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Ex-teen mom led filibuster versus Texas abortion limits

Published June 26, 2013 11:16 am

This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2013, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

AUSTIN, Texas • To lead their nearly 13-hour filibuster attempt aimed at blocking a contentious abortion bill, Texas Democrats turned to a 50-year-old lawmaker who pulled herself up from a tough background as a teenage mother to graduate from Harvard law school.

Once dismissed by Gov. Rick Perry as a "show horse," Sen. Wendy Davis has earned a reputation for being willing to spar with the state dominant political party and its leaders.

"She's a total fighter," said Cecile Richards, president of Planned Parenthood Action Fund and daughter of the late former Texas Gov. Ann Richards. "And the thing about Senator Davis, she says she's going to do something, she gets it done."

Davis' filibuster lasted about 11 hours Tuesday before Republicans complained she had strayed off topic and cut her off. But the action prompted a lengthy debate with Democrats and raucous protests from the gallery that spilled into Wednesday morning and ultimately killed the abortion bill.

The developments also made Davis a hot topic online: Her Twitter followers swelled from 1,200 Tuesday morning to more than 20,000 by the evening.

"My back hurts. I don't have a lot of words left," Davis said after being showered with cheers by activists at the Capitol.

Davis, 50, starting working at age 14 to help support a household of her single mother with three siblings. By 19, she was already married and divorced with a child of her own. After community college, she graduated from Texas Christian University before being accepted to Harvard Law School. According to her website, Davis graduated Harvard Law with honors.

She returned to Texas, where she became a Fort Worth city council member before staging a political upset to beat an incumbent Republican to win a seat in the state Senate.

"We knew about her on the City Council," said Sen. Rodney Ellis, D-Houston. "And we knew her track record as someone you could count on in the heat of battle ... She's been a leader on women's health and women's issues."

Davis has clashed with Texas Republicans almost since arriving in the Capitol, earning derision and respect for her ability to dissect a complex bill and make her opponents squirm under tough questioning.

In 2011, Davis led a short filibuster on the final night of the regular session that torpedoed a key budget bill to allow the state to cut more than $4 billion from public education. Despite warnings that the filibuster would be futile because Perry would immediately call lawmakers back into special session to pass the bill again, Davis and Democrats carried on, taking the short-term victory.

Hundreds of orange-clad abortion rights activists who jammed into the Senate gallery Tuesday cheered her arrival with thunderous applause and shouts of "Go Wendy!" and "Thank you Wendy!"

Davis waved to acknowledge their support but also to urge for quiet and respect the chambers rules of decorum

"I'm rising on the floor today to humbly give voice to thousands of Texans who are being ignored," she said when her speech began, later adding: "These voices have been silenced by a governor who made blind partisanship and personal political ambition the priority of our state."

An avid runner and cyclist, Davis was in good shape for the physical challenge of standing and talking for nearly half a day.

Because the rules wouldn't allow her to sit down, her chair was removed when she began her marathon speech. Davis wore pink tennis shoes and shifted her weight from hip to hip as the hours ticked by. Later, someone helped her with a back brace — prompting a complaint from a Republican lawmaker.

To stay sharp, Davis slowly circled her desk, pausing occasionally to read from a large binder on her desk. When a solitary male protester stood in the Senate gallery and shouted, "Abortion is genocide!" Davis calmly kept talking to without interruption as the man was removed by security.

At one point, Davis fought through tears to read testimony from women who opposed the bill and described their personal stories. —

Minute by minute: How the abortion vote happened

The final hours of Texas' special legislative session descended into chaos overnight as hundreds of protesters yelled to drown out the vote on a tough abortion restrictions bill. To make matters worse, the timing of the vote as it was recorded on the Legislature's computer system changed right before people's eyes.

Here's how the confusion played out.

WHAT WAS THE DEADLINE TO PASS THE BILL?

Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst had until 11:59 Tuesday to pass Senate Bill 5, an omnibus abortion bill that was widely expected to shut down 37 out of 42 existing abortion clinics. More than 400 opponents of the bill packed the Senate gallery to watch Sen. Wendy Davis, D-Fort Worth, attempt to filibuster it for nearly 11 hours until the end of the special session.

At about 11:45 p.m., Republican Sen. Robert Duncan was presiding over the Senate and using all of his authority to stop Davis while ignoring Democrats who were trying to use parliamentary rules to stall the vote. That's when the crowd erupted in jeers, claps and shouts of "Shame!"

WHAT TIME DID THE VOTE HAPPEN?

Time ticked on until some clocks and mobile phones showed midnight. Just as the mood in the gallery began to shift from anger to celebration, Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst called all of the senators to the front podium to register their votes. He ignored Democrats who held up their phones, declaring that it was past midnight and that the session had expired.

Republican lawmakers voted anyway and said that the vote was valid because they had started at 11:59 p.m. The votes were tallied into a computer system operated by the secretary of the senate.

WHY WAS THERE CONFUSION ABOUT THE VOTE?

Some reporters, including those working for The Associated Press, checked the computer system to see what day the votes were registered.

When the votes first appeared, the date next to them read "6/26/2013." Moments later other reporters opened the same record and the date read "6/25/2013."

A reporter for The AP videoed his computer screen while refreshing the page, capturing the date changing from Wednesday to Tuesday.

The date of the vote had changed.

Democratic senators protested. Senate officials refused to answer questions about the change.

Sen. Chuy Hinojosa of McAllen produced two computer-generated print-outs of the vote tally — one time-stamped Wednesday and the other dated Tuesday.

Sen. Carlos Uresti, D-San Antonio, checked the official journal clerk's handwritten log, and it showed the vote took place at 12:02 a.m. Wednesday.

HOW WAS THE BILL DECLARED DEAD?

Armed with that evidence, the entire Senate met behind closed doors with Dewhurst. He emerged minutes later and tersely declared that while the vote was valid, the protesters had kept him from signing the bill in the presence of the Senate, and therefore, the bill had not been finalized. He said the vote stood but that the bill was dead.

He then hinted that Gov. Rick Perry would call another special session to pass the bill, saying, "See you soon."