The Wendy Davis Rebellion in Texas

AP Images/Eric Gay

A rowdy crowd of women making demands as loudly as they can—and winning? That sort of thing doesn’t happen in Texas. Except that now, apparently, it does.

Beginning on Tuesday morning and stretching into the wee hours of Wednesday, Democrat Wendy Davis, a state senator from Fort Worth, became a national pro-choice hero as thousands of Texans flooded the state capitol to cheer her effort to stop a draconian anti-abortion bill. Governor Rick Perry had added abortion restrictions to the agenda halfway through a special session of the legislature originally intended to pass new redistricting maps. Before the session ended at midnight on Tuesday, Republican lawmakers hoped to rush through what would have been one of the nation’s most extreme anti-abortion laws. For 11 hours, Davis filibustered a bill that would have banned abortions after 20 weeks and shut down all but five of the state’s abortion clinics.

It was high drama: If Davis could hold out till midnight, she’d block the bill. It wouldn’t be easy. Under Texas’s strict filibuster rules, the senator could not eat, drink, use the bathroom, or even lean on the lectern.  She couldn’t simply read from the phone book, either; she had to talk about the abortion bill or, after three warnings, the majority Republicans could force her to sit down. As the hours went by, Davis’s following grew. Nearly 180,000 followed the livestream from the Senate floor. The news spread on Twitter, where the state senator went from around 1,200 followers to over 67,000. Celebrities like Lena Dunham and Julianne Moore tweeted out support. So did President Obama, who wrote: “Something special is happening in Austin tonight,” with the hashtag “StandWithWendy.” The hashtag trended worldwide for hours.

But in the end it was the hundreds of pro-choice activists in the gallery who killed the bill in one of the most dramatic moments in Texas political memory. While Davis became the face of the effort, she was also just one part of a movement that organized swiftly and effectively. It was a feat of organization, and a show of progressive energy, that will provide a shot of energy for Democrats’ to turn the state blue.

The showdown began on Thursday with an unexpected turnout from pro-choice activists. When the House State Affairs Committee considered the anti-abortion measure, 600 activists flooded the hearing, conducting what they called a “citizen’s filibuster.” According to one lawmaker, 92 percent of those who came to testify opposed the bill. One after another, pro-choice Texans told their stories as hours ticked by. Around 4 a.m. on Friday, the Republican committee chair finally cut off testimony, calling the statements “repetitive.” The committee passed the bill quietly the next day and the House recessed until Sunday, when House Republicans planned to use technical maneuvers to fast-track the measure.

On Sunday, pro-choice activists again packed the gallery, far outnumbering the opposition. Progressives from across the country began sending food and coffee to show support. House  Democrats managed to use amendments and points of order to delay the bill for more than a day, buying enough time to make a Senate filibuster possible. By the time the House finally passed the measure, it couldn’t be heard in the Senate until Tuesday. The filibuster was on.

Davis was the obvious choice to lead the filibuster. Since first being elected in 2008, when she unseated a powerful Republican lawmaker, Davis has stood out as a progressive firebrand unafraid of antagonizing her Republican colleagues. Her biography alone is impressive; a former teen mom living in a trailer, Davis put herself through both college and law school, where she graduated valedictorian. She’s unabashed in talking about her experiences with poverty and her reliance on Planned Parenthood for health care; during the filibuster, she called it “her medical home.” Davis had ended the regular legislative session in 2011 with a filibuster of $5.4 billion in cuts to public schools. That one only took an hour and a half, however, and was largely for show; the legislature came back in a special session and cut the money. But it earned Davis, who’s seen as a future statewide candidate, icon status among Texas’s long-put-upon progressives.

By the time Davis’s filibuster began on Tuesday morning, it wasn’t just the Senate gallery that was packed. Throughout the capitol and spilling outside, people wore burnt orange T-shirts, the color associated with the Texas cause (and not coincidentally, with the University of Texas). Many read, “Stand with Texas Women.” Davis read testimony from women who weren’t allowed to testify at Thursday’s committee hearing. She took questions defending her position. She spoke deliberately, was careful to avoid leaning on the podium, and occasionally paced slowly around her desk as she spoke.

As the hours ticked by, Republican senators watched like hawks for Davis to slip up. At the six-hour mark, Davis got her first warning for talking about funding for Planned Parenthood and women’s health programs—which, according to the chair, were not germane to a bill on abortion restrictions. She got another when a colleague helped her put on a back brace. The gallery was beginning to get restless when all hell broke loose around 10 p.m. With just two hours to go, Davis received her third warning—this time for mentioning a pre-abortion sonogram requirement the chamber passed last session. Her Democratic colleagues began trying to stall, raising parliamentary inquiries and appeals. Republicans scrambled to end the filibuster and take a vote before the clock hit midnight and the special session was over.

With 15 minutes to go, it looked like the Senate Democrats couldn’t hold out. Republicans were trying to vote as Democrats attempted to concoct more procedural delays. The spectators were subdued and anxious. Then things went crazy. First, the chair refused to recognize a motion to adjourn from Senator Leticia van de Putte, a Democrat who had just arrived from her father’s funeral. Van de Putte tried to make another motion, but the chair once again did not recognize her. Finally, exasperated, she called out: “At what point must a female senator raise her hand or her voice to be heard over the male colleagues in the room?

That did it. The spectators began to cheer, overwhelming the attempts of the chair to quiet them down. For a full quarter of an hour, they shouted and screamed with unceasing volume, as Republicans tried get a vote on the bill. After midnight came and went, the Senate Republicans argued that they did take a vote and had prevailed. But the record showed otherwise; screenshots captured the Texas Legislative website showing the vote had been taken on June 26, after midnight.

Senators convened a closed-door caucus meeting to try and sort out what had actually happened. The gallery was cleared in the Senate chamber, but nobody left. People in burnt-orange T-shirts were everywhere—in the capitol rotunda, outside the building, in the hallways. It wasn’t until after 2 a.m. that word broke: The session was over, the bill was dead, and pro-choice Texans had won.

It was the kind of landmark victory that Texas progressives haven’t seen in years—a couple of decades, really. Not surprisingly, conservatives didn’t mince words about the proceedings. Lieutenant Governor David Dewhurst, who’s been blamed by Republicans for the madness in his chamber, complained that the activists were “an unruly mob.” State Representative Bill Zedler tweeted, “We had terrorist [sic] in the Texas State Senate opposing [the bill].”

But these activists weren’t terrorists. They were the Texans that national observers rarely see—and they are helping to plant the seeds of a progressive revival in the state. As I watched people happily file out of the capitol in the early morning hours, it was striking to see the vast array of ages and races. Young hipsters and older soccer moms all seemed united. Most of those who have talked about a potential sea change in Texas politics have focused on Latino mobilization. (I just wrote a feature on the subject.) But Texas women have also been under-organized (and less Democratic than in other states), and they are another key to any potential progressive movement in the state. And while Davis was the face of the effort, it was pro-choice women’s spontaneous burst of engagement that shook up Texas politics this week.

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