Wendy Davis is a Texas state senator and graduate of Harvard Law School. She earned media attention on June 25 for filibustering Texas Senate Bill 5 (SB 5), which proposed adding restrictions to abortions. Davis, whose filibuster lasted for nearly eleven hours, spoke to staff writer Harleen Gambhir about the legacy of that night, the future of progressive causes in Texas, and the 2014 gubernatorial election.
HPR: Now that the state Senate has passed SB 5, what do you think is the legacy of your June 25th filibuster?
Wendy Davis: I hope that people are feeling engaged and empowered. And I think that is the case. Since the filibuster, there’s been an incredible outpouring of direct communication to me through social media, emails, phone calls, cards, and letters. What I see is that the filibuster tapped into something. It primarily tapped into a feeling of frustration. A lot of people in our state and country feel like their voices weren’t being heard and didn’t matter.
Even though that bill ultimately passed, the enthusiasm continues on. People feel like if they come together and fight hard for something they believe in, they can be successful. Even if it only meant success for that night or the few days that followed afterwards, I think people are feeling very empowered.
HPR: What is the plan to push forward on that success, both specifically on reproductive rights and generally for progressive causes in Texas?
Davis: It gives us an opportunity to have a more widespread conversation about what’s going on in Texas. We operate in a vacuum of communication in our state because we suffer such severe consequences from redistricting. The only election conversations that take place, which is where issues really tend to be highlighted, are in very partisan primary races. And there, the only thing that matters is speaking to people of ideological extremes, particularly the extremes of the conservative side.
For example, I think of the race between Ted Cruz and David Dewhurst. What they were talking about was usually extreme social perspectives. I don’t think that’s where most Texans line up, and I don’t think that’s what they want to be talking about. But there hasn’t really been a cohesive way to have that communication.
Going forward in Texas, if we have the opportunity to engage in a statewide general election, it gives a further platform for those conversations to take place and for us to talk about not just reproductive rights, but a broader sector of topics that Texans care about. People want us talking about issues that matter to them and to their families. Those issues are investing in good public education, making sure that we are creating the kind of workforce in Texas that will continue to attract and grow our economy, and making sure that we’re investing in the ability for people to care for their health through adequate resources—really a whole host of things.
But if you look at what the kind of highlighted topics of debate and conversation have been in Texas lately, it’s been about taking people’s rights away from them. It’s been about voter suppression and an immigration perspective that isn’t really in keeping with what values Texans possess. It’s been about a disinvestment in public education and in health care.
That’s what extreme right wing partisans want to see, but I don’t think it’s what Texans generally want to see.
HPR: You’ve indicated an interest in running for governor next year. Do you think a Democratic win would be possible in 2014?
Davis: I still haven’t made my decision about what I will do, but I’m very encouraged by the conversations that are taking place around that. I do believe it’s possible. I do believe there’s a path. It’s a very hard path, but we have to stop just writing Texas off and conceding before we ever even try.
HPR: I want to take you back to the night of the filibuster around 10:30 pm. You had been standing for many hours without food, breaks, or water. What was going through your mind at that time?
Davis: Early in the day, I started getting a little bit concerned about the fact that physically it would be more difficult than I had anticipated. But that only lasted for a little while, and it was pretty early in the day.
Afterwards, I just got so empowered by the stories I was reading that people had sent in. I felt empowered by a gallery of people who had sat so respectfully throughout the day. You literally could hear a pin drop in the gallery. I knew something important was happening.
I also, obviously, as the day went on understood that my Republican colleagues were going to do everything they could to try to shut the filibuster down and that they were willing to engage in tactics that were not in keeping with our Senate rules in order to accomplish it. And that gave me just enough anger to really want to push on. Sometimes anger can be a great motivator and make you forget everything else.
Honestly, I felt perfectly fine as the day was going on. My back was hurting a little bit, but other than that I was perfectly fine.
HPR: Did you get to meet with anyone who had been sitting in the stands afterwards?
Davis: I did. It wasn’t until about 3 in the morning our time when the Lieutenant Governor declared the bill dead, and some of my Democratic Senate colleagues and I went out into the rotunda. There were probably still five or six hundred people there waiting for the final word. And of course we had an opportunity to engage with the energy of the crowd then. It was really powerful.
HPR: Filibusters are rarely carried through physically on the national level. Do you think that reflects something about the level of commitment we have from legislators? Should we be demanding a greater commitment?
Davis: I don’t know. I hesitate to judge others’ commitment. I do respect the fact that in Texas, a filibuster is really a filibuster. It really is a test of physical and mental endurance. And because of that, it generally receives a tremendous amount of respect across the aisle. That didn’t happen this time. It didn’t receive the respect that it has always been given in our history.
I hope that if the shoe were on the other foot, as Democrats, we would adhere to the tradition and give the respect to the filibuster that it deserves, especially because it’s rare.
It’s rare in Texas, as opposed to what we see happening at the national level. Because it can only be used to kill a bill when the clock is running out on the session, and there are only so many last days of a legislative session. But it’s also rare because seldom does a really important bill come before us that late in the session.
So, it’s not something we have to be that concerned about in terms of whether it’s overused or abused. It’s a test of physical and mental endurance. That’s why it’s given so much deference and respect typically.
HPR: What is your favorite memory from Harvard Law School?
Davis: I’ll tell you what I thought was the most inspiring class I took. It was a class called “The Warren Court.” The professor taught that class from the perspective that a sociologist might teach something—not to think about case law and how it builds upon case law to set precedent. Instead, he asked us to really reflect on the individuals who were part of the Earl Warren Supreme Court: nine white men who, against the backdrop of a country that was not yet ready to go there, decided Brown v. Board of Education.
We read biographies and autobiographies of the justices, talked a lot about the social backdrop and the civil unrest around the issue. We read a beautiful book called Simple Justice by Richard Kluger.
It made me think about what people bring to the table, what their experiences are, and how to work with them—not just where they are today but based on where they came from. That’s what Earl Warren was able to do: draw upon from each justice something from their personal experiences that helped them arrive at that very courageous decision.
I mention that because I think about it a lot, in terms of what I’m called to do as a public servant and where that comes from. I try to stay in touch with that. I think it helps me to be a better public servant.
This interview has been edited and condensed.