Posted on January 3, 2014 at 6:33 PM
Friday, Jan 3 at 6:40 PM
AUSTIN -- By the end of May, the 83rd Texas Legislature seemed poised to go down as one of the most tranquil in years.
After reforming graduation requirements, increasing funding for public schools and passing legislation to finance long-term water projects pending voters' approval, Texas House of Representatives Speaker Joe Straus (R-San Antonio) praised members for "reaching across the aisles" to pass bipartisan legislation.
Lawmakers would return for a less friendly special session over redistricting, but Gov. Rick Perry's (R-Texas) decision to add controversial abortion legislation to the call would initiate the chain of events that set the Texas Capitol on its head. Hundreds arrived at committee hearings to testify into the early morning hours against the legislation, and the numbers had swelled to thousands by the time the bill neared a final vote in the Texas Senate.
As the end of the first special session approached, House Democrats delayed the legislation long enough to fall within filibuster range in the Senate. Democrats there chose state Sen. Wendy Davis (D-Fort Worth), a single mother and who had filibustered cuts to education funding during the previous session, to kill the bill.
For 11 hours, Davis read written testimony submitted by witnesses in opposition to Senate Bill 5. As the halls of the Texas Capitol filled with demonstrators, the worldwide internet audience watching streaming video of the filibuster swelled to nearly 200,000. After Senate Republicans broke the filibuster before the special session's midnight deadline, furious abortion rights supporters in the gallery took control.
"I've never seen anything like this," said Dallas Morning News senior political writer Wayne Slater, a veteran of the Texas Capitol press corps. "You had hundreds of people in the gallery shouting down what was going on on the floor and ending, stopping, blocking the entire process of government."
The chaos stymied lawmakers' efforts to vote on the bill, which died along with the first special session. Davis would emerge to a hero's welcome and national celebrity. Encouraged by newly excited Democrats across the state and nationwide, Davis launched her campaign for governor in October against well-funded Republican Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott. Despite the long odds, her entry into the 2014 elections was followed by other Democrats running for statewide offices.
"She's galvanized us and unified us," said Democratic political consultant Jason Stanford.
For a party that hasn't won a statewide election in two decades, Stanford said Davis provides Texas Democrats with the rock star they've long awaited.
"Before Wendy Davis, we were thinking we probably won't field a real candidate against Greg Abbott. We'll look ahead to 2018 for when we might be able to do something," said Stanford. "Now, we're trying this time. We've realized because of Wendy Davis that you can't pass up an election."
Davis has also galvanized conservative opponents both inside and outside of Texas. One of them, conservative blogger Erick Erickson, blasted her with the controversial tag "Abortion Barbie."
Although Senate Bill 5 wasn't passed, the same legislation was passed as House Bill 2 in a second special called to begin the next day. As Republican political consultant Matt Mackowiak pointed out, social conservatives can take heart in the fact that Davis' filibuster ultimately failed.
"It also resulted in, I think, a pretty strong pro-life bill in Texas that helps Texas continue to lead the way as a pro-life state," said Mackowiak.
It has also given Davis' Republican opponents a clear line of attack as campaign season heats up.
Now as 2014 begins and Texas turns to the approaching elections, what Davis does in 2014 remains to be seen.