A Wrinkle in Time: On conservative disgust, preserving Texas and the race for governor

Good morning Austin:

Mattito’s Tex-Mex, where Greg Abbott met with supporters Saturday morning in Frisco.

My first day on the campaign trail following Greg Abbott Saturday (he was in a plane and I was in a car, so I made his first stop in Frisco and his last in Abilene, but missed his middle stop in Wichita Falls) got off to a bad start. I had covered the great Cornyn-Alameel Univision debate the night before in Dallas, and stayed at a hotel in Frisco. I arrived early for his appearance at Mattito’s Tex-Mex and was standing by myself amid the milling crowd, when a nattily attired man in sport jacket and tie approached me, looked me up and down, and with a look of disgust said something to the effect of “nice outfit.”

I knew this was not a compliment, but I wasn’t sure what exactly was wrong with my outfit, especially considering the casualness of a Saturday morning political event at a Tex-Mex restaurant. I was wearing relatively new Banana Republic black jeans, a freshly laundered white, button-down shirt, brand new Blundstone boots, a brand new black belt, and what I thought to be a pretty cool black linen Comune sport coat that I got at the Barney’s Coop in Georgetown, when I lived in Washington, D.C.

Unsure of where this was going, I mumbled some kind of apologetic, nondescript reply.

“It looks like you slept in it,” he said. And then, after another look at me, “How many nights?”

Now, it is true I have on occasion slept in my clothes, but I always change before leaving home the next day. On this occasion, however, I had not, in fact, slept in what I was wearing, and the only thing that was at all wrinkled was the linen jacket, and I really thought that a linen jacket allowed for some license in that regard.

Here from the Houndstooth Kid:

Intentionally Wrinkled

Having traveled a short distance to hang out with a friend this morning, it came to me that linen would make a very good travel fabric.

Here’s why.

It wrinkles. It’s supposed to wrinkle. A linen suit or jacket without wrinkles is like a car without wheels: they just have to be there for it to work.

I had thought my wrinkles were working. But apparently not.

“Typical wacko,”my critic said to me, at me. He turned, walked a few steps away and posted himself. When I turned to look at him he trained a contemptuous glare at me.

I was perplexed. I was clutching a reporter’s notebook, so maybe he had concluded I was an enemy journalist, but I was confused how he could be so certain that he was willing to risk insulting someone who might be there for the same purpose he was there for – to cheer for Greg Abbott.

I walked over to him and asked, “Did I do something to offend you?”

“Yes,” he said. “Breathe.”

My look betrayed my shock, and so he elaborated, just so I would know my shock was not misplaced.

“You are breathing my oxygen.”

Sign on the door entering the hall at Mountain View College in Dallas for Friday night’s Cornyn-Alameel Senate debate sponsored by Univision.

Shaken, I walked away. I went into the men’s room and looked in the mirror. I looked pretty much like I always look, my attire no worse than usual. My hair is a little long and shaggy.  I had gone to get a trim recently at the Austin Barber Shop on Justin Lane, but when I got in the chair, barber Trisha Wyrick  talked me out of it. She said if I cut my hair, I’d lose my curls and any possibility of a pony tail. At my insistence, she snipped a very few hairs, and didn’t charge me anything. I left a tip, looking pretty much the way I looked when I walked in.

“This is Austin,” Wyrick told me. “You can get away with it.”

I was in Frisco now. But I was confused. This was not some backwater. This is one of those booming, freshly minted communities of the future – all construction cranes and youth soccer tournaments – a paradigm of Texas growth, a peek into the Texas future.

Luckily, my sense of personal hurt was assuaged by my recently gained knowledge that my encounter was probably the result of a deep and reflexive conservative gag reaction to things that threaten or disgust them. Last week I wrote about the fascinating research by Rice University political scientist John Alford and others indicating that political conservatives tend to exhibit a stronger automatic reaction to things that threaten or disgust them. They have, in effect, a more hair-trigger survival instinct which, in the grand evolutionary scheme of things, may be a good thing.

