After some Democrats return to the Texas House, holdouts say they’re complicit in moving GOP elections bill forward

State Rep. Garnet Coleman, D-Houston, leads a prayer on the House floor on Aug. 19, 2021. Democratic lawmakers Garnet Coleman, Ana Hernandez and Armando Lucio Walle returned to the House floor, given their Republican members a quorum.
State Rep. Garnet Coleman, D-Houston, leads a prayer on the House floor on Aug. 19, 2021. Democratic lawmakers Garnet Coleman, Ana Hernandez and Armando Lucio Walle returned to the House floor, given their Republican members a quorum.

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The holdout Democrats did not mince words. They felt betrayed, heartbroken and disappointed.

After 38 days of staying away from the Texas House to block the passage of a GOP elections bill they said would restrict voting rights, three of their fellow Democrats returned to the chamber floor Thursday and provided the Republican majority enough lawmakers to restart the legislative process and almost certainly approve the controversial bill.

Their return has created a glaring split among members of the House’s minority party, some of whom were openly criticizing fellow Democrats.

“Some people have to make certain decisions and I think we could have been strategic about it had we worked as a team,” said Rep. Ana-Maria Ramos, a Richardson Democrat who was among those pushing to continue the holdout. “Unfortunately, these individuals chose to make decisions for themselves and not for the team.

“If you’re going to be there … for the most part you’re only advancing them ramming that legislation through,” she added.

The voting bill would, among other things, outlaw local voting options intended to expand voting access and bolster access for partisan poll watchers. Republicans, who control both chambers of the Legislature, say the proposal is intended to secure “election integrity” and make it “easier to vote and harder to cheat.”

The three Democrats who returned Thursday — Houston’s Garnet Coleman, Armando Walle and Ana Hernandez — said they were proud of the “heroic work” the House Democratic Caucus had done to fight the bill but would now “continue the fight on the House floor.”

That did not shield them from criticism from fellow Democrats who said their actions betrayed the caucus and made them accomplices to Republicans in passing legislation the Democrats had been fighting the entire summer.

“Republicans are now fully enabled and empowered to enact virtually all of [Gov. Greg] Abbott’s directives, including many dangerous pieces of legislation that will fundamentally hurt the lives of Texans,” read a statement from 34 Democrats. “Millions of Texans will be deeply harmed by the policy that will pass in the next 17 days.”

Walle, who is the caucus’ finance chair and helped raise about $1 million to pull off the quorum break, said he felt Democrats had done everything they could to fight the bill outside of the statehouse.

In Washington, D.C., where more than 50 Democrats stayed for nearly a month to push Congress to pass federal voting rights legislation that would preempt the state’s proposal, the Texas lawmakers met with national figures like Vice President Kamala Harris and U.S. Sens. Joe Manchin and Chuck Schumer, the chamber’s majority leader.

“We’ve met with every leader in Washington, D.C.,” Walle said. “I respect my colleagues if they have a difference of opinion than me on this. I’m grateful to have colleagues that are passionate. I just think we have to fight on multiple fronts.”

Other items on Abbott’s special session agenda include more legislation limiting what Republicans call critical race theory in public schools, banning transgender student athletes from competing on school sports teams aligned with their gender identity, and prohibiting mask mandates in Texas public schools.

Walle said he remained “gravely concerned” about the elections bill proposed by Texas Republicans but said that staying away from the chamber longer was not an option. The state is facing another increase in COVID-19 cases, and its hospital systems and schools need help controlling the delta variant, he said. And state lawmakers will have to return to the statehouse again later this year for the decennial redrawing of political maps.

“We have to come back at some point,” he said. “I was 100% in it and for the cause. That’s not changed because I’m taking this fight down to the House floor.”

Coleman also said it was time to return to the House and work within the system to fight the legislation.

“There are things that we need to do, and we need people who can create goodwill and people who can kick the shit out of them,” said Coleman, a veteran lawmaker, referring to Republican lawmakers. “I’m not going to justify my actions because all of it sounds like a rationalization. I understand why people would be upset, but I’m not going to get into a tit for tat.”

