This wasn't supposed to happen. When Governor Rick Perry called a special legislative session and, later, tacked abortion onto the agenda, he was effectively declaring that the proposed restrictions, some of the toughest in the country, had enough support to become law. And he was right, in a way. Comfortable majorities of both the House and Senate -- if not of Texas as a whole -- were eager to see them pass.
What Perry misjudged, and misjudged rather badly, was the strength of the grassroots opposition to Republican lawmakers' anti-abortion crusade and, more importantly, Wendy Davis.
Davis didn't get to filibuster for 13 hours, as she had planned on. She'd made it through 11 hours of talking -- no food, water, or bathroom breaks -- when Republicans decided Davis had strayed off topic by discussing a previous session's law requiring abortion seekers to first get a sonogram. They'd decided the same thing earlier in the night when Davis referenced the Planned Parenthood budget, and she was also penalized for getting help from a colleague putting on a back brace. And under the Senate's filibuster rules, it's three strikes, you're out.
Democrats then unleashed some parliamentary trickery of their own. Once Davis was forced to stop talking not long after 10 p.m., her Senate colleagues picked up the slack by making an absurd number of parliamentary inquiries to stall a vote.
This strategy managed to eat up a considerable amount of clock, but then, as the minutes ticked away to the midnight end of the special session, Republicans ended debate and prepared to vote.
Then something crazy happened, crazier than the all-night citizen filibusters and absurd parliamentary tactics and rape-kits-prevent-pregnancy claims that had come before. The Senate gallery, packed tight with orange-clad pro-choice demonstrators, began to cheer. The din was such that Republicans were unable to conduct business and, despite pleas from the Senate president that they stop, they kept at it for a solid 15 or 20 minutes. That was just enough to push the session over the midnight deadline, thereby nullifying the vote senators eventually got around to taking.
Several hours later, Lieutenant Governor David Dewhurst admitted defeat. He told reporters that the omnibus abortion bill was intended to protect women and babies but was derailed by "an unruly mob using Occupy Wall Street tactics."
"I didn't lose control of what we were doing," he said, according to the Texas Tribune. "We had an unruly mob."
Turn the tables, and he'd be describing them as heroic grassroots activists, but never mind that. In their zeal to pass ever greater restrictions on abortion, Dewhurst and his colleagues have unleashed something it seems that they cannot control.
Part of that is Davis who, already widely considered to be the Democrats' best shot at the Governor's mansion, readily took the national stage the GOP built for her yesterday. Hundreds of thousands of people, maybe more, watched Davis' filibuster live footage online. #standwithwendy was trending on Twitter for most of the day. British comedian Ricky Gervais, who doesn't typically weigh in on Texas politics, decided she deserves a place in the "pantheon of American heroes."
And then there was this:
— Barack Obama (@BarackObama) June 26, 2013
More than that, last night marks a political watershed, the type of thing that can jump start the process of turning a solidly red state purple, if not blue. Whether Texas Dems can take advantage remains to be seen, but the GOP certainly gave them a lot of ammo.
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"[I feel] tired, but really happy," Davis told reporters after her victory was sealed in the early hours of Wednesday morning. "It does in a sense [feel historic] because of the energy of the people who were here. I'm pleased to know the spotlight is shining on Texas, on the failure of our current leadership, but a spotlight is also shining on how great we are because we are an incredible state made up of incredible, spirited people who step up and make a difference when it's necessary to do that."
She also objected to Dewhurst's characterization of her supporters as an "unruly mob"
"I think that's a disservice to the people who were here," she said, according to The Dallas Morning News. "The people who were here were justifiably upset about an attempt to infringe upon a constitutional right they hold dear, primarily one that would have an impact on women but also on the men who love them."
The fight may not yet be over. Perry could call another special session to address abortion and the two other measures -- transportation funding and juvenile justice -- that didn't get passed in Republicans' eagerness to make Davis filibuster for as long as possible. But will he want to weather the outrage, not to mention the embarrassment, and cede the national stage to Davis once again? That remains to be seen.