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Near the end of a 15-minute speech to the National Right to Life Convention in Grapevine, Texas, Gov. Rick Perry suggested the Democratic state senator who stood for more than a dozen hours toward defeating proposed abortion restrictions could draw a lesson from her own life.
Perry edged toward talking about Wendy Davis, whom he did not name, by asking who "are we to say that children born into the worst of circumstances can’t grow to live successful lives?"
"In fact, even the woman who filibustered the Senate other day was born into difficult circumstances," Perry continued. "She was the daughter of a single mother. She was a teenaged mother herself. She eventually graduated from Harvard Law School and served in the Texas Senate. It’s just unfortunate that she hasn’t learned from her own example that every life must be given a chance to recognize its full potential and that every life matters."
A reader questioned whether the circumstances into which Davis was "born" included having a single mother. We also looked at if she was a teenage mother herself.
Davis, who represents a Fort Worth district, has previously referred to her teenage motherhood and to her mother being single, according to web posts and news articles in the Fort Worth Star-Telegram.
Her Senate website says Davis "began working after school at 14 to help support her single mother and three siblings. By 19, Wendy was a single mother herself, working two jobs to make ends meet in hopes of creating a better life for her young daughter." The biographical entry on her campaign website has the same sentences.
Responding to our inquiry, Perry spokesman Josh Havens noted the campaign-site reference. "What the governor said is consistent with what the senator has written in her bio," Havens said by email.
Davis’ Senate spokesman, Rick Svatora, said by telephone that the senator, whose June 25, 2013, filibuster drew national and international attention, was "booked up" and unavailable to immediately discuss this claim.
But in 2012, Davis gave sworn testimony about her life in a lawsuit brought before a panel of federal judges in Washington, D.C. "When I was only 18 I got married," Davis said, according to a transcript of her Jan. 20, 2012, testimony. "I had a baby, I got divorced by the time I was 19 years old. And I had started working, I actually started working when I was 14. I was raised by a single mother. My mother only had a 6th grade education. My parents divorced when I was 11 years old."
Davis also testified that she was born in West Warwick, R.I., before moving to Tarrant County. She testified, too, that she graduated from Texas Christian University and then Harvard Law School, with honors.
Jerry Russell, Davis’ father and the founder of a Fort Worth theater, returned our telephone call about Perry’s claim and challenged the reference to Davis being "born into difficult circumstances."
Russell said it was "totally incorrect" to conclude that Davis was born to a single mother. Rather, he said, he and Davis’ mother were wedded in Rhode Island in 1958, some five years before Davis, the third of their four children, was born there, he said.
Russell initially told us the couple moved to Fort Worth in 1973 and separated in 1976, around when the future senator was 13. He shortly called back and said the separation probably occurred "closer to" a couple years earlier, as Davis testified.
"From that point on," Russell said, "I wasn’t present in the" family "home, but I was present in Wendy’s life."
Russell said that his ex-wife remarried two or three years after their split and then another time later. He declined to elaborate. According to online Tarrant County records, Davis’ mother, Virginia, whom we failed to reach, married Ira Cornstubble in May 1994.
Perry said Davis, "born into difficult circumstances," was the daughter of a single mother and a teenage mother herself.
His statement, offered in the cause of a law to curb abortions, could leave the incorrect impression that Davis was born to a struggling single mother, which is not so, best we can tell. Still, the senator’s parents divorced midway through her childhood and Davis spent at least part of her adolescence in a one-parent home. Also, Perry is correct that Davis was a teenage mother herself.
This partially accurate claim distorts important details. We rate it as Half True.
News article, "Jerry Russell to step down at Stage West," Fort Worth Star-Telegram, Oct. 2, 2012
Transcript, testimony of Wendy Davis in redistricting lawsuit heard by U.S. Circuit Court Judge Thomas B. Griffith and District Judges Rosemary M. Collyer and Beryl A. Howell, Jan. 20, 2012 (linked from Wikipedia biographical entry)
Telephone interviews, Jerry Russell, Fort Worth, June 28, 2013
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