AUSTIN — Some of the handful of Texas House Democrats who stayed behind while their colleagues bolted for Washington, D.C., say their time is better spent in the state taking care of business at home rather than showing solidarity in the nation’s capital.
As those who broke quorum keep packed public schedules, the others, mostly from South Texas, express support for their colleagues while quietly working in their legislative districts or on the House floor.
Of the House’ 150 members, 100 are needed on the floor to maintain quorum. Of the 67 House Democrats, at least 55 are in Washington D.C., meaning that even if all of the more than 10 remaining Democrats were in the Texas Capitol, another five would have to return from out of state to reinstate quorum and take up the Republican elections bills they’re trying to quash.
For now, the Democrats who’ve stayed behind don’t pose a threat to their party’s effort to block the GOP-backed elections bills through the quorum break, but their presence in Texas may become an issue if other Democrats begin to break ranks and head back to Texas. Gov. Greg Abbott has threatened to arrest lawmakers to reinstate a quorum.
The House Democrats who stayed in Texas include Reps. Eddie Morales Jr. of Eagle Pass, Ryan Guillen of Rio Grande City, John Turner of Dallas, Tracy King of Batesville, Abel Herrero of Robstown, Terry Canales of Edinburg, Leo Pacheco of San Antonio, Sergio Muñoz Jr. of Palmview, Oscar Longoria of Mission, and Garnet Coleman of Houston.
With the exception of Coleman, who is in Houston recovering from a partial leg amputation, and Turner, who has publicly stated that he will not seek reelection next year, all the Democrats who originally stayed put are from South Texas. On Tuesday, Houston Democratic Rep. Harold Dutton, made an appearance on the House floor after returning to Texas.
For many of those still in Texas, the decision to stay put was politically calculated.
Morales Jr. said his decision to stay in the Capitol reflected the conservative views of his constituents.
“I believe that my district would expect me to be here,” he said during a press conference at the state Capitol Tuesday. “That’s been reinforced, not only during the regular session, in the calls and the texts and the emails that came in, but what we saw yesterday and today in the form of calls and text messages from our constituency.”
According to Mark Jones, the fellow in political science at Rice University’s Baker Institute, it’s not surprising that most of the politicians who stayed are from South Texas. He said a long history of moderate politics in that region was reinforced on by the results of the 2020 elections cycle, in which the Latino population in that region largely went for President Donald Trump.
But the pressure to remain moderate may be even higher now. The Associated Republicans of Texas target list for the 2022 elections includes the districts of several representatives who stayed behind, including Guillen, Herrero and Morales Jr. With encroaching threats from the right, South Texas Democrats like Morales may be trying to appeal to an electorate they believe will only lean more conservative in elections cycles to come.
Gov. Greg Abbott has also hinted that all eyes will be on the Texas border during the next election.
“We have an agenda, and we have successes that will help us not only with Republican folks, but also that will help us reach beyond the Republican Party and bring in some Democrats and maybe win some counties in South Texas that have been blue for over a century,” Abbott said Monday on the Mark Davis Show on 660 AM (The Answer).
Some of the Democrats maintain their decision to stay is in the best interest of their constituents.
Richard Gambitta, Pacheco’s chief of staff, said Thursday his boss was in his district only 45 minutes from the Texas Capitol. He said Pacheco had stayed behind because he works a full-time job and has things to take care of in his district.
Longoria said he left for a vacation on Sunday that kept him from joining his Democratic colleagues in their initial walkout. He was back in his district Thursday, but his reasons for staying in Texas were similar to Pacheco’s. Although he supports the bill, he said he had work to do in his district — namely, organizing a free basketball camp for the community.
“That’s going to be set for the last portion of this month, so I’m tying up loose ends with that,” Longoria said.
He said his office had received calls to the office expressing a range of emotions from the public — lament for his decision not to join the Democrats in D.C., support for his decision to stay and desire for him to get back to work.
The list of Democrats who have not joined their colleagues in D.C. largely overlaps with the group who did not participate in the quorum-breaking walkout at the end of May. Those Democrats were Harold Dutton, Bobby Guerra, Richard Raymond, Guillen, King and Morales. Excused that day were Garnet Coleman, Eddie Lucio III, Herrero and Longoria.
Although they didn’t participate in the May walkout, Guerra, Raymond and Dutton — at least initially — did join their Democratic colleagues for the most recent quorum break.
The Democrats in D.C. say they’re advocating for federal legislation that would supersede the GOP-backed elections bills in Texas and other states. In statehouses across the country, similar legislation is being written by Republicans who insist their intent is fighting fraud at the ballot box and preserving “election integrity.” Democrats say this effort promotes former president Donald Trump’s “Big Lie,” which states widespread voter fraud caused him to lose the 2020 election.
Canales, who appeared on the House floor Friday, said in an interview that by staying in Texas he could be helpful by working with Republicans to rewrite language contested by Democrats. Dutton likewise is working to make changes in the legislation.
However, it’s unclear what, if any, leverage House Democrats have left at the bargaining table after the walkout.
Even in the Senate, where a quorum is present to continue work, Senator Judith Zaffarini, D-Laredo, said her work is making minimal headway.
Although she said in a statement on Monday that she believed she could be most effective by continuing to represent her constituents by opposing Senate Bill 1, “which, unfortunately and inevitably, will pass — whether during this special session or the next.”
She pointed to one amendment she co-authored with Sen. Bryan Hughes clarifying mail-in voter ID requirements that was adopted. However, she also noted that five other amendments she authored were rejected.
In addition to Zaffarini, Senate Democrats who remain in Texas are Senators Eddie Lucio Jr. of Brownsville, John Whitmire of Houston and Juan “Chuy” Hinojosa of McAllen.
Jones said it may be a smart move for the South Texas Democrats to stay put. In addition to their voters being more supportive of “bread-and-butter” issues, which may even include border security, Jones said the politicians who’ve filled the seats in South Texas districts have a history of cross-party alliances.
“They’re the last remaining bridge to the Republican Party,” Jones said. “If you hold out any hope that some type of dialogue can take place between Texas Democrats and Texas Republicans, it’s going to hinge in large part on the South Texas Democrats serving are that bridge.”