Wendy Davis stuck her neck out for schoolkids.
It was the last Sunday in May, last day of this year’s regular session of the Texas Legislature, and State Sen. Wendy Davis of Fort Worth had some hard thinking to do. Republicans had been wrangling over budget cuts for months but had waited until the last day to bring a bill to a vote that would cut $4 billion in state funding for education.
The cuts were proposed despite projections that 170,000 more students would be enrolled in Texas public schools over the next two years. School districts would have to increase class sizes and get rid of special programs like pre-kindergarten, bilingual education classes, and extra help for academically at-risk students.
Democratic senators tried to figure out what they could do to stop it. Republicans held a decisive majority in the House, so the bill passed easily late Sunday afternoon. In the Senate, with its Republican majority, the funding cuts were also seen as a done deal. But the Republicans had made a tactical error. Because they had waited until the last minute to bring the bill before the Senate, Democrats could filibuster for a relatively short time to get past midnight. That would push the issue into a special session and give Democrats another chance to change things.
There were risks with that strategy, of course. Some teachers’ groups feared that the Republicans, angered over having to come back for a special session, might make even deeper cuts. It was a question of playing nice and not angering the bully or poking him in the eye.
Davis, 48, weighed the pros and cons. One of the reasons Senate Democrats wanted her to do the filibuster was the boost it might give her politically — in the long run. In the short run, Republicans have proposed a major re-arrangement of Davis’ District 10 to remove most of the minority voters who had been crucial to her election in 2008.
(The hugely divisive issue of redistricting had added venom to an already-poisonous session. Davis and the other Senate Democrats could see the writing on the wall. In the special session, the redistricting plan would be approved by both the House and Senate.)
But it was her own personal educational experience that made Davis decide to stand up and start talking. She and her three siblings were raised by a single mom with a sixth-grade education who worked at a Braum’s ice cream store. Davis got married at age 18 right out of high school, had a daughter, and was divorced by age 19.
“I was living in a mobile home in southeast Fort Worth, and I was destined to live the life I watched my mother live,” she told reporters after the filibuster. “An education is the only way a poor kid stops being a poor kid.”
And it was education that eventually lifted Davis out of that trailer and her waitress job. She enrolled at Tarrant County College and worked two jobs. From there she went to Texas Christian University on scholarship, majoring in English and graduating first in her class in 1990. That led to her being accepted by Harvard Law School.
So in Austin, she stood up at 10:43 on that Sunday night. She read letters from constituents. She made the point that population growth would mean having to stretch fewer dollars to cover many more students in Texas public schools. She suggested closing some corporate tax loopholes and dipping into the state’s $6 billion rainy-day fund to close the education funding gap. When she sat down 77 minutes later, the education funding bill was dead for the regular session.
Some Republicans accused her of grandstanding. Gov. Rick Perry was none too pleased. “Davis raised a hurdle,” Perry told reporters later. “That’s her call, and I’m sure members of the legislature that will be back here in special session will have appropriate things to say to her for that.”
But for Davis, it was all worth it. “We were going to cut educational funding — something this state had never done, all in about an hour, without any discussion,” she recently told Fort Worth Weekly. “By going to special session, we at least got a debate going on this issue, and we were able to keep some components of the bill out.”
One of those parts removed would have allowed the legislature to redraw the rules each session on what part of school expenses the state pays for, rather than adhering to standards that would last a decade.
“She was successful in blocking some of the worst features [of the bill],” said Eric Hartman, director of government relations for the Texas American Federation of Teachers. “Some Republicans wanted uncertain [educational] funding rather than assured funding. What Davis did allows us to have some idea of what the funding will be year to year, and school districts will be able to plan their budgets more assuredly.”
In the weeks following the filibuster, Davis became something of a media darling. The New York Times ran a profile of her. Television crews camped outside her office. When she walked by Perry’s office while he was holding a press conference calling her filibuster into question, the media gaggle left the governor and followed her. Some Republicans privately whined that she was trying to show up Perry.
Davis said that couldn’t be further from the truth. “I was just walking back to my office, and if I had come by a few minutes earlier or a few minutes later, none of the media would have even seen me,” she said.
But Democrats saw a star being born, despite her uncertain political future. “She was seen as sort of a muckraking Democrat who really didn’t have much influence in the session until the end,” said one longtime Austin journalist who didn’t want her name used. “But then her profile shot sky-high on both sides of the aisle.
“Democrats now thought she really had potential for statewide office, maybe even for a run at the governor’s office,” the journalist said. “But she really doesn’t give two shits about what anybody thinks of her. The reality of the situation is that her standing up against the education bill may be her last hurrah if the redistricting plan holds up in court.”
