Wendy Davis beats the clock, with an assist from the gallery

June 26, 2013
Texas state Sen. Wendy Davis.
Texas state Sen. Wendy Davis.

The job of state senator isn’t considered one of the most physically demanding occupations a Texan could take up.  But Fort Worth’s Wendy Davis put on her running shoes to run out the clock.  Pink-sneakered, intellectually steeled, and back-braced for the long haul, Davis intended to slog through a grueling 13-hour-long filibuster to clench her place as winner of the longest filibuster ever mounted by a woman in the Lone Star State.

Sports are serious business in Texas, of course, but in this endurance contest the stakes were women’s health and their lives.  The legislation she was trying to block before the end of the session at midnight Tuesday night was Senate Bill 5, which would impose some of the most stringent standards for abortion and women’s health services in the country, and would slash the number of women’s clinics in the state.

Davis intended to run out the clock by filibustering until the legislative session expired, denying opponents any opportunity to vote, thus killing the bill.  But as the viewers of this political spectacle saw, thanks to the Texas Tribune’s livefeed, there is something to the lore that everything is bigger, and likely a bit tougher in Texas, including those filibuster rules.

No sitting, leaning, eating, drinking or pausing to answer any of nature’s calls was permitted.  And she could earn but three warnings for veering off topic before being called out and forced to yield the floor.

Packing the statehouse in Austin were hundreds of Texans who came to support the filibuster with their testimonies and their presence.

Davis has all the makings of the come-from-behind story that sports segment producers love to tell in snippets with soundtracks assured to push emotional buttons.

Raised by a single mother, Davis had a baby at 19 and worked her way from a paralegal program at a community college to a Harvard  law degree.  Now 50, and diminutive in stature, onlookers had to question if she had the physical endurance and the mental stamina to maintain her testimony and the mental clarity to keep on topic.

Republican wariness was on full display.  They sought any chance to knock Davis off balance and wrest control of the floor.  Their agitation was palpable even through the cyberspace delivering the drama to devices both plugged and mobile.

As the midnight deadline drew nearer and turned the idea of a successful filibuster into a likelihood, nearly 200,000 folks were logged onto YouTube to drink in the Texas-sized spectacle.  Davis remained poised, hardly flagging, seemingly reviving her own energies at will. Meanwhile, the twitter hashtags, “#StandWithWendy, #WendyDavis and #sb5 were trending worldwide as the senator successfully ran down the clock–until about two hours remained.

Republican senators  won strikes against Davis for her mentioning the budget of Planned Parenthood, which was ruled to be off-topic, and for accepting the aid of a colleague who helped her into a back brace.

So when a Republican objected to Davis bringing up ultrasounds as not being germane to the discussion, and won the point, supporters of the bill could have taken the vote.

Except that Democrats lobbed a flurry of parliamentary inquiries and then demanded an accounting of what had been their order.  In true sporting fashion, they demanded to go to the tape rather than taking the word of Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst.  As the minutes ticked away, Democrat after Democrat rose to spell Davis.

Sen. Leticia Van De Putte, who had just buried her father, requested that Dewhurst detail the order of the proceedings she had missed.

There was debate about whether a third infraction was indeed the legitimate number as any assistance with the back brace was not a point of debate.

Then the Democrats demanded oral votes.  Then votes written in large font. Some spoke slowly and did their best to stand their ground.  But it was in the last 20 minutes of the legislative session that the crowd began to hoot and chant so loudly that the proceedings were interrupted.

While the crowd drowned out all legislative sound, Wendy Davis stood.  And she waited.  And in the chaos of if or not the filibuster worked, Republicans declared victory.  The vote, finalized at 12:02 on June 26, somehow was recorded as having been completed on June 25.  Chaos erupted on social media, as images of the clock-doctored records spread.

An emergency session was called, and while Texans lamented the loss of women’s health care in their state, the bad call was finally admitted.  The filibuster had indeed worked, and the Republicans had to walk back their ill-claimed win.

The Republicans literally tried to turn back the clock on the reproductive health rights of Texas women, but failed, thanks to one Texas mother who stood long and tall, ran out the clock, and ran in a win.

Jamila Bey is a journalist based in Washington, D.C., where she hosts the weekly radio show The Sex, Politics And Religion Hour: SPAR With Jamila which airs on AM 1390 in Washington and AM 1430 in New York City. Follow her on Twitter at @JBey.

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