In her second appearance in Washington, D.C. in less than a month, Texas Sen. Wendy Davis (D-Fort Worth) appeared before the National Press Club on Monday, using her personal, up-from-poverty story to challenge the safety-net-slashing, education-cutting, anti-choice politics of Texas Gov. Rick Perry and his fellow Texas Republicans.
Davis’ return visit to the nation’s capital is widely viewed as an effort to build a war chest for a campaign for higher office. Asked once again if she would run for governor of the Lone Star State, Davis said only that she’s considering it, but she ruled out a run for any other statewide office. Her next effort will be either a run for the governor’s mansion or a re-election campaign for her current senate seat, she said.
Davis burst on the national scene in June, when she launched an 11-hour filibuster against a draconian bill that curtails the right to have an abortion through a number of new restrictions that are estimated to force the closure of all but five of the 42 women’s health clinics that currently offer abortion services in the state. Although Davis’ filibuster staved off initial passage of the bill, then called SB 5, at the end of the state’s legislative session, Perry convened a subsequent special legislative session in which the bill, re-labeled HB 2, passed into law.
That defeat did nothing to diminish Davis’ legend, however. Her stamina during a filibuster she described as “a test of physical and mental endurance” still leaves many marveling at her ability to remain on her feet, continuously talking, deprived of food, water, or a bathroom break, while not being permitted to so much as touch her desk, never mind lean on it.
The pink sneakers she wore on the senate floor during her marathon stint became iconic, as did the orange t-shirts worn by her supporters in the gallery. While she chose more formal footwear for her National Press Club debut, Davis donned a bright orange jacket for her star turn at the podium. Of her famous sneakers, she said she went right back to using them as her running shoes, “to the horror of a couple of people on my political team.”
Having a (Non-Partisan) Voice
Davis began her speech with a personal anecdote about the importance of “having a voice.” When she was a child, she said, her grandfather suffered a massive stroke, leaving him largely paralyzed with a limited ability to speak. Her task, as a 9-year-old, Davis said, was to take dictation from him when he wanted to write a letter to a friend. “I wanted to be true to his words and write down exactly what he wanted to say,” Davis explained. But he would grow frustrated, she said, and start crying, which made her cry too.
The purpose of the story was to portray Davis as a politician who wished to be the voice of Texas families, whose needs, she said, were being ignored by those now in power, and how distressing it is to see people deprived of a means of expression.
Davis went to great lengths to portray her quest as one not rooted in partisan politics, even though the state is almost entirely in the hands of Republicans, and hasn’t had a Democratic governor since George W. Bush defeated Ann Richards, the late mother of Planned Parenthood Federation of America President Cecile Richards, in 1994.
During the question-and-answer period that followed her speech, Davis was asked what chance she thought a Democrat really had at being elected into office in her notoriously red state.
“You know, I think the question really is: What chance do new leaders have of winning elected office in the state of Texas?” she said. “I think the best way to talk about that is to talk about what Texans want to see in their government, and not to talk about it in party frames.”
In both her speech and the question period, Davis laid out her case against the current leadership, talking not only of the recent anti-choice bill that drew national attention, but also of the legislature’s 2011 bill that “strip[ped] $5.4 billion from our already underfunded public schools.” That attempt prompted her first, less-heralded filibuster, which despite the bill’s ultimate passage (which led to the layoffs of some 10,000 teachers), bought time for parents and teachers to travel to the capitol to voice their opposition, Davis said.
From Trailer Park to Harvard
Throughout her speech, Davis tied her signature issues—women’s health care, education, and economic development—to her extraordinary personal history, a story of a young, single mother, living in a trailer, “always on the brink of a financial disaster,” she said.
“My mother had a sixth-grade education, four children, no husband, and no financial security,” Davis explained, and 30 years ago, she found herself on much the same path, she said, save for her high school education.
