News Column

Power Players from Wendy Davis' Filibuster

Jun 27 2013 8:00AM

The political theater that played out in the Texas Senate chamber Tuesday and into the wee hours Wednesday attracted an entirely new audience to the state Legislature. When Sen. Wendy Davis' filibuster of Senate Bill 5, limiting abortions in Texas, began around 11 a.m. Tuesday, there were a few thousand viewers on The Texas Tribune's live stream.

During the climax of the tense marathon, nearly 200,000 were tuned in, including celebrities, and Twitter was ablaze with the #SB5 hashtag (Senate Bill 5). Observers around the world, many of whom didn't know that Texas is in the Central time zone, were wondering about the ins and outs of Austin politics, and just who was that woman in the white pantsuit Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst keeps whispering to in between "points of order."

As the dust settles from the drama in Austin last night, we offer a few more details about the power players who kept you up late.

Wendy Davis, the woman in white

Before Tuesday, she was a little-known state senator from Fort Worth with a compelling political narrative -- a single mother at 19, Davis graduated from Tarrant County College, then finished top of her class at TCU and went to Harvard Law. She was a Fort Worth councilwoman for nine years before being elected to the Texas Senate in 2008 in one of the most conservative districts in the country. Since joining the Senate, she has been a thorn in the side of Republicans, most notably staging a filibuster in 2011 to delay $5 billion in education cuts.

So the Senate floor battle Tuesday wasn't Davis' first rodeo, which may be why she showed up in pink Mizuno running shoes ($116) that are no doubt flying off shelves today. Before the filibuster, Davis had a measly 1,200 followers on Twitter; now she has more than 80,000 and her own hashtag #StandWithWendy. She also earned the attention of celebrities (Lena Dunham, Julianne Moore, Michael Moore and the Fonz Henry Winkler, to name a few Tweeters) and political heavyweights. President Barack Obama's offiicial Twitter feed read at 8:40 p.m. Tuesday night, "Something special is happening in Austin tonight: # StandWithWendy.

Gov. Rick Perry has called Davis the Democrats' "show horse," but some political analysts were calling her a "rock star" Wednesday. Some of her supporters were even suggesting she could be the next governor of Texas, though most admit it's a long shot that a Democrat can win a statewide election in the Lone Star State -- at least for now for now. Republican U.S. Sen. John Cornyn's seat is also up for election.

Karina Davis, the other woman in white

Anyone who watched The Texas Tribune's live feed on YouTube noticed her standing beside Dewhurst, whose position as lieutenant governor makes him president of the Senate, throughout the proceedings, arms folded, lips pursed. The Senate's parliamentarian, and a employee of Dewhurst's office, "the other Davis" had the unenviably task of trying to interpret all the rules jousting in the waning hours of Tuesday's filibuster. As points of parliamentary inquiry flew, Dewhurst and later Sen. Robert Duncan would lean toward Davis and confer with her often for long periods before making a ruling. There's not much personal information available on Davis, as you might expect, but one thing is certain, as Jim Roberts of Reuters tweeted Tuesday evening: Karina Davis is currently the most famous parliamentarian in the U.S.

The Opposition

Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst: The Houston Republican, who lost to Ted Cruz in the 2012 runoff for Kay Bailey Hutchison's Senate seat, has held the lieutenant governor's gavel for 10 years, but it's unlikely he's ever been involved in a wilder day in the chamber than Tuesday. Dewhurst kept things civil, but when he ruled that Sen. Davis had committed a third violation of the filibuster rules, Sen. Kirk Watson, D-Austin, appealed and Dewhurst was forced to relinquish the gavel to Senate President Pro Tem Robert Duncan, R-Lubbock. Dewhurst watched the rest of the proceedings from the sidelines and later ruled that the vote on the bill, conducted amid shouts from the crowd, was indeed taken after midnight. Dewhurst later told The Texas Tribune that an "unruly mob using Occupy Wall Street tactics" defeated the legislation.

