There’s a small crowd munching on tacos and tortilla chips here at El Pato, a local chain restaurant in Texas’s Rio Grande Valley. We’re a short drive from the Mexican border, in a part of the state that’s nearly 90 percent Hispanic. The folks here are noticeably whiter (or more Anglo, as Texans would say) than that, but plenty of Hispanics have shown up, too. Fifty-six-year-old Greg Abbott, the powerful attorney general and Republican nominee for governor, is discussing how years of incredible economic growth are transforming Texas. He makes sure to mention the state’s fastest-growing demographic group.
“People are streaming across the border every single day,” he says. “And you know who they are.” The room falls uncomfortably quiet. Where’s he going with this? “They are Californians,” he deadpans, breaking out into a big smile.
The tension releases, and everyone laughs. It’s a carefully planned joke, part of a carefully planned campaign. Abbott tells me that he likes to make jokes that disarm voters, to make them think he’s going one way before he veers off in a different direction. He’s got another one he tells often, and it definitely doesn’t start off funny.
It was 1984, and Abbott had just graduated from Vanderbilt Law School. He and his young wife Cecilia had moved back to Texas, where Abbott was about to start a plum job at a firm in Houston. On a jog with a friend one day, he ran slightly ahead down a leafy street. Abbott heard a crack, and he was suddenly pinned down to the ground by a fallen tree. The tree had crushed a car parked nearby. It had also crushed his back.
The accident left him paralyzed from the waist down, in a wheelchair for the rest of his life. He’ll tell crowds about his recovery. “The doctors helped me piece my life back together by literally piecing the fragments of my vertebrae together, gluing them together, and then fusing them together and then inserting steel rods in my back,” he says.
Voters may have heard politicians say when it comes to the tough decisions, they’ll have a spine of steel. “I really do have a steel spine,” Abbott counters with a grin.
The jokes reveal how assured Abbott is in his bid to become the first new governor of Texas in 14 years. And why shouldn’t he be? The state has become increasingly Republican over the last few decades. The GOP has held the governorship for 27 of the last 35 years, and without interruption since George W. Bush defeated Ann Richards in 1994. Most polls show Abbott with a double-digit lead over the Democratic nominee, state senator Wendy Davis. “He’s gonna win,” says the incumbent, Rick Perry, the longest-serving governor in state history.
Even the act of coming down to the Rio Grande Valley, just two days after winning the GOP nomination, is a sign of confidence from Abbott. The Valley remains the Democrats’ strongest nonurban redoubt in Texas, thanks to the overwhelmingly Hispanic population. In Hidalgo County, where Edinburg is located and the largest of the four-county region, George W. Bush won 53 percent of the vote in his 1998 landslide reelection win. Like the rest of Texas, Hidalgo County has grown incredibly since then, but unlike the rest of Texas, Hidalgo’s grown more Democratic. In 2010, Perry earned about the same number of raw votes in Hidalgo as Bush had, but by then that was just 32 percent of the electorate.
Bush and Perry didn’t need those votes in the valley to win in Texas, and neither will Abbott. Still, an interesting thing happened in the March 4 primary. Both Abbott and Davis sailed easily through their respective contests, but the buzz among reporters and political types alike was how poorly Davis performed in the valley. She lost three of the four counties, including Hidalgo, to a perennial also-ran Democratic candidate. The Fort Worth-based Davis had all but secured the Democratic nomination after a headline-grabbing filibuster last year of a bill that included a ban on most abortions after 20 weeks of gestation. (The bill later passed in a special session and was signed into law.) Davis’s filibuster earned her a great deal of fawning media coverage from national outlets, who wondered if she might be the one to finally “turn Texas blue.” The message just didn’t seem to make it down to the border.
Or maybe it did. One Abbott supporter in Edinburg, former state representative Aaron Peña, is a Democrat-turned-Republican with strong ties to the valley. He says his fellow Hispanic Texans may vote Democratic, but they are traditionalists on cultural issues, including abortion. Davis may be popular with the liberal set in Austin, but she doesn’t offer much to Peña’s constituents, he says. And that’s what makes Abbott’s bold pronouncement in Edinburg sound almost plausible.
“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.”
Abbott worked for a few years as a trial lawyer in Houston, but he says he became fed up with judges who came to court unprepared. “I grew increasingly frustrated as I spent a lot of my clients’ money getting very well prepared for cases, only to find that these judges were making decisions and they hadn’t even read the briefs,” he says. So he ran for a district judgeship in Harris County and won. Abbott’s reputation grew such that in 1995, Governor Bush appointed him to the Texas supreme court. The next year, Abbott won election to the seat outright and was reelected in 1998.
