Texas Sen. Wendy Davis’ abortion filibuster galvanizes activists

Texas state Sen. Wendy Davis' widely followed filibuster has some Democrats looking at her for a higher office.
(Erich Schlegel / Getty Images)
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HOUSTON — In a chaotic late-night scene that played out beneath the Capitol dome in Austin, a Texas lawmaker with pink sneakers and the steely resolve of a branding iron single-handedly stopped an effort to drastically curtail abortion in the Lone Star State.

Wendy Davis’ filibustered victory, which ricocheted around the world via social media, may prove short-lived. Gov. Rick Perry announced Wednesday he would reconvene the Legislature on Monday in a second and likely successful attempt to pass the measure.

But the celebrity Davis garnered and the passions the Fort Worth Democrat ignited — at one point she generated 6,000 Tweets a minute with the hashtag #StandWithWendy — may prove longer lasting.


“Somebody who has energized young people this way — we’re looking for people like her,” said Sydney Case, 24, a nursing student who came to the Capitol on Tuesday morning to watch Davis and stayed there until the session ended after midnight in anarchy. “We’ll keep our eyes on her.”

Thousands of supporters streamed toward the state Capitol throughout the afternoon and evening to back the diminutive legislator, a single mother who lived in a trailer before going to Harvard Law School. A huge following across the country tuned in to the live feed streamed by the Texas Tribune. The standoff raced across Twitter — complete with real-time commentary from actors Mia Farrow and Henry Winkler and author Judy Blume. Comic Ricky Gervais put Davis “in the pantheon of heroes.”

Even President Obama chimed in. “Something special is happening in Austin tonight,” the presidential account tweeted.

By the time the filibuster neared the deadline, the supportive shouts from the gallery boomed so loudly that the legislators’ votes could barely be heard — and the vote was pushed past the deadline by minutes.

“Veteran Capitol reporters have never seen anything like this,” one Austin reporter tweeted. “Gallery standing. Gallery does not yield,” wrote another.

At issue was legislation that would ban abortions at 20 weeks and require Texas clinics performing the procedure to either upgrade their facilities or close. The practical effect, opponents said, would be to shutter all but a handful of Texas’ abortion providers.


The law was part of a pattern of restrictions passed in recent months by Republican-run legislatures across the country. Last week, in its most sweeping antiabortion action in years, the GOP-run House voted largely along party lines to adopt a measure similar to the Texas law, prohibiting abortions after the 20th week of pregnancy with limited exceptions. The bill, fiercely opposed by Democrats, is unlikely to become law, but has fueled party efforts to portray Republicans as hostile to women.

Davis began her talk-a-thon at 11:18 a.m. Tuesday and survived several challenges — one had to do with wearing her back brace — under the Senate’s painstaking filibuster rules, which forbid eating, drinking, using the restroom or even sitting down.

The rules also require — unlike in the U.S. Senate — that the filibustering lawmaker remain on subject, and so Davis did. She talked about the U.S. Supreme Court decision legalizing abortion, about sonograms and poor women and women living far from the nearest medical clinic.

“A lot of women resent the fact that this legislation is being voted upon by, look around this room, primarily by men,” she said at one point, suggesting they were heedless of the impact of the proposed law because they don’t have “the equipment.”

“But I’ve got it,” she said. “And my daughters have it and women I know have it and women I’ve never met have it, and each of them have direct impact by each circumstance that is being put up by this bill.”

As midnight neared, marking the end of the 30-day special legislative session and with it the demise of the abortion bill, the Senate chamber turned to shambles.


When it appeared the filibuster would be halted and a vote taken on the legislation about 11:45 p.m., orange-clad opponents began chanting from the gallery — “Let her talk!” and “Shame!” — making it difficult for Republicans to vote. As the melee continued and time ticked away, some Democrats held up cellphones, their screens displaying the hour, shouting, “It’s after midnight!” Lawmakers crowded together at the front of the chamber, then left to confer with staff, but did not officially adjourn.

Soon after, the Senate’s official website declared the measure had passed — in a scrum on the floor, with the clerk straining to hear lawmakers vote — but not until after midnight. That was briefly changed to place the vote on Tuesday, which would have allowed the bill to proceed to Perry, a Republican, for his promised signature. But after reporters captured screen images of the original posting and tweeted them to their followers, the website was changed again to acknowledge that passage came Wednesday.

About 3 a.m., Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst, who serves as Senate president and hoped to burnish his reelection credentials, announced that the special legislative session had expired and the bill could not be “signed in the presence of the Senate … and therefore cannot be enrolled.”

“See you soon,” Dewhurst said, hinting at Perry’s call for another special session.

Davis pronounced herself “tired, but really happy.”

“I’m pleased to know the spotlight is shining on Texas, on the failure of our current leadership,” she told reporters as she prepared to leave the Capitol around 3:30 a.m.

Dewhurst issued a statement Wednesday accusing “an unruly, screaming mob using ‘Occupy Wall Street’ tactics” of derailing legislation “intended to protect the health of Texas women and their babies.” One state representative, Republican Bill Zedler of Arlington, called Davis “a terrorist.”

Kyleen Wright, president of the Texans for Life Coalition, cheered the governor’s decision to call a special session and said Davis had not triumphed.


“I hope her national profile takes her someplace else in the nation — she doesn’t speak for me,” Wright said, dismissing Davis as “a pretty face” and the protesters as part of the “Obama machine.”

Davis, 50, has long been mentioned as a prospective statewide candidate. Her TV-anchor good looks, her inspiring back story — she became the first in her family to graduate college — and her ability to win twice in a highly competitive district have all enhanced her appeal to strategists working to rebuild the Texas Democratic Party. On Wednesday there was talk of Davis being elected governor in 2014 and even landing a spot someday on the Democrats’ national ticket.

While both seemed far-fetched — Texas is one of the most Republican states in the country, and even exuberant Democrats said that hadn’t changed overnight — Davis undeniably elevated herself in way that could only help her and her struggling party.

“She now has a magnitude more fundraising potential than she did 48 hours ago,” said James Henson, who directs the Texas Politics project at the University of Texas in Austin. “Whether she runs or works to build a statewide political network, it’s really a good thing for her.”

Nationally, Democrats hope Davis’ riveting theater could serve as inspiration and begin to fill the void now that the party’s term-limited president will no longer be on the ballot.

“Midterm elections are always about turnout and they’re usually about the base. The ugly truth is the Republican base is easier to motivate and more reliable in off-years,” said Paul Begala, a Democratic veteran of the Clinton White House and a Texas native. “But this just may be the shot in the arm that the Democratic base needs. Can it last from now to 2014? No. But it’s something to build on at least.”