Wendy Davis walked across the stage at Wiley G. Thomas Coliseum more than 30 years ago to accept her diploma from Richland High School.
On Thursday, she returned to that stage to kick off her bid to become Texas’ 48th governor.
“This is a campaign not just for governor but for the very future of our state,” the 50-year-old Democratic state senator from Fort Worth said. “Thirty-two years ago, I started my own journey in this room.
“Today, we start a new journey — together,” she said. “It’s a journey that won’t end on Election Day, and it won’t end in Austin. As long as we can make our great state even greater, we will keep going.”
Davis gained national fame — and notoriety — from a June filibuster geared toward preventing a comprehensive abortion bill from passing. That led Democrats throughout the state to encourage her to try to reclaim the Governor’s Mansion, which hasn’t housed a Democrat since Ann Richards left in 1995.
Davis’ candidacy pits her against Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott and former Republican Party Chairman Tom Pauken, the two main GOP candidates, who jumped in the race after Gov. Rick Perry announced that he won’t seek another term.
Republicans say Davis doesn’t have a chance of winning the gubernatorial race. Democrats acknowledge that it’s an uphill battle.
“Once again, Texas Democrats are attempting to conjure support for California-style candidates that try to sell [President] Obama’s liberal agenda and go against what makes Texas great,” Abbott said in a statement after Davis’ announcement.
“Nonetheless, we welcome Sen. Davis to the race, and look forward to presenting the clear differences and debating the important issues that will preserve the economic miracle in Texas.”
Dozens of Republicans dressed in red stood outside the coliseum and carried signs that read, “Pro-life,” “No to Wendy, No to Murder” and “Ted Cruz 2016.”
But inside, the crowd stood and cheered when she walked to the stage after hearing repeated chants of “Wendy, Wendy, Wendy.”
“It’s time for a governor who believes that you don’t have to buy a place in Texas’ future,” she told the crowd. “It’s time for a governor who believes that the future of Texas belongs to all of us. It’s time for a leader who will put Texans first.
“That’s the kind of leader I’ve tried to be.”
Davis had hoped to reveal her plans sooner, but she delayed any announcement after her father — Jerry Russell, founder and director of Fort Worth’s Stage West — ended up in the hospital in critical condition. Russell died Sept. 5 of complications from abdominal surgery.
Tarrant County Commissioner Roy Brooks offered up a prayer for Davis’ campaign.
“We ask you, Lord, to change her pink running shoes into combat boots so she can do battle,” he prayed. “Make of us a mighty army to surround her and fight for change.”
Some Republicans call Davis a one-issue liberal who supports abortion and say they are glad she is in the race.
“We believe she will be easily beaten there,” said Jennifer Hall, who heads the Tarrant County Republican Party. “But this time, we would beat her either way — in her Senate district or in the governor’s race. After the filibuster, people realized how liberal she is.”
Protesters outside said they oppose Davis’ candidacy for a variety of reasons — from her filibuster to the fact that she’s not conservative enough.
“We want to have the most conservative candidates in office,” said Don Shipe, 79, a Fort Worth Republican activist. “I want to show support with everyone else in red for anybody but Wendy Davis because she’s too liberal.”
They say Davis has star power, can help spur other Democrats to run for statewide office and can motivate voters to turn out in the next election — even though no Democrat has won a statewide office since 1994. The last Democrat elected governor was Richards in 1990.
“This is great news for women and for all Texans,” said Richards’ daughter Cecile Richards, president of Planned Parenthood Votes. “The stakes for women’s health couldn’t be higher in this election, and the differences between Wendy and her likely opponent couldn’t be clearer.”
An analysis by the Democratic Lone Star Project, a federal political action committee led by Matt Angle, a Democratic political consultant, shows that Davis can unite Texas voters, has wide appeal and has already won in a diverse district — Texas Senate District 10 — which had been Republican until she won the race in 2008.
“No other Texas elected official over the last three election cycles has confronted and defeated more partisan or relentlessly personal attacks than Wendy Davis,” the analysis said.
Davis told the crowd Thursday evening about her own history, how she was married after high school and on her way to being a divorced single mother by 19.
“I was barely making ends meet,” she said. “And sometimes, they didn’t. It wasn’t uncommon for me to come home to my power shut off or my phone disconnected.
“It wasn’t the life I’d imagined.”
But she said she knew “that things had to change.” One day, a co-worker left a brochure on her desk for Tarrant County Community College, and she realized that college wasn’t out of reach.
She ended up taking classes at TCCC and transferring to TCU, graduating in 1990. She married again, had a second daughter and went on to earn a law degree with honors from Harvard Law School. She is now divorced.
Davis lost her first bid for the Fort Worth City Council in 1996. She ran again in 1999, won and was elected a total of five times to represent District 9.
In 2008, she resigned to challenge Republican state Sen. Kim Brimer of Arlington in Senate District 10. She won that race as well as a tough re-election bid in 2012 that pitted her against state Rep. Mark Shelton, R-Fort Worth.
“My whole life, I’ve seen Texans create better tomorrows for themselves and their families,” she said.
She worries that the path she followed to a college degree and more won’t be available to many Texans because of the cost.
“That’s not what Texas is about,” she said.
Davis’ time in the Senate is best known for two filibusters.
One was in 2011 on the last day of the legislative session to block passage of a key GOP school finance bill that she said slashed too much money from education and didn’t keep up with enrollment growth.
Some described her filibuster as more like a 79-minute speech. Perry called a special session, and a bill similar to the one that Davis killed soon passed.
The second was earlier this year, when she spoke for more than 11 hours against a bill that would ban abortions after 20 weeks of pregnancy and require the procedures to be performed at ambulatory surgical centers.
Republicans stopped her filibuster by naming three violations. As Democratic senators protested, deafening noise and chaos erupted in the gallery, preventing legislators from knowing whether they had cast a vote on the measure.
Officials later acknowledged that the bill didn’t pass in time, but it did pass weeks later, during another special session.
Davis said she’s ready to keep fighting.
“All of you deserve to have your voices heard,” she said. “Because our future is brightest when it’s lit by everyone’s star.”
Davis’ announcement is expected to spur a number of candidates to step forward in Senate District 10.
Four Republicans had already announced that they were running for the post — Konni Burton, Shelton, Mark Skinner and Tony Pompa. Now a slew of Democrats, including Fort Worth Councilman Joel Burns and former Councilwoman Kathleen Hicks, are seen as potential candidates.
Burns issued a statement Thursday saying that he is proud of Davis and that friends and supporters have asked whether he will run for the Senate seat.
“I will be talking with my family, constituents and with Tarrant County business and community leaders over the coming days and weeks about our future together,” he said.
The monthlong filing period for next year’s primary begins Nov. 9.