Sen. Wendy Davis, the Democratic senator from Fort Worth who spent more than 10 hours filibustering a bill that would have imposed some of the strictest abortion regulations in the country, may have been the one carrying the torch in the Capitol on Tuesday night, but that torch wouldn’t have been lit without the thousands of Texas women and their supporters who rose up, mobilized and made their voices heard. Ultimately, they were the ones that killed Senate Bill 5.
After a day at work, I arrived at the Capitol at around 8 p.m. Tuesday night. Most people had been there since the start of Davis’s talking marathon at 11 a.m. and were camped out in various corners and crevices of the pink dome. The line to watch it all in the gallery was three levels high and continued down the east hall of the first floor. I managed to maneuver my way to the auditorium, one of two overflow rooms where easily 300 more people were glued to the monitors and Twitter.
At that point, Davis had been talking for almost eight hours with no food or water, and she hadn’t so much as leaned on her desk (per the rules of the filibuster, that stuff was all strictly forbidden). Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst had given her two strikes — one for supposedly veering off topic, and another for getting help from a fellow senator with her back brace. One more, and it’d be over.
Over the next several hours, I floated between overflow rooms and the first level of the Capitol with two dedicated friends who over the last six days had spent way more time at the Capitol than I. Because of the heated debates happening in the chamber over rules, technicalities, points of order, points of inquiry, points of whatever some these guys could think of to stop Davis from talking, it was nearly impossible to know what was going on. Things changed from minute to minute the closer we got to the midnight deadline, which would signal the end of the special session and death of Senate Bill 5.
At about 10 p.m, Sen. Donna Campbell, a Republican from Central Texas, tried and succeeded at getting a third strike against Davis and her filibuster. Commence the uproar in the Senate gallery, which you could hear on the livestream and in the overflow rooms. While the crowd’s instinct was to storm the Senate chamber (we didn’t), Democratic senators used every tool in their arsenal to stall a vote and question the third strike.
But as the clock got closer to midnight, the Democrats seemed to be grasping at straws to continue to stall. Minutes before the deadline, crowds in the gallery and in the rotunda erupted until past midnight, deafening any fight or vote that could’ve taken place in the Senate. At 12:01 a.m. it appeared, from the rotunda, that the bill was dead.
But we all know Texas, and we all know that it ain’t over ‘til it’s over. At about 12:05 a.m., reporters began tweeting from the chamber that a vote had taken place and that it counted. Lt. Gov. Dewhurst and Republican senators said that because of the noise from the crowd, no one could hear the senators starting to vote before the midnight deadline. But still, reporters captured screenshots from the Texas Legislature Online website, which posted that the vote had taken place on June 26, not on June 25 — the official last day of the special session.
But wait. The website was then mysteriously edited moments later to show that the vote had in fact taken place on June 25. And yes, there is evidence to prove this shady tampering of the record, thanks to reporters and senators.
Deliberation over the fate of Senate Bill 5 went on for another hour, but most people stayed for the long haul. Slowly, a few tweets from key advocates announced that the bill was dead. Cecile Richards and company were still huddled around a podium, anxiously awaiting word themselves. My friend and I took advantage of the sparse crowd around them and moved closer, standing shoulder-to-shoulder with the president and CEO of Planned Parenthood of Greater Texas, Ken Lambrecht, who at around 2 a.m. received a text message from Davis from inside a closed-door meeting with Dewhurst and the senators. We watched the group pass the phone around, and Cecile Richards finally took the mic.
“This is straight from Sen. Wendy Davis… ‘first, I love you guys,’” Richards read from the iPhone. “‘The Lieutenant Governor has agreed that SB 5 is dead.’”
While the senators were still in their closed-door meeting and reporters waited for confirmation, word spread quickly that Dewhurst finally acknowledged that the vote had in fact taken place after midnight. Dewhurst made the official announcement at close to 3 a.m.
It was a moment veteran lawmakers, veteran Capitol reporters and long-time advocates and activists said they hadn’t seen in more than a decade, if ever.
The power of citizen mobilization, viral social media and technology brought the live show to spectators around the country (including President Barack Obama and Sarah Silverman, to name a few who were tweeting), and the people’s voices prevailed. Regardless of what comes next, the death of Senate Bill 5 was a victory for civic engagement and the future of Texas.