I wrote about Alford’s research in the context of the political fallout of the Ebola outbreak:

The Ebola story, in which an outsider brings disease to American shores, is the quintessential issue more likely to provoke a gut reaction from conservatives than liberals, and draw them to the polls, according to Rice University political scientist John Alford, a cutting edge researcher on the physiology of ideology.

“There are two things that conservatives are attuned to more and react to more — signals of threat and signals of disgust — so it’s a gift to the Republicans in this election that you’ve got exactly those two things dominating the national news,” Alford said. “Every time someone in the news is talking about projectile vomiting and diarrhea, I think, `The Republican vote just went up another half percent.’”


In an experiment they wrote about in 2008 in the journal Science, the researchers used eye movement sensors to determine that the political conservatives in their study tended to have a harder involuntary blink response to a startling noise, indicating a heightened “fear state.”

In this and another experiment, Alford and his colleagues also used sensors on the subjects’ fingers to measure changes in the skin’s conductance of electricity, a precursor to sweat, when they were confronted with a threatening image, such as a snake ready to strike, or with a disgusting image, such as maggots in an open sore.

In both cases, conservatives tended to have a stronger response to the images.

The stronger reaction to threat, the researchers found, is correlated with a more conservative stance on questions of national defense, border security and immigration, while the heightened sense of disgust correlates with a more conservative stance on gay marriage, abortion and other social issues.

It seemed that I had found myself in Frisco in the middle of a political science experiment, and that something about me had provoked the same reaction as an image of maggots in an open sore.

I don’t mean to generalize based on this one encounter. This was one person. Apart from this one man, no one else at either of the Abbott events I attended Saturday was the least bit rude or unwelcoming. Why he felt the need to express to me his disgust with me, I don’t know.

But I do think that whatever success, or lack of success, Wendy Davis and Battleground Texas have in mobilizing Democratic voters this election, they, and Barack Obama, have clearly energized Texas Republicans by provoking a profound threat and disgust reaction among conservative voters.

After Abbott’s appearance, I spoke with Keith Self, a retired lieutenant colonel in the U.S. Army, who is running unopposed for a third term as the Collin County judge,presiding over a booming Republican bastion.

Of Davis, Self said, “Her views, her positions are so far out of the Texas mainstream that it has undoubtedly energized not just Republican voters but people who might not even consider themselves particularly conservative.”

Of conservative voters, he said, “Everybody is energizing them. Wendy Davis is energizing them. President Obama is energizing them. People are worried about the state of the nation. You know we’re not immune in Texas from this transformation of the nation that Barack Obama wants to do. We can fight the good fight and we will. We will lead the nation, but we also have to lead the nation out of this destruction of the foundations of America.”

“This is the question,” Self said of Obama. “Is he a bumbling neophyte or is he a very clever, very successful president in terms of his vision? That’s the question that no one can answer. I don’t have the answer.”

Incompetent, perhaps, but, Self said, “On the other hand consider that he has accomplished much of his purpose and if he does legitimize these 34 million people that will only, one, further move toward his vision, but, two, inflame the people of America.”

I asked Self what 34 million people he was referring to. The usual number cited for those living in the country illegally is more like 11 million.

“That’s the number they’re throwing around, ” Self said. “The 34 million illegals.”

This 34 million figure originated with a report from Breitbart Big Government:

Despite no official action from the president ahead of the election, the Obama administration has quietly begun preparing to issue millions of work authorization permits, suggesting the implementation of a large-scale executive amnesty may have already begun.

Unnoticed until now, a draft solicitation for bids issued by U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) Oct. 6 says potential vendors must be capable of handling a “surge” scenario of 9 million id cards in one year “to support possible future immigration reform initiative requirements.”

The request for proposals says the agency will need a minimum of four million cards per year. In the “surge,” scenario in 2016, the agency would need an additional five million cards – more than double the baseline annual amount for a total of 9 million.

“The guaranteed minimum for each ordering period is 4,000,000 cards. The estimated maximum for the entire contract is 34,000,000 cards,” the document says.

