You are using an outdated browser.
Please upgrade your browser
and improve your visit to our site.
Skip Navigation

The Story Behind Wendy Davis's Heroic Filibuster

As of Wednesday morning, Wendy Davis, the Texas state senator who staged a 13-hour filibuster to thwart an omnibus anti-abortion bill that would have closed all but five clinics in the state, was a household name. But Davis couldn’t have done it alone. She was more like the last runner in a grueling relay. From the moment Republican Governor Rick Perry introduced the abortion issue on June 11, its opponents—Democratic politicians and operatives, and pro-choice activists—knew their only hope to defeat it was to run out the clock, and it took all of them working in concert to do so.

“We had a strategy, and the filibuster was clearly part of it,” said State Senator Kirk Watson, who told me the Democratic caucus devised the plan and agreed that Davis, a charismatic mother of two girls, was the best person to execute its dramatic climax. Watson said House Democrats and myriad state activists also knew they would have to work tirelessly to set the stage for the filibuster, and it wouldn't be easy, or maybe even possible. “They knew what we needed to do. The goal, ultimately, was to talk it to death.”

Late on Wednesday, Perry announced that another 30-day special session will start July 1, and will take up the abortion legislation once again. (This is after Democrats criticized him for using the first special sesstion to revive a horde of bills so contentious they hadn’t even made it to the floor in the regular session, all by executive decree.) To understand the grit and collaboration that went into defeating the bill this time around is to see a sliver of hope that Texans can pull it off again. Then again, it would take a lot more than a single superhero—even Wendy Davis—swooping in to save the day.

The road to the filibuster started a week before Davis donned her bright pink sneakers and stepped out on the Senate floor. One anti-abortion bill had already passed the Senate; two others were brewing in the House. Under the rules of a Texas special session, any of those bills needed a simple majority—not the two-thirds vote of a regular session—to pass, making them almost unstoppable in Texas’ very red legislature. With all three bills poised to pass, the clock started running on women's access to abortion services in Texas. It had just over 100 hours left. 

The House bills were slated to go before a committee on Thursday, June 20 and its bylaws permitted public testimony. This got Heather Busby, executive director of NARAL Pro-Choice Texas, thinking: “We need to get people to show up and testify.” In theory, each person who signed up to speak would be given three minutes. Those tiny allotments started to look significant as Busby realized that “time is all we’ve got in this fight.”

Busby describes joining forces with a host of other Austin-based women’s health and political organizations that she had worked with in the past, including the Austin branch of Texas Democratic Women, Planned Parenthood of Greater Texas, and the Lilith Fund (which is part of a national network that helps poor women pay for abortions). The day before the hearing, they started spreading word about what they dubbed a “citizen’s filibuster.” “Before now, when we would put the word out [about a bill], we told people to let us know if they wanted to testify,” Busby recalled. “This time, we told people, ‘We need you to come. Don’t worry about knowing the ins and outs of the law—come and tell your story. Use your three minutes. This is about pushing this back.’”

Busby hoped that a record-breaking 100 people would show. Nearly 700 people signed up to testify on Thursday.

The Texas Democratic Party was instrumental to the citizen's filibuster’s success. Politicians—Watson and Davis among them—helped spread the word, and the party set up a phone bank that garnered over 150 RSVPs. Communications Director Tanene Allison says it’s unlikely the party would have taken such a vocal stand for women’s rights before the effort to “turn Texas blue” started sweeping the state, and a new, progressive party chairman, Gilberto Hinojosa, was elected a year ago. “Democrats in Texas are really fired up and excited right now,” she said. “What they’re looking for is some strategic way to make a difference.” Those don’t come around often in Texas, especially not during special sessions, when the majority party has an almost unbeatable advantage. Allison thinks people turned out precisely because they saw—and organizers helped them see—a unique opportunity: “I think it was a brilliant power analysis. What we had was an ability to stall. ‘People’s filibuster’ was a great term, and people got it.”

Whatever the reason, the gallery space and aisles of the committee room where HB60 and HB16 were reviewed last Thursday overflowed. Organizers say they couldn’t believe how diverse the crowd was in race, socioeconomic background, sexual orientation, and in hometown. People had come from all over the state, many driving more than five hours. The majority of the crowd was young. “They were articulate, smart, funny. Some of them were angry. Some of them were completely mystified by this process,” said Lize Burr, president of the Austin arm of Texas Democratic Women. She told the people she met that they were presenting legislators with a glimpse of the state’s future, thereby “making the Republicans very uncomfortable.”

