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Filibuster Drama Shows Side of Texas Rarely Seen

In abortion fight, a new Texas—young, urban, diverse—made itself heard.
by and Published on
Sen. Wendy Davis speaks with other Democrats before beginning her attempt to filibuster Senate Bill 5.
Patrick Michels
Sen. Wendy Davis speaks with other Democrats before beginning her attempt to filibuster Senate Bill 5.

This story was produced in partnership with the Guardian, where a version of this story also appears.

The moment was years in the making.

It was 11:45 p.m. Tuesday night, and the Texas Senate was poised to enact perhaps the most restrictive anti-abortion bill in the United States. State Sen. Wendy Davis had filibustered the bill for 11 hours in a remarkable attempt to run out a 30-day special legislative session. Hundreds of thousands of people across the country began to follow Davis’ dramatic filibuster on an Internet livestream. They saw Republicans use procedural technicalities to cut her off, and with just 15 minutes left before a midnight deadline, Democrats finally seemed out of maneuvers.

The GuardianThen state Sen. Leticia Van de Putte, a Democrat from San Antonio who had rushed back to the Texas Capitol from her father’s funeral, asked to be recognized to speak. The Republican presiding officer at first ignored her. When she was finally given the floor for an inquiry, Van de Putte asked, “At what point must a female senator raise her hand or her voice to be recognized over the male colleagues in the room?”

The orange-clad abortion-rights supporters packed in the gallery burst into cheers. Their shouts grew louder and louder until they drowned out the final minutes of the session, preventing Republicans from passing the bill. No one in the Texas Legislature had ever seen anything like it.

The day’s dramatic events that captivated people across the country—the 11-hour filibuster, the dramatic fight over arcane Senate rules, and the decisive 15 minutes of ear-splitting whooping and hollering from the gallery—were the result of political tensions building in Texas for years.

There’s a saying that “Texas is paradise for men and dogs, but hell for women and horses.” That’s a little outdated and not completely accurate: in fact, horses are treated pretty well here. Women in Texas have had a difficult time.

For two decades, since Ann Richards was governor, Texas politics has been dominated by a small group of mostly Anglo Republican men, elected by a few hundred thousand GOP primary voters. In 2011, the Legislature, fueled by an influx of tea party Republicans, slashed the state’s family-planning budget by two-thirds, which forced more than 60 clinics to close around the state and deprived more than 140,000 women of access to low-cost contraception and health screenings. That same year, the Legislature also required any woman seeking an abortion to undergo a pre-abortion sonogram and to hear a wrenching description of the fetus. The anger and frustration over Texas Republican leaders’ attacks on women’s health continued building in 2013.

In June, Gov. Rick Perry added abortion to the list of subjects the Legislature could debate in the 30-day special session. A number of anti-abortion proposals defeated during the Legislature’s regular session that ended in May were revived and combined into one measure. The omnibus bill would ban abortions after 20 weeks gestation, force clinics to meet standards of surgical centers (rules that could close 37 of the state’s 42 abortion clinics) and require abortion doctors to have admitting privileges at a hospital within 30 miles, a problem for anyone in rural Texas. Critics say these proposals could severely curtail access to abortion, especially for poor and rural women. Some Texans became fed up.

When a Texas House committee heard the bill on June 20, more than 700 people signed up to testify against the measure. Many didn’t get the chance. After an all-night hearing, the Republican committee chair cut off public testimony.

When the bill came up for a floor vote in the Texas House, orange-wearing abortion-rights supporters filled the gallery. They got to hear the bill’s Republican sponsor, Rep. Jodie Laubenberg, reject an amendment to exempt victims of rape and incest from the new restrictions. She justified her stance by saying rape victims had other options for preventing pregnancy, including in hospital emergency rooms where they have “rape kits that will help the woman, basically clean her out.”

So when Wendy Davis strode into the Senate chamber on Tuesday with her pink sneakers and perfect Texas hair, and began her one-woman stand against the bill, she was channeling the anger, frustration and hopes of millions of Texans who had had enough. As word spread of Davis’ filibuster, thousands of supporters from all over Texas descended on the Capitol.

Of course, every good drama needs a villain. If Davis was the hero for the thousands who flooded the Capitol, the foil was Republican Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst. A stodgy, awkward man with a remarkable lack of charisma for a Texas politician, Dewhurst has served as lieutenant governor for more than 10 years and has long harbored ambitions for higher office. In 2012, he lost a U.S. Senate race to Ted Cruz largely because he was seen as insufficiently conservative. Ever since that stinging loss, Dewhurst has been trying to endear himself to social conservatives so he can win reelection. His efforts to thwart Davis’ filibuster and force the bill through were part of that campaign.

