Strain sets in for Texas House Democrats in Washington

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WASHINGTON — State Rep. Erin Zwiener stood in front of her bathroom mirror dusting powder foundation across her face and reflecting on what it means to be a woman in politics in 2021. She was gearing up for an interview on MSNBC, in what would be her second appearance on the national news network in the week since she joined her House Democratic colleagues as they left Texas for Washington D.C. to block passage of a GOP-backed elections bill.

As she spoke, the opening notes of pop-icon Gwen Stefani’s 2004 attitude-anthem “Hollaback Girl” started to play from her iPhone in the other room, where her 3-year-old daughter, Lark, played with puzzle pieces strewn across the floor.

Zwiener was one of 12 lawmakers scheduled to participate in the special program, which would highlight different facets of the quorum bust. The Driftwood Democrat was slated to appear alongside two other members in a segment about balancing the demands of parenthood with participation in the historic walkout. Zwiener opted to bring her daughter with her to Washington.

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State Rep. Erin Zwiener, D-Driftwood, plays with her daughter, Lark, in their Washington hotel room on July 14. Bringing the tot on the quorum-busting trip to D.C. has been a struggle at times, said Zwiener, who described feeling isolated during her initial days in Washington and said it was difficult to attend political meetings when she couldn't find temporary childcare.

“I won’t lie, it has been a little bit frustrating that most people want to talk about my kid,” Zwiener said. “It is sort of a weird dynamic to want to talk about an issue but have it so much become about your family life.”

As Zwiener made final adjustments to her blazer and waited for her live segment to start, the voice of a producer for the show came through her laptop: “Can I just say, as someone at home with two kids, I am in awe of you.”

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Having Lark with her in Washington was a struggle for Zwiener, who described feeling isolated during her initial days in Washington and said it was difficult to find temporary childcare and couldn’t attend some political meetings. After days of searching, she found a local daycare that offered part-time care — but she had to withdraw Lark after she was exposed to the coronavirus.

The breakthrough of six COVID cases among the fully vaccinated Texas Democratic delegation presented an unexpected hurdle in their second week of quorum busting. After sustained excitement following the absconder to Washington, the reality of a month-long quorum break was beginning to set in. Familial and career responsibilities were not as easily met from 1,500 miles away. Coronavirus cases confined some members to the small quarters of their hotel rooms, while key meetings previously scheduled on Capitol Hill turned into virtual Zoom calls. 

State Rep. Erin Zwiener, D-Driftwood, speaks during a live interview on MSNBC July 19 about the quorum-busting Texas House Democrats while holding her 3-year-old daughter Lark.

The question became how to maintain momentum in the media and in Congress on voting legislation while keeping a unified front. It was a reality that Zwiener was grappling with as Lark dove into the frame as her mother spoke to a national audience about voting access in Texas. 

“There is value in people thinking about how hard it is to go cross country with a toddler and live in a hotel room for a couple of weeks for them to understand why we care,” Zwiener said later. “It mitigates people thinking it’s hyperbole when they can tell you had to give something up.”

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Texas Democrats face COVID-forced pivot

The first COVID case came on Friday evening, after one member reported a positive test following a regularly-scheduled doctor’s appointment. 

State Rep. Celia Israel, D- Austin, was one of the first to get infected. She recalled her Friday symptoms feeling like a cold and thought nothing of them. She was vaccinated, after all. And she had already navigated the worst of the pandemic with her fiancé, an essential worker, without infection.

But bad news was revealed by a rapid test Saturday morning, and she recalled stepping into the corner of the hotel ballroom to look at the results.

Celia Israel, D-Austin, waits in the Texas House Chamber at the Capitol in downtown Austin on May 6 for the debate of House Bill 6, which would create new election-related crimes, boost penalties for existing crimes and increase access for partisan poll watchers.

“I was pissed,” she said, that the nation was so far behind on widespread vaccination. “I didn’t realize at the time that a few other people would also test positive. I knew immediately I was going to have to quarantine.”

