One Day in Texas: The Worst and the Best and the Worst in American Politics

In a week that has seen President Obama’s speech on climate change, debunking of the so-called IRS “scandal,” and Supreme Court decisions on Affirmative Action, the Voting Rights Act and marriage equality, fans of politics have had a lot to talk about (and it’s only Wednesday, as of this writing).  But for all the action in Washington, the real show appeared to be in the state of Texas.

The Lone Star State was the setting for a chain of events that perfectly epitomizes the current state of American politics.  It was a roller coaster fueled by partisan debate, knee-jerk reactions, passionate citizens and a filibuster that birthed a new political celebrity.

Let’s begin with the Voting Rights Act (VRA).  Texas is among the many states and counties defined by the act as having a history of discriminatory voting laws.  It seems that prior to the Act’s passage in 1965, the state took actions that made it very difficult for minorities to register or cast their ballots.  Because of this, the VRA’s Article 5 declared that the state would have to seek approval from the federal government before enacted any new voting laws.  However, this did not keep the state, and specifically its Republican legislators, from attempting to enact strict voter ID laws that would have disenfranchised thousands of minority voters.  They also sought to alter their electoral districts in an attempt to limit the influence of those that somehow would maintain the right to vote.  However, this attempt was thwarted after State Senator Wendy Davis, whose district would have been redrawn, challenged the redistricting, saying it violated Article 5 of the VRA.

So, after Tuesday’s Supreme Court ruling gutted the VRA and ended the requirement for Texas to seek approval from the Department of Justice, the state wasted no time enacting the legislation that had previously been shot down.  Attorney General Greg Abbott issued a statement a mere two hours after the ruling:

“With today’s decision, the state’s voter ID law will take effect immediately.  Redistricting maps passed by the Legislature may also take effect without approval from the federal government.”

This means that Davis will likely find herself without a district when the next election rolls around, and Republicans will have effectively silenced a powerful contrarian voice.  And though this is a sneaky way to limit dissent, it is not illegal.  It is just cowardly, as is the voter ID law that will keep thousands of people—mostly Democrat voters, not coincidentally—from voting.  Rather than win a rational debate on the issues, Republicans prefer to subvert the democratic process by preventing the opposition from participating.  It appears the new GOP motto should be, “If you can’t beat them, cheat them.”

Davis, however, was nowhere near done fighting.  While she may not have any control over the Voting Rights Act and its impact on her seat in the Senate, she could certainly impact their ability to push through strict abortion legislation that would have been devastating to women in Texas.  It would have closed nearly all the state’s abortion providers, leaving only five in a state with 26 million people, as well as preventing any abortions after 20 weeks of pregnancy.

This bill was defeated in its first pass through the Texas legislature, but Republicans are a determined bunch.  Governor Rick Perry called a special session of Congress to give the abortion bill (and a few other pet issues) a second shot.  These special sessions required a lower vote threshold for approving a bill, giving them a much better chance at passage.  However, this 30-day session was nearly at an end and the time to put the abortion bill up for a vote was running out.  If no vote was held by midnight Tuesday, the bill would be defeated.

So, Davis took it upon herself to stand up for the women of Texas.  And stand she did.  She filibustered the bill in the Senate for 11 hours, speaking continuously, not allowed to eat, drink, or even lean on the podium.  If she could speak until midnight, there would be no time for a vote.

But, Republicans were not willing to concede defeat.  Because of the lower threshold, they had the votes to pass the bill, if only they could end Davis’s filibuster.  So, they repeatedly challenged her, using Texas’s very strict filibuster rules to try to trip her up.  Finally, after three dubious violations, they succeeded.  Davis was stopped, just minutes short of midnight.  She was like a marathon runner who trips and falls with the finish line in sight.  Of course, in this case, she was like a runner clubbed in the leg with a lead pipe wielded by Republicans determined not to let a woman stop them from telling the rest of the women in Texas what to do.

Yet, as remarkable as Davis’s effort had been, something even more remarkable happened next.  The assembled spectators, inspired by the filibuster, raised their own voices, creating enough noise and chaos to drown out the Republican attempts to call for a vote before the deadline.

But, Republicans are a determined lot, and there is no shortage of dirty tricks in their playbook.  They called for a vote anyway, even though it was after midnight.  But, the continued uproar from the crowd finally forced them to admit defeat.

However, the celebration by Democrats and pro-choice supporters was short-lived.  On Wednesday, Gov. Perry called for a second special session of Congress to try for a third time to pass the abortion bill.  And, because Republicans will have 30 days to call for a vote, it will almost certainly pass.  The Texas GOP will impose their will on the women of Texas, no matter what it takes.

Of course, Perry claims that he is acting on behalf of the people of Texas, saying they “want to protect women and the unborn,” though the proposed abortion bill would do exactly the opposite, depriving many women of needed health care.  It is also not what Texans want, with recent polling showing that 74 percent of registered voters saying abortion decisions should be made by women and their doctors, not by politicians.

In his statement, Perry also said that, “Texans value life.”  This is especially infuriating given something else that happened today.  For the 500th time since the state resumed using the death penalty in 1982, a Texan was executed.  The fact that the person put to death was black female, Kimberly McCarthy, only adds to the perception that the GOP is fighting a war against women and minorities.  Nearly 40 percent of all executions in the US have taken place in Texas, and Perry has presided over more executions than any governor in US history.

If this hypocrisy did not involve human lives, it would be almost humorous.  Instead, it is tragic.  While claiming to value life, he is taking lives and destroying the health care for the women of his state.

But, there is some light at the end of this tunnel of death, deception and dirty tricks.  Rick Perry will run for another term as governor next year.  And, he might see a familiar face as his opponent.  There is already talk that Wendy Davis should throw her hat in the ring.  And, after her surge in popularity after yesterday’s filibuster, she would have a surprisingly good chance in a state that is not especially friendly to Democrats.  That would be the ultimate victory for a woman who literally stands up for the people of her state.  But, it might be too late to stop the damage done by the GOP.

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