POLITICS JULY 8, 2013
Now that Texas Senator Wendy Davis’s filibuster has catapulted her to political stardom, Democrats across the state and country are calling on her to run for governor next year. But her most powerful political patron, Amber Anderson Mostyn, isn't quite ready to whip out the checkbook.
“Don’t get me wrong,” said Mostyn. “I have always wanted Wendy to be my governor.” A 42-year-old trial lawyer, Mostyn is the chair of Annie’s List, the Texas variant of EMILY’s List, and was one of the 2012 cycle’s biggest super PAC donors. She said she feels that Davis should take a serious gander at running, “But I don’t want everyone to get carried away with the events of the day without the mathematics having changed.”
Friends and suppliants said this is typical Mostyn—shrewd and slow to be moved by political drama. Last year, when Democratic strategists Paul Begala and Bill Burton visited Mostyn and her husband, Steve Mostyn, to ask for a super PAC donation, Steve was prepared to hand over a $1 million check in about 20 minutes. But he drank a beer on the deck of the couple’s yacht while Amber cross-examined the pair for another hour.
But when she does deploy her time and enormous wealth, Mostyn does so with great precision. According to data collected by the Texas Tribune, Wendy Davis’s two largest sources of campaign cash for her 2012 reelection were Annie’s List contributions and checks from the Mostyn Law Firm’s campaign account, at a total of $1.02 million—in a race, which Davis won narrowly, where the candidates combined spent $5.5 million.1 She has turned the 10-year-old Annie’s List into a considerably stronger electioneering force than it had been, so that when larger Democratic organizations bring out Texas’s growing Latino vote, there are as many of her hand-picked female candidates as possible waiting for them on the ballot sheet.
This means that in Texas—which has become stridently hostile to women’s rights, with Governor Rick Perry cutting hundreds of millions from women’s health insurance programs, signing a mandatory ultrasound bill into law, vetoing a state version of the Lilly Ledbetter Act, and replacng full-service women’s health clinics with crisis pregnancy centers—Republicans who are worried about a recuperating Democratic Party should be less nervous about Wendy Davis than the calculating super-donor standing behind her. But national observers might want to take note as well, as Mostyn is preparing to lend her deep fundraising connections to another female pol: Hillary Clinton.
Amber Mostyn is already a familiar name to anyone who closely tracked the super PACs of the 2012 election cycle. She and her husband gave a combined $5.2 million to Democratic causes, surpassing even George Soros, Paypal co-founder Peter Thiel, and Bill Koch in their generosity. Most of the Mostyn’s money derives from the formidable Houston law firm Steve founded in 1999. Each year the firm rakes in millions suing insurers—most infamously, a state-backed hurricane insurer known as the Texas Windstorm Insurance Association—for failing to honor insurance claims. In the couple’s telling, this is fighting for the little guy. To the defense bar, and Republicans, it’s bilking the state and its businesses for all it’s worth. Either way, the practice allows the Mostyns to live the powerhouse donor lifestyle. Their home is an astonishing $6.6 million modern art mansion down the street from Houston’s Museum of Fine Arts.2 The couple’s yacht, where Begala and Burton courted the Mostyns for a donation to their Obama-affiliated super PAC, is modestly named the “All Or Nothing." Amber Mostyn, when we first spoke, had just returned from their weeks-long vacation in Argentina.
Amber Mostyn is a big character—“I mean, it’s Texas, so everyone’s a big character,” says Grace Ann Garcia, the executive director of Annie’s List—with flame red hair and a total lack of guile. (“This is why I don’t like to do interviews,” she said. “Because I talk too much.”) She cops to the financial motivations for supporting Democrats pretty easily. “It’s the chicken and the egg question,” she said. “We’re Democrats because were trial lawyers and we’re trial lawyers because we’re Democrats.”