Davis said statewide office is not even in the plans. “Yes, there have been some people who have suggested I run for statewide office, but I really don’t think a Democrat can win in Texas at this point in time,” she said. “All I’m thinking about now is keeping my Senate seat by fighting the redistricting plan that discriminates against minority voters.”
And that will likely be a long fight. Davis has already been granted legal standing in complex court proceedings in which Texas’ redistricting will be reviewed by the U.S. Department of Justice and federal courts. The process will determine whether the plan is legal under the federal Voting Rights Act. Many observers expect the case to go before the U.S. Supreme Court this spring.
Sitting in her office on Fort Worth’s near West Side, Davis didn’t mince words in describing the education funding debate. “The Republicans came up with a bad idea, and it was just a bunch of crap,” she said. “Their approach was that we will kick this can down the road, and then when we catch up to it, just kick it again.
“The Republicans were more concerned about the self-preservation of their political careers than the needs and wishes of their constituents,” she said.
Davis said the state budget issues have been coming down the road for a long time. She said the current budget mess is a byproduct of substantial cuts in business property taxes passed about five years ago. Tax exemptions for oil and gas drillers — first started in the 1970s as a temporary measure during an OPEC oil crisis — are still in place and will give those companies an estimated $3.5 billion this year. Closing this one loophole, she said, would have solved the educational funding crisis instantly.
Republicans “would prefer to cut educational funding rather than make their financial backers mad. But they are missing a major point. Texas corporations gain from a good educational system because they get quality workers from it. They are going to pay for the funding cuts years down the road,” she said.
What Davis wanted to do was borrow against the rainy-day fund and pay the money back two or three years down the road. The fund now stands at $6.5 billion, and new growth in the Texas economy is expected to add an additional $3 billion over the next two to three years.
As far as some blaming her for causing a special session, Davis said that one was already scheduled by Perry to deal with several issues, including immigration reform. “For them to say my filibuster caused the special session is just misinformation,” she said.
“The Republicans set up the opportunity for any of us Democrats to filibuster by waiting until the last minute for us to vote on it,” Davis said. “If they had put it up for a vote a week before, we couldn’t have done anything [to stop it]. It was a real sign of poor leadership.”
There is a larger philosophical issue that sticks in Davis’ craw these days. Historically, the Texas House has always been more partisan than the Senate, which had a reputation for collegiality, with its members willing to cross the aisle to get a big-picture consensus on important issues.
“When a legislator knows that he or she will be almost certainly be re-elected — and most of the Republican senators fall into that group — you can take chances by going against strict party lines on some issues,” she said. “Building consensus is part of the process.”
That has changed with the election of Barack Obama and the rise of the Tea Parties. Consensus-builders on the Republican side are looked down upon now by conservative voters. “There has always been a Senate tradition that they look at the big picture first, and party politics take a back seat,” said Hartman, with the teachers’ group. “Democrats would work on job growth with tax incentives for businesses, and Republicans would see the importance of having adequate healthcare for the poor.
“But I saw all that changing this past session,” he said. “Anyone with half a brain could see that education is an investment in our state’s future. But a lot of these legislators just wanted to go back to their district and tell voters ‘See, we didn’t spend money on anything.’ Instead of pointing out that they spent money on things that are important.”
Davis has always been a consensus-builder in her political career. During her nine years on the Fort Worth City Council, she worked with downtown business interests while also managing to keep community centers open for the poor. She was big on transportation, neighborhood association needs, and protecting the pay and benefits of city employees.
That pragmatic approach is based on her personal life, where she has walked on both the poor and comfortable sides of the street. She was born and raised in Tarrant County. Her father is local actor/director Jerry Russell, who founded Stage West Theatre in 1979. In fact, Wendy’s waitress job before and during college was at the Stage West café. Russell and Davis’ mom divorced when Davis was 11.
“I didn’t see him as much as I would have liked while growing up because he was traveling to many different shows, but he was extraordinary to me, and we are very close these days,” Davis said of Russell.
Does having an actor for a father help in the political arena? “Maybe when I put on that TCU football helmet during the rookie Senate hazing in my first session,” she said with a laugh.
Davis graduated from Richland Hills High School in 1981. “No one ever had a conversation with me about college, and I just sort of fell through the cracks,” she said.
Since then, she has married and divorced again. Her older daughter, Amber, 29, works as an energy broker in Dallas. Dru, 22, recently graduated with a degree in economics, and like most new college grads these days, is looking for work.
