A tale of two capital cities: Texas Democrats continue fight for voting rights in Washington as Republicans push them to return

State Rep. Cecil Bell Jr, R-Magnolia, sits on the House floor on July 19, 2021.

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Outside of the Texas House chamber, state Rep. Briscoe Cain is setting traps for Democrats.

The first was a case of Miller Lite placed under a brown shipping box propped open with a stick, a nod to the now-viral photograph of House Democrats smiling on a bus with a 12-pack visible in one of the seats as they left the state earlier this month to prevent passage of a GOP election bill at the Texas Legislature.

This week, Cain, a Deer Park Republican, swapped out the beer in his trap for a case of Dr. Pepper, first aid supplies, a sewing kit, a bottle of Purell hand sanitizer, a can of hairspray and some Lifesavers.

“Hey Democrats, here’s the Care Package you requested,” Cain tweeted Monday, responding to a request from Dallas-area Democrats for goods to send the lawmakers camped out in Washington D.C. “It’s right outside the House Chamber for you. Get back to work.”

Cain’s traps are the latest example of the political drama that both Republicans in Austin and Democrats in D.C. have engaged in over the past two weeks, with the two camps battling it out on cable news interviews and social media over the quorum bust and who is to blame for it.

A tweet by State Rep. Briscoe Cain, R-Deer Park, related to the Texas Democrats quorum break during the special session.

A tweet by state Rep. Briscoe Cain, R-Deer Park, related to the Texas Democrats quorum break during the special session. Credit: Via Twitter

Unable to pass their priority legislation, Republicans have spent their days in the special session pointing the finger at the 57 House Democrats who left, accusing them of abandoning their jobs and constituents. They’ve called on their colleagues to return to the Legislature to focus on issues important to Texas voters, such as providing additional money to retired teachers or increasing funding for foster care.

Democrats, meanwhile, have paraded around Capitol Hill, meeting with powerful leaders to convince Congress to pass federal voting laws. They’ve participated in a marathon of primetime TV appearances defending the decision to break quorum, while criticizing their GOP colleagues for pushing a voting bill they refer to as an attempt at voter suppression.

In a fiery Virginia news conference earlier this month, state Rep. Senfronia Thompson said she will “stay in the fight until I can’t fight no more because I’m tired of people picking on us for no reason.”

“We are Americans, and we are proud Americans, and we deserve the same rights and respect and considerations that everybody has,” the Houston Democrat added. “And I’m going to fight until we get it.”

But in their downtime, the Democrats are trying to find some normalcy amid a chaotic situation — one that’s taken many of them away from their homes and families, while half a dozen members were sickened with the coronavirus and forced to quarantine in a hotel.

U.S. Rep. Lloyd Doggett, D-Texas, joined other Democratic members of the Texas House of Representatives, who are boycotting a special session of the legislature in an effort to block Republican-backed voting restrictions, as they speak in front of the U.S. Capitol in Washington D.C., on July 13, 2021.

U.S. Rep. Lloyd Doggett, D-Texas, joined other Democratic members of the Texas House of Representatives, who are boycotting a special session of the legislature in an effort to block Republican-backed voting restrictions in Washington D.C., on July 13, 2021. Credit: REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque

Both groups of lawmakers say they are staying busy. Democrats in D.C. have met with lawmakers on Capitol Hill and other party leaders in an effort to convince Congress to pass federal voting legislation. And Republicans in Austin have held multiple briefings with retired teachers in Texas and providers for the state’s foster care system to discuss legislation on the governor’s special session agenda.

State Rep. James White, a Hillister Republican, said the current situation has given him more time to dive into the policies on the special session agenda and to meet with stakeholders involved with the legislation.

“We’re not sitting around Ranch 616, sucking down Ranch Waters,” White said, referencing a local Austin restaurant that’s well known for its tequila drink. “There’s always real business to do.”

Similarly, the Democrats are mostly careful to avoid the appearances that they are treating this stay as a vacation. In the afternoons, the pool at their hotel in the hip Logan Circle neighborhood is mostly occupied by families who seem oblivious to the national political drama playing out in the hotel lobby, conference rooms and television hits taking place in their neighbors’ hotel rooms.

It’s not been a luxurious getaway, they and their supporters said.

“They have sacrificed to be here for us,” said civil rights activist Al Sharpton in an appearance with about a dozen Texas Democrats on Wednesday. “This is not convenient to leave home. This is not a pleasure trip...this is all missing your family.”

