Politics

What the Rogue Texas Democrats Did on Their First Day in D.C.

The state lawmakers are searching for suits and hoping any of it will matter.

Senfronia Thompson speaks at a podium bearing a placard that says "TXHDC Texas House Democratic Caucus." Her fellow legislators stand around her and the U.S. Capitol dome looms in the distance on a clear day.
Rep. Senfronia Thompson outside the U.S. Capitol on Tuesday. Kevin Dietsch/Getty Images

On their first morning in Washington, almost all the Democrats in the Texas House of Representatives walked up Capitol Hill just before 10 a.m. Some had arrived in D.C. on Monday evening; others were fresh off the plane. As the members passed a small crowd of reporters and Texan Hill staffers, Rep. Ramon Romero of Fort Worth raised his hand in a fist.

They’d come to D.C. to take the last (and most dramatic) action available to them to stop their home state of Texas from passing sweeping restrictions on voting rights. The Republican-controlled Texas Legislature is ready to pass the bill, so more than 50 Democrats in the Texas House fled to D.C. to withhold the quorum required to pass a bill. They must stay out of the state for the rest of the 30-day special legislative session called by Gov. Greg Abbott. Their plan for their first day included a short press conference, then lobbying senators and members of Congress to pass federal voting rights legislation that would supersede what the Republicans in the Texas Legislature are trying to pass.

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Before the Democrats could get to their first meetings on the Hill, their Republican colleagues in Austin voted to authorize warrants for their arrest.

“I was lightheaded yesterday, and before I even went to bed, I was thinking, you know, this is a lot that we’re risking,” said first-term Rep. Claudia Ordaz Perez, who wore cowboy boots embossed with her name and the seal of El Paso. “So I’m putting it in perspective, and I do my prayers every night, and I just recognize how important this is.”

Rep. Rhetta Bowers of Dallas said she’d been thinking of her children, both of whom are now registered voters. “If this isn’t standing up and working hard for your constituents, I don’t know what is,” she said. “To make a sacrifice like this, with uncertainty, and have to truly walk by faith and not by sight, to just truly put your heart out there and say we won’t stand for this.”

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If they return to Texas in the next month, they risk arrest and a mandated return to the House, at which point Republicans could push the legislation through.

Members who spoke at the press conference urged Senate Democrats to suspend the filibuster on the single issue of voting rights, which would allow the passage of the For the People Act, the federal voting rights bill that died by Republican filibuster in June. Rep. Rafael Anchía of Dallas, the chairman of the Texas House’s Mexican American caucus, told Slate that he’s prepared to do whatever it takes to urge his fellow Democrats to make a bold move: either reauthorizing the parts of the Voting Rights Act that the Supreme Court struck down, as the John Lewis Voting Rights Act would do, or passing the broader For the People Act. “We can’t go back unless Congress acts. That’s the bottom line,” Anchía said. “We came to Washington to really beg them to act. We need their help.”

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Anchía, who wore jeans and a sport coat, was set to meet with Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer later in the day. But first, he planned to run a few errands. “I need to go to Marshalls and buy some clothes,” he said. “I literally just flew in. I don’t have a proper suit. So I need to go buy a tie, a shirt, and a suit.” When pressed on whether that would be enough for a full month in D.C., he conceded, “OK, fine, underwear and socks.”

No matter how dapper Anchía looks at his meetings, the two Democratic senators standing in the way of suspending the filibuster—Sens. Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema—are unlikely to change their minds. But the Texans frame their efforts as a way to buy time for their D.C. counterparts to figure out a way forward, given that Manchin and Sinema nominally support the legislation at hand, if not the means required to pass it. Anchía hopes these Senate Democrats could assume the role of the civil rights heroes they claim to idolize.

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As they engage in a kind of civil disobedience to forestall one of the worst of the sets of voting restrictions that have popped up in Republican-controlled legislatures around the country, the Texas Democrats intend to situate their fight in the long history of civil rights battles for the ballot. At their press conference on Tuesday, the members were visibly moved by the statement of Rep. Senfronia Thompson of Houston, who’s served in the Texas House since 1973. She spoke of seeing the new-to-her African American history museum in D.C., which called to mind “the struggle of my people” to secure the franchise. “These Republicans in this Legislature may have changed the messiah from Jesus to Trump, but I haven’t,” she said. “And I’m gonna make sure that I do everything I can do so that my constituents’ rights will not be stripped from them.”

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As the press conference wrapped up, Thompson led the members in a rendition of “We Shall Overcome.” (The song has become a hallmark of the group’s press appearances.) “We will overcome,” Thompson told Slate. “It is an inspirational song that we sing to reignite, and to keep the hope within us.” In her 25 terms in the Texas House, Thompson has seen the same efforts to curtail women’s rights and voting rights arise over and over again. New classes of Republican legislators come into office, but the attempts never cease. “It’s a bit repulsive,” Thompson said, of bearing witness to nearly five decades of Republicans attempting to prevent communities of color from voting. “Why should I always have to struggle for my rights?”

The emotional appeal may be the only route left for Thompson, her colleagues, and other Democrats who see this moment as a turning point for U.S. democracy. Manchin and Sinema already have all the facts. They’ve shown no willingness to budge. Now, they’ll have to tell a crowd of fugitive Texan legislators singing a civil rights protest song that their extreme measures to protect the franchise will be for naught.

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