AUSTIN, Texas—I spent much of April 29 sitting next to Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott aboard a nine-seater Citation XLS that took us from Austin to Lubbock air space to Abilene to Gainesville and back to Austin. We missed the centerpiece of the day, a planned Abbott press conference on education at Lubbock High School, because as the plane approached the West Texas city a dust cloud, propelled thousands of feet high by 60-mile-per-hour winds, forced the pilot to land in Abilene instead.
That’s when Zac Petkanas, spokesman for Democratic pro-abortion candidate Wendy Davis, publicly speculated that Abbott had purposefully avoided Lubbock because he feared answering reporters’ questions. But while Petkanas tweeted—“Greg Abbott too chicken to follow through on press conference at Lubbock”—Abbott was talking with Lubbock reporters by phone.
You can tell a campaign is going your way when a missed campaign stop turns into a public relations victory.
Soon KCBD, the NBC affiliate in Lubbock, was reporting that the dust storm had given passengers on another plane a “white knuckle ride” filled with “heart-stopping moments.” It quoted a more laid-back Abbott saying “the air got denser and denser—so much so that we couldn’t even see.” And the local newspaper, the Lubbock Avalanche-Journal, gave positive coverage to Abbott’s education platform, which proposes “more local control for school districts as well as greater transparency to promote more parental involvement.”
Abbott had accurately described the eerie brownout, with dust surrounding the plane leaving only a few feet of visibility. Pilots have compared landing during brownouts to parallel parking a car with eyes closed.
AN EVENT LATER IN THE DAY went off as planned. In the cavernous hanger of Orteq Energy Technologies in the North Texas town of Gainesville, with gigantic fracking machinery as a backdrop, Abbott won applause from 95 men and women (some in suits, others wearing jeans and ball caps, many holding or wearing Abbott campaign material) by describing his job as “I go into the office in the morning, I sue Barack Obama, and then I go home.”
He threw out other red-meat lines: “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,” which is looking to “crush the growing energy sector. … I’m glad to get back with salt of the earth people [and] get out of the People’s Republic of Austin.”
He’s given a variant of that speech before and will probably keep giving it until Nov. 4—and most Texas Republicans could give similar rousers. It’s like a “compulsory figure” in figure skating, where until the 1990s top skaters had to do figure eights on the ice again and again. Only after tracing perfectly round circles with no wobbles, flats, bulges, or inward curling would they have a chance to win the free skating competition with its exciting but hazardous triple axels and lutzes.
Skating competition has eliminated the compulsory figures, but politics has not. Campaigners, whether Democrat or Republican, must still offer “red meat” speeches to carnivorous constituents. Abbott showed he can do what is mandatory, both in speaking and in shaking hands with voter after voter and mixing small talk with occasional tall talk on battling Obama. He also unites the personal and the political with a line he uses in every campaign appearance: “Lots of politicians say they have a steel spine, but I really have one.”
THAT SPINE IS A CENTRAL PART of his appeal, in several ways. Democrats, borrowing from their last Texas governor, Ann Richards, like to characterize legacy Republicans as folks born on third base who thought they hit a triple—but Abbott, from humbler stock, worked hard, hit a line drive, and was rounding first when a terrible accident forced him to go back to home plate.
Abbott’s dad sold insurance and stocks until he died while Abbott was a high-school sophomore. His previously stay-at-home mom went to work in a real estate office, while Abbott mowed lawns and stocked store shelves. He was a track star in high school, where his class voted him Most Likely to Succeed. Abbott jogged in Austin at The University of Texas, in Nashville at Vanderbilt Law School, and in Houston as a young lawyer—until an oak tree fell on him while he was running past live oaks and magnolias near the corner of Inwood and Chilton in Houston’s über-affluent River Oaks neighborhood.
It was quiet there on the first Saturday morning of this month, except for the sound of gardeners edging a lawn. It was steamy on July 14, 1984, when Abbott heard “an explosion, like a bomb going off,” as an oak snapped at its base. The next second he was on the ground. Broken bones in his vertebrae pierced his spinal cord. Fractured ribs poked into his organs. He almost died, then went through months of rehabilitation, and has been imprisoned in a wheelchair ever since.
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.
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.”
Some conservative Christians will find Abbott disappointing, though, on educational matters. He spoke of improving schools through competition and “giving parents real choices,” but did not call for true school choice via vouchers or education tax credits. That’s politically dangerous among suburbanites who like their neighborhood schools and small town Texans who worry about undermining high-school football teams.
Asked whether it’s unfair to force some parents to pay twice for education—through taxes and through tuition at religious schools—Abbott countered, “Is it unfair for childless families or seniors to pay for schools?” He said the public purpose of using taxpayer dollars to pay for education is to have a more productive state: “It costs more to incarcerate than to educate.” Since property taxes largely fund Texas schools, businesses and families with costly homes pay more, and kindergarten-kid parents (usually younger and less affluent) pay less.
Pushed about this, and asked whether the naked classroom shortchanges children—and the future of Texas—by graduating students who may be able to read and write but don’t know what’s right, Abbott spoke about “character education.” But is “character education” without reference to God a donut education with nothing in the center? Abbott grinned and said he had to “live with the hand dealt to us by the Supreme Court.” And yet, vouchers and tax credits that empower parents to make educational choices do not face the same constitutional questions that “religion in the public schools” engenders.
ABBOTT PRIZES ANALYTICAL rather than speculative thinking. Asked if he ever considers what his life would be like had the tree not fallen on him, he said, “I never have played the game of what if. … It’s a useless exercise.” Some who went through rehab with him focused their hope on walking again: “I never have.” When pressed on the emphatic nevers, I expected Abbott to offer the Gilbert and Sullivan answer: “Hardly ever.” But he insisted: “Never.” Asked how his policy positions might be different if he were an atheist, he responded, “I can’t even comprehend how an atheist would approach an issue.”
It’s hard to know if that’s really the case or if, knowing the gubernatorial race is his to lose by gaffe, Abbott is running a cautious campaign. But his decision-making mode is consistent with his legal and judicial career: Read, study, listen to strong arguments, be decisive. He reads nonfiction rather than fiction and makes practical applications: On April 29, partway through a new biography of Alexander Hamilton, he commented that Hamilton, with his centralizing tendencies, “would be a dangerous man today.” Abbott used to go almost every weekend to movies with his daughter, whom he and his wife adopted at birth, but she’s turned 17, he’s campaigning, and that’s less frequent now: The last one they saw together was Frozen. The analytical mind is less evident when he talks of her birth: Present at the delivery, “I was the very first person to hold her.”
Why did the tree fall on Abbott? In our conversation he did not speculate, but said, “My life is better for it.” He stressed again the empathy he gained, and added a vertical dimension as well: “This transformative event brought me closer to God.”