Well over 100,000 people watched the incredible culmination of Wendy Davis’ filibuster in the Texas Senate on grainy livestream videos, but the story from within the chamber, as told by witness and Texas politics insider Rachel Farris, reveals an emotional saga invisible to the cameras.
The Real Deal
Rachel Farris first met Wendy Davis during her first Texas Senate race in 2008. “I was convinced that she is the future of Texas,” Farris recalled. “She is the real deal.”
Farris has been following and supporting Wendy Davis since then, through two bruising Senate race victories. Knowing that Davis was planning a 13 hour filibuster to protect women’s access to abortions in Texas, Farris went straight from work on Tuesday to the Texas Senate to witness the most exhilarating night in politics in recent memory. (Farris' own post about that night can be found here.)
“I got there around 6 and stood in line for 51 minutes.” By the evening, Wendy Davis’ filibuster could have been mistaken for a high-end New York club with its long line and guards letting people through on a one-in-one-out basis. Once inside, however, the atmosphere was painfully stilted.
“The mood of the room was extremely tense,” said Farris. “We were not able to clap or make any noise, really, so there was a lot of repressed emotion.”
With Wendy Davis looking to run out the clock, Texas Republicans could only watch her vigilantly and hope that she stepped out of line. Senator Davis could not sit, lean, eat, drink, go to the bathroom or stray off topic (no reading the phone book like the filibusters of yesteryear). The physical constraints she managed unambiguously. It was the last point, staying on topic, where Republicans sought to challenge her at every opportunity.
“It was extremely difficult to watch so many ridiculous rulings and debates over what was or was not germane and not be able to speak,” Farris described. “It was really frustrating at times, but in order to be able to stay we had to not do that, so it was a sacrifice we had to make.”
Davis’ supporters also had to stay in line and not speak or make any noise, or they would be kicked out.
A Chance Encounter
No one could have anticipated how the night would end, but Farris happened on a foreshadowing moment when she briefly stepped out of the senate chamber. Farris ran into Senator Leticia Van De Putte, who would later ignite the crowd with her line, "At what point must a female senator raise her hand or her voice to be recognized over her male colleagues in the room?" The day had been a very emotional one for Senator Van De Putte.
“She had just left her father’s funeral,” said Farris. “so she got out of the car and I just went up to her and gave her a hug. We were both crying.
“She felt as though it was her duty to be there, and that’s what her father would have wanted, and that he was smiling down on her.”
Knowing Senator Van De Putte, Farris had an inkling that she would make her mark on the proceedings before the night was over.
“She’s not afraid to speak her mind, and I did have a sense that she was going to do something when I heard her start talking, because she hates to be pandered to, like any woman, and she was definitely speaking in a tone that I could tell she was kind of saying, ‘ok, I’m playing nice, but only because I have to,’ and I was thinking, ‘oh she’s going to say something here.’”
It was then that Senator Van De Putte delivered her fateful line, twelve minutes before midnight, and the crowd erupted into cheers.
"There was nothing left to do but scream."
“When you sit for—some of those people had been there 10 hours—and you don’t say anything, and you listen to constant complaints or objections about something being not germane or some rule being broken, but then you watch these senators, these Republican senators, breaking all the rules and you’ve been quiet the entire time, the natural reaction is that you just can’t keep it in any longer, and I think that’s what it came down to was that there was nothing left to do but scream.”
There were a few futile attempts to get the crowd to stop, but they fell flat. The collective force of Wendy Davis’ supporters had been unleashed.
“There were way more people outside the gallery than there were in the gallery. And I think once they heard us cheering, it didn’t matter what we were cheering for, they were cheering, and once we realized how loud it was going to be, we just kept going. The Senators on the floor convened, they were talking, strategizing on the floor while things were happening, and you can’t have a quiet conversation on the floor, talking, strategizing, while people are screaming, and once we realized that, there were still about five minutes to go, but it didn’t matter, no one wanted to stop.”
Ironically, it was when the rules broke down entirely that actual democracy really started to happen.
“The Democratic senators—they were just looking around, kind of incredulously, they were smiling, all of them were smiling. It was really cool to watch and be a part of. You just feel like you’re truly having a voice and an influence on the process, and, no matter what happens we were glad to have that.”
The Wendy Davis Story is Just Beginning
As for Senator Davis?
“She goes to the governor’s office,” said Farris. “I think she’s going to run for governor, and I think she’s going to win, and I think she’s going to be an amazing governor. She lost her first election ever when she ran for city council, and she told me once that she hates to lose. She realizes that to be in Texas and to be a woman in politics, you have to outwork everyone and show that you are just as capable if not more so.”
Wendy Davis did outwork everyone on Tuesday, and her colleagues and supporters provided just enough to push her over the finish line. If Farris is right, and if Tuesday was any indication, that same pattern will propel Wendy Davis to the next big step in a promising political career.