Wendy Davis, feminist superhero

The filibustering pro-choice Texas state senator is helping turn her state blue. Ann Richards is smiling (UPDATE)

Published June 26, 2013 3:40AM (EDT)

Wendy Davis               (AP/Eric Gay)
Wendy Davis (AP/Eric Gay)

Update: After much confusion, the Statesman reports that Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst announced on the Senate floor at 3:01 a.m that the bill had, in fact, not passed.

Original post:

In a better world, the discussion of sonograms would not be at all germane to proposed new antiabortion legislation, because the two issues would have nothing to do with one another. But since Texas, like many other states, recently passed a requirement that women get a sonogram before obtaining an abortion, it made perfect sense that state Sen. Wendy Davis would talk about the way SB 5, the state’s proposed new abortion restrictions, might relate to the earlier sonogram law.

Davis was 11 hours into an effort to filibuster that draconian antiabortion legislation when she turned to its relationship with the sonogram law, and Republican Sen. Donna Campbell stood up and claimed the Democrat’s sonogram discussion wasn’t germane to the legislation Davis was filibustering. If Campbell was right, that was Davis’ third “strike” – a violation of Senate rules that would end the filibuster. After a long break, Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst agreed that Davis’ discussion of the sonogram law wasn’t germane to the abortion law debate, and moved to end the filibuster. There followed amazing parliamentary wrangling that had Roberts Rules of Order trending on Twitter in some areas, but in the end, the Senate seemed to pass SB 5 in a shady way (more on that later) that will make an already suspect, poorly written bill even more likely to be overturned by the courts.

That outcome aside: Wendy Davis is a badass.

The funny, feisty state senator is already a star on the national feminist circuit. Raised by a single mother, Davis herself became a single mom at 19. She started out at Tarrant Community College, went on to Texas Christian University and got her law degree from Harvard. She moved from the Fort Worth City Council to the Texas House to the Senate with impressive momentum. This isn’t her first filibuster: In 2011 she filibustered $4 billion in education cuts, making Gov. Rick Perry call a special session to push them through anyway. I got to meet her when I last visited Texas, as a guest of the wonderful feminist group Annie’s List, and everyone I talked to thought she’d get to be Texas governor someday – at least governor. Alongside the Castro brothers, Mayor Julian and congressman Joaquin, she's one of the best reasons why Texas will turn blue in our lifetimes.

Let’s take a moment to remember what’s at stake here. Texas Democrats succeeded in blocking a lot of abortion restrictions until Gov. Rick Perry called a special session to push them through. SB 5 offers a revolting menu of bad policy for women: a 20-week abortion ban; new TRAP laws requiring abortion clinics to be certified as “ambulatory surgery centers,” which would close all but five of the 42 clinics open today, along with every clinic in West Texas. It would also require clinic doctors to have admitting privileges at hospitals and restrict the abortion drug RU-486. Opponents tried to block the bill’s passage in the House last Thursday with a “people’s filibuster,” but it ultimately passed.

I tuned in to Davis’ Senate filibuster after she’d been going about 10 hours Tuesday night, and I felt like I’d discovered a baseball game that was a no-hitter going into the ninth inning. On YouTube, almost 40,000 people were already watching; that ballooned to more than 150,000 after Dewhurst stopped Davis’ crusade on bogus procedural grounds. It was gripping.

By the time I tuned in, Davis seemed a little tired, but whenever she seemed like she was flagging, she’d find a new point about the bill that revived her. It must be noted that her first two “strikes” came when she mentioned Planned Parenthood – ruled “not germane,” just like the sonogram law – and maybe more cruelly, when state Sen. Rodney Ellis tried to help her adjust her back brace. Throughout the filibuster, Davis couldn’t sit down, or even lean against her desk or chair, or eat or drink or use the bathroom. She wore sneakers, and the back brace was a smart idea. But Ellis’ attempt to help her adjust it was ruled in violation of Senate rules.

“The tradition of this filibuster in the Senate has always been that you had to do it on your own,” Sen. Tommy Williams objected. “Senator Ellis, you’re well aware of that, I believe.”

After Campbell challenged Davis’ discussion of the sonogram law, the packed Senate chamber erupted in chants of “bullshit” and “let her speak.” But Dewhurst backed Campbell’s challenge and ended Davis’ filibuster. That’s when state Sen. Kirk Watson and other Democrats began maneuvering. Watson and others challenged both Dewhurst’s rulings on “germaneness” – really, can someone explain how the sonogram law would not be germane to the new bill? – as well as whether the lieutenant governor could shut down debate on his own, or needed the vote of the Senate.

For at least an hour, it was great theater. State parliamentarian Karina Davis spent a lot of time looking like gymnast McKayla Maroney, whispering sideways into Dewhurst’s ear and seeming not terribly impressed. Pro-choice state Sen. Leticia Van De Putte’s had just returned from her father’s funeral and repeatedly asked Dewhurst to walk her through his procedural rulings, but brought down the house when she asked: "At what point must a female senator raise her hand or voice to be recognized over her male colleagues in the room?"

Soon after, the gallery erupted, and no one could restore order for almost 10 minutes. Midnight came and went with the crowd screaming, but at some point it seemed the roll was called and the bill passed, albeit after midnight. The Dallas Morning News’ Wayne Slater tweeted: “Rules out the window; TX Senate taking vote in a scrum at front of chamber, post midnight, to salvage abortion bill.” Democratic Sen. Royce West told the Austin Statesman’s Mike Ward (reported via Twitter): “The vote on SB5 is void. The constitutionality will be challenged. We weren't in session.”

Its constitutionality will certainly be challenged. The sleazy way it passed won’t make it more persuasive to the courts. But Wendy Davis and her Texas Senate allies – and their rowdy allies in the Senate gallery – scored a huge victory for women nonetheless.

Oh, and in other news: Davis only has her Senate seat thanks to Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act, the Huffington Post reports. Her many GOP enemies tried to redistrict her out of the Senate in 2011, but with the help of the Justice Department she beat back the plan. I quoted the NAACP’s Ben Jealous Tuesday saying that no matter what any progressive’s No. 1 issue is, voting rights must be their No. 2, especially after the Supreme Court’s Tuesday decision gutting historic voter protections. That very night, we got an excellent argument for Jealous’ case.

By Joan Walsh