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Amid talk of higher office, Wendy Davis focuses on the fight

Posted Saturday, Jun. 29, 2013  comments  Print Reprints
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Davis’ Sunday talk show appearances • NBC’s Meet the Press: 9 a.m. on KXAS/Channel 5 • ABC’s This Week: 9:30 a.m. on WFAA/Channel 8 • CBS’ Face the Nation: 9:30 a.m. on KTVT/Channel 11

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Standing on the Senate floor in her rouge-red Mizuno Wave Riders, Sen. Wendy Davis began to fully comprehend the magnitude of the challenge ahead as her filibuster approached the two-hour mark.

Midnight was still almost 11 hours away, the finish line of her marathon. She avoided looking at the clock, fearful of becoming “mentally discouraged.” She was “terrified” about committing a rules violation.

And, she would recall later, “my back was really hurting.”

In the end, as just about everyone in the Twitterverse learned the minute it was over, the 50-year-old Fort Worth Democrat prevailed, bringing down a Republican abortion bill and instantly building a global persona that now seems much bigger than her Tarrant County Senate district.

So where does the filibustering phenom go from here?

“I would love for her to run for governor,” Texas Democratic Party Chairman Gilberto Hinojosa told the Star-Telegram. “Texas needs her to run for governor. I hope that doesn’t put any pressure on her, but Texas needs a dramatic change in leadership from what we have today.”

Texas Republican Party Chairman Steve Munisteri said he, too, eagerly hopes that Davis will run for governor. He predicts that Davis would be defeated and would lose her Senate seat since she can’t run for both offices in 2014.

“From my point of view, I would be ecstatic because we’ll pick up her Senate seat and she’ll get a loss,” Munisteri said. “Just because people in New York and Washington say, ‘We have a star,’ they don’t vote down here.”

Sitting at her desk in her third-floor office behind the Senate chamber, with an orange T-shirt emblazoned with “Stand for Texas Women” draped over the back of her chair, Davis acknowledged all the talk of higher office.

But her focus, she said, is preparing for a second special session, beginning Monday, and another round of legislative combat to defeat a version of the abortion bill that she and other Senate Democrats buried with the filibuster in the final chaotic hours of the first special session.

“Very honestly, I don’t know at this point in time,” Davis said when asked about her political future.

“We, as you know, now have another special session starting on Monday, and I’m fully engaged in focusing on that. There will be time to consider these other items later on, and I’m really honored that people have suggested that that might be a possibility.

“But I want to stay focused on the fact this issue that we’re confronting is not about me. It’s not about my political future,” she said. “It’s about women in Texas whose health will be endangered by the passage of this bill.”

Months ago, Davis announced her intention to run for re-election in Senate District 10 and has drawn two Republican challengers — former Rep. Mark Shelton of Fort Worth, who ran against her in 2012, and Tea Party leader Konni Burton of Colleyville.

Whether she yields to the pressure — or the urge — to jump into statewide politics will be the source of relentless speculation in the months ahead.

The most prevalent conjecture casts Davis as a gubernatorial candidate challenging either Gov. Rick Perry, who hasn’t announced whether he will run again, or Attorney General Greg Abbott, the dominant contender if Perry doesn’t seek re-election.

Other Democrats have been mentioned as possible candidates — including San Antonio Mayor Julian Castro and his twin brother, U.S. Rep. Joaquin Castro — but the fanfare from last week’s Senate showdown seems to be pushing Davis to the top of the list.

Another option for Davis is a run for the U.S. Senate against Republican incumbent John Cornyn, who comes up for re-election to a third term in 2014. Texas Democrats haven’t had one of their own in the Senate since 1993, when Sen. Bob Krueger was defeated by Republican Kay Bailey Hutchison.

Other statewide offices — such as comptroller and land commissioner — are also up for election next year, but few analysts see Davis making a play for anything other than the marquee posts of governor or U.S. senator.

TCU political science professor Jim Riddlesperger said Davis’ stratospheric rise to national prominence has given Texas Democrats something they haven’t had in years: a recognizable star with universal name identification and the potential to raise an avalanche of money from donors both inside and outside Texas.

“That kind of publicity you cannot buy,” he said.

“She is riding a real crest of a wave right now,” Riddlesperger said, “and if she’s able to harness that, then there are reasons for Republicans to worry that she might be the first credible statewide candidate in this century and someone around whom women and Democrats can rally.”

Fort Worth races

The former Fort Worth councilwoman became a hit among Texas Democrats — and a target for Republicans — when she defeated longtime GOP incumbent Kim Brimer in 2008 to give Democrats a victory in a district that had been considered solidly Republican.

She garnered national attention in 2011 by filibustering for more than an hour against a Republican budget calling for more than $5 billion in education cuts. But the latest filibuster led to an outpouring of attention that few could have imagined, transforming her from a regional political figure into a national media celebrity.

A worldwide audience on social media was riveted by the David-and-Goliath narrative of a female state senator, a mother of two, confronting the Republican hierarchy in the Senate over a bill that she said would take Texas to a “dark place” by closing most abortion clinics and sharply reducing access to healthcare for thousands of women.

Republicans said the bill would strengthen protections for women by shuttering substandard clinics and requiring doctors who perform abortions to comply with heightened standards.

In a scene that seemed straight out of Hollywood, scores of abortion-rights supporters in the gallery rallied behind her in what Davis called a “people’s filibuster,” drowning out Senate leaders as they tried to rush passage of the bill with the approach of the midnight deadline.

The drama in the pink-domed state Capitol in Austin captured the notice of the White House, prompting President Barack Obama to tweet: “Something special is happening in Austin tonight.”

Davis has been besieged by interview requests and continues to make the rounds on national news shows, with appearances scheduled for this morning on ABC, NBC and CBS.

