Texas Filibuster Star Rose From Teen Mom to Harvard LawEsmé E. Deprez and David Mildenberg
Texas lawmakers return to Austin today for another attempt to put the state at the forefront of a Republican-led push to legislate away abortion, resuming a fight that made Senator Wendy Davis, a Fort Worth Democrat, into an overnight sensation last week.
Davis, who went from teenage single mother to Harvard Law graduate, shot to fame as she tried to block new abortion limits with a filibuster. Barred from bathroom breaks, drinking water, sitting or even leaning on her desk, she held the floor more than 11 hours as word of her marathon monologue quickly spread over the Internet.
“Something special is happening in Austin tonight,” President Barack Obama said June 25 in a message on Twitter Inc.’s website. Katha Pollitt, a feminist writer for the Nation magazine, crystallized sentiment among abortion-rights advocates, calling Davis a “superhero.”
Davis, 50, and party colleagues, joined by a raucous crowd of spectators in the galleries, succeeded in preventing a vote on the bill that would have shut almost all the state’s abortion clinics and ban the procedure after 20 weeks. The same measure tops the agenda in a special session that begins today, prompting a pledge from thousands to rally against it at the Capitol.
Support from Republicans who control the legislature means the Democrats’ victory probably will be short-lived. More important to abortion-rights advocates is what Davis may represent: a newly awakened voter bloc rebelling over what they see as government overreach into health-care decisions made by women in consultation with their families and doctors.
“As a Texan, it’s so easy to get discouraged about our politics,” Kam Phillips said on Twitter. “But then there’s Wendy.”
Davis made her case in appearances on network television talk shows yesterday. Last week, news outlets said she might be considering a run for governor.
“What we saw in the capital last week, really, was people who have grown weary of our politicians trying to boost their own political careers on the backs of women by bullying them,” she said on NBC’s Meet the Press. “In Texas, we hold very dear to intrusions against our personal liberty. We fight very hard against that. And we will fight as we begin the session again on Monday.”
Democrats in Austin turned to Davis, an avid runner, last month as the abortion bill gained steam. Armed with determination, a pair of pink sneakers and, according to the Fort Worth Star Telegram, a urinary catheter, Davis began her filibuster. She was halted by Republican challenges over rules violations with about 90 minutes left in the session, set to end at midnight June 25.
As Democrats barraged Lieutenant Governor David Dewhurst, a Republican who leads the chamber, with parliamentary questions, activists in the galleries began cheering and shouting. Time ran out before a valid vote could be taken.
The clock starts anew today on a 30-day session that gives Republicans time to avoid the same delaying tactics and move the measure to a vote. The party holds 19 of 31 senate seats and 95 of 150 in the House of Representatives, more than enough to muster the simple majority needed to pass the bill.
Republican Governor Rick Perry, who backs the measure, said it “will pass overwhelmingly,” in a June 28 interview with Laura Ingraham, a radio talk-show host and Fox News contributor. In a question posed on Twitter, Ingraham asked Davis “which kids that you see on the playground shouldn’t be here?”
Success for the Republican side on the abortion bill would mirror the outcome of a filibuster Davis used in 2011 to block $5.4 billion in school-funding cuts. While she succeeded in preventing a vote before the regular session ended, Perry brought lawmakers back for another try. His side won.
Last week, the governor drew on Davis’s life story to make a point opposing her position on abortion.
“Who are we to say that children born into the worst of circumstances can’t grow to live successful lives?” he said June 27 at a National Right to Life convention near Dallas.
“Even the woman who filibustered the Senate the other day was born into difficult circumstances, the daughter of a single mother and a teenage mother herself,” Perry said in his prepared text. “It’s just unfortunate that she hasn’t learned from her own example: that every life must be given a chance to realize its full potential, that every life is precious.”
Davis quickly shot back.
“Rick Perry’s statement is without dignity and tarnishes the high office he holds,” she said on her website. “They are small words that reflect a dark and negative point of view.”
Born poor with three siblings, Davis began working at 14 to help her single mother make ends meet. By 19, she had become a single mother herself, according to her website. Starting at a junior college to become a paralegal, she graduated first in her class at Texas Christian University and went on to Harvard, in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
After serving nine years on the Fort Worth City Council, she won an upset to take a Senate seat from a Republican incumbent in 2008. As a lawyer, she works for Cantey Hanger LP in Fort Worth on matters including litigation, real estate and regulation, according to the firm’s website. She spent more than five years as an executive in a real-estate title business in the city.
Admirers have urged Davis to use her newfound fame to challenge Perry, who has said he’ll announce by the end of the session whether he’ll seek a fourth term. Rick Svatora, a spokesman for Davis, said she hasn’t ruled it out.
Running for governor would be hard in a place where no Democrat has won a statewide election since 1994, the longest such stretch of any state, according to Politifact. Davis had the second-most-liberal voting record during the 2011 legislative session, according to Mark Jones, who teaches politics at Rice University in Houston.
“People are still living off an emotional high, but once reality sets in, people will realize that no Democrat is going to win the governor’s race in 2014,” he said. “Wendy wins the battle, but loses the war.”
Should she pursue higher office, opponents will be armed with questions over her law firm’s lobbying for cities, counties and other public agencies that are affected by legislative actions. Her 2012 opponent, Republican Mark Shelton, filed complaints to the Texas Ethics Commission questioning whether she “used her public office for self-enrichment,” according to the Star-Telegram. A Davis aide dismissed it as a “political stunt.”
That year, Davis won a second Senate term, 51 percent to 49 percent, spending $3.8 million on the campaign for a post that pays $7,200 a year, according to the Ethics Commission.
Davis first attracted notice in the 1990s as a Fort Worth neighborhood activist, according to the Star-Telegram. Her city council campaign brochures included testimonials from her father -- though it didn’t identify him as such -- calling her “a fighter and winner,” the newspaper said.
“Opponents have labeled Wendy Davis ‘the anti-zoo candidate’ because she was active in her neighborhood’s effort to prevent unbridled expansion of the city zoo from destroying green space,” the newspaper said in a 1996 editorial. “But she has expressed well-defined, detailed positions on issues ranging from the city’s debt crisis to tax abatements to landscaping ordinances to the need for property-tax reduction.”
During her time in the Senate, Davis wrote and won passage of a bill to expedite the processing of backlogged rape kits, fought to boost public-school funding and sponsored a law that requires the State Auditor’s Office to audit the Texas Enterprise Fund, the governor’s $500 million industry-hunting fund. Because of redistricting, she’ll be up for election again in 2014.
Davis’s filibuster helped raise her profile after more than 100,000 viewers watched it online. Now she has more than 115,000 followers on Twitter. The event didn’t just make her a celebrity. The popularity of the pink Mizuno Women’s Wave Ride 16 running shoes she wore has also blown up, prompting dozens of politically-minded reviews on Amazon.com Inc.’s website.
“Marathon shoes for marathon filibustering,” according to one reviewer. “Fits perfectly up a Republican’s rear end.”