State Rep. James Talarico of Round Rock did his laundry at a nearby stranger’s home who is a friend of state Rep. Julie Johnson of Farmers Branch.

“It’s somewhere between taking a trip and moving,” he said.

State Rep. Rafael Anchía, a Dallas Democrat, lamented that he was in such a rush to get to Washington, D.C. that he didn’t properly pack and arrived without a suit.

“I found separates at Marshall’s and put together an outfit for about $65 which is great, and I have used it over and over and over again,” he laughed.

Living out of their suitcases and in the hotel, the Democrats have created something of a routine — but concerns about the resurgence of COVID-19 loom large.

The Democrats report downstairs in their hotel at 8 a.m. every morning for a COVID-19 test.

The members who test negative have breakfast together, and then they typically spend their mornings in a room not accessible to the public due to COVID-19 protocols. There they engage in virtual conversations with various secretaries of state and legislators from around the country, union leaders, civil rights leaders like Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s daughter, Bernice King, Crystal Mason, a Tarrant County woman facing a five-year prison sentence for casting a provisional ballot in the 2016 election while she was on supervised release for a federal conviction, and other like-minded advocates for their voting rights push.

On Wednesday, the group met at the Dr. Martin Luther King Memorial for an event with Sharpton, Martin Luther King III and his wife, Arndrea Waters King.

Outside of the scheduled time, the Democrats attempt to catch up on work from their jobs outside of the Legislature and take interviews with local and national press. Lately, they’re fixtures on cable news, with frequent appearances on MSNBC, CNN and even Fox News. Most notably, the liberal-leaning MSNBC devoted an entire hour of prime time programming to the Texans last week.

Since the COVID-19 outbreak sickened six of the members last week, they’ve scaled back their trips to the U.S. Capitol. Early on, the several dozen lawmakers traveled to the Capitol in a bus. But given the heightened precautions and quarantining, the meetings are fewer and smaller.

Initially, the outbreak among the Texans shocked Washington. The positive tests were the impetus for some Capitol Hill staffers and members to revive mask-wearing at the Capitol.

“Sorry, I’m washing my hands, we’re doing a lot of handwashing,” said state Rep. Gina Hinojosa of Austin during a phone interview last week.

At some point midday, they take a roll call attendance to ensure everyone is accounted for.

Hinojosa said it’s at times been difficult to operate in the constant state of flux.

“I had this desire a few days ago for a dry erase calendar. It was this need I had to try to regain control over our time here,” she said. “Having a calendar I can look at because we’re building this plane as we’re flying it, right? And so, our time commitments are just more fluid here.”

The Democrats communicate internally via phone tree, where members are assigned to small groups to quickly disseminate information.

Talarico was on one of his now-regular evening walks last week among the monuments on the National Mall when news reached him about a shooting in broad daylight a few blocks up from the Texans’ hotel. He quickly checked in with several members of his texting pod and was relieved to learn that while some Texans were close to the incident, everyone was safe.

He compared the situation to the last time Texas Democrats broke quorum 18 years ago.

“There are a lot of similarities, but that 2003 group did not have to survive a virus or a mass shooting like we have with this quorum break,” Talarico said.

Back in Austin, Republicans voted overwhelmingly to issue what’s known as a “call of the House,” which authorized law enforcement to track down Democrats who fled. The procedural move carried little weight since the Democrats who left are beyond the jurisdiction of the state’s law enforcement, though it does prevent members present in the House from leaving unless they have permission in writing from the speaker and promise to return the next day.

Rep. Charles “Doc” Anderson, R-Waco, holds a sign that reads, “Here we are still on the job for the people,” on the House floor on July 14, 2021.

Rep. Charles “Doc” Anderson, R-Waco, holds a sign that reads, “Here we are still on the job for the people,” on the House floor on July 14, 2021 Credit: Sophie Park/The Texas Tribune

A day later, House Speaker Dade Phelan, R-Beaumont, and the remaining members posed for a portrait inside the chamber, with many of the seated Republicans smiling from their desks as rows of empty seats surrounded them.

The picture, at least from their vantage point, sent a message: Republicans had shown up to work on the issues important to Texans, while Democrats had walked off the job, fleeing the state on private chartered jets paid for by their caucus.