By Monday, six of the nearly 60 lawmakers in Washington had tested positive.

Suddenly, their plans to appear at the D.C. studios of MSNBC, the nation’s second most-watched cable news channel, were in peril. What followed in the next 48 hours was a scramble to not let the nationwide exposure opportunity slip by.

MSNBC producers “wanted to be cautious. And we wanted to be cautious,” said Philip Martin, executive director of the House Democratic Caucus. “So instead, we turned our whole hotel ballroom and meeting space into a virtual live studio with less than 48-hours notice.”

Staffers raced to purchase camera gear, ring lights and Texas flags for on-screen backdrops. They learned production techniques and coordinated with MSNBC producers to arrange an hour-long town hall all held over Zoom — Zwiener in her hotel room, others spread across various hotel meeting rooms.

Texas Democratic House members sit socially distant while appearing on MSNBC from the ballroom of the Washington Plaza Hotel in Washington D.C. on July 19.

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What followed in the rest of that second week was a daily diet of virtual meetings with key members of Congress, senators, left-wing activists and other state-level democrats from across the country.

They met with House Majority Whip James Clyburn, D-S.C., who gave the group a renewed sense of hope after making certain commitments on the federal voting rights bill, particularly the restoration of provisions that would require U.S. Justice Department to approve changes made to state voting laws. 

And they met with the likes of Sen. Cory Booker, D-N.J., and Pennsylvania Lt. Gov. John Fetterman, both of whom heaped praise and platitudes on the Texas delegation.

“Eye contact and being in the same room where there’s that emotion and those feelings no doubt has its benefits. But I think we’re able to adjust,” said stateRep. Barbara Gervin-Hawkins, D-San Antonio. “I’m a big believer that the world will never be the same again, because we’ve got to use virtual situations to communicate.”

Advocating for federal action on voting rights as a means of “blunting the effects” of the Republican-backed voting legislation back in Texas was the raison d’être for the Democrats’ media blitz and Capitol Hill meetings, said state Rep Chris Turner, D-Grand Prairie, and chairman of the Texas House Democratic Caucus.

State Rep. Chris Turner, chairman of the Texas House Democratic Caucus, center, is joined by Democratic members of the Texas Legislature at a news conference at the Capitol in Washington July 13 after they left Austin to break quorum and delay passage of changes to statewide election law.

“That’s the point of being here, that’s the objective,” he said. “We’re buying time. That’s all we can do. We can only buy time. Republicans control the House, the Senate, the governor’s office, the lieutenant governor’s office, the attorney general. All we can do is buy time.

“Our message to Congress is that time’s almost up,” Turner said. “We have to have action and we have to have it now.”

But the six COVID cases quickly stole some of the limelight as right-wing commentators at home and in Washington highlighted the Democrats’ folly.

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Fox News called the Texas group a “super-spreader.” On her show, Fox News host Laura Ingraham invoked the COVID-positive Texans to bring the efficacy of coronavirus vaccines into question. And in his Monday monologue, Tucker Carlson put his own spin on the six infections to diminish faith in vaccines by paying special attention to Texas Rep. Gene Wu and his July 19 tweet, in which Wu,D-Houston, urged people to “let our mistake be an object lesson” for masking up indoors. 

“It makes you wonder, how effective are these drugs anyway?” Carlson said after skewering Wu for his group’s unmasked indiscretion.

After orchestrating a historic walkout, the Democrats’ mission had now become two-pronged: Push for federal voting rights legislation while serving as a reminder for vaccinated people to resume precautionary habits. 

U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) address Texas State House Democrats as they meet with Senators on Capitol Hill on July 14, 2021 in Washington, DC. More than sixty Texas House Democrats have left the state in order to block a voting restrictions bill by denying a Republican quorum. Texas Governor Greg Abbott has threatened to arrest the legislators when they returns to the state. (Kevin Dietsch/Getty Images/TNS)

House Democrats face difficult choices

The personal sacrifices each member had made in their commitment to the mission were starting to wear.