Here from a recent AP report:

“I think those who are trying to read into those specific orders about what the president may decide are a little too cleverly trying to divine what the president’s ultimate conclusion might be,” White House spokesman Josh Earnest said. “What I would caution you against is making assumptions about what will be in those announcements based on the procurement practices of the Department of Homeland Security.”

Earnest did not say whether Obama plans to issue more work permits.

Obama announced earlier this year that if Congress didn’t pass immigration legislation, he would act on his own. After twice postponing a final decision, he said as recently as last month that he would hold off on executive actions until after November’s midterm elections.

The administration has repeatedly declined to say what options Obama was considering, but it is widely believed that he will expand protections from deportation already extended to more than 500,000 young immigrants who came to the United States as children. Under that program, known as Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, many young immigrants who are in school or who have graduated and don’t have a criminal record can win protection from deportation for up to two years. They are also eligible for work permits.

The president does not have the legal authority unilaterally to offer immigrants living in the country illegally green cards or any other permanent immigration status. But administration officials have said the president can authorize protection from deportation for immigrants on a case-by-case basis, such as with the DACA program, and issue them work permits.

Self said the concern is that, post-election, Obama will issue some kind of executive order to effectively open America’s border.

Waiting for Greg Abbott at Joe Allen's  Bar-B-Que in Abilene
Waiting for Greg Abbott at Joe Allen’s Bar-B-Que in Abilene

“I think that would be a tremendous overreach and so, when Greg Abbott say’s he’s going to close the border, that’s huge,” Self said.

In Abilene, at the Abbott event at Joe Allen’s Bar-B-Que, the Rio Grande was not the only border folks were worried about.

Renee Higgins of Merkel, and her friends Caryn Hayes and Donna Nelson, both of Abilene, were just as concerned about the Yankee influx, which they feared was transforming Texas in unsettling ways.

“They bring all their damn liberal ideas when they come,” Higgins said. They may not be coming to Abilene, she said, but that doesn’t mean Abilene is unaffected.”

“What you got think about when you think about it is that when you say it’s Dallas, San Antonio, Houston, is that you have such a large voting base in the large cities, that even if that’s where they get isolated, they pull a lot of weight over these rural areas. We are much more conservative – I’m not saying Republican because to hell with the party thing – but people out here in rural areas are a lot more conservative than the people in the cities. So when you bring in all those businesses with these liberal ideas, those are the big cities that have a lot of pull in elections that overrule the Joe Blows like us out here in rural Texas.”

Abbott's Amen Corner in Abilene. From left to right, Donna Nelson, Caryn Hayes and Renee Higgins.
Abbott’s Amen Corner in Abilene. From left to right, Donna Nelson, Caryn Hayes and Renee Higgins.

“Houston’s a perfect example of where we’re going,” Higgins said, “where the damn queer mayor is making the preachers turn their sermons in.”

“I didn’t have a problem with the liberals until this past six years and I’m sick and tired of everybody saying this is racism and this is not politically correct and I want to tell you, in my opinion, until we put God back in our schools, our homes and our government and our country, we are going to be under judgment,” Hayes said.

Caryn Hayes meets Greg Abbott in Abilene
Caryn Hayes meets Greg Abbott in Abilene”My question to Mr. Abbott was, Are we going to quit bringing in the Northerners down here and begin taking care of our own?’ And he said it appeared to him we needed to secure all our borders, northern and southern,” Hayes said.

Higgins, Hayes and Nelson formed Abbott’s Amen Corner at the Joe Allen’s, offering audible “amens” when he talked about defending God and Texas. But they are clearly nobody’s yes women, so when their turns came to have their photos taken with the attorney general, Higgins and Hayes pressed him on their border issue.

Higgins asked Abbott about, “Rick Perry going all over the country soliciting businesses to come to Texas and what was his position about we’re bringing all these liberals and their liberal ideas with them to Texas, we can’t expect it to say red if that’s our practice. His position on it was, and I agreed with him on it, protect the businesses that are already here, no reason to  go and solicit businesses form other states when we need to protect the businesses that are already here in Texas. I like that position on that particular issue.”