“We await the return of our colleagues to work on providing retired teachers a 13th check, protecting foster kids, defending taxpayers, and ensuring dangerous criminals aren’t allowed lenient bail,” Phelan tweeted with the photo. The 13th check refers to a one-time extra monthly payment the Legislature was planning to provide for retired teachers.

Republicans have since tried to capitalize on that messaging. Cain, the Deer Park Republican, has posted a daily photo — and, more recently, videos on TikTok — that counts how many days the chamber has gone without meeting quorum.

Another House Republican, state Rep. Jared Patterson of Frisco, is keeping track of how much Texas taxpayers are spending on the special session since Democrats’ quorum bust. The price tag — it was $649,950 on Tuesday, according to Patterson — is based on items such as legislative per diems for lawmakers and other budgeted costs, the lawmaker has said.

“Texas taxpayers deserve to know what this Democratic walkout is costing them. Every day, House Democrats are costing taxpayers $43,330, or basically, a teacher’s salary every day they aren’t here,” Patterson tweeted earlier this month.

Phelan, for his part, has called on Democrats who left the state to return their per diems — $221 every day lawmakers are in session — and released a list of members earlier this month that had not yet started the process of doing so, according to his office.

The quorum break and subsequent call of the House have upended most lawmakers’ plans for the summer, such as family vacations and other scheduled trips.

State Rep. Phil King, a Weatherford Republican, told the Tribune earlier this week that he’s been busy with conference calls and virtual meetings with the American Legislative Exchange Council, which is hosting an annual conference this week in Salt Lake City, Utah. He also said he had to miss most of his family’s vacation, which was in Colorado this year.

King, who sits on ALEC’s national board, was unable to attend in-person after a call of the House was issued — a disappointment for the lawmaker who said he already had to miss this year’s spring event due to the regular legislative session that ended in May.

The House has continued to meet most days since Democrats have left, though committees cannot meet and members are often released by Phelan within an hour or two as the chamber stands at ease.

Phelan’s daily dismissal ritual has become a moment of levity for the remaining members as they crowd around his desk to accept their permission slips to leave. Last week, the speaker described the slips of paper as “harvest grape” on Monday, “Whataburger orange” on Tuesday and “crawfish boil red” on Wednesday.

Legislators talk amongst themselves on the House floor on July 19, 2021.

Legislators talked amongst themselves on the House floor on July 19, 2021. Credit: Sophie Park/The Texas Tribune

After he dismisses them, Phelan gives them instructions on when to return the following day. Recently, the speaker has mentioned that the time is in Central Standard Time, a nod to the dozens of Democrats operating in the east coast time zone.

King, who has been through a previous Democratic quorum break, said eventually the Democrats will have no choice but to return and that the Legislature will get back to business.

“I went through this in 2003 — you just have to have patient endurance,” he said. “You just wait and eventually they wear out and come back.”

Democrats maintain they are determined to wait out this special session. While they express confidence that donors will cover the costs incurred from the hotel and other expenses, being away from home has personal and professional consequences.

Back home, legislators left behind children, partners, ailing parents and pets. Two weeks in, several of the members’ children have joined them in Washington.

The trip complicated the summer plans of Rep. Ana Hernandez of Houston, who shares custody of her young son with her ex-husband.

“My son flew up on Saturday, but I’m not sure at what point he’ll be returning,” she said. “It was a one-way ticket to Washington, D.C.”

Hernandez and the other lawmakers also have day jobs outside of their legislative careers. She told the Tribune that she is able to continue to practice law from afar, thanks to the fact that many court proceedings continue to take place virtually, due to COVID-19 protocols.

But other lawmakers are not so lucky.

“Not everyone can work as effectively remotely as others so we have people who are away from a small business they run or a legal practice or whatever, and they are losing money being here,” Hinojosa said. “Their families are losing income because they’re here.”

Gov. Greg Abbott has said he will call lawmakers back for a second overtime round to address the legislation on his agenda that the Legislature wasn’t able to tackle during this first 30-day stretch.

Though the quorum bust has caused tensions among some House members, White, the Hillister Republican, brushed off the suggestion that the chamber may enter the next special session as a more polarized body than before.

“You can’t walk around in this business with grudges and resentments in your pocket,” he said. “I think this is a full-contact sport — this is politics — and that same member that you didn’t get on House Bill A may be the member you get to pass House Bill D. You take that vote and you move on.”

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