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With Filibuster, Wendy Davis Talks Herself Into Political Spotlight

State Sen. Wendy Davis' controversial decision to torpedo the 82nd Legislative session with a filibuster has catapulted the Fort Worth Democrat into the spotlight, which she has seized to try to mobilize the state’s downtrodden and outnumbered Democrats.

Sen. Wendy Davis, D-Fort Worth, during her filibuster at the end of the the 82nd legislature on Sunday, June 3, 2011. The action, in opposition to $4 billion in cuts to education, tipped lawmakers into an immediate special session.

Texas Democrats never had much hope in this Legislature, where Republicans have a huge majority and an unshakeable drive to slash spending without raising taxes or dipping into the state’s giant savings account.

Don’t tell that to state Sen. Wendy Davis. The Fort Worth Democrat effectively torpedoed the 82nd legislative session by refusing to settle for a school finance plan that underfunded public schools by $4 billion.

Davis’ Senate filibuster last Sunday night, which prompted Gov. Rick Perry to send exhausted lawmakers poised to adjourn after a grueling budget battle back into an immediate special session, has quickly gained legendary status. Longtime political observers say it surpasses former Republican Rep. Arlene Wohlgemuth’s 1997 “Memorial Day Massacre” — a single parliamentary move that killed dozens of bills — in notoriety.

And it has catapulted the petite, eloquent and seemingly fearless political firecracker into the spotlight, which she’s seized to try to mobilize the state’s downtrodden and outnumbered Democrats and to take jabs at Perry’s potential presidential aspirations.

“I’m seeing hope being expressed by people who really felt it was useless, and that their voices didn’t matter,” said Davis, who wouldn’t rule out the possibility of her own gubernatorial run down the road. “When people think someone is standing up and fighting for them, it gives them hope.”

The filibuster was a defining moment for Davis, a twice-divorced single mother who had her first daughter as a teenager, was the first in her family to go to college, and worked her way from junior college and a Tarrant County trailer park to Harvard law school and the Fort Worth City Council. But what effect, if any, the moment will have on school funding or Davis’ political future remains unclear.

Some suggest it was a final hurrah for a Democrat angry over her party’s increasing ineffectiveness in a Legislature run by Republicans — and the recent GOP-led redistricting that severely threatens her reelection. They say if a special session moves the ball on school funding at all, it will be minimal, and instead opens the door for Perry’s other priorities, including the “sanctuary cities” immigration measure Senate Democrats successfully fended off during the regular session. And even if nothing changes with the school finance plan, they argue, at least parents, teachers and school districts will have the opportunity to challenge it.

“There’s a false bravado there — and no end game,” said Bill Hammond, a former Republican legislator and president of the Texas Association of Business. “Once the people realize what she has wrought, they’ll see the folly in her efforts.”

But others say it’s a watershed moment for a rising political star, who gave new life to disheartened Democrats with her efforts to derail a fly-by-night school finance plan, and lit up the Twittersphere with speculation about a Wendy Davis run for “U.S. Senate/Governor/President/Queen of the Universe/Whatever She Wants.” They argue laying the blame for a special session on Davis is ridiculous, because Perry already intended to call one for windstorm insurance and congressional redistricting.

“This decision to filibuster, and the visibility and scrutiny it will bring along with it, will give people the opportunity to really see her credentials,” said Sen. Rodney Ellis, D-Houston. “There’s no question she’s articulate and well-educated, but now she’s also perceived as gutsy.” 

Davis, 48, said her conscience guided her actions in the Legislature’s upper chamber. “I wouldn’t have done it,” Davis said, “if I didn’t think we had a chance to change the school funding plan.” During an interview in her office buried in the bowels of the Texas Capitol, Davis said she was disappointed by how she and fellow Senate Democrats debated this session’s deep budget cuts, as if, she said, “there wasn’t any fire in our bellies.” 

She confesses to being blindsided by the attention. In the rough and tumble world of social media, she’s been heralded as a hero and trashed as a traitor. Media outlets from around the state have descended on her office. But the always-polished Davis is handling it like a pro — one who may have higher political aspirations. After Perry effectively called her a “show horse” in a Monday press conference, Davis took him on, accusing him of using partisan tactics to help further “his presidential desires.” On Tuesday, after another Perry press conference, Davis ended up in the center of a media gaggle just feet from his office door. Though she said her first priority is winning a second term in the Senate, Davis wouldn’t rule out seeking other posts inside the state Capitol.

“In terms of increasing her profile, she has absolutely succeeded on that front,” said Bill Miller, an Austin-based lobbyist who’s worked with candidates across the political spectrum. “But that also puts a big target on her as well.”

Davis says she is not concerned. “I’ve never worried about payback,” she said. “People are hungry for leadership that’s not afraid of political consequence.” And unlike most lawmakers, who operate in a system of caucuses, coalitions and allegiances, Davis often behaves as if she’s got nothing to lose.

Maybe it’s because she doesn’t. This session, Republicans redrew her Senate district in a way that ensures a tough — perhaps futile — campaign, and a likely legal battle over the new map. If the Texas Senate doesn’t work out, Davis says she’ll go back to practicing public and regulatory law, and with a good story.

She was raised in Richland Hills by a mother with a sixth grade education, who supported her four children by working at a Braum’s ice cream shop. By age 14, Davis was selling subscriptions to the Fort Worth Star-Telegram and working at an Orange Julius in a shopping mall food court. By 19, she’d gotten married and divorced, and was living in a trailer park with her baby girl. “We were,” she says, “the working poor.” Despite her circumstances, Davis finished high school, junior college and Texas Christian University, where she graduated first in her class. She got remarried and had a second daughter. And she was admitted to Harvard Law, where she spent the next three years commuting back and forth between Boston and Fort Worth.

Davis, whose daughters are now grown, got divorced again in 2003, and spent five terms on the Fort Worth City Council before narrowly defeating longtime lawmaker Kim Brimer in 2008 to enter the Texas Senate. At the Capitol, Davis, who was named Rookie of the Year by Texas Monthly in 2009, is the subject of deep intrigue, from her romantic relationship with former Austin Mayor Will Wynn, to her fashion-icon status under the Pink Dome. The joke at the Capitol is that Davis is the only state politician with better hair than Perry.

In her own chamber, she has ruffled more than a few feathers, speaking out against an environment she says is often hostile to women, offering amendment after amendment to bills she disagrees with, and now, filibustering to send school finance into overtime, despite divisions within the Senate’s Democratic caucus, and fears that Perry would retaliate by adding sanctuary cities legislation to his special session call. (As of Saturday, he hadn’t, but the betting in the Capitol is that he will.)

“I just fear we will end up in the same place with school finance, but have all this other risk — risk that for Hispanics, was not worth taking,” said Sen. Juan “Chuy” Hinojosa, D-McAllen.

Davis said she doesn’t respond well to political threats, and that she won’t be silenced just because Perry has the opportunity to revisit “bad policy” during the special session. “That’s on him, not me,” she said. “I will not, and do not, take that responsibility.”

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Economy Public education State government 82nd Legislative Session Budget Education Griffin Perry Juan "Chuy" Hinojosa Rick Perry Rodney Ellis Texas Legislature Wendy Davis