Sen. Bob Duell, R-Greenville: The family physician tried to debate Davis on the merits of the abortion bill, temporarily suspending her reading of testimony and letters from Texans that Davis said were unable to be heard. Duell asked at one point: "Do you believe the traditions of the Texas Senate are more important than the health of Texas women?"

Sen. Craig Estes, R-Wichita Falls: A state senator since 2001, he moved to end the filibuster as it headed toward midnight, and it nearly worked. But the Democrats' stalling tactics and the shouting of the crowd in the chamber pushed the vote past midnight. Estes released a statement about the motion saying, "Moving the previous question to end debate is rarely done out of considerable respect for the voice of the minority in the Senate, but protecting innocent life is of greater importance than protecting the views of the minority ..."

Sen. Robert Duncan, R-Lubbock: A lawyer and a state senator since 1997, he was elected Senate president pro tem of the 81st legislative session, which is why he took over for Dewhurst when Watson appealed Dewhurst's decision declaring that Davis had made a third violation of filibuster rules. He continued to hold the gavel in the climactic moments of the debate Tuesday, as Democrats challenged every point of order. He tried to allow a vote on Senate Bill 5 amid the 15 minutes of cheering and shouting from the crowd in the chamber, but it was later determined that the vote ended after midnight.

The Davis defenders

Sen. Kirk Watson, D-Austin: As the Democrats' leader in the Senate, the former Austin mayor and lawyer really did the heavy lifting for the Democrats and Davis after her filibuster was all but busted on the floor. Watson appealed Dewhurst's decision that Davis' remarks were not germane, and later, when Duncan tried to recognize a motion to table his appeal, he refused to yield. When Duncan finally did acknowlege that Watson had the floor, Watson made an impassioned and prolonged speech about the traditions of the Senate that pushed the ticking clock closer to midnight.

Sen. Royce West, D-Dallas: West, who has been representing the 23rd District since 1993, continued to raise parliamentary points in an effort to trip up Duncan and stall the proceedings, even as it appeared that Duncan would allow a vote to table Watson's appeal.

Leticia Van de Putte, D-San Antonio: Van de Putte, a pharmacist who served in the Texas House for nine years (1990-1999) and then the Senate, was a key player late in the debate as she implored Duncan to explain the filibuster violations to her because she was unable to be in the chamber earlier in the day. She was attending the funeral of her father, who died in a car accident last week. Duncan tried to move on over her objections, and Van de Putte asked: "Did the President hear me or did the President hear me and refuse to recognize me? At what point must a female senator raise her hand and her voice to be recognized over her male colleagues in the room?" The largely female crowd in the rafters erupted in applause and didn't let up until after midnight.

Sen. Rodney Ellis, D-Houston: Chivalry is not dead, but apparently it has no place on the Senate floor during a filibuster. When Davis tried to adjust a back brace (like the kind the Home Depot guys wear) in Hour Eight of her 13-hour filibuster, it was Ellis, who has served in the Texas Senate since 1990, who decided to lend a hand. Not long afterward, Sen. Tommy Williams, R-The Woodlands, raised a point of order saying Davis had received assistance from a colleague, which is a no-no during filibusters. Williams' point of order was sustained and it became Davis' second warning. But Ellis continued to interject a bit of humor into the debate with comments about "prolonging" Davis' debate and asking her to read portions of the Senate bill "slowly."

Cecile Richards: The president of Planned Parenthood and the daughter of former Gov. Ann Richards was among the "unruly mob" in the Capitol Tuesday that cheered and shouted for more than 15 minutes and largely made it impossible for the Senate to vote on Senate Bill 5 before midnight. Of the surreal evening she wrote Wednesday for the Huffington Post: "The final hours of the fight against one of the most extreme anti-abortion laws in the country ended the way it all began: with a citizens' filibuster -- albeit somewhat less official.

"Even Lt. Governor David Dewhurst was forced to admit that this 'unruly mob' was 'the most incredible thing' he had ever seen in his life. And as long as I live, I will never forget the moment I was lucky enough to stand in the capitol rotunda and read a text message from Senator Davis:

"I love you guys. The Lt Gov has agreed -- #SB5 is dead."


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