Higgins also asked Abbott a second question, about reports she heard of the convicted pedophile murderer in a local prison “who wanted an eight-year-old little boy as his last meal.””I said to him, ‘Is this a for-real deal, surely they wouldn’t do it,'” and he’s like,  ‘No way that’s going to happen.'”


Here is Snopes on the pedophile’s last meal request:

This absurd item about a Texas “cannibal pedophile” death row inmate named Doug Stephener, who requested that his last meal before execution be a (non-Asian) child — a request that the state is now obligated to satisfy by procuring a corpse for him — appears to have originated as a hoax news item/petition on French-language web sites (hence the stiltedness of translated English-language versions).


If the sheer ridiculousness of this item’s premise isn’t sufficiently self-debunking, then we offer as negative proof the fact that according to the Texas Department of Criminal Justice, no one named Doug Stephener has been, or is about to be, executed in the state of Texas.

Renee Higgins said her bumper sticker always creates a positive stir at the Walmart parking lot
Renee Higgins said her bumper sticker always creates a positive stir at the Walmart parking lot


Listen: On ad wars in the Texas governor’s race and the politics of Ebola

American-Statesman chief political writer Jonathan Tilove speaks with KUT’s David Brown of the Texas Standard about this week in Texas politics. From ad wars in the governor race to the politics of Ebola, Tilove breaks down the winners and losers. Listen below.

The empty wheelchair: On Greg Abbott, Wendy Davis and playing fair

Good day Austin:

It’s been a while.

When I first saw the Wendy Davis’ “wheelchair ad,” I couldn’t get past the opening image – an empty wheelchair – and the opening line: A tree fell on Greg Abbott.

A tree fell on Greg Abbott.

Wow. Stark.

A tree fell on Greg Abbott.

And then, He sued and got millions. Since then, he’s spent his career working against other victims.

The issue the Davis campaign was raising was well within bounds. But tonally the ad was harsh, even shocking. The script might as well have read: A tree fell on Greg Abbott. Good for the tree.

An anonymous artist's image of Greg Abbott, created for New Mobility, "the magazine for active wheelchair users," which profiled Abbott last fall.
An anonymous artist’s image of Greg Abbott, created for New Mobility, “the magazine for active wheelchair users,” which profiled Abbott last fall. Courtesy New Mobility.

But Greg Abbott is running for governor of the great state of Texas, he has a fat lead in the polls and a fat enough campaign wallet to give a couple bucks to every registered voter in the state. Unless the wheelchair ad is as “incredibly effective” as Davis said it is during a stop at Guero’s Taco Bar in Austin Wednesday, Abbott will be elected governor and be heralded nationally as a barrier-breaker, or, as the Texas Monthly tagged him in Brian Sweany’s October 2013 cover story, The Overcomer.

As Ken Herman wrote this week, the righteous indignation about the ad seems overwrought. Abbott can take it, and, as for the tender sensibilities of similarly situated folks who are not running for governor, well, at Guero’s, Davis met with a small group of supporters with disabilities including Dave Dauber and Gene Rodgers who do The Gene and Dave Show,  a disability-focused show on Austin Public Access Community Television. Think Wayne’s World with wheelchairs.

Gene and Dave loved the Davis ad, which the Davis campaign titled, Justice.

“When I saw the empty wheelchair, I thought, that ‘s it. There’s a wheelchair but no one of substance in it,” said Rodgers, who has been in a wheelchair since he fell off a ledge while hiking outside Cleveland, Ohio, at the age of 17, breaking his neck and severing his spinal cord.

“It was very symbolic of Greg Abbott,” said Dauber, who was born with cerebral palsy. “He’s a person who is in a wheelchair, but he’s not supporting people with disabilities.”

The empty wheelchair, Dauber said, is such a fitting symbol that he and Rodgers used it in a video parody of Abbott’s Garage ad, which, in the Abbott-Davis ad wars, introduced the wheelchair as a symbol of Abbott’s grit and determination. In Garage, Abbott re-enacts his recovery regimen of rolling his wheelchair up an eight-story parking garage. His mantra: To get to the top we must push ourselves to do just one more.

