Jim Vertuno and Will Weissert
AUSTIN, Texas: As she spoke late into the night, railing against proposed abortion restrictions, a former Texas teen mom catapulted from little-known junior state senator to national political superstar in pink tennis shoes.
Wendy Davis needed last-minute help from shrieking supporters to run out the clock on the special session of the state Legislature and kill the bill, but her old-fashioned filibuster earned her widespread praise from fellow abortion-rights supporters — including a salute from President Barack Obama.
Davis was on her feet for more than 12 hours Tuesday — actively speaking most of that time — as Democrats sought to use her one-woman marathon speech to derail a bill that would have closed nearly every abortion clinic in the nation’s second-largest state.
As a midnight deadline loomed and Davis continued to talk, political junkies from coast-to-coast tuned in via Internet, and Davis’ followers on Twitter ballooned from around 1,200 to more than 79,000.
Suddenly, photos of the running shoes wore were everywhere and #StandWithWendy was trending.
Obama’s official Twitter account posted: “Something special is happening in Austin tonight.” Similar messages of support came from Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.
All this for a 50-year-old, Harvard-trained attorney and one-time single mother from Fort Worth, once dismissed by Republican Gov. Rick Perry as a “show horse.” Until recently, Davis was perhaps best known for dating former Austin Mayor Will Wynn.
But Davis’ sudden surge in popularity came as no surprise to Texas Democrats, who chose her as the face of the battle to block the bill.
“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 ultimately lasted about 11 hours before Republicans complained she had strayed off topic and cut her off. But that action prompted a lengthy debate with Democrats and deafening protests from hundreds of orange-clad abortion rights activists in the gallery that spilled past the midnight to kill all pending legislation.
Even after she’d stopped speaking, however, Davis continued to stand for more than an additional hour while her colleagues argued about whether her filibuster was really over.
“Thanks to the powerful voices of thousands of Texans, #SB5 is dead,” Davis tweeted Wednesday morning. “An incredible victory for Texas women and those who love them.”
Davis starting working at age 14 to help support a household of her single mother and 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.
She returned to Texas to become a Fort Worth city council member before upsetting an incumbent Republican for 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.”
Davis narrowly retained her Senate seat during elections last year, but her victory allowed the Democrats to hold 12 of the chamber’s 31 seats, just enough to block contentious bills from coming to the floor. She is up for re-election again in 2014, though Democratic operatives have already begun a whisper campaign urging her to run for governor.
A Democrat hasn’t won statewide office in Texas since 1994, but those whispers are sure to get louder now. An email from Battleground Texas, a much-ballyhooed effort by former Obama campaign veterans to energize Latino voters and turn the state blue, read Wednesday: “Last night an incredible thing happened. Wendy Davis stood up to Texas Republicans.”
Davis has clashed with the GOP almost since arriving at the Capitol, earning derision and respect for her ability to dissect a complex bill and make her opponents squirm under tough questioning.
In 2011, she 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.
Tuesday’s win could also be short-lived. Perry may call lawmakers back for a second, 30-day special session — though he hasn’t yet announced his plans.
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 didn’t allow her to sit down, her chair was removed. Davis, who at one point fought tears to read testimony from women opposed to the bill, shifted her weight from hip to hip and paced around her desk to stay sharp as the hours ticked by.
Later, a colleague helped her with a back brace — prompting a complaint from a Republican lawmaker.
“My back hurts,” Davis said when it was over. “I don’t have a lot of words left.”