Wendy Davis: From Fort Worth neighborhood leader to international media sensation

Fort Worth Star-TelegramJune 27, 2013 

Sen. Wendy Davis was being showered with national and international media attention Wednesday in the wake of her filibuster that led to the defeat of a bill that would have shut down most of the abortion clinics in the state.

She continued to be a social media sensation with soaring numbers of Twitter followers — topping 93,000 as of 9 p.m. Wednesday, up from 1,200 the day before the filibuster. She appeared on CNN and was bombarded with other media interview requests. Texas Monthly declared her to be potentially the most powerful Texas Democrat since Ann Richards.

And in perhaps the ultimate sign of celebrity, Davis had the story of her filibuster retold with substantial embellishment — including having Davis clad in a superhero garb — by Taiwan-based Next Media Animation.

It’s been a remarkable journey for the former Fort Worth councilwoman, who first attracted public notice campaigning against zoo expansion as a neighborhood leader.

Her appeal resonated, said Joel Burns, who succeeded her on the Fort Worth City Council, because the issues she chooses to champion — educational funding last term, steep curbs on abortion on Tuesday — have a very personal basis for the senator.

Davis was a single mother who struggled to go back to school and ended up valedictorian at Texas Christian University, then an honors graduate at Harvard’s law school, he said.

In a chamber dominated by men, many of them conservative Republicans, the 50-year-old state senator spoke out on a highly emotive issue.

At one point, she read a letter from a Texas woman who had an ectopic pregnancy — a complication created when an embryo implants outside the uterine cavity — and was forced to make a difficult decision, with Davis confiding to the chamber that she had faced the same dilemma, relating her own abortion experience.

Burns, who watched the entire episode, disclosed that Davis was equipped with a catheter, but nixed an offer of a continuous IV drip.

No food or water is permitted during filibusters, and the rules were made even tighter on Tuesday, he claimed, saying she was deprived of the customary hard candy and ice chips. At one point, there were moves to confiscate a stack of letters from women as a “fire hazard,” but the effort was dropped, said Burns, whose partner is Davis’ longtime political consultant, J.D. Angle.

Was it a gutsy, Texas-style remake of Frank Capra’s Mr. Smith Goes to Washington?

Unlike Jimmy Stewart as the naive, but idealistic legislator, Davis arrived in Austin without illusions and fully equipped to deal with challenges, having sparred with deeply vested interests on City Council votes.

The 1994 zoo controversy over the annexation of an archery range for parking had pitted Davis, as Mistletoe Heights neighborhood president, against some of Fort Worth’s most influential families and their on-demand power brokers. It ended up costing her a promised job, she asserted, with a prestigious downtown law firm.

From neighborhood association, she went on to the City Council in 1996 where she angered fire and police unions over the growing cost of pensions and other issues, while winning over skeptical downtown business interests.

Last legislative session, she was able to block the cut in education funding but only temporarily, and with the abortion curbing bill, her star-turn performance is energizing her opponents along with inspiring her supporters.

Noting the appeals by Davis backers for political contributions that began even before the filibuster started, Tea Party-backed Republican Konni Burton, who hopes to challenge Davis in the next election, issued her own appeals for $5 donations on Tuesday.

“Wendy Davis got a shout out from [House Speaker] Nancy Pelosi and Barack Obama for her efforts against the rights of the unborn,” Burton said. “It's not just that she disagrees with conservatives on how valuable life is. It's that she decided to thwart the will of the voters of Texas to play to the far left of her own political party.”

And Dr. Mark Shelton, a former Republican state representative who lost to Davis in the last election and is expected to face off with Burton in the primary, also derided Davis’ filibuster for blocking other important legislation, like a transportation bill. And he defended the abortion bill, saying it would have ensured the procedures would be done in supervised surgical centers, not small clinics.

For the moment, Davis’ supporters are reveling in the broad attention her stand has grabbed. “It was not that it was the right moment,” said Deborah Peoples, Tarrant County’s Democratic Party chairwoman. “It was actually the right thing to do.”

“For too long, people have said Texas is a red state. And for so long we believed it. But Tuesday night showed it’s not,” Peoples added. “What Sen. Davis did was to provide a light in the darkness for many people who needed someone in Texas to speak out for them.”

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