Along with waiting tables at her dad’s theater, Davis also worked as a receptionist in a doctor’s office in her 20s. A nurse gave her a brochure from Tarrant County College, and Davis saw she could get qualified as a paralegal in two years. “But after the first year, I thought it might be better to become a lawyer,” she said.
She got involved in Fort Worth politics in the late 1990s over a proposal to privatize the Fort Worth Zoo. She was elected to the council in 1999 and has been hooked on politics ever since. “I have a passion for public service. My background makes me pragmatic, and my education makes me analytical,” she said.
In Austin, “she is considered whip-smart, gutsy, not intimidated, has a good sense of humor, is willing to deal head-on with tough problems, and as far as I know, well-regarded by her fellow senators,” said longtime syndicated political columnist Dave McNeely.
In her rookie legislative session in 2009, the first bill Davis filed was to give tax increment financing districts the ability to expand their funding of private businesses. She was able to get one bill passed to better regulate electric utilities’ dealings with their customers and another to create a special state lottery to benefit military veterans’ programs.
She was named legislative “Rookie of the Year” by Texas Monthly that year. “That old rule that freshmen are supposed to stay quiet?,” the magazine wrote. “She proved it can be ignored if you’re smart, tough, and well prepared.”
During this year’s session, she sponsored or co-sponsored 55 bills that were signed into law. The list included measures to increase air-quality monitoring near natural gas wells, increase funding for programs for veterans suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, speed up law enforcement’s investigation of rapes, and make assault by an intoxicated person a second-degree felony.
“The Republicans see the wide range of issues she works on as a threat,” said Tarrant County Democratic Chairman Steve Maxwell. “Wendy can gain influence by working with both sides of the aisle on the legislative floor. But in these political times, the Republican leadership in Texas doesn’t want any Democrat to have any influence. That irritates me immensely, because they don’t look at whether Wendy is a good effective legislator. They just want her out.”
“She has a broad pragmatic appeal, and we saw that when she won her seat four years ago,” he said. “She did well with minority voters in the inner city, but also with Anglos in the suburbs. She has never been about strict Democratic partisanship.”
The Republicans will likely succeed in getting Davis out of the legislature if the courts uphold the redrawn District 10 map. As one Austin political analyst put it, “Wendy Davis is just low-hanging fruit these days.”
The low-hanging fruit idea is based on the numbers from the 2008 election, when Davis beat Republican incumbent Kim Brimer. Davis took just under 50 percent of the votes, to Brimer’s 47.5 (a Libertarian took about 2.5 percent). Davis decided to run because she noticed that the district’s minority voter contingent had grown to almost 50 percent during the previous decade, and Brimer had very low name recognition among those voters. She was able to win 85 percent of the African-American and 75 percent of the Hispanic vote.
As currently drawn, the district encompasses four distinct areas in Tarrant County. White voters dominate in two: the southwest part of the county and a small bit of the Northeast Tarrant County cities. Hispanics are concentrated in Fort Worth’s near North Side and African-Americans on the city’s Southeast side.
The redistricting map approved by the legislature would peel the minority areas out of the district. Hispanics would be contained in Senate District 12, which currently stops at the Denton County line. The African-American-dominated area would go into District 22, which is mostly rural and extends all the way south past Hillsboro.
Joe Chavez, president of the Tejano Democrats of North Texas, sees those changes as direct violations of the federal Voting Right Act passed in 1965. The law bans any voting practice that has a discriminatory effect on minorities. Discriminatory effects are defined as factors that combine to give minorities “less opportunity than other members of the electorate to participate in the political process and to elect representatives of their choice.”
“It is obvious that minority voters will have no say if they are stuffed into these new districts,” Chavez said. “I don’t see how anyone can say that this [redistricting plan] is not a violation of the Voting Rights Act. It once again shows that Texas Republicans have a propensity for supporting policies that [lead to] under-representation of minority communities in the political process.”
Texas is one of a dozen states specified in the act as having historically bad records in their treatment of minority voters. Those states are required to get all changes affecting minority voters — from election dates to drawing of district lines — cleared by the U.S. Department of Justice before putting the changes into effect. If the DOJ has problems with the redistricting plan, the case is heard before the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia.
However, Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott bypassed the DOJ pre-clearance phase and filed the redistricting plans directly with the D.C. court, something Texas had never done. Abbott is challenging the constitutionality of the Voting Rights Act.
Abbott made the end run on the DOJ because he “figured the Justice Department is part of the Obama administration, and [Texas would] have a better chance in the district court where two of the three judges were appointed by George W. Bush,” said Steve Bickerstaff, a University of Texas law school professor who has been studying redistricting issues for decades.
