For 38 days, Texas House Democrats stayed away from Austin, attempting to block the passage of a GOP elections bill they said would restrict voting rights, particularly in communities of color. Their efforts prevented the House from reaching a quorum. That is, until three Democrats – Garnet Coleman, Armando Walle and Ana Hernandez — gave in.
The move ignited fury among constitutents and colleagues.
Coleman, who represents Houston’s District 147, said he still opposes the elections bill and is proud of the “heroic work” the House Democratic Caucus had done to fight the bill, but it was time to move forward.
“Let’s be clear,” Coleman said in an interview with the Defender. “We couldn’t stay out until 2023. It just wasn’t gonna happen. So from that perspective, you have to have people on the inside putting pressure on. Plus, I knew that that if the Congress didn’t act, then it’s all moot.”
The elections bill approved by the Texas Senate would ban 24-hour and drive-through early voting, extend protections to partisan poll watchers and add restrictions to mail-in balloting. Democrats criticized Abbott’s call for a special session to deal with elections and other issues, they also locked themselves into a lengthy quorum break with the rhetoric used after their first walkout. A majority of the caucus agreed that they couldn’t trust Republicans to approve an acceptable elections reform bill. Though some of the veteran Democrats had concerns about maintaining a quorum break, they saw no other option but to leave Austin.
On July 12, more than 50 Democrats headed to Washington. That boycott lasted until the special session expired, gaining the Democrats in Washington national attention.Their meetings with civil rights leaders and their counterparts in Congress inspired them to stay the course. A “one day at a time” plan stretched into the second-longest quorum break in Texas history.
Coleman, who didn’t go because he had to undergo surgery to have his leg amputated, said he understood the reasoning behind leaving, put staying away was essentially pushing the can down the road.
“When I went back that day, I returned because I believe that we have to have people fighting inside and outside, and also using their influence to move the Republicans to a different place. I think it’s important that I do my best to engage the way that I do things best. And that’s influence the leadership. I’m number five in seniority and I can talk to people. That doesn’t mean I can’t always walk out again. Uh, but from that perspective, we can get changed. And I think you’ll see that we do get some.Gov. Greg Abbott’s 17-item agenda includes COVID-19 legislation,” he said.
You’ve got to take the fight down here,” added Rep. Walle, D-Houston. “You’ve got to fight multiple fronts. I just felt that it was necessary — after being out 30-plus days — that the fight needed to transition down here.”
More Houston Democrats have since returned to the Capitol, including trailblazing lawmaker Senfronia Thompson. Coleman said he understands constituent’s anger, but their fight is far from over.
“The gain is only going to come in the federal government,” he said. “It’s not us who are making that decision. It’s the Democrats in Congress. And I think it has to be very clear because they can make a change because they have a majority. We do not. And so that is where the victory has to come. If something doesn’t change up there, we’re going to lose the U. S. house because bills have already passed in 17 other states.”
Some Democrats, like Jasmine Crockett, chair of the Legislative Black Caucus, said that mentality is exactly why Democrats continue to lose elections.
“One reason that we lose so often is that as Democrats we end up divided. I can guarantee you that if this was a Republican effort, there would not be 10 Republicans that would have stayed back on the floor. I don’t know what it is about being in the minority party that you just feel like your only option is to please the majority, because that’s what it feels like. I can tell you with absolute certainty that my Democratic colleagues have just hurt all of Texas. We know it wasn’t just the voting bill. There is an onslaught of terrible legislation targeting trans children and even as it relates to COVID-19.”
Let the people be heard
Reaction over the qurom break was mixed, with some Democratic lawmakers feeling betrayed and sure that Republicans will now approve bills that hurt communities of color and the economically disadvantaged. Still others agreed that it was time to move forward.
Here are some of the comments from across Texas.
“Republicans are now fully enabled and empowered to enact virtually all of [Gov. Greg] Abbott’s directives, including many dangerous pieces of legislation that will fundamentally hurt the lives of Texans. Millions of Texans will be deeply harmed by the policy that will pass in the next 17 days.” – Statement from 34 holdout Democrats
“I don’t participate in abusive relationships. I have no choice but to be here (in Washington) and to pray to God that there might be a Lyndon B. Johnson moment here at the Capitol.” – Carl Sherman (D-DeSoto)
“I’m disappointed because in a marathon it requires 26.2 miles of running. They successfully ran 14 miles, and you don’t get a medal for running 14 miles. I heard someone saying they accomplished what they set out to do. You wanted to run a 14-mile marathon? Now we’re going to faithfully have to take the fight to Washington, D.C., on a more intense level, because we can’t trust Texas.” – Rev. Frederick Haynes III, Friendship-West Church
“We keep hearing the world is watching, that what happens in Texas so goes the nation. If that’s the case, we need to show them the courage and stand against the hypocrisy, the attacks and the denial of our rights.” – Nicole Collier, chair Black Legislative Caucus
“After months of standing firm against Gov. Abbott’s extremist agenda by denying him a quorum in the House, it’s disheartening that quorum was reached, and that this sham of a second special session has now fully commenced.” – Brianna Brown, Co-executive director, Texas Organizing Project
“Serving with Ana, Walle, and Garnet has taught me that they are consistently guided by their values. I believe them when they say that they believe they can do more good on the House floor than off of it.” – Erin Zwiener, D-Driftwood
“We have a diversity of opinion and thought in our caucus, but we all share the same values. In terms of voting, that’s centered around protecting the freedom to vote for all Texans. That’s where I’m encouraging our members to focus on and pool our collective voices and considerable strength to fight back against these bills in the next phase of this fight.” – Chris Turner, D-Grand Prairie