Wendy Davis: The State Senator Who Almost Killed the Texas Abortion Bill
Brandy Zadrozny on the state senator’s filibuster and her past clashes.
Davis had taken to the floor to filibuster S.B. 5, the new strictest-in-the-nation abortion bill that would make the procedure illegal after 20 weeks in the state and create stringent requirements for abortion facilities that critics say would shut down all but five of the state’s clinics.
The day before, the petite, 50-year-old Democrat had announced her intention to stop the bill before it could be voted on by the end of the legislative session, tweeting, “The leadership may not want to listen to TX women, but they will have to listen to me. I intend to filibuster this bill.”
The rules of the filibuster were demanding. Davis would not be allowed to sit, take bathroom breaks, or talk about anything that wasn’t “germane” to the bill. She had 13 hours to kill to make it to midnight and block the bill.
By Tuesday afternoon, Davis was trending on Twitter, and fellow Democrats, famous and unknown, were lending their support with the #StandWithWendy hashtag. President Obama weighed in by tweeting, “Something special is happening in Austin tonight.”
Ultimately, in the chaotic hours before midnight, Davis’s filibuster was broken; Republicans alleged that she violated the strict parliamentary rules that limited her to discuss only the bill in question. But the Senate's gallery, packed with protesters, erupted in outcry, shaving more precious time off the clock. The GOP-dominated Senate managed to pass S.B. 5 on party lines even as Democrats and the raucous crowd argued that midnight had indeed come and gone before the vote.
As of early Wednesday, it appears that the Republicans' final vote was taken too late to count. Davis tweeted the S.B. 5 was "dead."
The Fort Worth Democrat’s path to the state Senate was an unconventional one. She married and divorced young and by 19 was raising a young daughter alone and living in a trailer park. Davis, who self-identified as part of the “working poor,” found opportunity in a paralegal program at a local community college, did well there, and then transferred to Texas Christian University, where she graduated first in her class. From there she went on to Harvard Law School.
Although one of the most junior of the 12 state senators who make up Texas’s blue minority, the politico is seen as a rising influencer and has been a staunch supporter of women’s reproductive rights.
In 2012 Davis rode on the “Women’s Health Express” bus, protesting alongside those who opposed a plan to cut Medicaid funding to agencies affiliated with abortion providers. Pausing during a reading in her filibuster speech Tuesday, she wiped away tears as she explained that Planned Parenthood was her only source of health care as a young woman, calling the provider “her medical home.”
In 2011 Davis authored a bill—in response to news that tens of thousands of rape kits were languishing in evidence rooms throughout the state—that required law-enforcement agencies to account for the backlog of untested rape kits. After it passed, Davis spoke to Washington lawmakers, urging them to follow her lead and “do the right thing for thousands of victims of these horrific crimes, who are still waiting for justice to be served and for their attackers to be put behind bars.”
This isn’t Davis’s first filibuster, either. In 2011 she received nationwide attention when she railed for over an hour against a conservative plan that would have cut nearly $4 billion in public-education funding—a move that kept the bill from passing before the midnight deadline and one that many speculated would cost her reelection.
After the education-spending filibuster forced a special session, Gov. Rick Perry indirectly called Davis a “show horse,” and Bill Hammond, the president of the Texas Association of Business, said, “Once the people realize what she has wrought, they’ll see the folly in her efforts.”
Voters disagreed. Davis was reelected in 2012—although as punishment for the filibuster, she was stripped of her Education Committee membership.
While Davis was campaigning for that most recent election, her office was attacked with a Molotov cocktail. After the incident Davis said that she would not be intimidated. “I will continue to stand very strong for the things that I’ve been working on and believe in and I know our community believes in,” she said. “Public education, job creation, and women’s health care.”
On Tuesday night Davis was the catalyst for one of the most memorable events in recent political history. Screaming crowds gathered in the Texas Legislature were chanting, “Let her speak! Let her speak!”
As if anyone could stop her.