Hernandez declined to comment.

Other Democrats like James Talarico of Round Rock; Joe Moody, Art Fierro and Mary González of El Paso; and Eddie Lucio III of Brownsville had already returned to the chamber earlier this month, boosting the House’s likelihood of reaching a quorum and restarting business.

Democrats like Dallas Rep. Jasmine Crockett publicly blasted the actions of Democrats who returned to the House.

“I’m devastated,” she said on Spectrum TV’s “Capitol Tonight.” “I can tell you with absolute certainty that my Democratic colleagues have just hurt all of Texas. We know it wasn’t just the voting bill. There is an onslaught of terrible legislation targeting trans children and even as it relates to COVID-19.”

Under the House rules, two-thirds of the chamber’s members must be present to meet quorum, the number of lawmakers needed to move legislation. On Thursday, the House tally showed 99 members present out of 148, meeting that requirement. But several of those lawmakers were not in the chamber.

All of them had been present at some point during the second special session, and lawmakers often vote for absent colleagues on routine votes. But lawmakers can always call on the chamber to verify lawmakers’ presence, which no Democrat did Thursday.

That upset Democrats who wanted to continue the quorum break. And the inaction by Democrats on the floor to call attention to the absence of lawmakers was another sign of the division within the caucus.

Ramos said she’d asked several Democrats on the House floor, including Talarico and John Turner of Dallas, to request that verification, but no one did.

“The only way to help our efforts if you’re going to show up is to call that out. Why be silent on something so obvious?” she said.

Turner, who was not among the Democrats who broke quorum, said Ramos had asked him to verify the roll call votes on Aug. 7, the first day of the special session, but he had no need to do so because the chamber had not reached a quorum.

“No one asked me to call for a verification of the roll call yesterday,” Turner said. “That said, this is logically something that someone who is aiding the quorum break would do, and I have not been in that category since the beginning of the first special session, so I did not decide to request a verification yesterday.”

In a statement, Talarico said he doesn’t comment on private conversations with other lawmakers but that there may have been confusion between him and Ramos.

“I confirmed with the House parliamentarian yesterday that a quorum would be verified through a record registration vote because the public has a right to know that information,” he said. “A strict enforcement vote is not necessary to verify that 99 members of the House have agreed to reestablish quorum.”

None of the lawmakers who were marked present have disputed their roll call votes, but the holdout Democrats say their colleagues could have held up proceedings just by proving that the quorum wasn’t present.

The holdouts also said they were blindsided by the decision by the three lawmakers to return Thursday.

“This could have been shared with caucus members before hand,” Rep. Donna Howard, D-Austin, wrote on Twitter.

Although he declined to speak on caucus conversations, Walle said “it was evident where members stood on strategy” and whether they favored returning to the chamber.

Not all of the quorum-busting Democrats were critical of those who returned to the chamber. Rep. Erin Zwiener, D-Driftwood, said she disagreed with their tactics but shared their values.

“Serving with Ana, Walle, and Garnet has taught me that they are consistently guided by their values,” Zwiener said on Twitter. “I believe them when they say that they believe they can do more good on the House floor than off of it.”

Rep. Chris Turner of Grand Prairie, who chairs the House Democratic Caucus, said he hopes more Democrats will take that approach as the special session moves forward and his party moves to fighting the voting bill in a different way.

“We have a diversity of opinion and thought in our caucus, but we all share the same values. In terms of voting, that’s centered around protecting the freedom to vote for all Texans,” he said. “That’s where I’m encouraging our members to focus on and pool our collective voices and considerable strength to fight back against these bills in the next phase of this fight.”

He said there are many strong leaders and diverse opinions in the group, which sometimes spill out into public view. But he said the caucus remains united in fighting the voting bill, and the scraps between the caucus’ members “are things that subside over time.”

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