How the quorum break got broken: Texas Democrats splintered during second session break

click to enlarge From left: Houston democratic state Reps. Ana Hernandez, Garnet Coleman, and Armando Lucio Walle on the House floor on Aug. 23, 2021. - Texas Tribune / Eddie Gaspar
Texas Tribune / Eddie Gaspar
From left: Houston democratic state Reps. Ana Hernandez, Garnet Coleman, and Armando Lucio Walle on the House floor on Aug. 23, 2021.
Texas House Democrats had essentially moved in lockstep — fleeing for Washington, D.C., in July and staying there for weeks to prevent a quorum needed by Republicans to pass their priority elections bill during the first special session. The group of over 50 lawmakers maintained a united front in TV interviews and on social media, keeping their plans closely guarded.

But after lawmakers were called back for a second special session by Gov. Greg Abbott, who was determined to pass the elections legislation, Democrats were faced with planning their next moves and the fractures emerged.

On July 31, in the final days of the first special session, Democrats who were camped out in the nation’s capital met for over eight hours in a hotel conference room taking a number of votes on what they should do next, several members and staffers who were there told the Texas Tribune.

Many of the members were ready to go home. By that point, they’d been away from their districts and families for more than three weeks. Fifty-one percent of the group that voted was for continuing to stay out of Texas, while 49% supported continuing the quorum break back in their home state, according to one of their polls.

In another vote, 20% of Democrats voted for ending the quorum break and showing up on the House floor for the next legislative overtime round.

In virtually every scenario they voted on, a majority of the group agreed they should stay away from the Texas Capitol in the second special session that began Aug. 7 to again block the elections bill they had railed against as a form of voter suppression.

Crucially, members disagreed about the significance of the votes they were taking. Some took the polls to mean they would all commit to doing the will of the majority — that they would continue to move together as a bloc, as they had for so many weeks. Others viewed it as merely a temperature check to get a better sense of the group’s standing.

That misunderstanding later fueled a sense of betrayal by some of the Democrats as they watched, angry and befuddled, as their colleagues trickled back to the House over the next few weeks.

“I still don’t know to this day why that happened, and I truly believe that the quorum break probably would still be going on had the majority’s will actually been honored,” said Rep. Jasmine Crockett of Dallas, who was a vocal advocate for remaining in Washington.

The dam broke on Aug. 23, as the largest group of Democrats came back to the floor and helped restore an indisputable quorum that paved the way for Republicans to ram through the elections bill and send it to Abbott, who signed it into law Tuesday in Tyler.

“Election integrity is now law in the state of Texas,” Abbott said, issuing the kind of declaration of victory that the Democrats had wanted to postpone for as long as possible — but knew they could not stop in the end.

The legislation, Senate Bill 1 as passed during the second special session, overhauls the state’s election laws, including further tightening the voting-by-mail process and outlawing local voting options aimed at expanding access. Republicans have argued the measures would bolster “election integrity,” despite there being no evidence of widespread voter fraud. Democrats and voting rights groups criticized the legislation as an infringement on marginalized voters in the state.

Before the House gave the bill a final stamp of approval last month, Rep. Senfronia Thompson, a Houston Democrat and the longest-serving Black lawmaker in the Legislature’s history, sent a warning shot to Republicans.

“If you think you’re winning today by the things you have put in this bill, let me give you a prophetic statement: You will reap what you sow. And you know what? It won’t be years or decades from now. It will be sooner than you think,” she said.

For House Democrats, the story of the second special session is much different from that of the first one. The excitement of leaving the state had worn off, the media spotlight had dimmed, the uphill battle of getting federal legislation to President Joe Biden’s desk was looking steeper than ever and the pressures to return home were mounting.

“I think we’re all leaders, but we were in need of leadership, and that’s the one thing about the Democratic caucus,” said Rep. Jarvis Johnson of Houston, acknowledging there are “different mindsets and different ways of achieving a particular goal.”

“When you look at those teams that win, those teams that win [do so] because they’re on one message,” he added.

On top of that, the polarizing process of redrawing the state’s political maps was looming over lawmakers — and the threat of staying away for much longer, at least for some Democrats, was not appealing if their districts were on the line.

“At some point, we have to deal with these things in the arena that we’re in, and that’s on the floor of the Legislature,” said Rep. Garnet Coleman, a Houston Democrat who was excused throughout both special sessions due to an illness until he returned to the House floor, in an interview with The Texas Tribune last month. “I know for some, that doesn’t hold water. But I am sort of a traditionalist in some ways — you can only go so far, then you have to honor your office.”

'Practical decisions'

Despite the debate inside the Democratic caucus, only two of its members returned for the first day of the second special session on Aug. 7: Reps. Eddie Lucio III of Brownsville and Bobby Guerra of Mission. Lucio said he returned for both personal and professional reasons and respected his colleagues’ decisions to continue breaking quorum — but he also made clear they were in a new phase.

