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The Wendy Davis Rocket Ride

State Sen. Wendy Davis talks with fellow senators before her 11-hour filibuster attempt on Tuesday.
Eric Gay

Overnight, Texas state Sen. Wendy Davis became a national political name and a hero to abortion-rights supporters around the country.

The Fort Worth Democrat stood and spoke for nearly 11 hours Tuesday to run out the clock on a sweeping bill that could have closed all but five abortion clinics in the Lone Star State. Under the quirky rules of the Texas Senate, Davis wasn't allowed to eat, drink, sit, use the bathroom, speak off-topic or lean against any furniture for the entirety of her marathon filibuster attempt.

Procedural challenges from Republican senators — who dominate the chamber — ultimately ended the filibuster two hours shy of the midnight deadline to pass or block the bill. But Democratic lawmakers helped delay the special legislative session's final hours with parliamentary questions, as did throngs of disruptive, screaming protesters in the gallery.

When Republican lawmakers pushed through the 19-10 vote, the clock had already struck midnight, making the bill's passage moot. This drama unfolded in the wee hours of the morning, but 160,000 people were watching along on a YouTube live stream. Many, many more were following the #standwithwendy hashtag on Twitter.

"She stood up for her beliefs. And standing up for your beliefs on either side is commendable," said Republican political consultant Ron Bonjean. "That is impressive and that's why Rand Paul [recently] got a lot of attention when he stood for his beliefs on U.S. Senate floor."

By the time the Texas Senate was gaveled out of session, President Obama had praised Davis on Twitter, Texas Democratic Party Chairman Gilberto Hinojosa was touting her for a 2014 gubernatorial run, and big names ranging from Twitter and Vine founder Jack Dorsey to HBO Girls' show runner Lena Dunham and author Judy Blume were dousing her with support. According to Esquire, Davis' Wikipedia page was altered Tuesday night to say her occupation is "the LeBron James of Filibustering."

The Davis rocket ship has taken off. And it started its ride from an increasingly unlikely place for modern political stories — poverty.

Davis was raised by a mother with a sixth-grade education. In her early teens in North Texas, she sold subscriptions to the Fort Worth Star-Telegram and worked at an Orange Julius. By 19, when she graduated high school and started her college education, she had been been married and divorced and was living in a trailer park with her baby daughter.

"I worked two jobs, I had a full-time job during the day and I waited tables at night," Davis told NPR member station KERA. "I really struggled; I lived in a mobile home community in southeast Fort Worth and understood what it meant to come home and have your lights turned off or your phone turned off because you just couldn't balance it all and keep it going."

She went on to graduate first in her class from Texas Christian University. Davis then remarried and gave birth to a second daughter. When she was admitted to Harvard Law School, she spent three years commuting between Boston and Fort Worth until she got her law degree.

Five years ago, she was a little-known Fort Worth City Council member who barely won her insurgent 2008 campaign for a Texas Senate seat. After getting sworn into the clubby chamber in 2009, she almost immediately drew critics for her outspokenness.

Widely considered one of the only bright spots for the nearly dormant Democratic bench in Texas, Davis has since been butting heads with Texas Republican leaders for years. In 2011, she filibustered a school finance plan that would have left public schools $4 billion short — an effort Texas Gov. Rick Perry called "showboating." She has so rankled the GOP leadership that it redrew her seat during the redistricting process to include far more Republican voters, all but ensuring her electoral demise, but the redrawn map was thrown out by federal judges. She eked out a re-election victory in 2012, but not before a mentally unstable man firebombed her office early in the year.

Now, many eyes are fixed on Davis and what she'll do next. Whether she can be successful as a statewide candidate in Texas — or nationally — is an open question.

"Yes, her star is rising, but where is it gonna take her?" said Brian William Smith, a political scientist at St. Edwards University. "The problem is, in terms of electability ... just being popular in the Democratic Party isn't enough to win in Texas. She has to prove she can get moderate voters, and Texas Democrats in recent history haven't been able to do that."

Bonjean says it's too early to predict Davis' political trajectory at this point. "She could be a one-hit wonder, which most of them are, or which most of them can be," he said. "Or she could take advantage of the spotlight and follow a trajectory. But she is in a red state where her district could be wiped out by redistricting, and in that case, she'd have very little to move on."

For now, eyes are on Perry, who on Wednesday afternoon called another 30-day special session to bring up and presumably pass the sweeping abortion restrictions that Davis stood up against. Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst, in conceding loss early Wednesday this morning, signaled there's more to come.

"See you soon," he said to reporters gathered at the session's frenzied finale.

So the show is to be continued. But because of Tuesday's high drama, when Davis returns, hundreds of thousands of eyes will be tuning in.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Elise Hu is a host-at-large based at NPR West in Culver City, Calif. Previously, she explored the future with her video series, Future You with Elise Hu, and served as the founding bureau chief and International Correspondent for NPR's Seoul office. She was based in Seoul for nearly four years, responsible for the network's coverage of both Koreas and Japan, and filed from a dozen countries across Asia.
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