GRAPEVINE, Texas (AP) — Gov. Rick Perry on Thursday admonished the star of a Democratic filibuster that helped kill new Texas abortion restrictions, saying state Sen. Wendy Davis' rise from a tough upbringing to Harvard Law graduate should have taught her the value of each human life.
The Republican governor expanded on those remarks later, publicly wondering what might have happened if Davis' own mother had undergone an abortion rather than carry her child to term.
Davis, a Fort Worth Democrat, shot back that Perry's statement "tarnishes the high office he holds."
Before the white-hot battle over abortion in the nation's second-largest state turned personal, Davis staged a marathon filibuster Tuesday helping to defeat an omnibus bill that would have further limited abortions in a place where it's already difficult to undergo them. But Perry called lawmakers back for a second special session next week to try and finish the job.
"Who are we to say that children born in the worst of circumstances can't lead successful lives?" Perry said in a speech to nearly 1,000 delegates at the National Right to Life Conference in suburban Dallas. "Even the woman who filibustered the Senate the other day was born into difficult circumstances."
Davis, 50, has rocketed to sudden, national political stardom thanks to donning pink running shoes and delivering the marathon speech on the floor of the state Senate.
She started working at age 14 to help support a household of her single mother and three siblings. By 19, she was already married and divorced with a child of her own, but she eventually graduated with honors from Harvard Law School and won her Senate seat in an upset.
Davis' surge in popularity came as no surprise to Texas Democrats, who chose her as the face of the battle to block the bill. Since arriving at the Texas Capitol, she has earned derision and respect for her ability to dissect a complex bill and make her opponents squirm under tough questioning.
Perry pointed out Davis' personal history in his speech, adding "it's just unfortunate that she hasn't learned from her own example that every life must be given a chance to realize its full potential and that every life matters."
In comments to reporters afterward, he went even further.
"I'm proud that she's been able to take advantage of her intellect and her hard work, but she didn't come from particularly good circumstances," the governor said. "What if her mom had said, 'I just can't do this. I don't want to do this.' At that particular point in time I think it becomes very personal."
Davis quickly fired off an email blasting Perry's comments.
"They are small words that reflect a dark and negative point of view," she said. "Our governor should reflect our Texas values. Sadly, Gov. Perry fails that test."
Davis' supporters argued Perry never would have made such suggestions to a male politician.
"Rick Perry's remarks are incredibly condescending and insulting to women," Cecile Richards, president of Planned Parenthood Action Fund, said in a statement. "This is exactly why the vast majority of Texans believe that politicians shouldn't be involved in a woman's personal health care decisions."
The Texas Legislature adjourned May 27, but Perry called legislators into a first 30-day special session to pass stricter limits on abortion, including banning the procedure after 20 weeks of pregnancy. But with the extra session set to end at midnight on Tuesday, Davis was on her feet for more than 12 hours — speaking most of that time — as Senate Democrats attempted a filibuster.
Just before the final gavel, Republican lawmakers silenced her for addressing a topic other than the bill she was opposing — only to have hundreds of abortion rights activists cheer so loudly from the public gallery that all business in the chamber halted until it was too late.
Perry, a conservative and devout Christian, has put the abortion measure at the top of the agenda for the second special session, which begins Monday. It would force many clinics that perform abortions to upgrade their facilities to be classified as ambulatory surgical centers. Doctors also would be required to have admitting privileges at a hospital within 30 miles.
Opponents say such improvements are so expensive that only five of Texas' 42 abortion clinics would remain in operation.
Abortion rights groups have promised to respond with more protests, including one scheduled Monday for the state Capitol. Perry, meanwhile, called those who oppose abortion to action, telling the conference, "the world has seen images of pro-abortion activists screaming, cheering. Going forward, we have to match their intensity."
Adding intrigue to his grudge match with Davis is the fact that Perry had been expected to announce this week if he will seek a fourth full term as governor next year. But he said Thursday that announcement will now be delayed until lawmakers can finish the extra work he's given them.
Davis is up for re-election too next year, but had been urged by Democratic operatives even before her filibuster to consider running for governor.
She has acknowledged mulling a run for statewide office but says she wants to wait for the right time. A Democrat hasn't won such a post in Texas since 1994, and the state Democratic Party would face a major challenge establishing the organization or infrastructure necessary to deliver enough votes.
Asked what he thought of Davis as a possible gubernatorial candidate, Perry shrugged and said: "I don't have a clue."