“The chapter of the first special session closed, right?” he told reporters after the chamber adjourned. “It doesn’t mean that the fight closed, but the chapter of the session — and that strategy — closed.”

Meanwhile, a separate drama was playing out: Over 20 quorum-breaking Democrats had signed on to a lawsuit against Abbott and House Speaker Dade Phelan, R-Beaumont, arguing that Republicans’ efforts to bring them back to the Capitol infringed on their constitutional rights. By the next day though, a number of Democrats said they had never authorized their names being used in the suit, with some releasing statements to that effect.

That particular suit was just one of the efforts made by Democrats, who had at one point been granted temporary protections against civil arrests, after Republicans in the House signed off on sending law enforcement to track down members. Soon after though, the all-Republican Texas Supreme Court ordered that missing Democrats could in fact be detained by state authorities and brought back to the Capitol.

That was the beginning of the end in the eyes of at least one caucus leader, Rep. Rafael Anchía of Dallas, who chairs the Mexican American Legislative Caucus. He said it had become clear the House was “precariously close” to regaining a quorum, “and it was just a matter of time, through arrests or otherwise,” that the chamber would get there.

“At that point, we had to make practical decisions,” Anchía said. “We had deaths in families. We had missed weddings. We had parents getting sick. We had people needing to take care of their businesses. And so there were any number of very real pressures on legislators, and I’m never going to second-guess a legislator’s decision because I cannot walk in their shoes.”

On Aug. 9, the quorum-breakers experienced their biggest defection yet as four of them returned to the House floor. The group included Rep. Joe Moody, who Phelan had removed as speaker pro tem at the start of the quorum break, and two other El Paso-area lawmakers, Reps. Mary González and Art Fierro. There was also Rep. James Talarico, the rising-star legislator from suburban Austin who was most open about his return, announcing it on Twitter ahead of time.

Talarico and others who would be back on the floor in the coming days would say their return was due to a number of factors, including moving the needle in Washington on federal voting rights legislation, which has so far been blocked by the U.S. Senate, and an acknowledgment that the fight in many ways had returned back to the state Capitol.

“Given this success and recognizing that we can’t break quorum indefinitely, some of my fellow quorum breakers and I returned to the Texas House to begin the work of rebuilding relationships, negotiating policy, and reducing harm,” Talarico wrote in an Aug. 27 op-ed published on Texas Signal’s website. “Harm reduction is not sexy or glamorous. It doesn’t make for good Tweets or lucrative fundraising emails, but it’s necessary work.”

The four defections prompted criticism from some of their colleagues, who argued that returning to the House floor was enabling Republicans’ efforts to pass a list of conservative priorities, including that controversial elections legislation. Rep. Ana-Maria Ramos of Richardson tweeted at the four lawmakers saying they “all threw us under the bus today!”

"The fact that some of us secured a Temporary Restraining Order to protect ALL of us, yet some are trying to please the Governor and His OPPRESSIVE Agenda?!” Crockett tweeted. “JUST WOW!"

The next morning, a coalition of Democratic groups — including the Texas Organizing Project and Planned Parenthood Texas Votes — released a memo urging members to keep up the quorum break.

The intraparty pushback seemed to work. For the next nine days, there were no further defections.

'It was blow on top of blow'

Then, on the evening of Aug. 18, Coleman of Houston told the Dallas Morning News he would be returning to the floor. Coleman, who had been breaking quorum from his home in Houston while recovering from a leg amputation, said that he regretted playing a role in dividing the chamber and that he hoped his presence would help bring more Democrats home.

As the House’s meeting time approached the next day, it was not clear if Coleman’s gambit would work. But sure enough, Coleman arrived on the floor with two more defectors, fellow Houston Reps. Ana Hernandez and Armando Walle. In a joint statement sent out around the same time, the three Houston lawmakers cited the COVID-19 surge in Texas as the reason for their return.

A short time later, 99 members of the House — the exact threshold for quorum — were announced as present — and it appeared the quorum break was over after nearly six weeks.

Crockett said the return of the three Houston lawmakers “really hurt,” noting they were all lawmakers of color, they all represented safe Democratic districts and they all were from Harris County, whose voting initiatives last year were the impetus for much of the elections bill.

“It was like blow on top of blow on top of blow,” Crockett said.

Thirty-four Democrats who stayed away issued a statement that they were betrayed and heartbroken by the members of their party who returned.

“Republicans are now fully enabled and empowered to enact virtually all of Abbott’s directives, including many dangerous pieces of legislation that will fundamentally hurt the lives of Texans,” they wrote.

While Republicans celebrated the restoration of quorum, Democratic lawmakers who were still watching from outside the chamber were overcome with suspicion. Based on reports from the floor, it was clear that not everyone who was marked as present was physically there.

