Todd J. Gillman The Dallas Morning News
WASHINGTON – With a COVID-19 hitting 10% of Texas Democrats who fled to halt work in the state House, the runaways spent Monday morning in a semi-virtual pep rally on voting rights – fending off questions about the outbreak.
Dolores Huerta, an icon of the labor movement who co-founded the National Farm Workers Association with César Chavez, encouraged them not to back down in the face of “reactionary” GOP voter suppression efforts.
“Everybody is talking about you, talking about what you are doing. I hope you can stay out of Texas as long as you can, until the governor and the other Republicans in Texas come to their senses,” Huerta, 91, said by video, the sound of a cat’s meows punctuating her comments. “You Texas Democrats are the soldiers that are fighting for everybody.”
With five of the 55 fugitives testing positive for the coronavirus in the last few days, the Texans’ hopes of meeting with President Joe Biden this week dimmed substantially.
Late last week one member came down with cold-like symptoms and took a test.
At that point, “We thought it was prudent to proactively test our members and staff,” said Rep. Chris Turner of Grand Prairie, head of the Democratic caucus in the Texas House.
Three members tested positive, and two more on Sunday. The group began wearing masks and adjusting plans.
“We’ve been observing all CDC guidelines,” said state Rep. Rafael Anchia, D-Dallas. “We’re grateful that 100% of us were vaccinated in advance…. This delta variant is no joke.”
The Texans met with Vice President Kamala Harris last Tuesday, the day after they arrived in Washington on short notice. They spent the rest of the week lobbying senators for federal voting rights legislation that would preempt the measure Gov. Greg Abbott has demanded.
Abbott called the Legislature into a month-long special session that opened July 8, to resurrect a bill the House Democrats killed with an 11th hour walkout.
Elsa Caballero, president of SEIU Texas, which represents health care workers, security officers and janitors, likened the quorum break to a strike undertaken when workers have no other recourse to stymie unjust treatment.
“I am so proud of the bold stand that you guys have taken,” she said.
In a virtual Q&A with journalists, Turner deflected a question about whether he expects a meeting with Biden in light of the outbreak. “We appreciate the president’s strong support of federal voting rights legislation,” he said.
The caucus will need $1.5 million to cover transportation, lodging and food to hold out through Aug. 7, when the current special session ends,” according to Rep. Armando Walle of Houston. Fundraising hasn’t hit that target yet, he said, but is ongoing. Beto O’Rourke and Willie Nelson, among others, have pitched in.
Monday’s seminar was a hybrid. The speakers and most of the Texas lawmakers attended via Zoom.
Nearly 20 of the state House members were visible in a shot of a ballroom at the Washington Plaza hotel a few blocks from the White House – no more than three per table, with bottles of hand sanitizer close at hand. (Most of the rest signed on without video.)
Photos posted online last Monday showed they traveled maskless on two chartered jets.
Some Republicans have mocked them as irresponsible including some who also deride public health experts’ advice to wear masks.
Donald Trump Jr. posted a taunting message on Instagram with a photo of the barefaced lawmakers on a bus heading to the Austin airport.
“Who says God doesn’t have a sense of humor?” wrote Trump Jr., who caught COVID-19 in November after his father, then-president Donald Trump, was hospitalized for the ailment.
The outbreak complicated the Texas Democrats’ plans for the week and was very much on their minds.
Just before Monday’s program started, a Democratic aide, Abhi Rahman, sneezed. “Don’t worry, I’ve tested negative twice,” he said.
Caballero recalled poll watchers showing up at Texas voting sites last fall with guns slung over their shoulders, a “fear tactics to keep people from voting.”
The bill Abbott wants would further empower partisan poll watchers, among other steps. It would make it a felony for election workers to send mail-in ballot applications unasked and restrict early and absentee voting.
“We all know what this bill is about. It is not about voter protection. It is not about voter fraud. This is just another attempt to stop people from voting — to stop certain communities from voting,” Caballero said, making it “a power grab by the Republican Party.”
“By taking this stand you have sent a loud message to Governor Abbott, Lt. Gov. Patrick and the rest of the Republican legislative leadership,” she said.
Hector Sanchez, executive director of Mi Familia Vota, a group that advocates for Latino citizens and immigrants, lauded the “heroic, amazing delegation from Texas for standing up, for lighting the spark of hope for democracy, for inspiring us… There are moments in history that we can remember, when people stood up and said, we are not going to let this happen…. The Texas legislators are the ones taking this heroic stand, and we stand in solidarity with all of you.”
“Why do we have people waiting six hours on a Tuesday just to have the basic right to vote, and some other people can vote in a much easier way?”
The Texas fight, he said, called to mind fights in Arizona over SB 1070, a 2010 immigration restriction law that at the time was the nation’s strictest and, before that in 1984, California’s proposition 187.
Prop 187 was a ballot initiative that would have barred access to schools, non-emergency health care and other state-backed services for undocumented immigrants.
In both episodes, Sanchez said, “We voted the most extremist voices out of office.… Texas is the present and the future of our nation.”