Wendy Davis poses for a photo with Dave Dauber and Gene Rodgers (mostly obscured) of the Gene and Dave Show on Austin cable
Wendy Davis poses for a photo with Dave Dauber and Gene Rodgers (mostly obscured) of the Gene and Dave Show on Austin cable, at Guero’s Taco Bar.

“We did a spoof ad against Greg Abbott’s `push one more.’ We got several of our fans together and filmed it in a parking garage, all of us trying to get up the parking garage,” Dauber said. “The ironic thing is we’re all in electric wheelchairs so we’re not really pushing. The concept we brought to it is that we push every day, we push to fight to get into accessible buildings, to get attendant care, to get public transportation. We list out all the things the ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act) is supposed to help provide us and then we show that Greg Abbott is saying that the state of Texas is immune to the ADA.”

In the parody, the folks in their motorized wheelchairs, smash, screaming, into the wall of the parking garage, because, as the narrator intones, when “Texans with disabilities try to help themselves, they run into a wall built by Greg Abbott.”

The ad samples Abbott saying, “to get to the top we must push ourselves,” answered by a chorus of, “we’ll give you  a push,” with the posse of motorized wheelchairs giving chase and a wheelchair with an Abbott dummy in it rolling off the edge of a cliff.

The parody offers a disclaimer: “The makers of this video wish no physical harm on Greg Abbott. In no way shall the concept of this video be viewed as threatening.”

The ad ends with an image of an empty wheelchair rolling down a parking garage ramp, with the superimposed words, “Please Don’t vote for Greg Abbott for Texas Governor.”

When Dauber saw the Davis ad, his reaction was, “Oh my God, that’s our idea. They stole that from us.

Here is the original Garage ad, followed by the Gene and Dave parody.

It is not surprising that this all would inevitably become an issue.

In his cover story on Abbott a year ago, Sweany wrote:

 Among Democrats, there’s the lingering feeling that the attorney general is a hypocrite, or worse, for having supported tort reform in Texas after he himself did not hesitate to sue the homeowner in River Oaks whose property the oak tree was on and the maintenance company that had failed to determine that it was rotting. The tort reform movement began in earnest during George W. Bush’s 1994 campaign for governor, but it wasn’t until the 2003 legislative session—Abbott’s first as attorney general—that much stricter regulations were put into place, limiting, for example, the payout for noneconomic damages such as pain and suffering to $250,000 in medical malpractice cases. Abbott supported this reform, but his own suit—which was not for malpractice—was settled for roughly $11 million, adjusted for inflation. During the 2002 race, Abbott attacked his Democratic opponent, Kirk Watson, for being a trial lawyer; an attorney who had worked on Abbott’s settlement promptly lashed out at him for being unfair. 

The facts are these: in his settlement, Abbott received a variety of tax-free payments: an immediate $300,000 cash award; monthly payments of $5,000 that began in November 1986 and increase each year at a rate of 4 percent compounded interest; and periodic payments that began in November 1987 and will continue until 2022 (the next such payment will occur on November 1 in the amount of $400,000).  

For his part, Abbott flatly denies that there is any conflict between his own case and his efforts to limit frivolous lawsuits. He points out that he did not sue for punitive damages and that a person in the same situation today as he was back in 1984 would still have the opportunity to claim the same award. I sought out Southern Methodist University law professor Bill Dorsaneo, an expert in tort reform cases and the principal author of the 26-volume Texas Litigation Guide, for some perspective. Dorsaneo says he rarely agrees with the attorney general’s opinions about tort duties and causation, but he concurs with Abbott’s view of the settlement. 

“General Abbott’s case is not a very good example of the differences between cases then and now,” he told me. “Except for the fact that insurance companies did not expect to get favorable treatment from the appellate courts until sometime in the nineties and were more inclined to settle weak liability cases then than now, there is not much about Abbott’s settlement that seems unusual under today’s legal standards.”

Abbott dismisses the controversy soberly: “I would give back every penny of that settlement if I could dance with my wife and walk my daughter down the aisle.” In fact, if there’s anything about his candidacy—and his potential governorship—that could wind up transforming his party, it’s the idea that he is, in a visceral, obvious sense, a victim.