Thirty Democratic members of Congress wrote her a letter of congratulations.

Even her choice of filibustering footwear — the Mizuno Wave Rider 16 running shoe — turned out to be a marketing boost for the manufacturer.

“It’s been crazy,” Davis said during an interview Thursday.

Rematch time

Clad in a blue print sundress, she seemed relaxed and rested, though admittedly still a bit sleep-deprived, as she responded to questions about her political future, offered a firsthand account of her experiences on the Senate floor and outlined plans for the second special session.

Perry called the special session to salvage the abortion bill and two other measures that died in the final hours. He has also joined other Republicans in condemning the behavior of the gallery spectators, a line of attack that seems aimed at slowing Davis’ surge and rallying the GOP base behind the latest abortion bill.

In a speech at the National Right to Life Convention at the Hyatt Regency DFW hotel, Perry took a swipe at Davis’ past as a teenage single mother, saying it is “just unfortunate that she hasn’t learned from her own example that every life must be given a chance to realize its full potential and that every life matters.”

Davis said Perry’s statement “demeans the office that he holds and I don’t think it’s reflective of our Texas values for him to make personal attacks.”

The prospect of a Senate filibuster took shape after the House passed the bill, which called for tightened restrictions on abortion clinics and a ban on abortions after 20 weeks of pregnancy.

Several male Democratic senators were prepared to lead the filibuster, Davis said, “but ultimately it was decided I would because I am a woman, a mother of two daughters, and would probably be the best spokesman from our caucus to represent a woman’s perspective on this deeply personal issue.”

Former Sen. Gonzalo Barrientos of Austin, who conducted an 18-hour filibuster in 1993, dropped by Davis’ office to offer pointers.

“He said, ‘You’ll be fine. You can read out of the phone book. You can read anything you want. Put some hard candies in your pocket. You’ll be able to suck on candies when your mouth gets dry,’” Davis said. “He was never subjected to the scrutiny I was subjected to.

Davis, who was not permitted those tiny indulgences, said she “underestimated” how hard her talkathon would be. “And I’m glad about that because I’m not sure, had I known it, I would have volunteered so eagerly to do it.”

Her mind never wandered, Davis said, but during parliamentary lulls, she would mentally “step back, look around and appreciate the setting I was in and the people that were there. I was trying to take a moment and sort of breathe that in.”

When Davis began to rub her back, an aide brought a back brace, which complied with the rules.

But when Sen. Rodney Ellis, D-Houston, helped her put it on, she was found in violation of filibuster conduct. She was also assessed two other violations because her comments were deemed not germane, though both involved abortion.

The outcome at first seemed to go against her when Senate leaders said the bill had been approved. But hours later, Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst told senators during a closed caucus that the bill had died.

Family support

Davis, who started her filibuster at 11:18 a.m. Tuesday, said she didn’t sit until about 1 a.m. Wednesday. She went to the Senate lounge and had strawberry yogurt.

She said she has also been heartened by support from her daughters, Amber Davis, 30, an energy broker who is between jobs, and Dru Davis, 24, who works for a media marketing company in Denver.

“My two daughters and I have been extremely close, and they are awfully proud of their mom,” she said. “And I’m awfully proud of them.”

Davis said she and her Democratic colleagues plan to “employ every resource” to defeat the abortion bill in the special session.

Is another filibuster possible?

“If the opportunity presented itself, of course,” she said. “It’s clear that there was a mismanagement of the calendar by the Republican leadership, which led to that opportunity. I guess I’d say, ‘Never say never.’ But I’d be awfully surprised if they allowed the opportunity again.”

Asked whether she is concentrating on re-election to her Senate seat, Davis said: “I’m very focused on making sure that district is well-represented going forward.”

Asked whether she plans to be the one who represents it, she responded: “That would be my honor, of course.”

Davis has been in Republicans’ cross hairs since entering the Senate in January 2009. She won a second term last year after Perry and other Republicans rallied behind Shelton to try to dislodge her. Davis said she is prepared for more of the same.

“I would be foolish to underestimate the focus that some of these Republican leaders will aim at me in my next election,” she said.

Money machine

Hinojosa and other Democrats said the new burst of attention vastly increases Davis’ ability to raise money in Texas and out of state, something that has hampered many Democrats in past races. Davis backers launched a fundraising campaign tied to the filibuster before it even began.

Democrats also believe that Davis can muster an energized following among women, the young and Hispanics, three constituencies that could be key in next year’s elections.

Republican consultant Matt Mackowiak said Davis is “too liberal” to be elected governor in a red state with a robust economy and would wind up without a political office, since she would have to give up her Senate seat to run for governor.

If Perry doesn’t run, she would likely face Abbott, the Republican front-runner who has raised $18 million in his emerging bid to be governor.

“She’s going to be significantly outspent,” Mackowiak said. “She certainly benefited from the filibuster personally and professionally. … How she can sustain that is going to be a real challenge.”

Munisteri said: “She already was the the darling of the Democrats. They already said that was their star. Wishing upon a star doesn’t make her hold statewide office.”

Riddlesperger also noted that Davis would need to overcome history: Democrats haven’t held a statewide office since being shut out by the GOP in 1998.

Kyleen Wright of Mansfield, president of the Texans for Life Coalition, said anti-abortion groups like hers will be ready for Davis, both in the special session and at the ballot box.

“We’ll see how far she gets with it in Tarrant County or Texas,” said Wright, who lives in Davis’ district. “It’s raised her national profile and I’m hoping for her sake and mine that she gets some big fat plum assignment in Washington, D.C.”

Dave Montgomery is the Star-Telegram’s Austin Bureau chief. 512-739-4471 Twitter: @daveymontgomery

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