Davis and State Rep. Marc Veasey of Fort Worth (who is also protesting minorities being moved out of his district) petitioned the court to be given legal standing in the case. Courts usually don’t let elected officials get involved.
The state’s attorneys objected, but the three-judge district court panel ruled last month that the two would have standing, allowing them to call witnesses, present voting records, and file briefs.
“It was a very important ruling because we will be able to present evidence that supports our claim that this is a violation of the Voting Rights Act,” Davis said. “If we weren’t included, the judges would only have to listen to representatives of the Texas AG’s office.
Several minority civil rights groups have asked to be allowed to present amicus briefs in the case. They include the state’s Mexican-American and black legislative caucuses and the Texas Latino Redistricting Task Force.
The judges also rejected Abbott’s argument that Texas could bypasss the DOJ. The district court has asked the DOJ to review Texas’ redistricting plans; that brief is due on Sept. 19.
The case will likely go before the Supreme Court this spring. Regardless of how the district court rules, the losing parties are granted an automatic appeal directly to the high court, bypassing the federal appellate court.
Whether Davis and Veasey can convince the court that the Voting Rights Act is being violated isn’t clear. District 10 is close to being a majority/minority district, but isn’t quite there. And courts have ruled in the past that two minority groups cannot lump their objections together to claim a voting rights violation, Bickerstaff said.
In the current District 10, 52.7 percent of the voting-age population is Anglo, 17.9 percent is black, and 24.8 is Hispanic. In the redrawn district, 59.4 percent are Anglo, 13.4 percent black, and 22.1 percent Hispanic.
“I think [Davis and Veasey’s case] is problematic,” Bickerstaff said. “First, they don’t have the numbers in either the African-American or Hispanic populations. The courts have also not considered adding two minority groups together in prior rulings. But even if they were persuaded to, this is still not a majority/minority district.
“These two groups are not cohesive. They might have voted the same in the last state Senate race, but you would have to prove they vote the same way all the time,” he said. “I’m sure the state will be able to show many examples where the Hispanics and African-Americans in Tarrant County have voted differently in many elections.”
Bickerstaff also said the state’s claim that the DOJ pre-clearance requirement is unlawful might get some traction. “The courts have been looking for cases that show that this requirement has outlived its usefulness,” he said.
Gerry Hebert, a Virginia-based lawyer representing Davis and Veasey, disagreed with Bickerstaff. Hebert has been handling redistricting cases for the past 20 years and prior to that worked for the DOJ in the agency’s Voting Rights Act section.
“The fact of the matter is the election returns show that black and Latino voters sent her to the Senate,” Hebert said. “If they voted together, they were politically cohesive. The big issue is whether [minorities] are worse off under the new map than under the old map. I think the answer to that is obvious.”
As to Texas’ argument that the Voting Rights Act violates states’ rights, Hebert was blunt. “Texas doesn’t walk into federal court with clean hands when you look at their record with minority voting,” he said.
The Weekly tried to get the Republican side of the redistricting story for this article, but neither local nor state party leaders returned phone calls.
Despite uncertainty over District 10’s future, some local Republican legislators appear ready to throw their hats into the ring and challenge Davis next year. Rep. Kelly Hancock of North Richland Hills has already announced he will run, and he blasted Davis over the education funding issue in a recent op-ed column in the Fort Worth Star-Telegram.
“The Sunday commentary by State Sen. Wendy Davis of Fort Worth about our state’s education budget is a wonderful work of fiction and a textbook example of politicians who pander to the people and tell voters what they want to hear rather than what they need to hear,” he wrote. “Did you notice how she avoided any mention of our economic recession and called anyone who disagrees with her an ‘extremist’?”
Republican legislators Mark Shelton of Fort Worth and Vicki Truitt of Southlake are also considering a run for Davis’ seat.
“I actually voted no on this particular map because it was not a good map for the people living in my current House district,” Truitt said in an e-mail. “However, the map was passed by the legislature, and I am told that it is legal by all required standards. I have made no final decision about whether or not I will run for SD10 and won’t until after Labor Day.”
Truitt did not elaborate on whether she voted no because of changes in minority representation or because her Northeast Tarrant County constituents did not want to be in a new district.
Davis said she will run for re-election in District 10 even if the Republican redistricting plan is upheld.
“I think I will get the support from parents throughout the new district who didn’t think we should cut funding and jeopardize their children’s future,” she said. “The constituents know where I stand, and I’ll run on my record. That’s all I’ll be able to do, but that’s how I’ve always done it.”