SAN ANTONIO – NOTE: Watch state Rep. Philip Cortez’s interview response from Wednesday’s Nightbeat in the video player above.
Although the Texas House still did not have its quorum on Wednesday, Democrats are slowly beginning to return to the Lone Star State after spending more than a week in Washington, D.C. to protest election legislation proposed by Republicans.
Rep. Jim Murphy, the chair of the Texas Republican Caucus, told reporters Wednesday that there are now 91 House members at the Capitol. The House needs 100 members in attendance in order to establish a quorum.
Among those who have returned to Texas is Rep. Philip Cortez, D-San Antonio.
“I proudly stood with my democratic colleagues and left Texas to ensure House Bill 3 would not be approved as introduced. A small working group of Democrats decided to begin active discussions here in Austin on improving HB 3 and asked that I return to establish open communication lines,” Cortez said in a statement about his return. “I returned to Texas to try to engage in good faith dialogue about the aspects of the bill that I, and others, think are harmful. We need to fight this battle on parallel tracks in Texas and Washington D.C. with one goal in mind: full and open access to voting for all Texans.”
Cortez’s return was also confirmed by Rep. Andrew Murr, who authored House Bill 3, the voting bill.
“While he was in Washington, Rep. Cortez and I had very frank, candid discussions about the concerns he and his Democrat colleagues have with House Bill 3,” Murr said. “Rep. Cortez is now back in Austin and we will continue to have serious, thoughtful conversations about House Bill 3. Phil Cortez and I will likely never see eye-to-eye on this election legislation, but he will have a seat at the table to fight for his district because he is willing to defend their beliefs in the chamber of the Texas House.”
However, Texas Democrats still in Washington DC took issue with Cortez’s characterization of his return. Rep. Gina Hinojosa, D-Austin, said Cortez decided to return “without speaking to the Dem delegation.”
To be clear, he is not negotiating on our behalf. He made the decision to rejoin Republicans without speaking to the Dem delegation.— Gina Hinojosa (@GinaForAustin) July 21, 2021
Rep. Diego Bernal, D-San Antonio, in a written statement, says Cortez violated the commitments made to his fellow lawmakers.
“The Bexar delegation all made commitments to each other, face-to-face. Phil violated that. He left under cover of night without telling us. Disappeared. He knew what he was doing.”
Fellow Democrat Rep. Ina Minjarez, who also represents parts of San Antonio, called Cortez a defector for leaving their walkout.
“I am disappointed to see Representative Cortez turning his back on these convictions,” Minjarez said. “Though I cannot speak to what led to his decision, it is disheartening to think that some representatives might value a gavel over protecting the voting rights of all Texans. Despite his defection, I continue to stand firm in my resolve to continue the fight for every Texan and every citizen to vote freely and accessibly. There is nothing I wouldn’t do to protect our democracy and the people’s right to vote.”
Democrats took chartered planes to Washington last week, denying the Texas Legislature of the two-thirds quorum needed to pass legislation. The lawmakers took their appeal to the United States Congress, urging the Senate to pass federal election legislation that they say would undo many controversial proposals put forth in the Texas voting bill.
Rep. Trey Martinez-Fischer, D-San Antonio, said Tuesday that he and his fellow lawmakers plan to stay in Washington until Aug. 7, when the special session is set to end.
If passed, HB-3 would allow more access to partisan poll watchers, prohibit drive-thru and 24-hour voting locations and implement new voter identification requirements on absentee voters, among other provisions. Critics say the bill would also make it harder for people with disabilities to vote, while proponents say the bill strengthens election integrity and security.
Shortly before flying to DC, Cortez told KSAT 12 News that Democrats resorted to the walkout to stand up for Texans’ voting rights.
“It’s important that we preserve the rights of all Texans to have access to the ballot,” Cortez said from the plane during a Zoom call last week. “So this is important that we take whatever steps are necessary to ensure that no bills, no laws are passed that in any way, prohibit or discourage people from coming out to vote.”
Cortez spoke with KSAT on Wednesday, saying he came back to spark new negotiation talks with lawmakers across the aisle.
“I came back strictly to have these open communication lines discussions, negotiations. Had the opportunity not been there to begin this dialogue and these discussions, I would have stayed in D.C.,” he said.
Cortez also said, “It’s important that any issue, especially a controversial one like this -- that we have different tracks that we’re taking to address the issue.”
See Cortez’s Nightbeat interview in the player above.
Democrats were going to have to come home eventually, as the Senate remains unable to pass election legislation, said Jon Taylor, a political science professor with the University of Texas at San Antonio.
The election bill is not the only legislation being considered by the Texas Legislature. There are other issues on the special session agenda — like teacher retirement pay and funding for the Texas Legislature.
“They’ll want to come back for those,” Taylor said.