Filibustering State Sen. Wendy Davis May Have Done the Impossible: Revived the Democratic Party in Texas

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June 27 2013 12:00 PM

Lone Star

Filibustering state Sen. Wendy Davis may have done the impossible: revived the Democratic Party in Texas.

State Sen. Wendy Davis contemplates her 13-hour filibuster after the Democrats defeated the anti-abortion bill SB5, which was up for a vote on the last day of the legislative special session June 25, 2013 in Austin, Texas.
Texas state Sen. Wendy Davis filibustered for 10 hours to delay passage of an abortion-restriction bill.

Photo by Erich Schlegel/Getty Images

Texas politics favors the theatrical. “Pappy” O’Daniel, the flour-milling Depression-era governor, won his position on the strength of his Western swing band. Texas Democrats idolize Ann Richards, the wise-cracking, tough-talking former governor and the last Democrat to hold the position. She was liberal, and she was a winner. Her ghost has totemic importance for Texas Democrats. For whatever reason—whether it be the state’s historically ingrained imbalances of party power, or an emphasis on individualism that outstrips that of most other parts of the country—showmanship is virtually a requirement for political office.

So when state Sen. Wendy Davis took to the Texas Senate floor Tuesday in pink tennis shoes for what would become a 10-hour talking filibuster to try to derail one of the most restrictive abortion bills in the country, she was drawing on a lengthy political tradition. But as the day went on—as the level of national attention grew, from President Obama to Judy Blume to the nearly 200,000 people who watched online as the midnight deadline loomed—it became clear that something was happening that was bigger than the bill itself. It was also something of a seance. And though Ann Richards’ memory was summoned, the day animated a body much more moribund: the state Democratic Party of Texas.

Gov. Perry has called a second special session to begin July 1, and, with less ability to deploy delaying tactics, Democrats expect that the abortion restrictions will pass this time around. But Davis’ filibuster may still prove a pivotal moment, one which portends a political transition. More than temporarily killing a bill, Davis helped create on Tuesday night a founding mythology for the rebirth of the state’s Democrats, a party that Davis may ultimately lead.

“It’s kind of awakened the Democratic Party, which didn’t really have a lot of lifeblood flowing through it,” says Terrysa Guerra, a rising strategist in the state party. “I see a tremendous amount of excitement. More than I’ve ever seen at any point in my career—even in 2008.”

Davis, a longtime champion of Texas Democrats, has been profiled dozens of times in the last 24 hours. The child of a poor Fort Worth family, she was a divorced single mother by the age of 19. After putting herself through a two-year paralegal program at a nearby county college, she graduated first in her class from Texas Christian University. Then, Harvard Law, with honors. Charismatic, articulate, friendly, principled, and relentlessly driven, she’s been one of the great hopes of her party, which hasn’t won a statewide post in almost 15 years.

Next year, Perry will likely relinquish the governor’s mansion and prepare for a presidential run, and the Republican nominee to replace him will likely be Attorney General Greg Abbott, a man with hyperconservative social views, one of whose Twitter icons is himself with the stone statue of the Ten Commandments on the Capitol grounds. Also up for re-election is Sen. John Cornyn. Democrats have been desperately searching for competitive candidates for the 2014 cycle. Davis has—so far—declined.

Many of the party’s stronger candidates have shied away from the next cycle because they believe better circumstances will come by the end of the decade. Almost all discussion about Texas’ increasingly competitive political balance has focused on the growing number of Latino voters. But there are a myriad of other factors Democrats will have to learn to exploit if they’re to win. Texas is enjoying rapid immigration from other parts of the United States, especially California, and its urban areas, which shade blue, are experiencing explosive growth. But traditionally Democratic demographics turn out to vote at anemic levels.

The Democratic coalition is a complicated one, and will require substantial investment in time and resources to put in order. But above all, it will require someone who can excite voters to jump in the water. Bill White, the party’s technocratic gubernatorial candidate in 2010, was liked and respected as a moderate Houston mayor, but did a shade worse than Obama’s 2008 performance.

Davis’ problems, were she to run for governor or senator, would be the same as all Democratic state candidates: name recognition, fundraising, lack of support from the national party. After Tuesday, those issues suddenly seem surmountable, thanks to miscalculation by the state’s calcifying Republican establishment.

The measure Davis filibustered, Senate Bill 5, would have essentially dismantled the institution of legal abortion in the state. Abortions would have been prohibited after 20 weeks, and abortion clinics would have been subjected to a raft of complicated regulations aimed, supporters said, to protect the health of the mother. They include requirements that abortion doctors have admitting privileges at a hospital within 30 miles of their clinic, and that all abortions, even drug-induced ones, take place within the confines of facilities built to surgical standards.

Opponents argued that the regulations were medically unnecessary and a thinly-veiled attempt to close clinics. They pointed out—and Republican Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst gleefully acknowledged—that only five of the state’s 42 clinics, all in major cities, would remain open if the bill was passed. A woman living in El Paso, for example, who sought an abortion in Texas, would have to travel some 600 miles to San Antonio. Once there, thanks to laws passed in 2011, she would also have to receive a sonogram, and wait 24 hours in the city before undergoing the procedure and returning home, a round-trip almost half the width of the United States. This, opponents of the bill said, would pose an unsurpassable burden to poor women living in rural areas.

