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Special Assembly

Thousands rally at the Capitol

By Jordan Smith, Fri., July 5, 2013

Sens. Wendy Davis and Leticia Van de Putte, joined by Democratic legislators, receive a rousing welcome from the crowd at Monday's rally.
Sens. Wendy Davis and Leticia Van de Putte, joined by Democratic legislators, receive a rousing welcome from the crowd at Monday's rally.
Photo by Jana Birchum

More than 5,000 supporters of reproductive rights gathered at the Capitol on Monday for a rousing rally in advance of the second special session, where another divisive fight over abortion rights is taking center stage.

The Capitol's south lawn was a sea of orange-clad reproductive rights supporters, who began gathering hours before the rally's official noon start time. Abortion rights supporters far outnumbered anti-choice demonstrators, who wore blue, clutched crosses, and prayed softly outside the building and inside its rotunda, but by mid-afternoon all but ceded the ground to defenders of reproductive rights.

After brief performances by Austin's Bright Light Social Hour – playing their new instrumental work, "Wendy Davis" – and former Dixie Chick Natalie Maines, Houston Rep. Jessica Farrar introduced her Demo­cratic colleagues. There was this from Fort Worth Rep. Lon Burnam: "We don't want to live in Taliban, Texas!" – and then Houston's Rep. Armando Walle: "A hanger is not health care."

A series of religious leaders and other speakers took the makeshift south steps stage. Actress Lisa Edelstein, aka Dr. Lisa Cuddy from TV's House, told an appreciative crowd that she only played a doctor on TV and had no medical training whatsoever. Thus, she said, "I'm about as qualified to make a decision about women's health as Rick Perry and the Texas Legislature."

The rally came on the heels of last week's filibuster in the Texas Senate by Sen. Wendy Davis, D-Fort Worth, of the omnibus abortion bill that would likely shut down 37 of the state's 42 licensed abortion facilities. The measure has been refiled as House Bill 2 by Rep. Jodie Laubenberg, R-Parker (the Senate companion is SB 1). Democratic lawmakers have vowed to keep fighting, but with the session starting anew, it will be difficult to keep the measure from clearing both chambers to be signed by Gov. Perry.

Monday's rally was a call-to-action to keep the largely Democratic opposition energized, and one by one, speakers did just that – Texans Cecile Richards, president of Planned Parenthood Federation of America, and Ilyse Hogue, president of NARAL Pro-Choice America, gave crowd-rousing speeches, as did Allison Catalano, the Republican former staffer for Rep. Myra Crownover, R-Denton, who quit her job last year over Crownover's support for devastating cuts to the family-planning budget.

Women hoist signs of opposition to proposed abortion legislation.
Women hoist signs of opposition to proposed abortion legislation.
Photo by John Anderson

Austin Sen. Kirk Watson said the Repub­licans who tried to shut Davis down were the real "unruly mob," who bent the rules "so that the folks in control could do whatever they had to do to get their way." The regulations under consideration, added Watson, "won't do a lot to prevent abortions, but will do a lot to prevent legal ones."

But the real rock stars of the day were Sens. Leticia Van de Putte, D-San Antonio, and Davis, for whom the crowd delivered its most deafening roars. Van de Putte reminded the crowd to speak up: "I did everything possible [to be heard on Tuesday night], but my voice was ignored," she told the crowd, because "some people have trouble hearing women's voices. Today, and for the next 30 days, let's make sure they hear us."

Davis told the crowd that the time has come to put out of business politicians who boost "their careers by bullying women who need health care," by turning down millions in federal funds to help poor Texans access health care, and who would strip tens of millions from the family-planning budget simply to cripple Planned Parenthood. "Every single statewide office is held hostage" by this sort of politician, she said, who "cares more about [his] own future than the future for Texans."

During the first special, Austin Rep. Elliott Naishtat heard colleagues discuss whether House Dems would be ready to walk out – to "break quorum" – in order to stop the legislation. "There was talk about it," Naishtat said, "and there will undoubtedly be talk about it again." With Repub­licans holding a firm majority in both chambers, Dems have few options for resistance. Not even Davis can filibuster for 30 days, the allotted time for the special session. There remain other routes, said Watson. "I'm not going to get into strategies," he said, "but we're not going to give up the fight."

On Monday, Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst again abandoned the so-called "blocker bill" that would require a two-thirds vote to move a measure forward, and that held at bay any abortion legislation in the regular session. Nonetheless, said Van de Putte, "They'll have to read the bill, file it, give 24-hour notice, and we will have to have a hearing. ... The public will play a big role in this – people who feel we have gone too far with this legislation will need to show up [at the Capitol], and will need to testify."

Austin Rep. Donna Howard noted that at no time in either session did the committees hear invited testimony from any experts – including from the Texas Medical Association, Texas Hospital Association, American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, or even "from our own state agency," the Department of State Health Services. None of the major health care organizations is supporting the measures. Even DSHS statistics contradict the assertion that additional regulations are needed to "protect" Texas women seeking abortions, says Howard. "The data they have clearly indicates that this is one of the least risky procedures that exists," she said. "It is certainly less risky than live birth. ... The assumption is that they have a majority and can push this through, so there's no need for expert testimony."

Might also a midsummer trip to a nearby state be considered? Realistically, says Naishtat, "I don't see how House or Senate Democrats could break quorum for the amount of time necessary to defeat the bill – it could be as much as three weeks." But he agrees that every option is on the table, and that Republicans shouldn't "underestimate our power, our intelligence, our mastery of the rules, and our commitment to doing everything legal to prevent the passage of ... anti-pro-choice bills."

As the Chronicle went to press Tuesday evening (July 4th schedule), public testimony on HB 2 was being heard in the House State Affairs Committee until midnight, when it will likely be voted out to the full House. The Senate has not yet set a hearing on SB 1, its version of the bill; both chambers return from recess on Tuesday, July 9.

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