Cover Story

Wheeling onto the national stage

"Wheeling onto the national stage" Continued...

Issue: "The GOP’s Greg Abbott," May 31, 2014

Except that Abbott didn’t let that stop him. After rehab he resumed his legal career, buoyed economically by a $10 million accident insurance settlement. He served on the Texas Supreme Court during the 1990s and left it to run successfully for attorney general in 2002. He makes his “huge, life-changing event” a political plus by using it to handle the charge that Republicans lack compassion: “It makes me naturally empathetic toward those who face challenges.”

As we spoke on the plane, Abbott did lots of free skating on a variety of issues, and showed a steel spine concerning religious liberty and abortion. He said a totally secularized public square is not neutral, but naked: Aggressive secularism, Abbott said, means “there is only one winner and many losers.” He noted the rampant irony among those who don’t want Christians to “force” their values on other Americans, but are “forcing their belief system on the rest of America” and trying to “expunge our history.”

He gets top marks from Texas pro-life groups. As a child he attended a Disciples of Christ church—that denomination favors legalized abortion—and fell away from churchgoing as a teenager. His priorities as a University of Texas undergrad were “typical—first football, second having a good time.” Then he met a granddaughter of immigrants from Mexico: She went to a Roman Catholic church every Sunday, and Abbott started going with her. Later he married her and in 1987 formally converted to Catholicism.

Abbott said he is “realistic” about abortion: The new Texas law (if Washington’s black robes don’t kill it) protects 20-weeks-and-up unborn babies, but women until then can still do whatever they want, even unto death. His principle, Abbott said, is “all human life should be protected,” and he is not about to head down the parsing trail that left some 2012 GOP candidates lost in the woods. In any event, the Republican record shows a candidate’s wife to be more important than his words. The two Bush presidents, while generally pro-life, faced spousal resistance, but Cecilia Abbott is by all reports strongly pro-life.

NONSTOP: Abbott speaking at the Carver Academy in San Antonio.
Associated Press/Photo by Eric Gay
NONSTOP: Abbott speaking at the Carver Academy in San Antonio.
Democratic pro-abortion candidate Wendy Davis.
James Nielsen/Houston Chronicle/ap
Democratic pro-abortion candidate Wendy Davis.
The corner site of Abbott’s accident.
Warren Smith
The corner site of Abbott’s accident.
SPINE OF STEEL: Abbott and his wife Cecilia at the opening session of the Texas state Republican convention in Fort Worth, Texas.
Ron T. Ennis/Fort Worth Star-Telegram/MCT/Landov
SPINE OF STEEL: Abbott and his wife Cecilia at the opening session of the Texas state Republican convention in Fort Worth, Texas.
FACING CHALLENGES: Abbott in a high-school track and field competition.
The Abbott campaign
FACING CHALLENGES: Abbott in a high-school track and field competition.
26-year-old Abbott wearing a back brace at a Houston rehabilitation center.
The Abbott campaign
26-year-old Abbott wearing a back brace at a Houston rehabilitation center.
At a press conference in 2005, celebrating the U.S. Supreme Court decision that allows a Ten Commandments monument to remain on the grounds of the Texas State Capitol.
Jana Birchum/Getty Images
At a press conference in 2005, celebrating the U.S. Supreme Court decision that allows a Ten Commandments monument to remain on the grounds of the Texas State Capitol.

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ABBOTT, ASKED FOR A WORD to describe him, said “perseverance.” He has matchstick legs but has built up a strong upper body. He shows it by going without a motorized wheelchair and, especially, getting on and off small airplanes several times a day: He wheels himself over to the stairway, grabs onto the bar at the end, and pulls himself over to the lowest step. Then he sits on the step, facing away from the door, puts his arms behind him, and pulls himself up, one step at a time, until he gets to the top and swings himself from the railing into a seat. 

'You can count on me to keep the boot of government off your backs. … I’ve brought 30 lawsuits against Barack Obama and his overreaching federal government.'

He’s also methodical in the way he hopes to outflank rampant liberalism among college faculties: He said if students gravitate toward what’s practical and productive, the ideological problems will become less severe. He said students will be in position to run a fast last lap of their educational race if, early on, they learn the basics of what’s needed to major in STEM subjects: science, technology, engineering, math. Then they’ll be able to make a six-figure decision, choosing $100,000 in annual income or $100,000 of debt and waiting on tables. 

Growing the Hispanic vote is central to Democratic plans to turn Texas blue, but Abbott said “the Texas model” for growing an economy—low taxes, less government, less regulation, right to work, legal reform—will bring Hispanic immigrants of recent decades into the Republican Party: “People don’t come to this country to have government tell them what to do. They want to be able to climb the ladder of success. … The values of the Republican Party are embraced by the majority of the Hispanic community. Our job is to connect the two value systems.”

Abbott added, “It’s not an overnight process,” and he emphasized the need for outreach, starting with his wife, likely to become Texas’ “first Latina First Lady.” She’s from a San Antonio family and has “a quintessential Hispanic background. Some in her family only recently got air conditioning in their homes, and it’s not central air.” Abbott calls himself “multicultural by choice.” Asked about the effect of schools teaching children not to value America but instead to identify with the countries of their origins, Abbott said the State Board of Education “will be meticulous in assessing textbooks.”

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