In quarantine, Israel was growing weary of confinement punctuated only by the daily virtual meetings. “I’m just pacing around a hotel room, with walls that I’ve seen over and over again,” she said.

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State Rep. Mary González, D-Clint, said the challenge is being away from her septuagenarian father who, in her absence, is now tasked with managing their farm.

“I broke down Saturday a little bit because my dad, a 70-year-old man, had to irrigate for me because I wasn’t home,” González said. “For me, my father is the most important thing in the world to me. I never want to be a burden to him. I want to take care of him. And for him to have to do this, I felt guilty and I felt heavy and I felt exhausted.”

When state Rep. Armando Walle starts to feel the stress of being away from his family back in Houston, he thinks about his 91-year-old grandfather, who grew up as an American of Mexican descent during the era of Jim Crow laws in the United States.

“Jim Crow wasn’t just one law. It was progressively worse for people of color,” Walle said, speaking from his Washington hotel. His grandfather, Armando Zamarripa, was born in 1930 and when he was old enough to vote, the state of Texas still imposed a poll tax and in some cases literacy tests required of voters.

From left, Texas House Rep. Jarvis Johnson,  D-Houston; Rep. Rhetta Bowers, D-Garland; Rep. Ron Reynolds, D-Missouri City; Martin Luther King III; Arndrea Waters King; Rev. Al Sharpton; Texas House Rep. Carl Sherman, D-Dallas; and Rep. Jasmine Crockett, D-Dallas, pray after a news conference with the Texas State Democratic Delegation at the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Wednesday in Washington.

“Voting is the foundation,” Walle said. “When you have equal access to the franchise, then you have a say-so in every other issue. When that playing field is equal, then you can say, ‘I can elect this person to fight for my beliefs in this office,’ whether it is at the county administrator level, statewide level or our level. That’s why we’ve taken this position. Because if you slowly chip away at that, then you lose our democracy.

“When we say we’re saving our democracy, we don’t say it in a flippant way,” he said. “It’s not hyperbole. It’s real. When you change the rules now, that influences who actually has access to the ballot box and, in turn, who gets elected to represent their interests.”

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Walle said his grandfather in phone calls tells him that he’s proud of the work he’s doing.

“That’s sometimes all you need,” Walle said. “I don’t need him to know the intricacies of what the bill does. But if he says I’m doing the right thing, it reinforces why we’re here, knowing what he went through.”

Walle also uses Facetime to chat with his two young children: Armando Pedro, 10, and Joaquin Mateo, 7. Someday, he hopes they will be able to fully comprehend his decision to leave for Washington and exactly what he was fighting for. He has started those conversations now, using examples from their own lives to explain concepts, like privilege and rights.

Armando Walle, left, and his brother Joaquin Walle join their father, state Rep. Armando Walle, D-Houston, right, on the Texas House floor May 30, the day before the end of the legislative session.

“What I’m trying to instill in them is just in simple terms: We’re trying to help people,” Walle said. “Because disenfranchisement? Kids don’t understand that. Adults don’t understand that. So you try to talk to them at their level and say that we’re trying to fight for people’s rights to be able to live the life we live here in America.”

Amid caucus meetings, virtual programming and overseeing the financial aspect of the quorum bust for the House Democratic Caucus, Walle also carves out time for his day job as a family law attorney. Since arriving in Washington, he said he’s worked on four adoption cases, two with great outcomes.

“I have a responsibility to my clients, so it’s lucky that the courts in Harris County are still in COVID protocol and doing zoom hearings,” he said. “If it was a different era where I had to be in court, I don’t know that I could be here. In spirit I’d be here, but I’m starting to do more CPS work and it’s not like for my child advocacy work that you can just stop doing it. I have to go visit the children. I have to see that the kids are okay.” 

For now, Walle said he has asked local judges not to appoint him to cases involving Child Protective Services until he can be back in the county.

