Wendy Davis on Her Epic Filibuster & Whether She'll Run for President

Mar 1, 2018 at 8:00 a.m. ET
Image: Getty Images/Design: Ashley Britton/SheKnows
Winning Women

When Wendy Davis first burst onto the national political scene, she was a state senator from Texas who completed an 11-hour filibuster in opposition of legislation that threatened to severely limit access to reproductive health care in the state. Now, nearly five years later, she’s still standing up for the rights of women and marginalized populations. SheKnows recently had a chance to speak with Davis about her thoughts on running for office, her current projects and that historic filibuster.

Fili-busting onto the national stage

At 11:11 a.m. on June 25, 2013, Davis stood up in the senate chamber of the Texas Capitol wearing her now-iconic pink sneakers. Her goal was to stay there and talk until midnight, at which point time would have run out on a special legislative session called because of a bill that would have restricted abortion rights in the second-largest state (by both population and land area) in the country.

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Senate Bill 5 had already passed once in the Senate, with every Democrat except one voting against it, Davis says. At that point, it went over to the House, which added a ban on abortions after 20 weeks. Because of that change, the legislators knew that it had to go back over to the senate on the very last day of the session.

“The way the rules work in Texas, unlike in the U.S. Senate, is that we can’t choose to filibuster at any time — just when we have the opportunity to run the clock out on a session,” Davis explains. “We only have this opportunity if a bill of tremendous importance is coming in for passage before the session ends — it’s very rare.”

Typically, she says, the party in power understands that if there’s a controversial bill that they want to pass, they need to do it early in session so there’s no threat of this filibuster situation happening. Davis says that it was a “strategic misstep on behalf of Republican members of the House” to try to pass this abortion bill on the last day of a special session.

Luckily, Davis and the Democrats had a few days to determine whether they wanted to go through with a filibuster, who would stand and filibuster the bill, and their strategy for filling 13 hours on the Senate floor with material related to the bill. Another way that Texas filibuster rules deviate from those in the U.S. Senate is that all of the talking involved has to be on the topic of the bill in question — so no getting off topic or reading the phone book is allowed.

Ultimately, the Texas Democrats in the Senate decided to filibuster and that Davis was the person best fit for the job, and at 11:11 a.m. on the last day of the special session, she took the floor.

Initially, Davis says, she purposefully avoided looking at the clock for as long as she could, feeling a little stressed about the mental and physical stamina required to get through the full 13 hours.

“The first time I remember looking at the clock, it was between three and four in the afternoon, and that was about the time that the Republican Senators started calling points of order on me, and it was at that point that I realized they were going to be playing dirty pool,” Davis says.

“Points of order” — a tactic used in legislative bodies that calls out apparent violations of the chamber’s rules, frequently as a stalling tactic — had never been called before in Texas history, she added.

On top of that, there are even more strict rules for filibusters in Texas that she had to contend with, including not being able to drink anything, lean on the podium or take breaks to go to the restroom. They also have to be conducted single-handedly, so her colleagues were not able to step in to give her some relief.

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Davis says that in Texas, filibusters are likely so rare because they're a test of physical endurance.

Fortunately, she came prepared with a catheter and a bag strapped to her leg to eliminate the need for bathroom trips. But there was no way around the ban on water, which concerned Davis.

“I really worried going into it that I was going to get really thirsty and have one of those Marco Rubio moments of dry mouth,” she adds.

While that didn’t happen, Davis did start getting angry after being called out by Republicans for breaking filibuster rules: first for allegedly straying “off topic” by discussing Planned Parenthood’s budget, and second, for attempting to put on a back brace.

“I started getting angry and I’m really happy that I did,” Davis says. “And the anger and the doubling down of what I was doing […] kind of put me into this super-focused area. I would liken it to taking a really long exam — whether it was a law school entrance exam or the SAT — you get to so focused in that moment that time starts flying, and you’re really centered around the specific test ahead of you, and your brain is really in this focused overdrive. That’s where I went. I wasn’t really noticing what was happening around me on the gallery and on the floor.”

Ultimately, around 10 p.m. that night, Senate Republicans gave Davis her third strike (for discussing a 2011 fetal sonogram law they deemed to be off-topic from Senate Bill 5). Breaking with tradition — in which the Senate voted on whether to end the filibuster — the final point of order was sustained, and after around 11 hours, Davis’s time on the floor came to an end. The bill did go to a vote, but not until after midnight, so it did not pass.

"Deeds, not words"

Davis ran for governor of Texas in 2014 and once her bid was over, she moved on to her next project: Deeds Not Words — an organization that helps people actually take action for causes they believe in instead of just talking about it.

Following the filibuster, she was invited to speak across the country and kept getting asked the same question: What do we do?

“It was very clear to me that we didn’t have an apathy issue on our hands — we had a problem with understanding how to connect passion to action,” Davis explains. “And so Deeds Not Words was really founded to try and do that.” 

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The name of the organization comes from the suffragette movement, which used the phrase in the context of being tired of talking about getting the right to vote and wanting to see actual progress.

“It really was timely, I felt like, because we’ve kind of gotten into this place where, through the power of social media, we do a lot of talking to each other about issues,” Davis says. “And that’s a good thing — there’s a lot of information that’s shared and increasing awareness. But then there’s the 'What do I do now that I’m fired up?’ question.”

In addition to doing advocacy training in Texas, Deeds Not Words sends daily and weekly communications to those who sign up to inform, educate and motivate their readers as well as to give them specific suggestions of how they can take action in their own communities.

But will Davis take action by running for office again? For now, she says not to expect to see her name on the 2020 ballot.

“I likely will not make the leap to running for president in the next go-around,” she says, adding that the Democrats have a lot of solid female candidates, including Sen. Amy Klobuchar, Sen. Elizabeth Warren, Sen. Kamala Harris and Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand.

As far as Cecile Richards — the former president of Planned Parenthood — Davis didn’t reveal whether her fellow Texan had political aspirations, but did mention that she has a new book (Make Trouble) coming out in April that is equally about her personal journey and a call-to-action. Davis did say that she’s looking forward to what Richards will be doing next and that she thinks “she has some tricks up her sleeve.” 

Overall, Davis doesn’t think there will be a shortage of women “lining up and putting themselves forward to be the Democratic nominee” and that we’re likely to see women run as Republicans as well.

“I’m just excited that more and more women are seizing their rightful place in policy and political conversations,” Davis says.

Sen. Wendy Davis is participating in an event called The Brain During a Filibuster at the Rubin Museum in New York City on Friday, March 3, 2018, at 7 p.m. ET.

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