But, after Justice appeared, Houston Chronicle columnist Lisa Falkenberg, while suggesting that the Davis ad could have been more deftly executed ( “A few simple words could have mitigated the harsh accusation. A tree fell `tragically.’ He `rightfully’ sued.'”), offered a more critical take on Abbott’s position.

Abbott has long argued that a Texan who was injured today in the same way he was could secure the same award.

“If you had a jogger out in Houston today who was injured the way I was, that person would have access to the very same remedies I had access to,” Abbott told me last year.

But, as I’ve reported, that isn’t true. Several laws passed since Abbott’s accident could hurt a victim’s ability to recover a similar award. For one, Abbott collected from both a homeowner and a tree company, but Texas law governing “joint and several liability” has made it harder for Texans to recover from more than one wrongdoer, according to a Northwestern University law professor’s data.

Abbott’s own former Houston attorney in the fallen tree case, Don Riddle, acknowledged as much to me: “Today, a claimant would not have the same benefits,because they’d be limited by the new joint and several liability limitations.”

Meanwhile, research from University of Texas law professor Charles Silver has shown that payouts for Texas spinal cord injuries between 1988-2010 declined and the most recent median payout was around $380,000. Today, Silver concluded, a $10 million payout might be possible but unlikely: it would be “a top 1 percent settlement.

Then there was this powerfully personal piece about the ad from Dan Solomon at Texas Monthly:

I’m very familiar with tort reform and the way it’s impacted Texans who suffer from negligence. In 2003 and 2004—the year after tort reform passed in the Texas Legislature—the woman I’d marry a few years later was left legally blind in her right eye after a series of seemingly routine eye surgeries to correct cataracts were botched by two different doctors.


So when I watched Wendy Davis’ new ad—called “Justice”—with my wife, her reaction wasn’t “that seems mean.” It was more like, “finally, someone is talking about this.”


For Texans like my wife, Davis’s point that Abbott himself continues to receive a six-figure yearly income because such settlements were easier to procure before he played an active role in changing the state’s liability climate doesn’t look much like “attacking a guy in a wheelchair.” And, though it may not have been well perfectly executed, calling out the disparity between his own life and the lives of the people whose lives were changed by negligence after 2003 doesn’t feel too far off from “Justice.”

When Abbott announced for governor in July 2013, I wrote about how he would prove a “problematic hero in the disability community.”

When Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott announced his candidacy for governor last Sunday, on the 29th anniversary of the accident that left him a paraplegic, he described himself as “the general in the battlefield fighting against an overreaching federal government,” hoping to become its commander-in-chief.

What he didn’t mention was that one of the encroachments he has fought against is the Americans with Disabilities Act – the signal piece of civil rights legislation for disabled people and the very act that required the renovations that made the Texas Supreme Court building wheelchair-accessible just as Abbott was to assume his seat as a justice back in 1996.

That history is likely to make Abbott a problematic hero in the disability community should he be elected governor and thrust into the national spotlight as an inspirational role model because, even as he continues to express his support for the Americans with Disabilities Act, his office has done everything it can to undermine its application in Texas.

“Now that he is running for governor, he is raising this issue of his disability as a positive thing, which is good. I commend him for that, but where has he been as attorney general?” asked Jim Harrington, director of the Texas Civil Rights Project, who has jousted with Abbott’s office on disability issues. “How can he try to gut one of the most important laws that has helped the disability community and then turn around and say, ‘I’m an example.’ It’s just crazy to me.”

“If I were in Texas I’d be campaigning against him, I don’t care if he’s in a chair or not,” said Mark Partin, who now lives in Connecticut, but as an Austin attorney was among the plaintiffs in a 1995 lawsuit to force the Texas Supreme Court to make accommodations that would enable him, in his wheelchair, to get into the building that had issued him his law license. The building had just undergone renovations without making the building accessible.

But Abbott, in a brief but intense interview on his return to Austin on Thursday after a statewide tour launching his candidacy for governor, made very plain that he thinks this criticism is unfair and out of bounds, and that he is not about to cede his place as a champion for the rights of people with disabilities.