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Vice President Kamala Harris meets with Democrats from the Texas state legislature at the American Federation of Teachers, Tuesday, July 13, 2021, in Washington. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)

Fractured unity over quorum break

To successfully pull off a long-term quorum break requires one key ingredient: unity. It’s the element that Turner, who helped orchestrate the D.C. getaway, emphasizes as “the most important thing.”

But that single-minded resolve suffered a hairline fracture on July 21, when Turner first discovered that state Rep. Philip Cortez, D-San Antonio, had left the D.C. hotel for a return flight to Texas. The 57 lawmakers that had formally decided to break quorum and depart for the nation’s capital was reduced to 56. 

Cortez broke the news publicly the next day on Twitter, saying that he intended to reestablish negotiation lines with Republicans over aspects of the bill. His decision to return, he said, was made after discussions with “a small working group of Democrats,” although he never named any of these members. Cortez declined interviews and did not answer questions about which aspects of the bill he sought compromise. 

Texas House Rep. Philip Cortez, D-San Antonio

The reaction from his Democratic colleagues was shock and confusion. Many hadn’t learned of his absence until his Twitter announcement.

“To be clear, (Cortez) is not negotiating on our behalf. He made the decision to rejoin Republicans without speaking to the Dem delegation,” tweeted state Rep. Gina Hinojosa, D-Austin.

The 57 house members had spent the last week and a half reinforcing unity by what some called a buddy system. Zwiener described it as a daily roll call.

“It’s really important for everybody to see that everybody’s still here,” Zwiener said. “That’s really powerful, because it reminds us that we’re not alone. That’s when folks get nervous.”

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With the mutual support system in place such as it was, it’s unclear why Cortez’s plans weren’t known by party leadership. State Rep. Ray Lopez, D-San Antonio, has known his San Antonio colleague for several years, both having served together on the San Antonio City Council, but couldn’t deduce what compelled his Austin return.

“I know that he’s a level-headed individual and a team player, but I was a little surprised that he didn’t go through leadership,” Lopez said. 

But the slight break in unity was short-lived.

Under current House rules, legislators still in Austin must receive a permission slip from Phelan to leave the House floor. Phelan had given that permission to Cortez — in exchange for his promise to return during the next day’s business — but Cortez never showed. On July 25, Cortez announced that he had rejoined his Democratic colleagues in Washington after his discussions with Republican leaders “have not produced progress.” 

The duplicity sparked Phelan’s ire, and he signed a civil arrest warrant for Cortez. 

“As a condition of being granted permission to temporarily leave the House floor, Rep. Cortez promised his House colleagues that he would return. Instead, he fled the state and has irrevocably broken my trust and the trust of this chamber,” Phelan said.

Negotiation over the GOP-backed election bill may still be an option on the table for House Democrats, but any conversations that may be happening on the matter are taking place behind closed doors.

Zwiener said several Democrats would be qualified to have those conversations “if and when the time comes,” but moving down a path towards a possible compromise is “a complicated space for us.” 

“What has been so hard about the regular session, and part of why we reached the point of leaving, is that we spent all of session in harm-mitigation mode,” she said. “It is soul killing to constantly be focused on, ‘How do I make this bill hurt Texans less.’”

Those negotiations are still mired by a deficit of trust between the two parties after Republicans added last-minute changes to the original elections bill and refused to accept Democrats’ amendments during the special session.

“How can we trust you all?” Zwiener said when asked about the prospect of negotiations. “How can we trust how the bill is going to come back better, because we had the rug pulled out from under us before we got here?”

Walle said he is also open to negotiating, which he said is an acknowledgment of the political realities of being a Democrat working in a GOP-controlled statehouse.

“I’m always open to hearing them out. That’s not unreasonable,” he said. “Whether that’s here in D.C. or at an undisclosed location, I’m always open to hearing thoughts. This is not an ideal situation to be in and to the extent that we have any discussions, I’m all ears. But that’s me. How that is viewed within our caucus, that’s a different story.”

Others, however, have no problem running down the clock on the full special session.

“We want to leave our mark, and we’re not going back home,” Israel said. “This is our moment in history.”