She told of feeding herself Totino’s frozen pizzas, which then cost 99 cents, and cutting them into quarters, making each quarter into a meal—so she could buy baby food for her daughter. But when a co-worker gave her a brochure for a public community college, she enrolled, and then transferred to Texas Christian University with both academic scholarships and financial aid that covered her tuition. She graduated first in her class and went on to Harvard Law School. She was the first person in her family to go to college.
Davis also explained that during those years, the only health care she received was at women’s health clinics.
Today, she noted, the budget for the state’s women’s health program has been slashed by two-thirds, and college is no longer as accessible and affordable as it was for her because of state budget cuts.
The “War” on Texas Women
When, after the speech, Davis was asked whether the “war on women” was a real thing, she noted the attack on women’s health clinics as being about far more than abortion; clinics that never offered abortion have been defunded, leaving many women without cancer screenings, contraception, and diabetes care.
“I think, at last count, we have had 56 clinics that have closed,” Davis said, noting that the budget slash to the women’s health program resulted from the state’s refusal to accept federal funding for the clinics’ services.
As other evidence of the “war on women,” Davis reminded the audience of the governor’s veto of the state’s equal pay act, which passed the legislature on a bipartisan vote.
Then, of course, there is this year’s anti-choice legislation. Davis lamented that the bill’s ban on abortion after 20 weeks post-fertilization dominated the discussion, when so many other provisions of the law affect far greater numbers of women—especially new regulations that require clinics to maintain the standards of ambulatory surgical facilities, which she said were unnecessary for maintaining safety.
Davis spelled out the new rules for those seeking non-surgical abortions through the use of the drug known as RU-486, which for years has been safely used to terminate early pregnancies by patients who, after a clinic visit, could take the drug “in the privacy of their own homes,” under a doctor’s guidance. Now, not only do patients have to take the drug, which is administered in two doses days apart, on clinic premises, but the clinic must reach the “ambulatory surgical facility” standard, even though nothing that could be remotely described as surgery is involved in the procedure.
In addition, she said, “The safety net is so badly fractured that putting it back together is going to take years.”
Hillary, Cecile, and Rick
This being Washington, audience members were keen to elicit quotes from Davis on other national political figures.
Asked whether she would consider running as a vice presidential candidate on a presidential ticket with the name “Clinton” at the top, Davis replied, “We’ll have to find out whether Hillary’s planning to run for president first.”
As to whether or not Clinton, whose name is synonymous in many minds with that of the Democratic Party, could win the electoral votes of the very Republican state of Texas, Davis was diplomatic. “I think Hillary Clinton has a chance to do just about anything she sets her mind to,” Davis said.
One audience member, perhaps looking to stoke the specter of competition for Davis, asked if she would welcome a run at statewide office by Cecile Richards.
“Cecile is such an extraordinary human being,” Davis said, “so I would welcome her back to Texas; I’ll sign up for her campaign if she wants to run.”
Urged to respond to the likelihood of Rick Perry reprising his presidential bid in 2016, Davis, whom Perry famously insulted in a speech to the National Right to Life convention, Davis made an apparent reference to Perry’s famous 2012 presidential debate meltdown, when he couldn’t name the three government agencies he had pledged to abolish.
“Well, I have three responses to that,” Davis said. Then she took a long beat. “I think that’s all I’m gonna say about that,” she said, smiling, her arms folded.
Liberty, the Constitution, and National Politics
When asked what limits she would personally place on abortion, Davis artfully employed the language of “first principles” so beloved by members of the Tea Party movement, who hold great sway in Texas.
“You know, the Supreme Court has made that decision,” Davis said, “and it’s one of the protected liberties under our Constitution. And I respect the constitutional protections that are in place today, whether it be for this purpose, or for other protected purposes in the Constitution. I don’t think we can pick and choose.”
After the formal event drew to a close, Davis took a few questions from reporters. I asked her whether or not the legislative assault that prompted her filibuster was due to politics particular to Texas, or whether Texas was being used as a stage for national politics.
“I think much of what we’re seeing in Texas is an amplified version of what we’re seeing going on across the country,” she said. And with that, she went on her way.
In Washington, D.C., one gets the feeling that she’ll be back.