DALLAS — The equal pay debate in the gubernatorial race has put Republican nominee Greg Abbott on the defense — a position that he isn’t used to playing.
The latest revelation is that most male assistant attorneys general in Abbott’s office make a higher salary than women do in the same classification, according to a report published Wednesday in the San Antonio Express News.
In many cases, the Attorney General’s office explained, it appears the reasons men make more than women are because men have either been with the agency longer or have held a law license longer.
The legislature sets guidelines for salaries of non-elected officials, but a supervisor has discretion on how much employees earn within those guidelines.
“General Abbott has a proven record of hiring and advancing women at the attorney general’s office,” said Lauren Bean, a spokeswoman for Abbott's office. “The Texas Attorney General’s Office employs roughly 1,800 more women than men; the number of female lawyers at the attorney general’s office has increased by 23 percent under General Abbott’s leadership; and approximately 40 percent of executive-level employees and division chiefs are women.”
"I don't know how long it will last, but this is an issue that's being fought on Democratic grounds," said Ross Ramsey, executive editor of The Texas Tribune. "The Democrats want to talk about this. The Republicans don't."
Democratic gubernatorial nominee Wendy Davis used the salary information from female assistant attorneys general as she continued her assault on Abbott over equal pay.
The issue shot to the forefront in this campaign two weeks ago when Abbott appeared on WFAA's Inside Texas Politics. He dodged a question on whether he would veto the same equal pay bill last year that Governor Perry did, but stressed that existing law is sufficient to protect women.
But on Wednesday, a campaign spokesman told the Associated Press that Abbott would veto a measure to make it easier for women to bring pay discrimination lawsuits in state court.
Abbott's spokesman Matt Hirsch said discrimination against women over wages is already against the law, so the candidate would not support additional measure, the AP reported.
"What you're waiting for with issues like this, with issues like Ted Nugent, and with issues like [Wendy Davis'] resumé is to see which ones stick,” Ramsey said. “I think we're going to see a lot of issues go by which we might or might not see in the fall. I think this one's sticky. I think we'll see this again."
But Abbott’s campaign said Davis is a hypocrite.
"Sen. Wendy Davis has now mastered the Texas Two-Step as she continues to launch attacks over equal pay while shielding her own record of defending gender discrimination,” said Matt Hirsch, Abbott’s communications director. “Sen. Davis currently represents a public entity that was charged with gender pay discrimination under the Lilly Ledbetter Act, and while on the City Council, she approved giving over $200,000 to outside counsel to represent a former Fort Worth city employee in a discrimination lawsuit. This is the latest in a series of fuzzy facts presented by Senator Davis, and Texas voters deserve an explanation."
Davis personally represents the Tarrant Regional Water District as co-bond counsel.
Abbott’s campaign said that client of Davis’ fought and won a separate lawsuit against a female employee who sued under the 2009 Lilly Ledbetter Act.
In addition, Abbott’s campaign also pointed out that while serving on the Fort Worth City Council, Davis approved spending $230,000 for a private law firm to represent the city in a discrimination lawsuit brought by three women.
Equal pay is not a partisan issue, Ramsey said, but one of fairness. Whether it resonates with voters remains to be seen.