Todd J. Gillman The Dallas Morning News
WASHINGTON – With financial help from the likes of Willie Nelson and Beto O’Rourke, and moral support from the White House, Democrats from the Texas Legislature spent their second full day on the lam pleading for congressional help on voting rights.
They focused so far not on holdouts like Sen. Joe Manchin but on liberal allies like Sen. Elizabeth Warren who already support the cause that prompted them to slip out of Austin on short notice Monday, bringing the Texas House to a screeching halt for lack of a quorum.
And they settled in for a month-long exile at a four-star hotel a few blocks from the White House.
“Our commitment is to kill the bill for this session and make the case to the U.S. Senate to embrace the House’s good work,” said state Rep. Chris Turner of Grand Prairie, chair of the Texas House Democratic caucus and ring leader of the fugitives who left the state to escape the reach of Texas state troopers and the House sergeant at arms.
“We’re not in any way, suggesting that members are going to stay out of the state of Texas for the rest of the year, the next two years, obviously that’s not realistic.”
O’Rourke, the former El Paso congressman who challenged Sen. Ted Cruz in 2018, has used his formidable database and profile among Democrats to raise donations that would defray expenses that would easily top $10,000 a day just for the lodging of all of the fugitives.
As of Wednesday afternoon, the tally stood at $526,780 from 14,654 donors, for an average of $36 per donation.
Willie Nelson, the country music star, pitched in $5,000 and posted a video urging others to donate.
House Republicans voted in a mostly empty chamber in Austin to have the Democrats arrested and Gov. Greg Abbott vowed that they’d be arrested on sight if they set foot in Texas, which of course is why they fled in the first place.
Abbott called the Legislature into a month-long special session July 8 to Aug. 6, demanding a rewrite of state election rules — the same measure that prompted the same Democrats to stage an 11th hour walkout that killed the bill during the biennial regular session.
President Joe Biden called that bill an “un-American” effort to suppress votes.
Vice President Kamala Harris huddled with 57 Democrats from the Legislature late Tuesday at a teachers’ union office near the U.S. Capitol, lauding their efforts to thwart what Democrats view as a voter suppression effort in Texas.
“I know what you have done comes with great sacrifice, both personal and political,” she said, comparing their bold move then, and again on Wednesday, to the life of Frederick Douglass, who escaped slavery in Maryland and became one of the nation’s leading abolitionists.
“The whole thing is making certain that we do things in our power to try to get this federal legislation passed in order to arrest some of the ugly laws that are being passed by a Republican dominated legislature, under the guise of quote-unquote voter integrity,” said state Sen. Royce West of Dallas, who noted that he spent 47 days in Albuquerque, N.M. in 2003 when Democrats broke quorum to block an especially aggressive attempt to redraw congressional lines for the second time in two years.
Nine of the 13 Democrats in the Texas Senate joined their House counterparts in solidarity in Washington for the start of the weeks-long exile.
“There are powerful forces in Texas right now trying to roll back our rights to vote,” said state Rep. Victoria Neave of Dallas, as more than 30 Texas legislators spoke to news media from their not-so-secret hideout at the Washington Plaza hotel a few blocks from the White House. “We are not going to give up…. We’re inspired by the millions of Texans who have personally reached out to our offices in support.”
But while Democrats view the Texas lawmakers as heroes, Republicans see them as cowards who fled from a fight, albeit one they would certainly lose given the GOP’s control of the state House.
Abbott accused them of shirking their duties to “party on the dime of the Texas taxpayer.”
But he has already vetoed their $7,200 annual legislative pay to pressure them to relent on the elections bill, and his office has provided no evidence to support the contention of any taxpayer subsidy. Texas Senate Republicans on Wednesday morning sharply criticized the Democrats not only for halting the elections bill but for paralyzing pending bail legislation they said would deter voter fraud and violent crime.
Democrats insist they’re not living it up.
Many left behind spouses, children and employment.
“It’s a perfectly fine hotel. I don’t think it would qualify as a luxury hotel,” Turner said. “Our expenses are being paid out of the Democratic caucus, the Mexican-American Legislative Caucus and other caucuses. All of our caucuses raised money year-round.”
The bill at issue has already passed in special session in the Texas Senate, where Democrats have too few seats – 13 of 31 – to break a quorum. But most of those senators were in Washington to show solidarity.
“Our constitutional rights are under attack. We’re here to defend them,” said Sen. Carol Alvarado of Houston, chair of the Senate Democratic caucus in Austin. “We will be back to address this issue. It’s like a sequel to a movie and y’all know the sequel is always worse.”
State Rep. Ron Reynolds of Missouri City denounced Abbott for calling this “suppression session” – a move so egregious it demanded they “break quorum and nationalize this critical issue facing both Texas and this entire nation.”
“This bill was just the latest of Trump Republicans’ attacks on democracy,” Reynolds said. “Governor Abbott and Republican legislators will stop at nothing, absolutely, unequivocally nothing to strip Texans of their freedom to vote by continuing to perpetuate the `big lie’ of voter fraud.”