After returning briefly to private practice, Abbott ran successfully for attorney general in 2002, 2006, and 2010. Abbott may have started his political career as a judge, but it was in the AG’s office that he came into his own. He became known within the Texas legal community as a whip-smart conservative with an eye for talented young lawyers. One of those lawyers was Don Willett, who was Abbott’s deputy attorney general and now sits on the state supreme court. Another was an Ivy League-educated former U.S. Supreme Court law clerk named Ted Cruz, who served as Abbott’s solicitor general from 2003 to 2008.
“He brings a humility to the job each and every day,” says Cruz of his former boss. “But he’s also a man of considerable courage.” He notes Abbott’s decision—not an unpopular one in Texas—to challenge the Bush administration’s order that states revisit convictions of foreign nationals who had not been made aware of certain rights under international law. The related case, Medellín v. Texas, went to the U.S. Supreme Court, which found international law alone is not binding U.S. law.
“Greg Abbott made the decision that Texas would stand up and go to the U.S. Supreme Court and argue that President Bush’s order was unconstitutional,” Cruz says, despite the fact that Bush was “a Republican, a Texan, and a friend.”
As attorney general, Abbott had a “tremendous opportunity to play offense and advance some personal priorities,” says Don Willett. One opportunity came in the form of a lawsuit against the state over the constitutionality of a monument depicting the Ten Commandments erected on the grounds of the state capitol in Austin. The Fifth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled the monument’s placement was constitutional, but the plaintiff appealed to the Supreme Court. When the Court took it up in 2005, Abbott himself argued the case—and won. The Ten Commandments case makes a regular appearance in his stump speech.
So does Abbott’s recent role as unofficial leader of the state attorneys general battle against Obamacare. In December 2009, he joined other AGs in co-signing a letter to congressional leaders raising constitutional questions about the bill before it had even been passed and signed into law. A week later, on January 5, 2010, Abbott also wrote to Texas senators Kay Bailey Hutchison and John Cornyn detailing the constitutional problems with the Senate bill that would eventually become Obamacare. That letter was an early public argument against the constitutionality of the individual mandate with respect to the Commerce Clause—the same argument that was affirmed when the Supreme Court ruled the mandate would have to be enforced as a tax.
Abbott’s conservative legal victories as attorney general—he boasts that he’s sued the Obama administration more than 25 times—make good talking points on the campaign trail in Texas, but they don’t quite constitute a governing agenda. His message about the future of Texas is practically indistinguishable from that of incumbent governor Rick Perry’s: low taxes, less regulation, more freedom. It’s what Perry and Abbott both call the Texas model, and there’s no question it’s working. While other states have struggled through the recession, the Lone Star State is booming. It has one of the country’s lowest unemployment rates (5.7 percent), aided in part by technological developments in resource extraction that’s shifted Texas’s energy industry into overdrive. The low-tax regime means lots of companies are relocating or expanding in Texas, including tech firms like Facebook and Dropbox. When Abbott talks about those Californians streaming across the border to Texas, he’s including plenty from Silicon Valley.
One statistic Abbott cites is that up to 1,400 people are moving to Texas every day. “That’s adding several Wacos a year, several Tylers a year, several Lubbocks a year,” says Abbott. “That’s almost incomprehensible.” And that amount of growth has side effects. Stretches of Interstate 35, which runs north to south through big urban areas like Laredo, San Antonio, Austin, and Dallas-Fort Worth, are increasingly backed up with traffic. Even in smaller cities like Edinburg, people feel the strain of outdated infrastructure. In a state where almost everything’s going right, that’s given Abbott something to actually campaign on.
“Are your roads getting crowded here in the Rio Grande Valley?” he asks the group at El Pato, who nod their heads. “Are you waiting in line longer than ever before? Well, I have an answer to that growing problem.” The answer, he says, is four to five billion dollars more toward road construction. The money will come chiefly from the state’s rainy-day fund and oil and gas royalties.
He asks them to imagine what is likely a future Abbott campaign commercial. There’s footage of a congested highway, with Texans stuck in unending traffic. “The camera pans in closer to show the bumper-to-bumper traffic, and you are moving no faster than you are right now,” he says.
Then he turns himself in his wheelchair to the side and mimes moving his wheels. “And then it shows, on the shoulder of the roadway, a guy rolling up in a wheelchair, passing all these cars, showing a guy in a wheelchair can move faster than traffic in Texas. Elect me governor and I will get Texas moving again.”
There’s more laughter, and plenty of applause. Abbott turns forward again and smiles.
Michael Warren is a staff writer at The Weekly Standard.