Longtime Houston lawmaker Harold Dutton was one of just a few Democrats to get a key position of power in the Texas Legislature this year after House Speaker Dade Phelan, a Republican, named his committee leaders in early February.
Dutton, who has served in the Legislature since 1985, was given the helm of the influential public education committee. As a member of the minority party, the position was crucial — especially after Republicans were riding high from a sweep in the November election. Dutton could bottle up legislation that Democrats opposed, essentially blocking it from reaching the House floor.
But Dutton didn’t do that.
Instead, he advanced out of his committee two pieces of legislation considered toxic by Democrats in Texas and nationwide — a bill to restrict transgender students from school sports and a ban on critical race theory studies in schools. Dutton has also used his pulpit to champion other education bills popular with Republicans, such as a measure that would allow school funding to be tied to student outcomes.
“I thought having a chair that was a Democrat meant that things would be more accelerated and more progressive. I was wrong,” said state Rep. Diego Bernal, D-San Antonio, who sits on the public education committee with Dutton.
For his part, Dutton said he stands by his actions this session and doesn’t fear the political fallout. He said he’s run his committee consistently and with the best interest of school children in mind.
“I have never worried about the negative,” he said in an interview with The Texas Tribune. “If you see me running in a fight, I’m chasing somebody, I’m not running.”
With two weeks left in the session, Democrats, along with advocates for public education and transgender children, say Dutton has squandered his leadership opportunity and acted against the interest of his party and school children. Some of those activists are vowing to remind voters of these decisions come election time.
“In the past there has been a reluctance from my organization to take on those in the Democratic Party that do not share and hold our values. It was much easier to just blame it on Republicans,” said Zeph Capo, president of the Texas American Federation of Teachers, which has clashed with Dutton on education bills. “Those of us who pay attention to what [Dutton] does and not what he says have known this about him for some time and [now] everyone else is really seeing his true colors.”
The strongest condemnation against Dutton came earlier this month after he revived Senate Bill 29, which would force transgender students to play on school sports teams based on their biological sex instead of their gender identity. It was a stunning turn of events. The bill had failed to pass the same committee just days earlier, with Dutton not casting a vote.
But after one of Dutton’s priority bills — that would have allowed the Texas Education Agency to take over failing school districts — was derailed on a procedural technicality by fellow Houston Democrat state Rep. Alma Allen, Dutton posted the controversial legislation for another vote the following morning and supported the bill’s passage.
“The bill that was killed last night affected far more children than this bill ever will. So as a consequence, the chair moves that Senate Bill 29 as substituted be reported favorably to the full House with the recommendation that it do pass,” Dutton said as he passed the bill.
Dutton said none of his actions were retaliatory and they were in line with the way he told the members he’d run the committee at the beginning of the session. He said if members could show that their bill had the necessary seven votes to pass the 13-member committee, he would put it up for a vote.
“Many come to me with votes I don’t like and I bring them up,” he said. “That’s true for any bill before our committee.”
That was his reasoning, he said, when he first brought up a bill affecting transgender student athletes for a vote in early May. But Dutton said he did not realize state Rep. Dan Huberty, R-Houston, had stepped out of the committee room, which left Republicans one vote shy of passing the bill out of committee at the time.
Dutton said he revived the bill because the committee’s Republicans subsequently informed him they had the votes to move it forward. He also said he asked the House sponsor, state Rep. Cole Hefner, R-Mount Pleasant, to add amendments that would make it more palatable to the rest of the members in the chamber. The amendments would codify the University Interscholastic League’s current rules on transgender students participating in sports and require a study to determine how many people the law would affect.
Dutton said he voted for the amended bill because he got a commitment from Republican colleagues that if the legislation changed on the House floor, the author would withdraw it from consideration. The bill is waiting to be taken up by the Calendars committee, which decides which bills are heard on the House floor.
“I’ve tried to fashion something that has almost no effect,” Dutton said. “They should be singing the praises of Harold Dutton as opposed to running around and attacking Harold Dutton.”
But LGBTQ advocates aren’t buying it. The bill had already failed to pass, so why give it a second chance? They said further discussion only fueled the bill’s supporters and caused mental anguish for transgender children and their families whose fate was in the balance.
“You are talking about a Democrat pushing forward this bill that when you’re in other states trying to say ‘Let’s stop this bullying of trans youth’ you’re seeing at least progressive people and moderate Republicans understanding,” said Andrea Segovia, policy and field coordinator for the Transgender Education Network of Texas.
Segovia said she believes the move was purely retaliatory against Democrats who stalled Dutton’s school takeover bill.
Rebecca Marques, state director for the Human Rights Campaign, which advocates for LGBTQ equality, said Dutton’s action demonstrated “the petty and cruel ways that Texas elected officials use the lives of trans kids to score political points without regard to the actual human impact.”
Voters, she said, will be reminded of Dutton’s actions.
“We have a track record of supporting pro-LGBTQ candidates and working with lawmakers to expand their understanding of LGBTQ Texans,” Marques said in a statement. “LGBTQ voters have a consistently high turnout – and they know who stands with them, and who works to harm them.”
Democrats, including his local party, are also putting Dutton on notice.
The Harris County Democratic Party posted on its Facebook that they condemned Dutton’s actions and saw them as retaliation against fellow Democrats.
“His actions are childish and harmful and completely unacceptable,” the post said.
While it’s gained the most attention recently, the transgender athletes bill is not the only area where Dutton is at odds with his party and various education advocates.
Dutton’s priority bill addresses a current legal battle between the TEA and Houston ISD, after the agency attempted to take over the district under a previous law written by Dutton but was blocked by an appeals court. It seeks to wrest power away from local administrators and put it under state control.
Dutton’s alma mater in Houston ISD, Wheatley High School, has received an F rating for multiple years, even as Dutton has fought for the school’s improvement.
“If you’re not going to fix the schools in Northeast Houston so every child has a future, then we need to change the school district,” Dutton said.
Dutton also supports charter schools and has authored a bill that includes a provision to reward school campuses for how well kids do on standardized tests, which Democrats say would lead to middle-income schools reaping those rewards while leaving behind poor schools.
Dutton said he’s fighting for the best results for children and sees himself as a disruptor.
“The problem with changing the design is there are people who benefit by virtue of the design and will fight you tooth and nail for changing that design,” he said. “I recognize that.”
But Dutton still has supporters. Elizabeth Wilson of Kitchen Table Parents said Dutton has been supportive of a bill that would streamline the evaluation of Texas students for dyslexia and improve the resources provided to them.
Dutton met with Wilson’s daughter, Beckley, to talk about the bill and named the legislation after her. While she said she can’t talk about his actions on other bills, Elizabeth Wilson said Dutton’s concern for kids was immediately evident.
“I do feel like he’s listened and heard us,” she said.
Segovia, however, is concerned about transgender children who have to continue hearing lawmakers discuss their fates. She said she tried to stress to Dutton that as a committee chair, he had the power to stop the bill and send a message not just to the Texas Legislature but lawmakers in other states considering similar legislation.
“When we stop bad legislation, we stop it throughout the country,” she said. “When we advance it, it goes wildfire.”
But Dutton said that’s not how he sees lawmaking. If an idea has enough votes to merit a vote, he said, lawmakers should entertain the discussion.
“Some people might disagree with it but I think that’s how the committee ought to run,” he said. “If you have the votes we ought to talk about it.”