by Alexa Ura, Texas Tribune
While Gov. Rick Perry is bowing out of Texas politics after an unprecedented three four-year terms in office, history could also be made if the Governor’s Mansion stays home to a Republican. If Attorney General Greg Abbott wins his campaign to succeed Perry — and he is favored to do so — his wife would become the first Latina to be the first lady of Texas.
Cecilia Phalen Abbott, 54, has been a regular at her husband’s side as he travels across the state for his campaign. He often talks about how Abbott, the granddaughter of Mexican immigrants, has helped him embrace the culture of a growing number of Texans, though talk about her heritage has been part of the conflict during the campaign.
Friends and colleagues say that Abbott’s accomplishments are impressive in their own right. They describe the onetime teacher is a dedicated advocate for children and someone who is driven by her firm conservative values, including her anti-abortion stance and deep religious beliefs.
“She’s got an independent streak in her,” said Susie Hance, who chairs the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children’s advisory board, which Abbott previously served on. She cited Abbott’s efforts to pursue her educational career and charitable work, which has included a stint on a local version of “Dancing with the Stars” to benefit the Center for Child Protection. Through Greg Abbott’s campaign, Cecilia Abbott declined to be interviewed for this article.
Abbott grew up as one of four children of two educators in San Antonio, where she attended Thomas Jefferson High School and appears in its 1978 yearbook as a cast member for the seniorplay “Madwoman of Chaillot” and a member of the school’s social club. When she transferred to Providence High School, she became a member of the school’s Future Homemakers of America chapter.
She met Greg Abbott while they attended the University of Texas at Austin. The story goes that she once serenaded her future husband from behind a keyboard while living in a dorm near UT. They have been married for 32 years.
A few years into their marriage, their lives dramatically changed when a 75-foot-tall oak tree fell on Greg Abbott, then a recently graduated law student, while he was jogging in 1984 in Houston. He was paralyzed by the accident.
Kent Sullivan, a lawyer who worked with Greg Abbott at the time of his accident, said Cecilia Abbott was crucial to her husband’s recovery.
“She was instrumental in supporting him in every way imaginable after the accident,” Sullivan said. “She was a pillar of strength for him. It sounds like a cliché, but it really is true.”
Friends say she helped him become more comfortable in his wheelchair and tried to make things as normal as possible, hosting poker nights at their apartment shortly after the accident, for example. During his recovery, she also relied on her sense of humor, which friends describe as a sharp wit that would help lighten her husband’s mood on difficult days.
“Her one eyebrow-raised look is a good indication of what her personality is like,” Sullivan said.
As her husband pursued his legal career, Abbott worked as a schoolteacher.
By 1996, when Greg Abbott was on the road campaigning for re-election to the Texas Supreme Court, Cecilia Abbott had taken a job as principal of the Cathedral School of St. Mary in Austin, where she worked until 2001. That same year, Perry appointed her to the State Board for Educator Certification.
After leaving education behind, in 2004 she worked as managing director of community relations at Harden Healthcare, a health care provider that primarily serves senior citizens.
Nearly a decade later, Abbott returned to San Antonio and joined her husband as he announced his bid for governor.
She recently left her job at Harden to take up a more prominent role in the campaign, accompanying her husband on the road more frequently and making her own appearances, largely at events targeting Republican women.
But her presence on the campaign trail has not gone unfazed. Since starting his campaign, Greg Abbott has regularly made reference to his wife’s Hispanic heritage, suggesting that it gives him an edge with Hispanic voters who are largely considered essential to future electoral success in the state.
Abbott was recently thrust into the spotlight following a back-and-forth in which Greg Abbott contended through social media that Democrats were turning his wife’s heritage against him because they were worried about the “growing connection” between Hispanics and Republicans.
His remarks came after she accompanied the attorney general during a campaign event in Lubbock last month. After the event, local Democrats reportedly criticized Greg Abbott for hosting the event at a Mexican restaurant. Greg Abbott claimed that a Lubbock City Council member had referred to his wife as a “prop;” an accusation that was refuted by Democrats.
Pat Mizell, a longtime friend of the Abbotts, brushed aside skepticism about the attorney general’s remarks about Abbott’s Hispanic background.
“I’m sure she would be supportive if the campaign wants to raise an issue,” Mizell said. “But the idea that they would emphasize something that isn’t sincere, she wouldn’t let it happen.”
Abbott has been silent on the issue. Little is known about her political views beyond her anti-abortion stance.
In an interview with The San Antonio Express-News, Abbott interjected into her husband’s responses to lay out their opposition to exceptions allowing abortion in cases of rape or incest. “We just don’t discriminate against a child because of their beginnings,” she told the paper.
Mizell said the couple’s beliefs are largely rooted in the adoption of their 17-year-old daughter, Audrey, adding that the adoption was the impetus for the couple’s active involvement with an Austin adoption home.
Abbott’s Catholic faith has also influenced her husband, who converted to Catholicism after his accident and often touts his faith among his conservative values.
“That’s a dominant force in her life,” Sullivan said, adding that its impact on Greg Abbott has been obvious. “It’s a really important aspect of their relationship.”
But citing her time as an educator and her duties as a board member for several educational institutions, it’s Abbott’s longtime involvement in education that friends say she’ll carry into the first lady post if her husband is elected.
“While she has been completely supportive of him and what he’s done, she’s had very much an independent course that she has pursued,” Sullivan said, adding that he expected her to do the same from the governor’s mansion.