The message from some of the most strident quorum-breakers to their colleagues was clear: Don’t fall for it. There’s still no real quorum. Hold the line.

On Aug. 23, any doubt that the House did not have a quorum dissolved after Rep. Erin Zwiener, D-Driftwood, requested a verification vote to confirm that there were in fact enough members present on the floor for the chamber to conduct business. That vote confirmed that 100 members were present, one over the minimum needed for a quorum.

Some additional members had been monitoring the floor from the nearby Texas AFL-CIO building, watching the live broadcast to see if the House would officially make quorum. After it did, they began streaming to the floor — over a dozen, including Anchía and the chairman of the Democratic caucus, Rep. Chris Turner of Grand Prairie.

The quorum break was, in effect, over. In an interview with reporters once the chamber adjourned for the day, Turner, Anchía and Toni Rose of Dallas said they had returned once a quorum had been confirmed to represent their districts, and that the fight that had previously been in Washington was now back in Austin at the Capitol.

Asked whether Democrats were still unified, Turner said the caucus could not have pulled off a weekslong “quorum break without incredible unity.”

“Though members may disagree on tactic or strategy at times,” he told reporters, “we all have shared unity and purpose, shared values and we have a shared commitment to defending the freedom to vote.”

Still, divisions inside the Democratic caucus crystallized three days later, when at least 20 members announced the formation of a new Progressive Caucus. While the announcement did not explicitly mention the quorum break, almost all the members of the new caucus were those who had stayed off the floor until late in the second special session, if they returned at all.

That divide was largely reflective of a broader fracture in the caucus, one that split between members who were supportive of caucus leadership and those who more closely aligned with a more firebrand style that was spearheaded by Rep. Trey Martinez Fischer of San Antonio.

Martinez Fischer had challenged Turner for the post of caucus chair earlier in the year, and, though the race was close, was unsuccessful in his efforts to unseat his colleague. Members say that tensions from that race at times resurfaced throughout the quorum break as the caucus debated its strategy over how to block the elections legislation.

Coleman acknowledged that the experience of the past several weeks has done some damage to his caucus.

“We’re used to dealing with legislation and people who don’t agree with our philosophy. We’re used to losing a vote. And we’re used to putting up a fight,” Coleman told the Tribune. “It’s when your colleagues that are part of the same party you’re in basically motherfuck you because they think they can do that. They need to look inside their own cupboard and see the things they’ve done over the decades.”

'We lose if we do not come together'

Of the core 57 Democrats who broke quorum during the first special session, there was only one defection, Rep. Philip Cortez of San Antonio. However, he returned to Washington days later, citing unproductive talks with Republicans and amid fierce pushback from some members of his own party.

The extent to which there was dialogue between Republicans in Austin and Democrats in Washington — and whether members made specific deals with one another during that impasse — is fuzzy. Phelan has denied that he was involved in any deals.

The author of the elections bill, Rep. Andrew Murr of Junction, declined to say Tuesday during a Republican caucus news conference how many quorum-breaking Democrats he spoke with. He said he was willing to speak with any colleague about the elections legislation who wanted to — but offered a significant caveat.

“Much of that discussion typically was in person, and all of that discussion needed to occur in the Capitol,” Murr told reporters. “We thought that was best.”

House leadership was clearly uneasy with perhaps the most drastic measure available to them: following through on a threat to physically detain the missing Democrats and bring them back to the Capitol.

While Phelan, the House speaker, signed 52 civil arrest warrants for missing members and law enforcement visited the homes of some lawmakers, no member was ever arrested and brought back to the building in Austin.

In an interview with the Tribune after the second special session adjourned, Phelan suggested that the threat of physically detaining members to bring them back to the Capitol is what helped compel the chamber making a quorum.

“I think many members saw that if we were gonna go there, they were gonna be the ones maybe possibly causing this harm to the House, and that’s why I think you saw a lot of members show up,” Phelan said.

A University of Texas/Texas Politics Project poll that was released Thursday showed that Republicans had voters on the side. Respondents disapproved of the quorum break by an 11-percentage-point margin, while they approved of the elections legislation by a 14-point margin.

How those numbers could impact an election that is still over a year away is an open question.

Democrats are getting only a few weeks to regroup before the next special session, which is scheduled to begin Sept. 20. While the battle over the elections bill is over, Abbott’s agenda for the third special session includes redistricting, which is always a contentious process that pits members against one another as they fight for their district lines.

“Redistricting is tough under any circumstances,” Anchía said. “Regardless of how people feel about each other right now, it’s gonna be really important for people to go into this process with a lot of goodwill.”

Rose, the Dallas Democrat, said she is confident her caucus will reunite ahead of the next special session.

“House Democrats — we are a family — and it’s just like any other family,” she said. “There will be disagreements. We will lose if we do not come together.”

Disclosure: Planned Parenthood has been a financial supporter of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune's journalism. Find a complete list of them here.

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