Politics & Government

Wendy Davis turns filibuster into gubernatorial bid

Late one summer night, much attention throughout Texas and the nation was focused on the Texas Capitol.

Those who could get there showed up in numbers so large that there was no room for latecomers to join the throngs of people already crammed into the pink granite building.

Those who couldn’t make it tuned in on YouTube, live streams and social media.

They saw some of the hottest political drama in Texas in years.

For more than 11 hours on June 25, state Sen. Wendy Davis, D-Fort Worth, stood on the Texas Senate floor.

She spoke — without taking a break to eat, drink or go to the restroom — against a bill that would tighten restrictions on abortion in Texas that she said would take the state to a “dark place.”

It wasn’t the first filibuster in the state’s upper chamber and won’t be the last.

But this filibuster sparked a reaction unlike any other seen in Texas’ political world in recent years.

Davis and her fellow Democrats prevailed that night after a so-called people’s filibuster — people in the gallery yelled, screamed and made so much noise that senators couldn’t hear one another — prevented the Senate from passing the proposal.

Opponents of the bill lost a few weeks later, after the Republican-led Legislature was called back for another special session and quickly approved the measure.

But the stage had been set, and Davis’ political course adjusted, on June 25.

Less than three months later, she announced that she would run to become Texas’ next governor.

“Sen. Davis’ filibuster was a turning point,” said Allan Saxe, an associate political science professor at the University of Texas at Arlington. “Without that episode, it would be very unlikely she would be running for governor.

“It is a perfect example of how events can turn things around quickly.”

International attention

Davis and her chief GOP opponent, perceived front-runner Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott, both face primary challenges. But the 2014 gubernatorial race is already being billed as “Abbott vs Davis.”

Abbott, who has held statewide office for more than a decade and maintains a war chest rumored to be more than $20 million, has been the presumed front-runner in the race since Gov. Rick Perry said this year that he won’t seek another term.

Davis, a former Fort Worth city councilwoman, has significantly less funding. But she gained national and international media attention for her filibuster, even drawing a tweet from President Barack Obama: “Something special is happening in Austin tonight.”

Another political scientist, Mark P. Jones of Rice University in Houston, said, “The filibuster without question drew more attention to the legislative process within Texas than any issue since the 2003 redistricting process led Democratic legislators to flee the state so as to deny Republicans the quorum they needed to session.”

For days, Davis was featured on national newscasts, drawing so much attention that an animated version of her was featured in a Taiwanese video. Even the rouge-red Mizuno Wave Rider 16 running shoes she wore during the filibuster began selling like hotcakes.

“The filibuster provided her with considerable statewide and national exposure as well as generated a groundswell of elite and popular support for her candidacy,” Jones said. “The filibuster was without question a key turning point for Davis and may turn out to also be one for the Texas Democratic Party.

“Without Davis’ candidacy, Democrats would likely be looking at a poorly funded second-tier candidate heading their state-level ticket instead of a well-funded first-tier candidate,” he said.

The heart of the abortion bill Davis fought restricts abortions after 20 weeks of pregnancy and puts in place regulations so strict that only a handful of clinics in Texas could continue to perform abortions.

Republican leaders have said the “people’s filibuster” was actually “mob rule,” and they maintain that it won’t happen again.

And they believe that the bulk of Texans support abortion laws and will show their opposition to Davis at the polls next year.

“It’s my hope, my friends, that about a year from now that people are saying, ‘Why were we talking about Wendy Davis?’ ” Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst told a group of local Republicans this year. “I know Wendy Davis.

“And I don’t think she stands a chance running for statewide office.”

‘The fight .... has just begun’

The bill came up in the Texas Senate for the last time on July 12. By then, Democrats knew that the battle had been lost and promised to wage a legal battle once the measure became law.

As senators prepared to vote on the bill, Texans again crowded into the Capitol or watched the proceedings on YouTube.

In a day bizarre enough to have been written for TV, reports circulated that law enforcers were confiscating tampons, glitter, confetti, bottles of suspected paint and jars of suspected feces from those trying to sit in the Senate gallery.

Protesters staged sit-ins, sang and chanted loudly throughout the Capitol, and a few even chained themselves to the railing in the Senate gallery, as senators discussed the measure.

Then, as Davis rose to speak, the roar of protesters inside the normally quiet Senate chambers stopped.

She spoke of how the abortion debate has divided Texans. “We have learned the hard way that this fight can bring out the worst in politics and politicians,” she said.

And she described how she was repeatedly “brought to tears” by the stories of Texas women who opposed the bill because they believed it will harm women’s healthcare.

“The fight for the future of Texas has just begun,” she declared.

Davis predicted that women who oppose the bill will rise at the ballot box in next year’s elections.

Whether she’s right remains to be seen — next year.

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