. We’re Irish. We’re Hispanic,” he says in San Antonio. “But we’re all one family. Well, the blending of cultures in the Lone Star State works. We are one people. We are all Texans. And we unite on the common ground of faith, of family, and of freedom.” 

Abbott even sees his accident in terms of his Texan identity. He says parents of the physically and mentally handicapped frequently tell him how his example inspires them and their children. “It’s a way of empowering people, knowing that we’re not strapped down by our circumstances, that we can rise above our circumstances,” he tells me. “That’s quintessential Texas right there.”

Throughout our conversation, Abbott opens up more about that day in Houston 30 years ago. He remembers lying on the ground, hearing the ambulance approach, and wondering: Would he work again? What would happen to his marriage? Would he even survive?

“I felt completely uncertain for the first time in my life about what I would ever be able to do,” he says.

“Uncertain” isn’t a word anyone would use to describe Abbott now. He talks and acts with a sense of purpose that sometimes comes across as arrogant. I asked him if all his time on the campaign trail over the years had changed his mind about an issue or made him see something in a different light. He pauses, turns his head to think, and shakes the question away. “Nothing strikes me, right now,” he says. “It’s more been a reaffirmation.”

Like most successful politicians in Texas, Abbott has his own brand of swagger. Physically, Abbott can’t replicate, say, the Lyndon Johnson style of invading a political adversary’s personal space. And he’s not really one for backslapping and deal-making either, like Rick Perry. Abbott’s manner is quieter and more deliberate. The swagger is in his command and knowledge.

“He’s a lawyer,” says Perry. “And, you know, lawyers just think different.”

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