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.
In Wendy Davis vs Star-Telegram Operating, Inc. et al Wendy Davis alleged — as the basis of her case — that a negative newspaper editorial not only infringed on her “right to pursue public office.” Davis alleged — in court as the basis of her case — that the editorial damaged her physical and mental health.
That’s quite a claim.
Wendy Davis alleged in court that a newspaper editorial made her a little bonkers, entitling her to some of its money. The paper’s deep Disney pockets had nothing to do with it.
So what happened? According to the May 25, 1996 editorial, which is also available in full at the site linked above, Davis’ campaign had sent out an election-eve mailer that smeared her opponent and disparaged the Bass family, which the newspaper notes is known for its philanthropic generosity. In her mailer Davis claimed a prominent endorsement but declined to disclose that the endorser was her own father. The Star-Telegram lamented Davis’ dirty win-at-all-costs tactics and therefore endorsed her opponent in the Fort Worth City Council race.
Newspapers make such editorial decisions during every election cycle, always have and always will — unless a case like Davis’ somehow succeeds. Davis was not just attacking the Star-Telegram — her suit threatened the freedom of the press enshrined in the First Amendment.
Davis lost her frivolous lawsuit by unanimous decision and the court wrote that they “cannot conclude a person of ordinary intelligence would perceive the (newspaper’s) statements as inflammatory.” The district court dismissed Davis’ case “with prejudice,” a court’s way of heaping scorn on the Harvard-educated Davis for filing a pointless lawsuit. Davis lost on every single count.
Wendy Davis wasn’t done. Having been tossed out of court, she decided to appeal and her case went all the way to the Texas Supreme Court. Four years after she first filed the suit, the Texas Supreme Court also tossed her case out. The Star-Telegram’s attorney at the time, Charles Babcock, said, “It was a remarkable theory that Ms. Davis was advancing – that this newspaper could not comment on the various issues of her campaign, and that it could not express its opinion as to which candidate it preferred. If Ms. Davis’s theories had been correct, there would have been a serious chill on the media to report on campaigns.”
Now, some might argue that Davis filed her suit in the heat of the moment a long time ago, and may not be disposed to such win-at-all-costs tactics now. The facts then and now suggest otherwise. She pursued the case for four long years, though appeals, all the way up to the Texas Supreme Court. That’s not a heat-of-the-moment act, that’s stalking via the courts. Davis pursued ruthless, win-at-all-costs tactics during that 1996 race and again during the 2013 filibuster that made her famous. It was her supporters who clogged up the Texas capitol, chanted obscene chants and engaged in tactics that brought disgrace to the state — and Wendy Davis never said or did a single thing to stop any of it. She could have. But she chose not to. It’s a safe bet that her gubernatorial campaign is already lining up smears against her Democratic primary and general election opponents now.
Far from being an old case buried in the distant past, Wendy Davis’ lawsuit against a newspaper for doing what newspapers do is a telling moment in her life, and reveals the kind of governor she would be.
Wendy Davis’ four-year courtroom war against the Fort Worth Star-Telegram still stands as a legitimate reason to believe that she would be a reckless, thin-skinned and divisive governor who would be very bad for the state of Texas.
*The story actually came out on September 1, 2013, so I was incorrect on its publication date. My apologies for the error.