Texas Gov. Greg Abbott: Overcoming personal adversity shaped leadership in times of crisis

"I'm a person who's felt pain"

AUSTIN — Coming off a convincing victory for a second term as governor in the nation’s most Republican state, Greg Abbott sounds like someone trying to steer his party away from the wedge issues that monopolized lawmakers’ time in 2017 and back toward the issues dear to the Texas GOP’s business-minded wing.

"We need to respond to what we heard from voters," Abbott said in a wide-ranging December interview with the USA Today Network in his spacious second-floor office in the Texas Capitol. "And what I heard from voters was 'you better cut my property taxes, you better fund our schools, you better increase teacher pay, and you better make our schools safe for our kids.’

"So I listen to our voters. I respond to our voters. And I think all the members who just got elected will be equally responsive."

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Events outside of his control changed that dramatically beginning in the latter half of 2017. First came Hurricane Harvey, which decimated large sections of the Texas Coast with Category 4 winds in late August that year followed by unprecedented flooding in Houston.

The governor took command of the response and recovery at the state’s underground emergency operations center, nicknamed “the bunker” north of downtown Austin. That was followed by frequent trips accompanying President Donald Trump or Vice President Mike Pence to the hardest-hit areas and sometimes emotional visits with Texans who coped with the loss of their homes, and sometimes the loss of loved ones.

That was followed by what Abbott called "the toughest thing I've ever had to do as governor,” visiting with the survivors of First Baptist Church of Sutherland Springs, the site of the nation’s worst mass shooting at a house of worship.

To make the transition from the state's chief executive to the less familiar role of comforter to a grief-shocked Texas, Abbott drew on the strength that came from being paralyzed from the waist down just as his promising law career was getting started at age 26.

Seeking relief from the stress of studying for the bar exam after graduating from  Vanderbilt Law School in Nashville, Tennessee, Abbott and a friend went for a jog in Houston on the breezy afternoon of July 14, 1984. Suddenly, a giant oak splintered, cracked and fell crashing down on Abbott.

Still a newlywed who'd been planning a deferred honeymoon with his wife, Abbott was nearly killed and his spinal cord was damaged. He would never walk again.

"I’m a person who's felt pain," Abbott said, relaying how he steels himself for meeting people on what is often the worst day of their lives. "I know personally what disaster is. Life-changing disaster. As a result, I can be very empathetic with people whose lives have been turned upside down."