On Oct. 3, 2013, state Sen. Wendy Davis, D-Fort Worth, ended months of speculation when she announced her candidacy for governor of Texas. Held at the auditorium where she graduated from high school, her announcement settled the question of whether she’d run at the top of the ticket, but it’s also expected to open the way for Democratic candidates — so far conspicuously absent from statewide races — to step in and run for offices down the ballot.
Her widely-predicted entry into the race was originally expected closer to Labor Day, but the death of Davis’ father, Jerry Russell, an actor and founder of the noted Fort Worth theater Stage West, led her to postpone her announcement.
Davis was born Wendy Russell in West Warwick, R.I., on May 16, 1963, to Jerry and Virginia Russell. When Davis was 11, the family moved to Fort Worth, where her parents divorced within a few years. Davis’ mother gained custody of their four children, but struggled with limited child support.
Davis recounts a tough childhood. She got a job selling subscriptions to the Fort Worth Star-Telegram at age 14 and held several other jobs while still in high school. She describes herself in her younger years as a capable but not particularly diligent student.
While still in high school, Davis moved in with her boyfriend, who she later married. They had a daughter, Amber, before divorcing.
As a single mother working two jobs, Davis began studies at Tarrant County Community College. After two years, with the help of scholarships and student loans, she transferred to Texas Christian University, where she majored in English, graduating at the top of her class in 1990. She also met her second husband there, lawyer and former city councilman Jeff Davis, with whom she had her second daughter, Dru. The couple divorced in 2005. (Davis is currently in a relationship with former Austin mayor Will Wynn.)
Davis continued her education after TCU, pursuing a law degree from Harvard with Jeff Davis’ help; he cashed in his 401(k) to help finance the effort. She graduated Cum Laude in 1993, and clerked for U.S. District Judge Jerry L. Buchmeyer before joining the litigation section of the Fort Worth law firm Haynes & Boone in 1994.
In 1996, thrust into politics in part by her efforts to prevent an archery range in her neighborhood from being converted into a parking lot for the Fort Worth Zoo, Davis ran for the Fort Worth City Council’s District 9 seat. She made it to the runoff in a crowded field, but lost her first bid for public office by 90 votes. She ran again in 1999, this time winning, and was re-elected four times; she served as a councilmember until 2008.
Also in 1999, Davis became a part owner of Safeco Title Company. Then-husband Jeff Davis was president of that firm. When it was acquired by Republic Title in 2004, he was appointed chairman of the board for the Fort Worth division; she served as CEO there until 2009.
Currently, Davis works at two law firms: Cantey Hanger LLP, where she practises in an of counsel role, and at her own firm, Newby Davis, PLLC, which is headed by attorney Brian Newby, a brigadier general in the Texas Air National Guard and former chief of staff to Gov. Rick Perry. Newby Davis is a certified Minority /Women Enterprise, which allows it to advise public and private entities on legal requirements and best practices when hiring contractors.
After nine years of city politics, working chiefly on economic development and transportation issues, Davis resigned her council seat in January 2008 to run for the state Senate in district 10, which encompasses much of central Fort Worth. She weathered two legal challenges to her eligibility to narrowly defeat two-term Republican incumbent Sen. Kim Brimer — the only Republican state senator to lose his seat in that election.
After her first legislative session in 2009, both Texas Monthly and the AARP gave her freshman of the year awards. At the end of the 82nd session in 2011, with $4 billion in spending cuts to education awaiting passage by the Senate, Davis filibustered — briefly, in that instance, but long enough to derail the budget’s passage and send the Legislature into a special session. She made waves, and earned political stripes as a rising star in the embattled Texas Democratic Party.
Davis’ 2012 campaign for re-election to the state Senate was a hard-fought affair between her and Republican state Rep. Mark Shelton, who accused her of ethical lapses and self-serving behavior. Her margin of victory — 51 percent to 49 percent — was narrow, but enough to prevent the Republicans from gaining a supermajority in the Senate.
The first months of the 83rd legislative session in 2013 were notable for their comparative lack of drama — so much so that some were calling it the “kumbaya” session. But that comity began to fray as summer approached. As in 2011, abortion proved a polarizing issue, with Republicans offering a variety of measures to tighten rules on facilities offering the procedure and institute a ban on abortions after 20 weeks of gestation.
The proposals eventually found their way into an omnibus bill — Senate Bill 5 — passed by the House and sent back to the Senate for consideration. On June 25, 2013, the last day of the regular session, SB 5, along with transportation and criminal justice bills, were the final items for the Senate to consider before adjourning sine die. Davis launched into what would turn out to be a 12 ½ -hour-long filibuster that derailed — for the regular session — the abortion bill, as well as the other bills awaiting passage.
It also launched Davis into the national spotlight.
In Texas, both the House and Senate chambers offer videofeeds of legislative business — sessions, committee hearings and press conferences, for example. The quality of the feeds isn’t high, and the associated servers are easily overwhelmed, so in 2011, The Texas Tribune began broadcasting the feeds.
As Davis’ filibuster went on into the afternoon and evening, news of the political drama spread with viral speed across the Internet. Throngs of supporters and opponents of the bill, dressed in blue and orange respectively, had filled the Capitol, while on the Senate floor Davis held forth, wearing pink sneakers and at one point struggling with a back brace. Two hours before the midnight deadline for the end of the session, Davis was challenged on filibuster rules for the third time — all that was needed to end her marathon — by Sen. Donna Campbell, R-New Braunfels. Davis remained on her feet while her fellow Democrats tried to run out the clock, but it appeared Senate Republicans would have just enough time to quickly pass the bill.
Before that could happen, the crowd in the gallery, mostly wearing orange, erupted into a deafening roar. The Senate dissolved into confusion, the appointed hour came and went and SB5 (along with the transportation and criminal justice bills) went unpassed. By then, more than 180,000 viewers were watching the proceedings on their computer screens.
Perry — whom Davis, several Republicans and a Libertarian are seeking to replace — immediately called a special session in which the abortion bill was passed, mirroring the outcome of her 2011 filibuster, but supporters and opponents alike are galvanized as Davis makes her bid for statewide office. Her chief opponent, current Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott, is heavily favored, both for his conservative credentials and his campaign’s huge financial resources. But there is little doubt on either side that Davis has given a jolt to nearly moribund Texas Democrats.