Accordingly, Mostyn has her “slightly Machiavellian” reasons for running more women as Texas Democrats. “A woman running for office, all things being equal, has a two to three percent edge over a male candidate,” she said. But Mostyn, one of the biggest political spenders motivated by reproductive rights, has personal motivations as well. Wendy Davis’s biography, for example, reminds Mostyn of her own mother’s. Davis was a teenaged wife who became a single mom when her marriage to her high school boyfriend ended. Mostyn’s mother was kicked out of high school for getting pregnant with Amber, before a short-lived marriage to Amber’s father. “She really just raised me knowing that she loved me more than anything in the world, but to keep me was her decision, and it would be wrong to force that on anyone else,” she said. Eventually, Mostyn’s mother made a happier life married to a trial lawyer. Mostyn and her siblings would do their homework in the office their parents ran out of a Fort Worth shopping mall; that’s where Mostyn became enchanted with the idea of litigating “anything that falls into the ‘that’s not right’ category.”
In addition to the couple's joint donations in 2012, Mostyn herself gave $1.05 million to the House Majority PAC—making her one of its largest donors—and $200,000 to the super PAC Planned Parenthood Votes. But Steve, perhaps because he is less press-shy, and perhaps because he gained notoriety in 2010 by spending nearly $10 million to unseat tort reform-supporting Republicans—much of it paying for virulent ads against Rick Perry—got the lion’s share of attention for the couple’s political activities. It’s Steve who has earned the lengthy profiles and his own hater corps, like the Texans for Lawsuit Reform PAC, who set up a watchdog site called thetruthaboutstevemostyn.com.3
But they're distinct political players who sometimes even spend against one another in Democratic primaries. (In 2008 he maxed out to Obama, and she to Hillary.) “There is this perception with [Sheldon] Adelson, and I guess I share it, that his wife’s doing is his bidding,” Steve said. “But that’s not the case with Amber and me.” Amber Mostyn is also a rarer breed of super-patron—and not just because she was one of the only women in the top 25 of 2012 super PAC donors. Where Steve Mostyn readily turns on the fire hose—and so do his Republican counterparts in Foster Friess and the late Bob Perry—Amber Mostyn is much choosier: Her donation to Planned Parenthood was prefaced by a painstaking conversation about the PAC’s goals, research, consultants, and ad content. She also prefers to get her hands dirty with election strategy rather than simply writing checks.
This has made Mostyn one of the biggest reasons that women’s rights issues are having their day in Texas. Five years ago, when many staid Austin Democrats were still nay-saying Wendy Davis’s chances to win a Senate seat, Mostyn was trying to recruit her and promising to open her wallet. Eventually, Annie’s List, where Mostyn was a general board member, succeeded in getting Davis to challenge a longstanding Republican incumbent; Mostyn and Annie’s List together gave Davis more than $155,000, about a tenth of her total campaign haul for that race. Garcia and Begala said that with Mostyn as its chair, the ten-year-old sister organization to EMILY’s List has become less of a loud group of activists and more astute at picking winnable races. “I don’t want to say that generally men are stupid and will just throw their money at anything,” she said. “But our board and leadership are very demanding of the candidates we support.”
So far, Annie’s List has had some success in bright-red Texas. In 2012, they recruited House candidates like Nicole Collier and Mary Ann Perez, whose victories were critical to breaking the GOP’s House supermajority. The $421,000 they funneled to Davis’s 2012 bitter reelection fight helped Democrats stave off a Republican supermajority in the Senate. Soon, Annie’s list will launch a down-ballot program to lard the lower ranks—school boards and city councils—with what they hope are future Wendy Davises. “She’s built an infrastructure that never really existed before, and made candidates like Wendy Davis possible,” said Burton. Begala noted Mostyn's promise, the day of Davis’s filibuster, to match all donations to Annie’s List made before midnight, which Garcia said raked in $70,000 after the match.
But while Texas is keeping Mostyn busy for now, 2016 promises an expansion of her influence. Mostyn and her husband already have donated $25,0004 to Ready For Hillary, a super PAC raising money for Hillary Clinton’s widely anticipated 2016 presidential run (albeit without Clinton’s endorsement). In exchange for her fundraising prowess, Mostyn has demanded a say in the PAC’s strategy discussions. It’s a sign of her burgeoning importance, said Begala. “It used to be you needed your Walter Shorensteins, your Lew Wassermans”—donors who gave gobs of money to the Democratic party, but also got involved in party strategy. “This next cycle, you’ve gotta have Amber Mostyn.”
Molly Redden is a staff writer for The New Republic. Follow her on Twitter @mtredden.