For Dewhurst, a Critical Failure With a Large Audience

Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst ends the 83rd regular session an announces a special session to begin at 6:00PM on May 27, 2013.
Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst ends the 83rd regular session an announces a special session to begin at 6:00PM on May 27, 2013.

David Dewhurst’s dream ended like a fairy tale: The clock struck 12 and the lieutenant governor’s bid for conservative redemption came to pieces.

Tuesday might have been his worst political day ever, adding speed to the political tailspin that began a year ago when he was upset by fellow Republican Ted Cruz in the race for U.S. Senate.

On Tuesday, Dewhurst led the Republican Senate into a loss heard all over the country, waiting too long to finally break a Fort Worth Democrat’s filibuster on abortion legislation and then losing the opportunity for a final victory in a procedural quagmire attended by hundreds of noisy reproductive rights activists.

It made Wendy Davis a hero for her side, and Dewhurst a goat for his.

"I didn't lose control of what we were doing," he told reporters when it was over, and clear that a contested vote near midnight had occurred just after the deadline instead of just before it. "We had an unruly mob."

That bit about the mob is true. Their deafening demonstration ate up precious minutes as midnight approached. But it was the lieutenant governor’s own fault that the crowd got within range of that hour, and his role in the failure of legislation that had an easy majority in the Senate is fodder for political opponents — including two statewide officials and a state senator from Houston — who are challenging Dewhurst in next March’s Republican primary.

Now there is a stronger rationale for the candidacies of Sen. Dan Patrick, R-Houston; Agriculture Commissioner Todd Staples;and Land Commissioner Jerry Patterson, three Republicans who’ll share next year’s ballot with him.

Patterson was first out of the gate with a public critique, sending an email to supporters Wednesday morning that laid the whole mess at Dewhurst’s feet.

“Democracy took a hit last night in the Texas Senate,” he wrote. “Who is to blame for this breakdown of decorum and procedure in the state's highest legislative chamber? Everybody is pointing fingers this morning, but in the end, the responsibility for the Texas Senate falls on one man. The lieutenant governor of Texas is solely responsible for the Senate.”

Why would the Republican management in state government create such a lovely stage for Davis and her fellow Democrats, who had been threatening to run the clock for several days leading up to what turned out to be a filibuster that put her in the national spotlight. If you’re going to re-enact a Frank Capra movie, it seems silly to give Jimmy Stewart’s role to someone else.

It wasn’t the first evidence, or even the strongest evidence, of the lieutenant governor’s tin ear.

Legislative sessions seem built to come down to the wire. But the special session lasted 30 days and dealt with only four issues. One — redistricting, the first thing Gov. Rick Perry put on the agenda — is the only thing that passed, and it didn’t pass until Monday.

Perry added three more issues — abortion, transportation and a criminal justice tweak — two weeks into the session. At the time, legislative committees were traveling the state for hearings on redistricting and the House was in recess for another week. A tight schedule, but a workable one, according to state leaders including Dewhurst.

The lieutenant governor has called the abortion legislation the most important thing on his plate. He publicly implored the governor to put it on the special session agenda when it didn’t move during the regular session. And then, when the first debate in the Senate predictably turned into a public debate, Dewhurst went out for dinner at an Austin steakhouse populated by lobbyists and other Capitol types who eagerly broadcast his presence.

When the special session began (and, to be fair, before abortion was on the agenda), Dewhurst took a long-planned trip to France. That had to do with the dedication of a D-Day museum, a project that involves some family history for Dewhurst, whose father was on a bomber crew. Most lawmakers gave him a pass, even if they rolled their eyes at the same time.

When it came time for Dewhurst to give someone a pass, it was the last day of the session, and he decided that the most important issue on his plate was more important than the funeral of the father of Sen. Leticia Van de Putte, D-San Antonio. It’s true that the funeral was held on the last day of a special session with several bills still in play.

But it’s also true that the first bill in line — because Dewhurst put it there — was the abortion bill. He and everybody else knew there would be a filibuster and that it might imperil other legislation on tap.

He might have asked senators to vote out the other bills, gone to the funeral and let Davis have a short filibuster on Tuesday night. That would have completed the other business, taken some of the spotlight away from Davis and set up a story for Republicans coming back in another special session to get their work done in a way the Democrats couldn’t block.

Or he could have used the rules to cut off the filibuster, which turned out to be the strategy he pursued. He assured the governor and House leaders that the abortion legislation would pass on Tuesday. But the day slipped away from him.

Senators are allowed to talk as long as they want, and when they do that in a strategic way — to delay a vote, for instance — it’s a filibuster. Those can be stopped if the senator doing the talking breaks the rules of the filibuster, yielding the floor to another senator, sitting or leaning on furniture, or going off subject. It’s a three-strikes-you’re-out rule, and Senate Republicans decided that was the way to go.

Instead of the customary empty chamber where one senator filibusters and friendly colleagues take shifts asking questions to pass the time, senators stuck around for Davis’ debate, watching for mistakes. They eventually found three that Dewhurst would sustain, and the filibuster came to a halt. But it was late and his rulings were questionable — to some of the senators and most of the spectators — and a challenge pushed Dewhurst out of the chair.

The parliamentary wrangling and the protesters ate up the rest of the time, and when Sen. Robert Duncan, R-Lubbock, finally called a vote on the abortion bill, it turned out that the midnight deadline had passed.

Republicans had the votes they needed, and the conversations about whether and when to come back and try again started right away on Wednesday morning.

They might be able to put the bill back together, but Dewhurst’s fortunes are another issue. In his attempt at a political revival, he flopped on stage with everyone watching.

Now he has to ask that audience for another term.

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