“I’ve been a door-opener, to use a metaphor, for those with disabilities,” said Abbott, making clear that separate and distinct from his obligations as attorney general, he is someone who appreciates how the ADA has helped remake the American landscape for people like him.

“Do I see the merits of the ADA? Of course I do,” Abbott said in a back room at Scholz Garten, where he had just spoken before a crush of supporters. “Just because I see the merits of the ADA does not mean I can abandon state sovereignty and abdicate my responsibilities to defend the state.”

And, he continued, “It is deeply offensive for anyone to suggest that I should abandon my responsibility as the attorney general of the state of Texas just because I have a disability. Frankly, I think that’s unpatriotic.”


In November 2013, New Mobility, the magazine for active wheel chair users, ran a cover story on Greg Abbott. The illustration is by Doug Davis.
In November 2013, New Mobility, the magazine for active wheel chair users, ran a cover story on Greg Abbott. The illustration is by Doug Davis.

Last November, Allen Rucker, a writer who was paralyzed in middle age, wrote a cover story on Abbott for New Mobility, “the magazine of active wheelchair users.”

Rucker wrote:

Abbott has an undeniably inspiring story to tell, and though it is often just a warm-up to his focus on hot-button issues like immigration and abortion, his very presence in a wheelchair — without shame, self-consciousness, or excuse — makes him a potent public presence. He himself has said that just by demanding his own access to hotels and courthouses, “I’ve opened doors for the disabled in ways that no lawyer who brings lawsuits ever will be able to do.”

(Lex) Frieden agrees: “He has had a profound impact on access in Texas and disability awareness in Texas simply by his very public presence. And he has never, ever made an attempt to hide his wheelchair … if you look at the photographs of his stump speeches, you will see that he uses a specially designed dais that does not cover his legs but in fact is a single pole that emphasizes the fact that he is in a wheelchair.”

Referring to Abbott’s self-description as quite literally a man with “a spine of steel”when he announced his candidacy for governor, Rucker wrote:

This may be the most powerful image Abbott evokes in his run for office. A spine of steel conveys power, endurance, and an unbendable will. No matter how he feels about the needs of other people with disabilities, he himself is not asking anyone for anything to redress his own disability or to treat him any differently than any other Texan trolling for votes. He certainly has not made a special plea for disabled voters to support him. His base, it appears, are hardcore, government-leery Texas conservatives, not the “diversity base” that elected President Obama, which includes the most vocal leaders of the disability community.

Whatever its impact, politically or culturally, Abbott belies every stereotype disabled people have been trying to eradicate for well over a hundred years. He is not a victim, not deviant or strange, not sweet and ineffectual, not a burden, and not isolated and alone. He is an inspiration, a hero, something many people with disabilities find offensive (a way to brand them “special” and not “normal”). But it is easy to see how a Texas high school student in a wheelchair struggling with his identity could be inspired by such a forceful public figure.


The Los Angeles street artist SABO's take on Greg Abbott, Rick Perry and Ted Cruz.
The Los Angeles street artist SABO’s take on Greg Abbott, Rick Perry and Ted Cruz.

Greg Abbott — and you can take this any way you like — is a cowboy in a wheelchair. It comes down to which facet of Abbott most reverberates with you if you were to step into a Texas voting booth (assuming you could get in). If you are disabled and your politics line up with his, it’s a slam dunk of a choice. But if you are disabled and are even a political moderate, let alone an advocate for disability rights and services, you have a conundrum on your hands.

Josie Byzek, New Mobility’s managing editor, who has MS, said Thursday that she believes the Abbott campaign, and the Davis ad, have provoked a worthwhile discussion.

“We want people to talk about these issues,” Byzek said. “We want people to be aware.”

Byzek lives in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania,  so she doesn’t have to decide how she would vote in the Texas gubernatorial election. But, she said, it is an interesting question.

“Abbott’s policies in the short term would be a disaster for our community, but, in the long run, a governor who uses a wheelchair and is very open about it is good for our community and a very significant thing.”