It might have been smarter, and easier, for Dewhurst to simply allow Davis to filibuster and concede temporary defeat. After all, Gov. Perry can—and later did—call another special session. In fact, Perry can call as many sessions as he desires. Instead, Dewhurst and Senate Republicans went against tradition and tried to halt the filibuster. If the ploy had worked, Texas conservatives might have seen Dewhurst as the hero who saved the anti-abortion bill. But the plan backfired, and he appeared weak and ineffective. Dewhurst already had two Republican challengers in his run for reelection, and a third announced his candidacy after the filibuster debacle.

While Dewhurst’s political career looks endangered, Davis’ is just taking off. She’s become a national star literally overnight, and a run for governor is widely expected.

The man who holds that job now hasn’t yet announced his future plans, and he remained oddly silent during the week’s drama. On Thursday, though, Gov. Perry signaled that he’s ready for a fight on abortion, telling the National Right to Life Convention in a Fort Worth suburb that the citizens’ filibuster was a “hijacking of democracy.” He added that Davis, a single teen mother who worked her way to Harvard Law School, “hasn’t learned from her own example that every life must be given a chance.” Davis responded that the remarks were “small words that reflect a dark and negative point of view.” The next special session is going to be spectacle.

If Davis does run for higher office, she will face difficult odds. The Republican Party and the conservative grassroots enjoy strong institutions, a deep bench of politicians and activists, and a significant financial edge.

But the events this week showed what astute observers already knew: Texas isn’t as deeply red as many people think. Beneath the Republican dominance is a diverse, urban state with a openly lesbian mayor in its largest city (Houston).

The New Texas—urban, young, increasingly diverse, open-minded—made itself heard this week. Suddenly the side of Texas that the rest of the world rarely sees was thrust into the spotlight. It’s the side of Texas that gives Texas Democrats hope.

The abortion bill will likely eventually pass. With large Republican majorities in both chambers of the Legislature, Democrats have few options for defeating the bill. Another filibuster is unlikely; the GOP won’t make the mistake of waiting till the session’s last day for a vote. The next special session will be a political circus unlike the state has ever seen—with emotional debates and thousands of protestors packing the Capitol. And the national media will no doubt descend on Austin. But in the end, Republicans have the numbers to pass the bill.

The larger question is whether Democrats and progressives can capitalize on this moment. For Davis’ filibuster to have lasting impact, Democrats will have to harness the energy and activism into a movement that would make them once again competitive in America’s second-largest state.

Davis’ filibuster was an act of defiance that no one who saw it will soon forget. Now comes the hard part.

  • Jenna

    The saying goes Texas is paradise for men and DOGS, but hell for women and HORSES. Its actually the horses that are treated better than the women and the dogs have more rights.

    • Dave_Mann

      Yep, you’re right. We got those reversed. Sigh. it’s been fixed.

  • writenow

    Naturally when the rule book is tossed out during the filibuster, the Democrats really had no chance. That’s why what happened was so wonderful in its own way. And just as likely the Republicans, with their Baptist, Bible belt nation, narrow mindset will continue doing anything by justifying their End goals.

    Separately, as all of it is on video, I can’t wait wait to see ads for the next election. Democrats won’t have to spend big money on ad directors for advertising as the Senate provided so much material for them.

    Democrats can use donation money to actually get people registered, instead. What’s left over can go for websites.

    It worked for

  • 611Juniper

    I wish the media would stop telling voters that elections are already far gone conclusions. Actually the Democratic Party’s prospects in this election should be very bright.

    They now have me, and an army of women like me, suddenly waking up, taking notice, marching, donating, and voting. As a result of this battle and their legislative longevity, they have really smart Party members in the Senate (not just Senator Davis but also Senators Van De Putte, Ellis, Watson, et al) who got lots of media exposure too. Fundraising won’t be just in Texas … it’ll be across the US for them. My dream ticket is Davis (governor) – Van de Putte (lt. governor) – Ellis (attorney general) – Rep. Mike Villareal of San Antonio (Comptroller — check his credentials for that job). The others (Senator Watson, Rep. Thompson & Farrar, etc) in the wings for Congressional seats or other key positions.

    My above combo covers the major metro areas, gives everyone but white guys a reason to get to the polls, and puts forward a really talented, articulate, visionary group of folk.

