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.”

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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.