Witnessing a Texas-Sized Filibuster

Editor’s note: State Senator Wendy Davis (pictured) killed a bill in the Texas Senate last night that would have outlawed abortions after 20 weeks, among other prohibitions. She filibustered for more than 12 hours. Geoff Rips was in the Senate gallery. The following is his report.

Austin, Texas
Democracy broke out in one of the unlikeliest places on earth. Put it on the list: Tienamen Square, Tahrir Square, and now the Texas Senate.

As Republicans angled late in the evening on June 25 toward last-minute passage of one of the most draconian anti-abortion bills in the country, the growing crowd in the Texas statehouse had a different agenda, as did the outnumbered band of Democratic state senators determined to prevent its passage.

Texas Senator Wendy Davis stood for more than 12 hours in front of the Republican tank attempting to steamroll Texas women back into a past of back-alley abortions. Senate Bill 5, if passed, would not allow abortions after 20 weeks and would require abortion providers to become, essentially, full-fledged hospitals. That would reduce the number of legal abortion providers to as few as five in a state of 26 million.

Davis was not allowed to drink water, to read from texts, to lean against her desk or to discuss anything deemed not germane to the legislation. That old U.S. Senate filibuster king Strom Thurmond would have melted into a puddle of segregationist babble after several hours under those rules. But Davis soldiered on.

Davis was not allowed to drink water, to read from texts, to lean against her desk or to discuss anything deemed
not germane to the legislation. That
old filibuster king Strom Thurmond would have melted into a puddle of segregationist babble under those rules. But Davis soldiered on.

A working, single mother who earned a scholarship to Texas Christian University and then graduated from Harvard Law with honors, Davis stood her ground. In her Senate career, Davis has become known statewide as a leader for public education, women’s rights and providing services to returning veterans.

Now, thanks to YouTube, Twitter, NBC News, etc., she’s become a national leader.
The next morning she would become the lead story on “Today” and “Morning Joe.”

Around 11:15 last night, Republicans began to worry they would not be able to stop her in order to hold a vote prior to the midnight deadline, when their dark legislation would turn into pumpkins. At that time, the reptile-eyed ophthalmologist state senator from the Tea Party, Donna Campbell, raised a point of order, declaring Davis’s discussion of the restrictions on abortions included in last session’s so-called “sonogram law” were not germane to the current discussion.

Davis remained standing, ready to continue her filibuster as Senate colleagues debated the Campbell move and repeatedly called for points of order about the way the Senate leadership was ignoring its own rules. The clock was ticking. The Senate gallery was packed with orange-clad opponents of the bill.

Then something unusual happened.

A Republican state senator called the question on Democratic Senator Kirk Watson’s point of order. Lt. Governor David Dewhurst began the vote, which could then lead to a vote on SB 5. As Democratic senators scrambled to raise additional inquiries, they found their microphones were no longer working.

That was not unusual. But this was: Senator Leticia Van de Putte of San Antonio found her microphone still worked. Van de Putte had rushed back to the Senate after attending the funeral of her father earlier that day. According to traditional Senate decorum, the chamber accommodates members who must be away to deal with family tragedy.

Not this Lt. Governor.

After the vote on the point of order, cutting off the questions from Watson, Van de Putte rose:

“At what point must a female senator raise her voice to be heard by her male colleagues?”

The predominantly female gallery circling the Senate chamber began to clap. Then the hundreds in the gallery began to stand. Then it began to shout. It was 11:45 p.m. The Senate leadership looked confused. A people’s filibuster was in the works. Could it hold out until midnight?

First the Republicans tried to wait it out, but the shouting continued. Every once in a while state troopers tried to move cheering gallery denizens to the exits with little success.

On the floor, senators were joined by House members, who became cheerleaders for the gallery. At 11:50, Republican leadership huddled at the front dais. Senate Democrats talked nervously and waved to the cheering gallery. The cheering was continual, moving in deafening waves.

Then something unusual happened.

Outside the Senate Chamber, thousands were gathered in the hallways on every floor and filled the Capitol rotunda. Most were wearing orange. No one was silent. Thousands shouted “Shame” in unison. Planned Parenthood’s Cecile Richards spoke to the crowd to help maintain focus. Twitter, YouTube, the earth’s atmosphere was abuzz: democracy breaking out in Texas?

By 11:56, the Republican leadership was panicking.

From the gallery, it appeared to be trying to round up senators for a vote around the Lt. Governor’s dais. Democratic senators moseyed over and moseyed back. The crowd in the gallery continued its shouting and ongoing applause. No one could hear what the Lt. Governor or Parliamentarian declared to be the order of business. The democratic din overwhelmed them.

The gallery began to count down the seconds. At some point, the Senate leadership gathered the senators around the front dais and held some version of a vote. It appeared to happen after midnight. Then a wall of state troopers moved in to clear the gallery.

Outside the chamber, thousands continued to chant.

At 1:15 a.m., Watson told the thousands in the rotunda and on four floors above that he still did not know the outcome. Then he was called back into a Senate meeting.

At 3 a.m., Dewhurst announced that the vote on SB 5 had not occurred before the midnight deadline, and so the bill did not pass. The Wendy Davis/people’s filibuster had won—at least until Rick Perry opens another special legislative session to dance this dance again.

It turns out that the vote on the bill had been time stamped 12:02 in the official records. Mysteriously, however, that time stamp had been changed and indicated the vote had been taken prior to midnight. Unfortunately for the forces of darkness, the original document had been photographed and sent out over social media, showing the time stamp after midnight.

After years of Perry and Bush and Koch brother money and Karl Rove manipulation, just after a Rick Perry veto of equal pay for equal work legislation, and on the day of a Supreme Court voting rights decision that will make Tom DeLay’s gerrymandering look timid, the sleeping giant of Texas democracy had awakened.

It is young, it is loud, it is led by women.

And it must scare the Brooks Brothers boxers off the Republicans.


Geoff Rips, a former editor of the Texas Observer, is a Special Correspondent for The Washington Spectator.


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