The committee chairman began trying to cut off the flood of testimony around midnight, but when state troopers tried to escort women from the podium, the room filled with chants of “Let her speak!”—just as the Senate chamber would during Davis’s filibuster a few days later. In the end, the committee ran until just before 4:00 am, and adjourned with the bill still pending. 

Busby believes that by burning the candle into the wee hours of the night, activists and protestors began a chain of events that made Davis’s filibuster possible. If the House bills had passed committee that Thursday as planned, they could have passed a mandated third reading and left the lower chamber on Friday. As it was, the bills didn’t pass out of committee until Friday, and with the legislature not in session on Saturday, they landed on the House floor on Sunday. So did Senate Bill 5, the subject of Davis’s eventual filibuster, which had passed through a closed-door committee.

Here, with around 60 hours left, the baton passed from citizens to House Democrats. Watson explained: “They don’t have the rule of filibuster the way we do, but they have the ability to require debate on amendments, so they spent hours offering amendments that had to be debated and discussed. They did a masterful job. My hat is off to them.” Although there was no citizen testimony on Sunday, hundreds of people who had stayed in Austin after Thursday’s hearing, or had driven hours back, watched in silence from the gallery as the session stretched, once again, late into the night.

Pressed for time, the House didn’t even vote on its own bills, but passed SB5. Since the House had reinserted a “fetal pain” bill provision—which outlaws abortions after the unconstitutionally early 20-week mark—that the Senate had originally written but then taken out, the monster of a bill had to return to the Senate for a final review. It landed there on Monday morning at 11:18 am, and, under Texas law, had to sit for 24 hours—leaving Davis just under 13 hours of the special session to fill. The Republicans made a last play for time, staging two votes to overturn the 24-hour “laying out” rule. If they had won, SB5 would definitely have passed. Davis would have been left with over 30 hours to filibuster—a near-impossible stretch given that Texas law prohibited her from eating, drinking, using the bathroom, or even leaning on a desk. As if that didn’t seal the deal, one of the eleven pro-abortion rights Democrats in the Senate was attending a service for her father, who had been killed in a car accident the week before (she came straight to the legislature after his funeral on Tuesday). It was in her name that the swing vote, an ardently anti-abortion Democrat, voted with his caucus against suspending the rule.

Which brings us to 11:18 Tuesday morning, when the sprightly Davis walked out on the floor and started talking. She was never alone. Over 1,000 men and women filled every available seat and every inch of standing room, and the steps outside the Senate. Many had been in Austin since the previous Thursday. Davis spent much of the afternoon reciting the personal testimonies of women who had been cut off at the committee hearing. She cried reading the words of a woman who lost a wanted pregnancy to a medical complication: “Instead of choosing an outfit for her to move home, I was picking out her burial gown." 

At around 10:00 pm, Republicans started kvetching that Davis was breaking the filibuster rules by going off-topic: that her references to the sonograms women are required to have before an abortion, or to funding for Planned Parenthood, weren’t “germane.” The parties argued back and forth, and then, in the final minutes before midnight, Republicans decided to vote on SB5. It came right down to the wire. The people in the gallery started to yell, and the bill passed just after midnight—too late (though Republicans have attempted to change the time stamp). Conservative Lieutenant Governor David Dewhurst spent the next day fulminating about the “unruly mob.” But Watson has a different take: “Those people were there all day, providing quiet moral support… Then at the end, when they saw injustice, they reacted, and it made a difference.”

Burr remembers that she was outside the hall when she heard “that eruption”: “The whole thing was really intense. We could not see; they cut the feed off. We heard the yell go out from the senate gallery, and we started to yell in support of them.” It was the sound of over 1,000 people, carrying Davis across the finish line.

Now, they have to do the whole thing all over again. It's hard to believe Texas liberals could turn people out in record numbers, or just get so darn lucky with the timing, twice in a row. Then again, as Cecile Richards of Planned Parenthood (who was there watching Davis on Tuesday), proclaimed Wednesday night, “We’ve lit the fuse in Austin.” Watching the footage, it's tempting to hope she could be right.

Nora Caplan-Bricker is an assistant editor at The New Republic. Follow her on Twitter @ncaplanbricker.