    And over in the Republican Party, you’ll have ugly, expensive bloody battles for just about every statewide office. Remember too that Democrats and Independents can vote in the Republican Primary, help pick their opposition (remember what happened in the Missouri Senate race in 2012), and the run them into the ground in November 2014. Remember, you heard it hear first ..

  • channelclemente

    That was one of the most impressive examples of political determination and courage I’ve witnessed in many a year. Bravo Ms. Davis, well done.

  • Robert Hudnall

    Since when is it a “right” to murder an innocent child in or out of the womb.

    • Q. Maxwell

      Since in the womb, it is affecting a woman’s body, health, and future livelihood. Since it is a product of her DNA shared with her partner’s (and for them to discuss together), a product of her womb (not the state’s, not any particular religion’s, but HERS), since the fetus is not a viable child until it is mature enough to breathe on its own. These concepts might be lost on you. You don’t have to agree with them, which means, if your wife or partner ends up pregnant, you and her get to discuss it and CHOOSE to keep the fetus because it goes against yours and her beliefs to terminate the pregnancy. You can feel however you want about it and that is your right. You can preach on a soapbox about it all you want, that is your right. But when politicians start to use a woman’s uterus as a political arena to further their own religious morality or social agendas, despite what they might get away with, it is not their right. Are you planning to feed the 100s of thousands of unintended children who will be forced to be born? Pay for their health insurance when medical assistance won’t cover them all? Or are you simply willing to let them die from poverty, crime, or malnutrition after they are born and blame the mothers further because they fell short as parents when they weren’t ready to take on a child in the first place? How pro-life are you really? Just enough to see another mouth to feed welcomed to a world that is prepared to punish them from then on out? Are you going to shame those women for having babies they couldn’t care for instead of advocating to hold men responsible for the children they helped create, to hold those men accountable for their actions in the bedroom? Do you have any idea what struggles other women are going through that might put them in a position to make such a decision? Ever walked a mile in their shoes? The lines of righteousness you allude to in your one line question above blurs from black and white into a fuzzy grey when you finally begin to comprehend the struggles of others and not from a perspective of “what I would do if I were in their position…”

      I have three children and adore each of them. I personally am glad I never made the decision to terminate those three pregnancies, but that was my choice and even if I don’t agree with other women’s decisions on the matter, it is not my place to take away their choice, and forever alter there life’s circumstances. It is not my place to judge them, and anyone who is truly pious to God knows that judgement is not up to us, but up to Him, and it is simply our job to love one another unconditionally as we all live by our free will. The fetus in the womb is not yet born; the woman in the predicament is already born and owed her rights to life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness. Our nation’s forefathers separated church and state for a reason, and while you have not indicated in your post if you feel this way because of any particular belief or religious morality, I would argue that regardless of your reasons, when you give an unborn fetus the rights of an autonomous human, you take away the rights of the woman. Without women, humans would not be born to perpetuate this ridiculous political circus that is wasting valuable time and taxpayer money, that is so desperately needed to haul this country back onto its feet and help create jobs, something we need a lot more of instead of more humans. When given the choice, we can bring children into the world more intelligently by planning our families, which is healthier for society. In a way, being pro-choice is more pro-life than being “pro-life.” No woman comes to the threshold of considering an abortion without it being a last, and perhaps desperate resort. Show some reverence for the women of the world, country, and the great state of Texas, and get out of our uteri.

    • Sports Princess

      Yeah, we’ve kind of had enough of this morality horse hockey. We use big medical/scientific words to deal with pregnancy. It’s not a child. It’s not murder. I know these legal and medical terms are hard to understand and confusing. When the State of Texas comes after your genitals, I’ll stand up for you. When the State of Texas says you have to submit to having medical instruments inserted into your penis, and have no medical basis whatsoever and also require that you pay for their state sponsored rape, I’ll stand up for you. When the State of Texas tells your wife that she has to take a drug that will be more painful for her to deliver her miscarriage, I stand up for HER. The women of Texas have had enough of the State of Texas trying to climb inside our vaginas.

  • JerryBallew

    The Strong Women of Texas will not tolerate being treated as chattel anytime, anywhere. You gotta be strong if you’re a Texas wife, mother, sister, daughter, grandmother, girlfriend, or else you might as well be
    living in Saudi Arabia wearing a burkha. God bless Molly Ivins, Ann Richards, all Texas women, as my beautiful passed Texas Mother who always used to say, Texas women have “A Hard Row to Hoe.”

  • Adele Roberson
    Do not be a fool – read this and make up your own mind. Please do not listen to the Republicans eternal LIES.