During the Texas gubernatorial campaign this year, she’s been called a prop, an asset and outreach personified. Through it all, Cecilia Phalen Abbott, the wife of Texas District Attorney and Republican candidate for governor, Greg Abbott, has remained unruffled, a calm and steady presence at her husband’s side.
And Cecilia, a San Antonio native and granddaughter of Mexican immigrants, could make history in the process by becoming the first Latina first lady in Texas history should her husband win.
According to the U.S. Census Bureau, more than 38 percent of the Texas population is Latino, making Cecilia’s heritage a significant plus for her husband’s campaign.
Her heritage is frequently mentioned during Abbott’s stump speeches, and the candidate tends to field questions regarding Hispanic voters by referring to his wife’s ethnic background.
When asked on a Facebook Q&A about Hispanic outreach, he answered, “I reach out to the Hispanic community each morning when I hug my wife,” causing many to see this as a form of exploitation.
Last winter, when the Abbotts were making a primary campaign appearance at a Lubbock restaurant, one local Democratic politician challenged the candidate on TV to "go beyond the props of a background of a Mexican restaurant, and actually come to our community."
The comment was interpreted as referring to Cecilia herself.
Regardless of these claims against Cecilia’s presence in the campaign, the Abbott’s relationship is an honest and realistic representation of the many biracial families in Texas, says Sylvia Manzano, a principal at Latino Decisions.
She told Fox News Latino that Cecilia’s Latino background is rightfully a focus in Greg’s campaign since “their relationship is reflective of Texas… There are millions of Latinos who have blended families. This is not unusual for Texas at all.”
As Greg Abbott has said in campaign appearances, referring to both the state and his marriage: “Dos casas, pero una fundación.” Two houses, one foundation.
Cecilia Abbott has found many ways to represent and listen to the voices of her community. A devout Roman Catholic, she played a key part in her husband’s conversion to that faith.
And after Greg was paralyzed when a tree fell on him in 1984, family friend Kent Sullivan, told the Texas Tribune, “[Cecilia] was instrumental in supporting him in every way imaginable after the accident. She was a pillar of strength for him. It sounds like a cliché, but it really is true.”
For the most part, Cecilia has been a silent partner in the political marriage, a staunch supporter, but not the prominent face of his campaign that she is now.
Today, Cecilia is an integral part of Greg’s campaign and an active participant in reaching out to voters, specifically women and Latino voters.
“I was happiest behind the scenes and I still am, as you can tell,” she told one group in March of this year. “I was so shy and I would practically hide from voters working up the courage to ask them a simple question – ‘you wouldn’t want to vote for my husband, would you?’”
Manzano says that her efforts will be critical in gaining Hispanic votes in the coming election.
“Voter engagement is the biggest need in the Latino population in Texas,” she told FNL. “The most important thing we can do to get these voters engaged is to talk to them and to remain engaged in the community, not just show up every four years. Greg has been very assertive in working for Latino votes even though his politics and the politics for most Hispanic voters are very distant from one another.”
The Abbotts continue to make the effort to reach out to the Latino population in Texas. Greg Abbott has signaled his commitment by saying, “I am taking my campaign to heavily Hispanic populated areas explaining how I will grow jobs, improve school and keep communities safe.”
Without Cecilia and her ability to connect with the Latino population of Texas, his chances of receiving a significant percentage of the Latino vote would be slim, according to Manzano.
“It would be a milestone to have Cecilia as the first Latina first lady,” she added. “She opens avenues to the Hispanic community that wouldn’t be there otherwise.”
Claire Ballor is a freelance journalist based in Dallas, Texas.