On Wednesday*, the Texas Tribune published a fascinating Jay Root profile of the Democrats’ great hope in Texas, state Sen. Wendy Davis. The pro-late term abortion filibustering senator, who just proclaimed that she is “pro-life,” has overcome quite a bit — a rough upbringing, a brief bad marriage right out of high school, a mortgage on a skirtless mobile home that she just up and walked away from, and a court case against a newspaper after her unsuccessful entry into politics.
By this point, in the early 1990s, Davis was remarried to a lawyer and launched a fight against the popular and nationally famous Fort Worth Zoo. Root writes that Davis wanted to stop the zoo’s planned expansion, and casts Davis as as a sort of David going up against “the billionaire Bass family.” Let’s pick up the story there.
Her first brush with political activism came in the early 1990s when she opposed expansion of the popular Fort Worth Zoo, whose plans to use green space for a parking lot had the support of powerful downtown interests, including members of the billionaire Bass family. But it irked Davis and her aesthetic-minded neighbors in Mistletoe Heights, a historic neighborhood perched on a bluff overlooking the Trinity River.
Nice not at all even-handed set-up, Tribune: Davis the neighborhood “aesthete” took on “powerful downtown interests” including “billionaires.”
Exhibiting a taste for political combat, she brought the zoo battle into her first race for a seat on the Fort Worth City Council in 1996, when she said a prestigious law firm, which represented the Basses and zoo interests, had declined to make her a job offer because of her activism on the zoo issue. She lost the race by 90 votes, but Davis wasn’t done fighting.
A few months later she sued the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, alleging that biased coverage led to her defeat and caused injury to her physical and mental health; the suit was later dismissed on free speech grounds, according to news accounts in the hometown paper.
Wait, what? She sued a newspaper over an editorial? Why wasn’t the reporter here more interested in this obviously interesting glimpse into Wendy Davis’ character? She sued a newspaper. Politicians don’t do that very often. Most reporters would probably find such a case interesting enough to look into. Root just brushes right past this very interesting episode in the Wendy Davis Origins Story as if every political figure takes newspapers to court and claims that negative press hurt their bodies and brains, when such cases are actually very rare. They generate more bad press, for one thing.
Before we detail that, let’s pick through the first part of the story. Root casts Davis as the little lady taking on the big bad billionaires. The fact is, the Bass family are well-known philanthropists. Mistletoe Heights is a mixed neighborhood in Fort Worth, that has its tony sections. Houses there can go for around $1 million today. Davis, by then married to a successful lawyer, was presumably not living the low life. She had time and the wherewithal to take on the zoo.
So what we really had in that 1990s fight was wealthy Wendy Davis engaging in NIMBY — Not In My Back Yard.
Davis runs for office on her NIMBY platform, runs a skeevy campaign, and her tactics generate bad press from the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. She loses the race, and then — why Root didn’t explore this further is interesting — she blames the newspaper for her defeat and sues it. Because Disney owns the Star-Telegram, Davis was effectively waging a Mickey-Mouse case against Mickey Mouse.
The Texas Tribune doesn’t explore or offer the court documents even though they’re publicly available. That’s a curious editorial decision, as the Tribune is known for publishing data apps and original documents. Making the Davis 1996 court case documents available is very much within its wheelhouse. At any rate, this anti-Davis attack site has posted them, and they’re fascinating.