Other states, such as Arkansas and North Dakota, have passed laws which contain more restrictive provisions. But Texas’ bill, because of the state’s size and the sheer number of women affected, would have been one of the most consequential in the country, and pro-choice groups started mobilizing against it immediately.

More than 700 people signed up to testify against the bill at a committee hearing. Dozens of Democrats in the House and Senate masterfully slow-rolled the bill, taking up crucial time. It didn’t help that Gov. Perry, expecting a glide path through the legislature, only opened abortion up for debate halfway through a special 30-day session, leaving his legislative allies without much room for error.

“It’s a reflection of arrogance and incompetence,” says longtime state Democratic strategist Matt Angle. “You have a governor who’s really not paying attention to the issues in his state, and didn’t realize it would be this unpopular.” There’s a pervasive sense of complacency, he says, in the state’s Republican establishment. And it’s easy to understand why—Dewhurst, Perry, and Perry’s probable successor Abbott have each held their current positions for a decade or more. The state GOP, for the most part, floats unmolested from victory to victory.

This has, perhaps, made the Texas GOP susceptible to political overreach, and that unpreparedness was front and center during the last few days of the session. The bill’s House sponsor, state Rep. Jodie Laubenberg, proved woefully uninformed when she suggested that rape kits allowed women to “get cleaned out,” eliminating the possibility of pregnancy, drawing widespread national mockery. Eventually she refused to answer questions about the bill before the House.

Many factors slowed SB5’s progression, but it was Davis who seized the chance to take the floor on the last day, and she who got the lion’s share of attention and credit. After more than 10 hours, during which she read witness testimony from women who opposed the bill, Republicans in the Senate cut her off, citing arcane legislative rules that may have been improperly applied. With nearly 200,000 people watching on one livestream, Davis remained standing, silent, while her fellow Democrats attempted to tie a Gordian knot of parliamentary delaying tactics so convoluted it might not be unwound for the hour remaining in the session.

But Senate Republicans sliced through them, ignoring motions and inquiries from the floor. With 15 minutes to go till midnight, Democratic state Sen. Leticia Van De Putte, who had arrived in the chamber fresh from her father’s funeral in south Texas, asked the chair: “At what point must a female senator raise her hand or her voice to be recognized over her male colleagues?”

That was all the prompting the packed gallery needed to erupt. A solid wall of sound drowned out the final events of the night, confusing even the senators on the floor. A vote was held, but the clerk’s records reflected that the vote had concluded after midnight—past the constitutional deadline. An attempt was made to alter the timestamps—it’s unclear by whom—but the Senate eventually relented. It took several hours for Dewhurst to admit the vote failed.

Given that the bill was supported by overwhelming majorities in both chambers, it was a spectacular symbolic victory for the pro-choice side. After the vote concluded, Davis appeared in the capitol rotunda with some of the thousands of pro-choice protesters. Standing there with her was Cecile Richards—the president of Planned Parenthood, and, as it happens, Ann Richards’ daughter. Richards and Planned Parenthood proved instrumental in helping to encourage the public turnout, and the victory was in many ways hers to share with Davis.

Gov. Ann Richards’ official portrait, which oversaw the protests in the frequently crowded rotunda, became a source of fascination for the pro-choice demonstrators. Some tweeted pictures of their daughters in front of the portrait, and others imagined her running commentary from the afterlife. In the Taiwanese animation of the filibuster, Ann Richards appears as a green, floating ghost that hovers over Davis’ podium.

“Ann Richards is still the hero of the party,” says Guerra, the Democratic strategist. “She’s the standard by which we compare future governors to. I think Wendy Davis meets that test easily. And it’s about creating a link between the women of the state, mothers and daughters. That’s almost a sacred thing.”

Matt Mackowiak, a conservative strategist who expressed his frustration with Republicans for giving Davis the space “to become a star,” throws some cold water on Davis’ anointment. Texas, he says, is still an overwhelmingly pro-life state. While the filibuster may have drilled a wellspring of support from the state’s liberal base, it was over an issue that doesn’t build broad political support.

“She seized this moment. You’ve got to give her credit for that,” he said. “But do I think this is going to fundamentally change politics in Texas? I don’t.” Still, he cedes, the situation has “created a viable statewide candidate in Wendy Davis.”

Guerra, though, points to Davis’ experience in her state Senate district, where she fended off a tough Republican challenge in a district that voted against Obama by no small margin, and her past advocacy on behalf of funds for public education, which has been cut dramatically in recent years.

“In the 2012 election in Fort Worth,” she said “we saw a lot of Anglo women who voted for Romney but were willing to jump the ticket and vote for Davis. That’s an incredible strength. Republicans in this state will go to seemingly any length to alienate women voters. The best thing they can do now is keep their mouth shut. But I don’t see any indication they’re going to do that.”

Now that Gov. Perry’s put abortion back on the call for a new special session, it doesn’t seem likely. Meanwhile, in more liberal climes, Ann, the Broadway play about Ann Richards’ life, is set to have for a final curtain call on June 30. With the possibility of a new standard bearer in the Democratic Party, maybe the old governor can finally get some rest.

Christopher Hooks is a journalist based in Austin. Follow him @cd_hooks.

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