AUSTIN (KXAN) - Careful not to step on her upcoming announcement but clearly road-testing themes for a statewide campaign, Democrat Wendy Davis presented herself Sunday as a pragmatic centrist.
"I think that people -- they're tired of the acrimony," the Fort Worth state senator said in an hourlong interview closing out the weekend political festival put on by the Texas Tribune. "I don't want that for Texas."
Davis, who was the final speaker at the three-day conference co-sponsored by KXAN, will announce her plans for the 2014 campaign season in her hometown on Thursday. She did nothing to shoot down reports last week that she has already decided to run for governor as she attempted to dispel notions that her candidacy would be shaped by her summer filibuster of a bill to restrict abortion rights in Texas.
The one-on-one conversation with Tribune CEO Evan Smith largely steered clear of the abortion, though Smith did start out by reminding Davis that Republicans would attempt to portray her as a one-issue wonder. No sooner than Davis emerged as a national figure, Smith pointed out, she was derided in social media by Republicans as "abortion Barbie."
Davis replied that she's used to bare-knuckle political fights, having won two close elections to the state Senate and several terms on the Fort Worth City Council. Then she pivoted to more mainstream issues like improving public schools, building more highways and providing greater access to health care.
She said Texas needs to improve its near-bottom ranking in per-capita spending on public schools and she called for making prekindergarten available in all school districts. She ruled out an increase in the state's sales tax rate but called for combing through what she said were $35 billion in tax exemptions to see which one could be eliminated.
Smith also pointed out the obvious uphill battle Davis or any Democrat would face in a governor's race. The party is mired in a 20-plus year drought in statewide elections and is outnumbered by both legislative houses. President Obama remains unpopular in Texas, having lost the state by wide margins in 2008 and in 2012.
Davis noted that she has twice won in her GOP-leaning Senate district, running well ahead of the national ticket both times. She noted that she disagrees with the administration's opposition to the proposed merger of Fort Worth-based American Airlines with USAir.
Asked if she would embrace Obama's health care law, which is denounced by virtually all Texas GOP officeholders, including likely gubernatorial nominee Greg Abbott, Davis sought to thread the needle.
"I think Texas has to have a unique solution," she said. "I think we are able to accomplish that. For goodness sake, Arizona was able to accomplish that."
On Saturday, Abbott was interviewed by Smith and stuck largely to his message of conservative government, while also saying his campaign will make a greater effort to wrest minority voters from the Democratic column. He made no direct mention of Davis' potential candidacy.
In a roundtable discussion before Davis' appearance, 2010 Democratic gubernatorial nominee Bill White joined state Sen. Leticia Van de Putte, D-San Antonio, and one-time Obama strategist Jeremy Bird talked about how Texas might become friendlier territory for Democrats.
Bird is leading an Obama offshoot organization called Battleground Texas, focusing on registering more Democrat-leaning Texans to vote and then turning them out on election day. The effort also includes training grassroots volunteers and sharpening the Democratic message in a state that has lined up for every GOP presidential nominee since Ronald Reagan.
Bird said that in battleground states like Ohio and Florida, many of the campaign organizers were from Texas were working for Obama to find out what it "was like to win."
Van de Putte said the party needs not only needs money and organization, but also a candidate who can motivate the grassroots while holding its share of the political center. Suburban women and moderate business leaders would be key to that coalition, she said.
She also affirmed reports that she is considering running for lieutenant governor next year, assuming Davis runs for governor. Van de Putte called it "a very personal decision," pointing out that within the past year her father was killed in an auto crash and her grandson fell victim to sudden infant death syndrome.
Asked when she would make up her mind, Van de Putt replied: "Let's wait till after Thursday."
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