HOUSTON — The stage at a Houston honky-tonk has a wheelchair ramp. At another rally, Greg Abbott’s aides lay plywood boards on the ground to make a smooth path over wet grass. Other stops have no speaking platform, making it hard for standing crowds to see the candidate at all.
It’s another day on the campaign trail for Abbott, the longtime Texas attorney general who is paralyzed from the waist down, as he tells voters his personal and political story from a wheelchair in his bid to succeed Gov. Rick Perry.
“We’ve got a nice alleyway now,” a staff member says as Abbott prepares to roll through a receiving line of supporters.
Abbott, 55, lost use of both legs in 1984 after a tree crashed onto him while jogging. Almost three decades later, he is the early favorite to replace Perry, who will not seek another term next year.
If Abbott wins, he would become the nation’s first elected governor in a wheelchair since 1982, when George Wallace won his final term in Alabama.
His only challenger so far derides him as the “anointed one” of Texas Republicans. But that prestige comes with a strange reality: Some voters are still unaware of Abbott’s personal history and disability, despite the fact that he’s been the state’s top law-enforcement official for a decade.
“I was shocked a little bit. You see him on Fox News and different people,” said Charlcie Penny, whose son-in-law is Republican strategist Mike Toomey, Perry’s onetime chief of staff and former college roommate.
To get better acquainted with supporters, Abbott told and retold the story of the accident this month during a 10-city tour across Texas that drew crowds of Republicans, many reinvigorated by a fresh face after 14 years of Perry, the state’s longest-serving governor.
Abbott was an ambitious 26-year-old law student in Houston when he took a break from his studies and went for a jog to clear his mind. In the middle of the run, a 75-foot oak tree crushed him with the crack of splintering wood that sounded like an explosion. It’s unclear why the tree fell, apart from speculation that it may have been weakened by Hurricane Alicia a year earlier.
“Texans believe in overcoming obstacles and rising above challenges,” Abbott said. “I want to be a representative for that hope and opportunity for everyone — a visible, tangible sign that it doesn’t matter what challenges we face, both individually and as a state, we can rise above those challenges.”
Abbott lives openly with his disability. His first video in the run-up to his long-expected candidacy was a nearly five-minute piece about the accident narrated by Fred Thompson, the former U.S. senator and star of “Law & Order.”
Daniel Hodge, Abbott’s first assistant attorney general who has worked with him for a decade, acknowledged that campaigning with a candidate in a wheelchair requires “more logistical thought.”
“Most stages don’t have ramps. Most stages have stairs,” he said.
After her husband’s accident, Cecilia Abbott feared the worst. The young newlyweds had moved to the big city only a month earlier. Greg Abbott had a job lined up at a law firm and was taking his bar exam in a week. Their adult lives were about to start. Cecilia called it “the big dream.”
“Almost immediately, I felt like, `Well, that’s all gone,” she said.
Four days later, doctors installed two steel rods into Abbott’s back. The former athlete who ran track in high school needed a year for rehabilitation. Their landlord widened the bathroom doors in their apartment and installed a ramp.
On the campaign trail, applause reliably greets his go-to line: Unlike politicians who say they have a spine of steel, Abbott literally has one.
Abbott sued the property owner of the tree and collected millions, but has never revealed the full settlement. Democrats have accused Abbott of hypocrisy by helping make civil lawsuits increasingly difficult to file and win in Texas. Abbott says someone rendered disabled as he was could still sue under the same circumstances today.
During a recent campaign stop, Penny and 100 other supporters struggled to see him speak without a platform at a hardware store in an East Texas logging town where Abbott spent part of his childhood.
Two of the supporters, who had spoken knowledgably about Abbott’s politics while awaiting the rally, didn’t know he used a wheelchair until minutes before the speech.
Abbott has reason to be confident. He has a mighty $23 million war chest and a record that makes conservatives swoon.
He has sued the Obama administration 27 times, tried to save Republican-drawn voting maps in Texas that federal courts threw out as biased and will now defend the legality of new abortion restrictions that set off waves of protests this summer inside the state Capitol.
If he prevails in November 2014, his next home may need only minor adjustments to accommodate his wheelchair. After a fire gutted the Texas Governor’s Mansion in 2008, the upstairs residence was made wheelchair-accessible for just about everything but using the stovetop.
The ranks of wheelchair-using politicians are small. Among the most prominent currently in office is Germany’s finance minister, Wolfgang Schauble, who was paralyzed in 1990 after being shot three times in an assassination attempt.
Former Virginia Lt. Gov. John Hager, who contracted polio from his infant son’s vaccine, was elected in 1998 following a “Rolling Across Virginia” campaign. Coincidentally, Hager’s son Henry married Jenna Bush, daughter of former President George W. Bush, who as governor appointed Abbott to the Texas Supreme Court.
In Wichita Falls, in the front yard of Abbott’s first home, he gave a speech heavy on his accident and recovery.
Neighbors and supporters gathered for grilled hamburgers and iced tea, and Abbott guessed what many were thinking.
“You’re wondering,” he said, “how slow was that guy jogging to get hit by a tree?”‘