WASHINGTON -- Texas Gov. Rick Perry (R) used his speech Thursday afternoon at the National Right to Life Convention to attack Texas state Sen. Wendy Davis (D), who became an instant abortion rights icon after she filibustered for 11 hours to stop an anti-abortion bill. She succeeded with the help of hundreds of screaming activists.
Davis' filibuster resonated across Texas and the rest of the country. Here was a single mother-turned-senator speaking of the hardships of so many others. But in his Dallas speech, Perry chose to use Davis' personal story as cannon fodder.
"She didn't come from particularly good circumstances. What if her mom had said, 'I just can't do this, I don't want to do this'?" Perry asked rhetorically. "It's just unfortunate that she hasn't learned from her own example that every life must be given the chance to realize its full potential and that every life matters."
Perry's comment brought back memories of Texas' 1990 gubernatorial race between Democrat Ann Richards and Republican Clayton Williams Jr. In the fall of that year, Richards claimed polls showed her gaining ground, according to a Los Angeles Times account. When asked about her assertion, Williams quipped, "I hope she didn't go back to drinking again."
Richards was a recovering alcoholic.
The Richards campaign used Williams' words for the kicker of a brutal attack ad that compiled all of her opponent's foot-in-mouth moments. There were many. In fact, Williams is perhaps most famous for likening rape to the weather: ''If it's inevitable, just relax and enjoy it.''
The campaign may have run that ad with Williams' worst quotes more than any other, recalled Glenn Smith, a Richards campaign consultant at the time. "Williams' negatives went through the roof ... This sure helped cost him the campaign in a significant way," Smith said. Richards ended up winning the governor's race.
Glen Maxey, who was the Richards campaign's get-out-the-vote coordinator in Travis County, agrees that Williams' comments helped turn the race in his candidate's favor. "From that point on, it was a campaign of women against Clayton Williams," he said. "It was the insult to all women. People were just seething angry about it. They thought that kind of stuff would never happen with a male candidate."
The difference between then and now, Maxey said, is that everyone doesn't have to wait to catch Perry's comments on the six o'clock news or in a campaign ad. There's Twitter and Facebook and YouTube. "They go after Wendy Davis personally, and everybody's going to know it and everybody is going to tell their friends," Maxey said.
Maxey assessed the outpouring against Perry and in support of Davis as 100 times greater than the Richards-Williams moment. "They are playing with fire when they go after Wendy Davis personally," he said.
"Rick Perry's statement is without dignity and tarnishes the high office he holds," Davis responded to Perry's speech. "They are small words that reflect a dark and negative point of view. Our governor should reflect our Texas values. Sadly, Gov. Perry fails that test."
Perry wasn't the only conservative politician using over-the-top rhetoric against Davis. State Rep. Bill Zedler (R) referred to the actions of Davis and the pro-choice protesters as terrorism.